Pioneering Photojournalist

Time Frame: 1960

Marjorie Mills Vandervelde, a photojournalist working in the early 1960s in the jungles of Panama, is featured. This program aired in 2006.
Living in Iowa
IPTV, 2007

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Hello, I'm Lorenzo Sandoval, your guest host for this week's Living in Iowa. Thanks for joining us.

We begin tonight's show with a story of cultural exploration. Even though the jungle people of Panama protected their privacy with lethal force, a pioneering female photojournalist from Emmetsburg dared to live with them and became their friend. In the early 1960s, Marjorie Mills Vandervelde studied primitive cultures around the globe with a passion that made a difference in her life as well as theirs. Imagine being the first white woman in a Panama jungle, where the inhabitants protect their privacy with poisoned darts. Or think about studying the people of Panama's coastal islands, where the penalty is death for strangers caught there after sundown.

Marjorie: They said you can't stay on the island overnight. And I said, "Well, I'm going to stay. I'm going to stay and help the Kunas while I can." I had gifts with me. Gifts will do a lot for you. I came bearing gifts and became their friend.

Lorenzo: In the early 1960s, Marjorie Mills Vandervelde, a photojournalist from northwest Iowa, dared to live with primitive people of Panama. First contact occurred while on assignment to write about the Choco jungle tribe for a Baptist missionary magazine.

Marjorie: There's something about the jungle that you don't ever experience unless you're there. You have trees that have wonderful, big blossoms on, and they have perfume. It's beautiful, beautiful to behold.

Lorenzo: The smells... the sounds... and the sights. But more importantly, the people of the jungle were topics of Marjorie's many articles, photographs and books. In "Keep Out of Paradise," she asked El Tigre, a head man from the Choco tribe, "Doesn't the jungle frighten even you?" He replied, "It is true. I am afraid of the dragon devil that lives in the thorn tree. But the jungle? The jungle is the Choco's best friend."

Marjorie: El Tigre could tell you every tree in the jungle and what it's good for. And I was so proud of him for knowing how to do that. And I had to let him know that this is remarkable that you can do that. The primitives have taught me much more than I ever taught them.

Lorenzo: Marjorie said she admired indigenous cultures’ ability to survive in harsh conditions and, while living with them, learned some practical jungle lessons.

Marjorie: Watch the monkey. What the monkey eats, you can eat. What the monkey throws out, you better throw out. These practical ways of survival.

Lorenzo: While surviving in the jungle, Marjorie's editor asked her to visit the Kuna people, a tribe that lives on a few of the 500 coral islands just off the Atlantic coast of Panama.

Marjorie: So I did. And my interest especially has been with that tribe ever since. Let me tell you a couple of stories. They have a love potion, death potion, a hex potion—a hex potion! You throw it on someone and it hexes them. Potions that the medicine man has control of.

Lorenzo: Their medicine is a strange mix of herbology and black magic. In this picture, a midwife holds the newborn. And the mother's skin is dyed black so evil spirits can't find her. Some children have witch marks painted down their noses for similar protection. When a three-year-old boy named Tomas became ill, Marjorie took a visiting medical doctor to Tomas's hut. But his mother wouldn't let the doctor in, relying instead on a medicine man's potion.

Marjorie: Well, that night Tomas died. And they buried him in a hole under his mother's hammock. And I was devastated. I just…I just thought I couldn't stand it. So I figured that the only thing to do was to train some of their own people in medicine because they would listen to them.

Lorenzo: Marjorie chose two 15-year-old boys to put through medical school, on the advice that one might drop out.

Marjorie: And don't you know, they both stayed with it and became medical workers. So now they're down there taking care of these sick little “Tomases” that need them.

Lorenzo: To show their appreciation and respect for Marjorie and her kind acts, she was given an authority stick.

Marjorie: If a chief has an authority stick, he doesn't want to share it with anybody else. After I'd been taking them gifts for 20 years, finally one of them broke down and said, "Here, you can have my authority stick." So then several of them did. And if I walk down the street on these islands and I have an authority stick, everybody will step off the path and let me go by.

Lorenzo: Over the years Marjorie has become an authority on these tribes and was probably better known for that in Panama than in her hometown of Emmetsburg. That changed when Dr. James Coffey visited Marjorie at her home and saw the many artifacts from her trips to over 40 countries.

Dr. Coffey: “Does anybody else in Emmetsburg know about this?” I said to Marjorie. “This is a wonderful compilation. And we really need to preserve the story of your life.”

Lorenzo: Dr. Coffey initiated the move to place Marjorie's collection in a permanent exhibit at Iowa Lakes Community College and public library in Emmetsburg.

Dr. Coffey: Somebody who has really done something very special in their life—other people should know about it because it's really a wonderful example for all of us.

Lorenzo: On display are photographs from Marjorie's extensive travels and a time line of her life. As a child, Marjorie's tree house was a safe haven and became the title of her autobiography. From that treetop vantage point, she dreamed of possible adventures beyond the horizon.

Marjorie: And I thought, “Where do I go if I step over that skyline?” So that immediately started a great curiosity in my life. And it took me to some exotic places.

Lorenzo: Marjorie satisfied that curiosity by going to exotic places like the islands where Kuna women wear blouses that they decorate with a fabric art called “mola.” Here Marjorie shows off her favorite mola of an angel riding a dragon.

Marjorie: Did you ever see an angel ride a dragon? And if I say to them, "There is no such thing as a dragon" they would toss me out on my ear so quick.

Lorenzo: You might think that the idea of an angel riding a dragon would go against Marjorie's religious Quaker upbringing.

Marjorie: You have to respect their religion. Whatever they believe, you have to know that that's an honest belief. And you respect them for it. You don't make fun of them.

Lorenzo: Marjorie has written a stack of books, some for children, intended to teach respect for native people.

Marjorie: It became a part of my philosophy that I had to try to build some bridges between those primitives and those of us who felt we were educated. Building bridges of understanding was my main purpose in life.

Lorenzo: Marjorie is surrounded by her photographs as she writes a column for the local newspaper.

Marjorie: I get a lot of inspiration by just seeing the photos that I've taken. It seems like they're right there in the room with me.

Lorenzo: Pictures like an Eskimo mother premasticating, or chewing, food for her child; a Kuna girl in the Atlantic Ocean bringing fresh water from a mainland river to her island; or a Choco woman suckling a baby pig to keep it alive after the sow died. We found this amazing artifact in Marjorie's kitchen: a slice of a prehistoric woolly mammoth tusk that was dug out of the Alaskan ice by the Eskimos.

Marjorie: And he was going to take it to Anchorage to the museum. But before he took it, he sliced off a slice of that tusk and gave it to me.

Lorenzo: These are all reminders of adventures that took her beyond the horizon from a childhood tree house to live in a tree house in the jungle. Marjorie is currently writing a book of oral histories about her Kuna friends she sees here every day.


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