Art and Religion of the American Southwest Region

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In this booklet, the writings of early anthropologists and archaeologists studying the Southwest offer tantalizing glimpses into the psychology of native Americans and their attitude toward insects. It also presents information on insects in art and religion.
Insects tn
Art and Religion:
The American Southwest
North America were virtually dependent
on local hunting, gathering, and crop pro-
duction for sustenance. Trade, especially
among different groups, was limited to a
few valuable items and rarely consisted of
food. These peoples lived off the land, and thus were at the mercy of
whatever fate provided: drought, flood, pestilence, and so forth.
That pestilence did occur was well documented by settlers of Euro-
pean descent as they moved into the American west. Plagues of
Rocky Mountain grasshoppers, Melanoplus spretus (Walsh), and
Mormon crickets, Anabrus simplex Haldeman, are two well-known
examples of pests that made life difficult or intolerable in earlier
times. How did the indigenous peoples feel about insects? Were they
viewed as enemies, threats to survival, and did these peoples actively
practice pest control?
We will never fully understand the habits and beliefs of many
North American native cultures, because the tribes usually were
destroyed quickly by Europeans (sometimes with the aid of other
native tribes, European diseases, and the overuse of natural resour-
ces). However, the tribes of the desert Southwest were among the
last to be subjected to European culture and religion, and even after
subjugation they remained largely isolated geographically and
insulated culturally.
Anthropologists had more opportunity to study southwestern
pueblo peoples than nearly any other, and their ancient cultures
were more easily assessed because these peoples constructed per-
manent, communal dwellings, engaged in pottery making, and lived
in a very dry environment that is conducive to preservation of arti-
facts. Thus, the writings of early anthropologists and archaeologists
studying the Southwest offer tantalizing glimpses into the psycho-
logy of native Americans and their attitude toward insects. Here I
present information on insects in art and religion.
Winter 1993 221
2. Mimbres Pottery No discussion of early southwestern native art is complete without inclusion
of Mimbres pottery. Produced by a now-extinct people inhabiting the Mimbres
River Valley of southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona, Mimbres
pottery is unsurpassed both as a historical artifact and an artistic expression.
The Mimbrenos inhabited their valley from about A.D. 100 to 1450. A branch
of the Mogollon culture, they began producing painted bowls about A.D. 650.
Their "classic" period, an era when the sophistication of their artistry reached a
pinnacle, was about A.D. 1050-1150. The Mimbres culture collapsed soon after-
ward, probably as a result of long-term and widespread drought.
In Mimbres villages the dead were interred beneath the floors of the dwellings.
Bowls and other offerings were included in the burial process. Initially in the evo-
lution of Mimbres culture, intact pottery was buried; this was followed by a
period when pottery was broken and the pieces scattered and then by a period
when only a hole was punched in the bottom. Many of the highly decorated
bowls from the classic period contain holes. Nevertheless, the figurative paint-
ings are in remarkably good condition.
The Mimbreii.os produced refined, sophisticated,
hand-molded pottery adorned with surprisingly natural
and realistic animal characterizations, often with a cari-
caturelike quality. Most pottery was painted black-on-
white, although white-on-black occurs and sometimes
red or brown was used. Geometric designs adorn much
of their pottery also, and many animal depictions display
combinations of realism and geometric design.
Analysis of 733 pottery vessels by pioneering arche-
ologist J. W. Fewkes showed a strikingly high proportion
of insect subjects: 12 % of the subjects were insects as
compared with 29% nonhuman mammals, 23% birds,
14% humans, 13% fish, 11 % amphibians and reptiles,
and 9% mythic creatures (occasional use of more than
one subject per vessel accounts for the total exceeding
100%). Common insect subjects were grasshoppers, ant-
lion larvae, caterpillars, and dragonflies, but many other
insects were portrayed. Identification of subject matter is
easy in some cases, but tentative in many. Mimbres arti-
sans differed in their attention to detail; almost all insect
subjects were painted with prominent antennae even if,
as in the case of lepidopterous larvae, this is inappro-
priate. This may explain, in part, why antlion larvae
were displayed frequently, but anthropologists fail to
identify antlion adults on Mimbres pots. Perhaps many
of the so-called dragonfly subjects were anti ions, but
precise identification confounds entomologists, so it is
not surprising that anthropologists would have difficulty
Insect drawings found on Mimbres distinguishing between the two insects. Conversely, these ancient artists may not
pottery, circa A. D. 1100 {after Fewkes have been attempting realistic portrayals.
1923, Cosgrove & Cosgrove 1932}. The naturalistic designs found on Mimbres pottery suggest close and unusual
Drawings apparently depict: (top association with nature. Insects appear more frequently than in art of European
row, left to right) cricket, case bearer,
cultures. Except for occasional butterflies and other insects with ornamental
grasshopper; {second row, left to
value, we rarely find insects associated with serious European art, and almost
right} dragonfly, looper, antlion larva;
never as the primary subject. It is surprising that other natural phenomena such
{third row, left to right} buck moth
caterpillar, leaf beetles; (bottom row, as plants, sun, stars, and moon were rarely pictured by Mimbres artists. Some of
left to right) dragonfly, leaf beetles, the subjects favored by these ancient peoples were important food sources, (e.g.,
grasshopper. rabbits and pronghorn). Others (e.g., bighorn), however, were favorite subjects
for artistic expression yet their skeletal remains occur rarely in houses and vil-
lages, suggesting that they were a rare food resource.
Interpretation of Mimbres imagery is difficult. About one-third of the designs
found on bowls are unique to mortuary environs; they are not found on bowls
used for cooking or storage. Also, many of the funerary bowls show no sign of
3. wear, which suggests that they were produced specifically for burial. Ancient
peoples throughout the world commonly buried their dead with valuable pos-
sessions or utensils needed in the afterlife. What possible value could be asso-
ciated with the insects portrayed so frequently by these agriculturalists? We will
never know with certainty, but some insight can be gained by examining the role
of insects in the culture of kindred peoples. It is thought that several tribes still
dwelling in New Mexico and Arizona may be descendants of the Mimbreiios or
were influenced by the Mimbres culture.
The Hopis, a branch of the Pueblo group and descendants of the Anasazi Hopi Kachinas
culture, are a sedentary people who engage in intensive agriculture in northern
Arizona. Several of their ancient pueblos have been excavated, revealing painted
pottery and wall murals that reveal some insight into their cultural history. In
contrast to the Mimbreiios, they did not favor naturalistic designs. Insect paint-
ings are not abundant, but some do occur. Perhaps insects were more important
in aboriginal life than we suspect because the Hopis practiced an art form that
was so highly stylized that distinguishing insects from other II
animals (particularly birds) is extremely difficult.
A Hopi art form where insects definitely occur is the
kachina ceremonial. Kachina is the most important cere-
mony in the Hopi religious calendar and is unique among re-
ligious ceremonies in that every man, woman, and child is
initiated. Kachina is not limited to Hopis. Nearly all Pueblo
villages observe kachina ceremony in some way. It also is
ancient. Prehistoric art, including petroglyphs, documents <}'" ;'c.:
the presence of masked dancers well before the arrival of
In Hopi mythology, kachinas were beneficent spirit-beings Drawings from ancient Hopi pottery,
who accompanied people from the underworld, the origin of ~ ~II~ possibly the 1400s. Fewkes
(1919) believed that they all
all peoples. The supernatural kachinas helped the Hopis
represented butterflies drawn with
prosper in their new environment, but they all were killed varying degrees of realism.
when the Hopis were attacked by their enemies. Although
the souls of the kachinas returned to the underworld, their
costumes were left behind. The Hopis believe that benefits
formerly provided by the benevolent kachinas (e.g., rain and
good crops) can be accrued by wearing the kachina para-
... :
phernalia. Kachinas are not worshiped; kachina spirits are ':.',
not believed to be gods. Rather, they are a link between
humans and god. Kachinas are expected to carry petitions of
people, especially the village elders, to their gods. To a lesser
degree, kachinas are believed to represent the spirit of the
dead, and of course the costumes, dancing, and chanting
serve a social as well as a religious function. Several insect
kachinas are known, including bee, wasp, cicada, butterfly, robber fly, cricket,
and dragonfly (see page 224). Spiderwoman, one of the most frequent characters
in Hopi mythology, also is represented by a kachina figure. Kachina figures have
specific roles, and many occur only in certain ceremonies. Cicada kachina, for
example, appears early in the year, presumably as a prayer for the arrival of
summer when the real cicada occurs.
The link of kachina insect figures to Hopi religion and mythology is important
in understanding the relation between insects and indigenous southwestern
peoples. Although the specific roles of most insect-form kachinas seem to have
escaped description, their mere presence documents a religious role. However,
the insect in Hopi culture extends beyond being a messenger to the gods; Hopis
believe that their ancestors in the first underworld had insect forms. This is not
an uncommon belief among southwestern cultures, but perhaps nowhere is the
relation between insects and humans so intertwined as in the well-documented
Navajo culture.
Winter 1993 223
4. Tatangaya, a Hopi wasp kachina and Maha, a Hopi cicada kachina (both after Wright [1973]).
Navajo Drypainting The Navajo tribe dwells in northern Arizona and contiguous areas of New
•••••••••••••• Mexico and Utah. They are not closely related to the Hopis but are related to
various Apache groups. They are much less sedentary than the Hopis; their tradi-
tional economy was based on herding and hunting. Today they engage princi-
pally in sheep herding.
Navajos perform highly ritualized ceremonials adopted to combat particular
diseases or misfortunes-maladies often thought to be brought on by breach of
taboo or witchcraft. Taboo sometimes is violated by coming into contact with
dangerous objects. Some animals are considered dangerous, and among them are
moths, ants, long-horned grasshoppers, and camel crickets.
Drypaintings, which usually are incorrectly called sandpaintings, are an
integral component of ceremonials. The elaborate paintings are made from sand,
ash, pollen, and other dry material and are unfortunately destroyed as part of the
ceremony. They are rarely displayed to outsiders; even relating the complete cere-
mony is considered taboo. Nevertheless, they have long been of great interest to
anthropologists and many complete ceremonials (chantways) are known. Exam-
ples include Hailway, which is performed to cure illness resulting from cold;
Waterway for illness resulting from rain; and Shooting Chant, which alleviates
problems brought on by lightning, arrows, and snakes. The ceremonies are pro-
longed, usually 3-9 d. The complexities are difficult to master. The Nightway, for
example, contains 576 songs. Thus, a singer or chanter usually specializes in
performing only two or three ceremonies.
5. Many drypaintings, taboos notwithstanding,
ajos are shown at right.
have been portrayed by anthro-
pologists. Insect figures are often included. Some of the insects depicted by Nav-
Sometimes insect figures are purely symbolic. Dragonflies are the best exam-
ple of this: a dragonfly, or more commonly four dragonflies, located around a ! t" .-=".', ..
,::,'f.f ~~:'
circle is used to symbolize pure water.
More commonly, the insects have important roles in the mythology underlying
the ceremonial. "Big fly," for example, is an important instructor-helper in
Navajo mythology. Big fly can go anywhere, mediates between humans and
deities, and often gets the hero out of difficulty in Navajo tales. In drypaint-
ings, big fly is often portrayed at the eastern end, or opening, of the painting. Big
fly is quite literally a large fly; Navajos usually associate tachinid flies with
this character.
"Cornbug" or "ripener" sometimes is found guarding the eastern openings in Representative depictions (after
drypaintings, although its primary function is to symbolize reproduction. Corn- Wyman & Bailey 1964) of insects
bug is portrayed in myths as both an insect and a girl, and is often highly anthro- displayed in Navajo dry-paintings:
pomorphized in drypaintings. Although called corn beetle by some authors, (top row, left to right) big fly, moth,
Navajos generally associate lacewings with this mythological character. blowfly, and cicada; (bottom row, left
to right) dragonfly, cornbug,
Ants are important in Navajo myths, but are not especially common in dry-
hornworm, and ant.
paintings. Navajos associate their traditional house structure, or hogan, with ant
mounds. Ants are the only insect for which an entire chantway is named: Red
Antway. This ceremony is performed to counteract the deleterious consequences
of consuming or disturbing ants. Ants are the most anthropomorphized of all the
insect characters; many depictions show no insect features, so without being fully
aware of the story line an observer would not realize the importance of ants. In
some drypaintings they are represented only by red dots.
Ants are not the only insects that are important in Navajo mythology but that
show up rarely in drypaintings. Other examples include bees, wasps, hornworms,
butterflies, and also spiders. This is possibly because of the Navajo belief that all
these organisms are poisonous. The Navajos are correct, of course, in the case of
bees, wasps, and spiders, and admittedly hornworms appear to be harmful. The
association of butterflies with danger is more surprising but is well established in
their culture.
The butterfly is the symbol of love, temptation, and foolishness to Navajos. It
also symbolizes moth madness. Moth madness is the dread disease among Nava-
jos and is applied to any malady wherein the victim displays fainting, frenzy,
spells, trembling, or motor seizure. Thus, an epileptic is assumed to have come
into contact with a moth.
The butterfly also symbolizes the Mothway myth. In the Mothway legend, a
bisexual god named Begochidi was leader of the butterfly people and serviced the
sexual needs of both male and female butterflies. However, Begochidi reputedly
decided to leave the country, and the butterfly people decided it was better to
commit incest than to marry outsiders. This made the butterfly people "go wild,"
which is currently manifested, for example, in a tendency of moths to rush into
The basis for the Mothway myth is the widespread concern about incest in
small, isolated groups. Small inbreeding populations may have resulted in some
of the aforementioned physical afflictions. Thus, the Mothway legend is, to Nav-
ajos, an explanation of the prohibition against sibling and clan incest.
Navajos classify objects readily, even to the point of having a binomial nomen- Navajo Ethnoentomology
clature system where genus is a small group of organisms that superficially re-
semble each other (e.g., beetles) and species is further qualification, often color
or habit (e.g., black beetle or burrowing beetle). There are five phyla within the
Navajo animal kingdom: animals that live in water, animals living in the ground,
four-footed animals, flying animals, and crawling animals. Thus, insects occur in
all phyla. As nearly all humans, Navajos make no attempt to differentiate insects
from other arthropods. Surprisingly, they regard bats as insects.
Winter 1993 225
6. Navajos use insects freely in their
myths and ceremonials. In the most
complete treatise on the subject, an-
thropologists L. C. Wyman and F. L.
Bailey analyzed 61 Navajo myths for
reference to arthropods. They repor-
ted 623 referrals, with 138 in im-
portant roles, distributed among 55
myths. Big fly and corn bug are the
most frequent actors, but many
others are involved. The greatest var-
iety of insects occurring in a single
myth is in the legend of Up-
ward-Reaching-Way, with 14 differ-
ent types named.
A good example of how insects are
integrated into most aspects of
Navajo life can be seen from legends
Contemporary vase from the Acoma surrounding weaving. The Navajos believe that spiderwoman was a Pueblo
Pueblo showing the humpbacked flute woman taught to weave by a spider. Traditionally, weavers paid tribute to this by
player, the human form of cicada. leaving a hole in the center of each woven blanket, similar to the hole commonly
observed at the center of spider webs. White traders refused to purchase blankets
bearing holes even though there was a cultural basis for this artifact, so weavers
changed their acknowledgment to spiderwoman by inserting a spirit outlet in the
design. This takes the form of a thin line from the center to the edge of the
weaving, and to the casual observer appears to be a defect. Navajo women believe
that the spirit outlet prevents spiderwoman from spinning cobwebs in their brain,
an ailment also known as blanket sickness.
One of the most common mythological figures found on pottery, blankets,
jewelry, wall murals, and even in ancient petroglyphs is the humpbacked flute
player. The widespread occurrence of the humpback flute player among different
tribes throughout the Americas clearly demonstrates an intermingling of religious
beliefs or a common heritage, or both. The flute player is the human-form of
cicada (the anthropological literature uses the obsolete term locust); cicada assis-
ted the Navajos' ancestors in attainment of the present world (see The Navajo
Story of Creation, below). The flute player is distinctly portrayed as a hump-
backed, or at least archbacked, anthropomorphic figure, although sometimes he
bears a prayerstick instead of a flute. Flute player created warmth by playing his
flute, and in his hump he carried seeds of plants and flowers. Other humpbacked
creatures such as bison or bears are considered powerful, but flute player is espe-
cially powerful because of his part in generation and reproduction. In many de-
pictions he is shown with a long penis to symbolize the seeds of human
reproduction. Although he is widely recognized as a fertility symbol, his insect
origins are less commonly appreciated. This is not entirely surprising because
European-influenced cultures have difficulty relating to concepts such as inter-
conversion of humans and "wild" animals. Nevertheless, Navajos and many
other indigenous peoples believe that all animals were men at one time and have
the ability to assume human-forms when necessary.
The Hopis have a humpbacked kachina called Kokopelli whose origin is a
robber fly. Often Kokopelli occurs without a flute. The name Kokopelli is often
applied incorrectly to all humpbacked figures.
The Navajo Story of Creation The Navajo legend of creation, also referred to as The Emergence, is the most
sacred of Navajo ceremonials. It is told in a 9-d event called Blessing Way.
There are numerous variations of this myth recorded, but they all share a
common theme.
The Navajos believe that there are four underworlds beneath (not necessarily
physically below, however) the present fifth world. Above is another world
7. where all things blend into the cosmos. The first world, the origin of Navajos,
was a small island surrounded by oceans and inhabited only by people who were
insects. The Insect People were of 12 types: dragonflies, red ants, black ants, red
beetles, black beetles, white-faced beetles, hard beetles, yellow beetles, dung
beetles, bats, cicadas (locusts) and white cicadas (locusts).
The Insect People committed adultery and quarreled constantly, and were ex-
pelled from the first world for this behavior. Their gods sent a wall of water from
all directions to drive them out. They took flight and water covered their land.
While flying, desperately seeking a new home, a cliff swallow called them to a
hole in the sky of the first world. Thus, they emerged into the second world.
The second world was inhabited by Swallow People living in mud houses. The
Insect People sent out couriers, the cicadas and white cicadas, to explore the new
world. The cicadas reported finding nothing but bare ground. Although it
appeared to be a poor environment, the Insect People decided to inhabit the land
of the Swallow People. This was not meant to be, however. After 24 d one of the
Insect People "made too free" with the wife of the Swallow People's chief, and
the Insect People were expelled. The Insect People took flight again with the cica-
das in the lead. They attained the sky, but had a hard time finding a place to
penetrate. The white face of the wind appeared and told them of an opening.
Thus, they emerged into the third world.
among natives
in the Southwest
touches on
nature worship,
and magic.
The inhabitants of the third world were Grasshopper People, who lived in
holes in the ground. Like the second world, the Insect People found the third
world to be barren; nonetheless, they requested permission to stay, which was
granted by their new hosts. Again, after 24 d, the Insect People were found guilty
of philandering and were expelled by the chief of the Grasshopper People. The
Insect People took flight, flew upwards, and found a hard, impenetrable sky until
a red face of the wind appeared and told them of an opening into the fourth
Again when the Insect People emerged into this new world they sent out
cicadas to explore. The fourth world was found to be more populated, as in the
snow-covered mountains they found tracks of deer and turkey. To the north they
found strange people who cut their hair square in front, cultivated fields, and
lived in houses. These strange people (Pueblos) visited the exiles and shared food
with them. The Insect People decided to change their ways and coexist peacefully
with the Pueblos.
Eventually, the Insect People were visited by gods who indicated that they
wanted to make more people, but in a human form rather than insect. The gods
performed a ceremony in which humans were created from ears of corn.
Different types (colors) of corn were transformed into different tribes. The Insect
People intermarried with the new humans and eventually their descendants no
longer resembled insects.
Winter 1993 227
8. In time, the men and women had a great argument and they decided to live
apart, separated by a river. The women found that living alone was more
difficult than they had anticipated and eventually were starving. They, as well as
the men, participated in unnatural sexual acts during their separation. Although
the men and women eventually reunited, the gods were displeased by the sins
of the people and sent a wall of water thundering down upon them. The people
observed animals running and set cicadas to investigate the cause of this
disturbance. With the water closing in rapidly, the people desperately sought
safety, eventually climbing inside a fast-growing giant reed and plugging the
The people sheltered inside the reed directed various animals upward to
attempt to break into the fifth world. Eventually cicada was able to gain entry,
where he discovered that this world was populated by grebes. The grebes in-
formed cicada that if the cicadas could survive challenges that the grebes could
survive, they could have the fifth world. The challenge the grebes had in mind
was to plunge arrows into the heart. This the cicada was able to do, although to
this day they bear the scars (spiracles?) in their side, and to this day the Navajo
people populate the fifth world.
Religion and Indigenous Peoples The indigenous peoples of the American Southwest engaged in a religion that
•••••••••••••• was quite foreign to explorers and settlers with a Judea-Christian heritage.
Navajos, for example, lack a traditional word for religion and have no center of
worship. It is reported that whites lived with Navajos for several decades before
realizing that they had any form of worship.
Religion among natives in the Southwest touches on animism, polytheism,
nature worship, and magic. It is not a separate entity, however, because it per-
vades every aspect of the traditional culture. The central tenet is that all compo-
nents of the universe are interrelated. Humankind is only one element in nature,
and humans must obey its many laws. To maintain a harmonious relationship,
humans must appreciate that every element in nature, even insects, has a pur-
pose. These beliefs are directly in conflict with the anthropocentric Christian
creeds that several sects have attempted to force on the native populace. Many
tribes have long resisted the destruction of their culture attempted by mission-
aries and government agents. The attraction of the goods-rich white economy,
however, has proven to be a formidable force in disrupting traditional practices.
Insects play an important role in the religion of several southwestern cultures,
especially in relation to the origin of these peoples. The abundance of insect
designs on Mimbres pottery can perhaps be explained based on such ancient and
apparently widespread beliefs. The Mimbreiios' insect artistry is possibly less an
attempt to capture or preserve familiar fauna than to relate religious ceremonial.
This may explain the curious inaccuracies and inconsistencies in insect morphol-
ogy and the abundance of mythical creatures-usually hybrids of different ani-
mals or of human and animals.
Southwestern artisans are no longer producing art work principally for their
own domestic and religious use. There is a lucrative commercial market for their
crafts. They produce more of what sells best, not necessarily what is culturally
appropriate. As archaeologists have discovered ancient designs on pottery shards
and murals, some have been rapidly and successfully incorporated into modern
crafts. However, tourists of European heritage seem reluctant to purchase items
decorated with insect characters, other than "pretty" butterflies. We cannot
expect native artists to produce items that they cannot market. Sadly, an in-
triguing cultural heritage is being distorted by insect phobias.
Acknowledgments Drawings were kindly prepared by Brad Coriell. Helpful reviews were provided by
•••••••••••••• Carl Barfield and Howard Frank of the University of Florida Entomology and Nema-
tology Department and by Allan Burns of the University of Florida Anthropology De-
partment. Published as University of Florida Agricultural Experiment Station Journal
Series R-02803.
9. Brody, J. J., C. J. Scott & S. A. LeBlanc. 1983. Mimbres pottery: ancient art of the Suggested Readings
American Southwest. Hudson Hills, NY. • ••••••••••••••
Carr, P. 1979. Mimbres mythology. Univ. Tex. El Paso Southwest. Stud. Monogr. 56.
Cosgrove, H. S. & C. B. Cosgrove. 1932. The Swarts ruin: a typical Mimbres site in
southwestern New Mexico. Peabody Mus. Pap. 15(1): 1-413.
Courlander, H. 1982. Hopi voices. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.
Dockstader, F. J. 1985. The kachina and the white man. University of New Mexico
Press, Albuquerque.
Fewkes, J. W. 1919. Designs on prehistoric Hopi pottery. Smithson. Bur. Am. Ethno!.
Annu. Rep. 33: 207-284.
1923. Designs on prehistoric pottery from the Mimbres Valley, New Mexico.
Smithson. Misc. Col!. 74(6): 7-47.
Locke, R. F. 1976. The book of the Navajo. Mankind, Los Angeles.
Reichard, G. A. 1977. Navajo medicine man sandpaintings. Dover, NY.
Wright, B. 1973. Kachinas: a Hopi artist's documentary. Northland, Flagstaff, AZ.
Wyman, L. C. & F. L. Bailey. 1964. Navajo indian ethnoentomology. Univ. N.M. Pub!.
Anthropol. 12. 0
John Capinera is a professor and chairman of the Department of Entomology,
University of Florida, Gainesville, FL 32611-0620. In addition to adminis-
trative duties, he has research interests in the ecology and management of
grasshoppers and vegetable pests. Currently, he has research projects on bio-
logical control of Schistocerca americana and cucurbit insects
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and front tank for
790 E. N~tchez Blvd.
Opelousas, LA 70570 U.S.A .
................... ~ .
"BACKPACK" - Model T
Usefor applying larger test