The language of the newspaper accounts sounds strange to our ears, conditioned as they are to cultural sensitivity. One of the problems is that reporters are more intrested in the sensational than in that which might be of simple historic significance. Elizabeth lamented this fact in a letter in the Berkeley archives. It is interesting that they refer in the article to her collection of artifacts as trophies!
It is also important to realize that the social context of the time considered indigenous people to be savages who were backward and in need of "civilizing." This particular article is especially offensive in its description of the behavior of the Tapirape.
Ten years after Elizabeth left the Tapirape, Charles Wagley came. He lived with them for 15 months learning their language, and gaining insight into their rituals and customs. In his book Welcome of Tears he paints a very different picture from the one painted below. Wagley continued to study the Tapirape returning on occasion for several days at a time and in 1967 for six weeks.
On page 36 he confirms Bessie's visit. He was describing the various westerners who had contact with the Tapirape. " In 1930 Josiah Wilding of the Evangelical Union of South America, accompanied by Miss Elizabeth Steen, a North American writer, spent a few days in the village of Tampiitawa. The Tapirape were not impressed by Wilding, but they remember Miss Steen well. It was the first proof except for hearsay, that the strange tori actually had females. You can be sure that she was subjected to considerable inspection. "
I contacted the Wagley family to try to find out how he obtained this information (which was partially correct--but also wrong). Wagley and his wife were both dead, but his daughter Isabelle kindly informed me of where his notes were archived. I also came at the data from the other angle, contacting the South American Evangelical Union. I was able through this contact to confirm that Wilding couldn't have accompanied Elizabeth. If I ever get to Florida, I will check Wagley's notes to find out how he got this bit of information mixed up. It was important that the Tapirape included Elizabeth in their oral history!
I also located the archive for the New York American. It is at the Harry Ransom Center at the Univeristy of Texas in Austin. A cursory search by archivist Richard Workman located a photo of Elizabeth which I paid to have copied.
To obtain any of the New York Times materials I would have to pay $100 just for someone to conduct the search, so I still have not obtained the photos which she "sold to the Sunday papers" as she says in a letter to Schmitt at the Smithsonian.
New York American
January 18, 1931
With the article is a photo of Bessie - Caption - Tiny Pet -- Little Mr. Monkey refuses to say anything about the New York Skyline as he nestles on the arm of Miss Bessie Steen, explorer, who brought him from South America.
The magic in such matter-of-fact things as a flashlight and a patent tent fastener saved Bessie Steen, adventurous co-ed of the University of California, from becoming the Chieftainess of a tribe of Tapirape Indians in Brazil.
Miss Steen, a tall strongly built young woman of twenty-nine, returned yesterday, on the Southern Prince. She was the first white woman to visit the Tapirapes, a primitive tribe that finds its chief amusement in warring on neighbors. The men folk collect their wives with clubs, in place of soft words and a visit to the jewler.
Determined to enthrone her as their bonde queen, she said, the chief of the tribe and his men crept to her tent one night, but could find no way to enter because it had a patent fastener (zipper).
This annoyed the chief considerably and they sought to attack with clubs, Colonel Alencarence de Costa, sent by the Brazilian goernment with ten men to protect Miss Steen. The Colonel, however, accomplished the night's second miracle by shining a flashlight in the eyes of the tribesmen. They fell back cowed.
She said: "During my stay in the village I kept a revolver in my pocket always. It was for myself in case of capture. We were ten against 200 Indians in a land where wives are taken by force. They seemed to like my looks. They followed us after we had left the village pointing to me and making complimentary remarks."
Her service was considered inevitable if she remained long in the village. So she soon departed, the first white woman to penetrate the interior of Matto Grosso, 1,000 miles from Rio de Janeiro.
She was eight months in the wilds, exploring two streams, the Araguaya and Zinzu(sic-Xingu) rivers. She has already forwarded collections of trophies to the museums of the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California.
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