In November 1908, a group of 13 female WVU students formed a secret society. They made themselves mysterious and, at the same time, hard to ignore. The main evidence of their existence is their group photos in the 1910 to 1929 Monticola yearbooks. Members were listed but always hid their faces in ways that might be meaningful or might just be playful.

Photograph of the group in 1910 from the pages of Monticola.

The Retejos Jichancas took their name from a language so obscure, a Google search turns up essentially one result in English. Translated from the language of the Zincali gypsies of Spain, the name means “merry gypsy women.”

Photograph of the group in 1913.

The RJs had a sense of humor. As their club emblem, they chose the cacabi, or cauldron. And in most yearbooks the term chuajani, which means sorceress, heads up sets of seemingly random characters— maybe they were encoded spells.

Photograph of the group in 1920.

Almost 200 students participated over the years, plus 20-some faculty. Membership peaked at 55 in 1927 and, by 1930, there’s no trace of the club.

Photograph of the group in 1928.

For the 1989 book WVU Women: The First Century, a researcher tracked down two elderly alumnae who’d been RJs. Initiates, he learned, had to dress in costume and mask and wear the mask to classes the next day. One of the alumnae told him the club originally had a noble purpose, but she couldn’t remember what it was. The group met occasionally and had an annual spring get-together at the Cheat-area cottage of music professor Grace Martin Snee. The researcher concluded that the original cause may have been women’s suffrage—the group’s colors, lalo, bardroy, and butacoli, or purple, green, and yellow, were associated with suffrage movements—and that activities may have relaxed over time into a social club after the 19th Amendment secured women’s right to vote in 1920.

Photograph of the group in 1929.

What do the chuajani mean? A free year’s subscription to anyone who persuades us they have a good interpretation.

Photographed by Pam Kasey, from the pages of the Monticola.

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Pam Kasey
Written by Pam Kasey
Pam Kasey has traveled, brewed, farmed, counseled, and renovated, but most loves to write. She has degrees in economics from the University of Chicago and in journalism from West Virginia University. She loves celebrating Morgantown and West Virginia as executive editor at New South Media.