ALTERNATE NAMES: Arecuna; Kamarakoto; Taurepan
RELIGION: Indigenous beliefs mingled with Christian elements
The Pemon-Caribs of Venezuela used to be called Arecuna, Kamarakoto, and Taurepan. But they call themselves Pemon . There are no historical records of their lives from the time before 1750. At the end of the nineteenth century, English Protestant missionaries started to Christianize the Pemon. In 1931, the first Capuchin (a Catholic religious order) mission post in the Pemon area was established. Gold and diamond rushes began in the area in 1936. During the 1960s, the area was connected with other parts of Venezuela by airplane and by new roads.
Diamond mining has not been a major activity in recent years. This, together with the poor quality of Pemon agricultural land and the late opening of the area, has spared the Pemon from major land invasions from the outside world. Many of their traditions and their original methods of communication—their language, smoke signals, and messages carried by people on foot—have survived.
The Pemon territory covers the coastal area of the Atlantic Ocean in Venezuela, the inland mountain savanna (plains) area, and the Amazon River area.
The region is unique for its tepuis, the remains of mighty sandstone plateaus that once stretched across the entire area. In the course of time, the plateaus were worn down by erosion. This left only the tepuis as giant monuments to their existence. There are more than one hundred of them. Fewer than half have been thoroughly explored. Many of them are so tall that they are hidden by dense cloud cover for days at a time. Much of the plant and animal life atop the tepuis is unique—found nowhere else.
In the area south of the Orinoco River, the country is mainly lowlands. Farther south, toward the Amazon region, the landscape turns mountainous.
Father Cesareo de Armellada was the author of the first dictionary of the Pemon language (published in 1943). At the time it was called Taurepan. Many words in this language show interesting patterns of formation. For example, the word for "sugar-cane" is kaiwara-kún-imá , which means "pineapple with a very long leg." The word for "pineapple" itself, kaiwara, means "a sweet with wrinkles." The Pemon word for "dew" is chirké-yetakú, which means "star's saliva." Yetakú is "saliva" or, more precisely, "juice of the teeth."
There is no word for "year" in the Pemon language. The day is divided into "dawning," "morning," "noontime," "afternoon,"
The Pemon speak their own language among themselves, and Spanish or a simplified form of Spanish with outsiders. In the mission villages and mining areas of the state of Bolívar, more and more young people also use Spanish among themselves. Most Pemon people now have Christian (Spanish) names. They often have two American Indian names as well. One of these is a sacred and secret name.
The Pemon have traditionally believed that each person has five souls, which look like the shadows of a human being. The fifth soul is the one that talks and that leaves the body to travel around when the person is dreaming. This is the only one that goes away—to the Milky Way—after death. Before arriving there, it meets the Father of the Dogs. If the person has mistreated his or her dogs, the dogs' souls will recognize the person and kill him or her.
One of the other four souls lives in the knee and stays put for a while after death; later, it turns into a bad spirit. The other three souls turn into birds of prey after death. All animals and plants are believed to have souls. Stones do not have souls, but they house bad spirits.
The Makunaima is a series of creation stories of the Pemon land, crops, techniques, and social practices. It starts with the creation of a wife for the first Pemon—the Sun—by a water nymph. At that time, the Sun was a person. One day he went to the stream and saw a small woman with long hair. He managed to grasp her hair, but she told him, "Not me! I will send you a woman to be your companion and your wife."
Her name was Tuenkaron , and the next day she sent the Sun a white woman. He fed her, and she lit a fire. But when the Sun sent her to the stream, she collapsed into a little heap of clay. The woman was made of white earth, or clay. The next day Tuenkaron sent him a black woman. She was able to bring water, but when she tried to light a fire, she melted. The woman was made of wax. The third woman was red, a rock-colored woman. The sun tested her and she did not melt or collapse. She was strong and able to help run the household. The woman and the Sun had several children, and these are the Pemon.
Most American Indian belief systems have been mixed to some degree with Christian elements. In spite of the strength of Catholicism, the Pemon still believe in Kanaima —the spirit of evil. Also, some social traditions, such as the marriage of cousins, that are opposed by the church are practiced by many Pemon. The Pemon have also mixed traditional cult saints with Catholic saints.
As most Pemon have been Christianized, their major holidays are the same as those celebrated by Catholics. Holy Week and Christmas are the most important.
Traditional rites of passage were associated with the life cycle (birth, adolescence, and death), but most are no longer celebrated. Baptism in a Catholic mission is now the only important rite of passage.
Often a father gives a child a secret name in the Pemon language. It is forbidden to use a secret name when speaking to any person, male or female. This is not the case with Spanish names, and the Pemon are eager to baptize their children with Spanish names. Women usually do not have last names. Men sometimes adopt the last name of their boss in the diamond mines. Brothers sometimes end up with different last names for this reason.
Traditionally, a boy's passage into adolescence was marked with a special ceremony. A Pemon religious leader lashed a boy's body, made incisions in his skin, and applied what were believed to be magic substances to the wounds. For one year after the ceremony, certain foods could not be eaten.
A girl's passage into adolescence was marked by a haircut before the first menstruation. In addition, the edges of a girl's mouth was tattooed in a traditional design. At the first sign of menstruation, the girl retired to her hammock and was considered impure. Her grandmother would then paint her whole body in a special way.
Marriage is the key to the social organization of the Pemon people. It determines the pattern of visits between villages, which is at the heart of their social life. Visits for beer parties and meetings with relatives tie neighborhoods and regions together. The respect that a village or neighborhood receives is often gauged by the quality and quantity of manioc (cassava) beer offered by the hosts.
Conversation is lively when the family gathers for a meal. If guests are present, the men eat first.
Open conflict, anger, and fighting are strongly discouraged. The basic response to conflict is to withdraw. Often this means a person will leave home and make an extended visit to relatives somewhere else, waiting for things to calm down. Since the Pemon do not approve of anger or displays of hostility, physical punishment of children is very rare. If an adult hits a child at all, it is done so mildly that it is just a reminder. Pemon children learn by example and are given much freedom.
In the old days, when somebody became ill, the local shaman or paisan connected the cause of the illness with one of the many mythical spirits. For healing, the shaman uses his taren recipes. These are a mixture of medicinal plants and charms. The taren is believed to be a magic spell that can aid in the birth of a child, counter the bite of various snakes, heal headaches and stomach pains, and so forth. The taren can only be taught to one person at a time, and it is performed in the presence of as few people as possible.
The Pemon's traditional housing consists of huts whose walls are made of clay or bark, with roofs made of palm leaves. Hammocks are hung from the beams of the roof, and a fire is kept at one or two corners of the house. Arrows, knives, axes, and fishing rods are piled up in one corner. Baskets, carrying sacks, and pumpkins hang on the walls.
Marriage is the basis of the main social and economic unit. The relationship between the father-in-law and the son-in-law is most important. For the father-in-law, his son-inlaw is the substitute for his own son. Therefore, after the marriage, the son-in-law detaches himself from his own father and takes care of his father-in-law. In the Pemon society, there is no wedding ceremony. The new husband simply moves his hammock to his father-in-law's house and starts working with him.
According to traditional beliefs, the solid parts of babies—the bones—come from the father, and the blood comes from the mother. The mother gives birth behind a partition installed in the hut. She is helped by her mother or mother-in-law. For ten days after the birth, the parents stay behind the partition with their newborn child.
The Pemon love their children. Their attitude toward them is lenient. Parents do not constantly remind their children about their behavior. Children learn by following the parents' example, and they very seldom need to be disciplined or punished.
In the past, the Pemon went naked or used only loincloths. The traditional clothing of a Pemon woman was an apron made of cotton or beads. In the twentieth century, the men's loincloths were made of a bright red cloth obtained from the criollos (Venezuelans of mixed descent).
By 1945, the Pemon had started wearing Western cotton clothing. The men tend to wear khaki, while the women make their dresses using cotton fabrics printed with patterns. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the women wore metal earrings known as "butterfly" earrings, which they bought. It was also common for them to have facial tattoos and to wear bands of cotton cloth or glass beads around their arms and legs.
Yucca, manioc root, or cassava is an important ingredient of the Pemon diet. The women peel, wash, and grate this root. They then squeeze out the acid and make it into a dough. With this, they prepare their flat bread or fermented drinks. One of these beverages, the cachiri, is made with bitter yucca paste, which is grated and chewed and mixed with a red root, cachiriyek, that has also been grated. The mixture is then boiled for a whole day. This brew is mildly intoxicating.
Also part of the Pemon diet is aurosa, a spinachlike vegetable. The Pemon also eat peppers, potatoes, pineapple, plantain, sugarcane, and more than ten varieties of bananas. Women gather peppers and aurosa daily for the pepper pot, a soup that forms part of every meal.
Fishing provides an important source of animal protein in the Pemon diet. In the past, hunting was not very effective, even though the men put a great deal of time into it. The situation changed, however, with the arrival of firearms in the 1940s. Birds and mammals, such as deer and vampire bats, then became an important part of the diet.
During the rainy season, the Pemon capture flying ants. Throughout the year, they gather the insect larvae found in the moriche palm.
One of the tools of the Pemon for educating their young is oral tradition. Their many stories are used by the elders to teach their sense of morality and concept of the world. The storyteller's closing words are usually A-pantoní-pe nichii (May you take advantage of this story).
Since 1979, bilingual (two-language) education at American Indian primary schools has been compulsory (required). Most of the main languages in American Indian territory have at least one school-book. Although the teachers' organizations and the government have proved their good will in the recent past, there are many difficulties in keeping up this system. Some Pemon children spend time in mission boarding schools or day schools through the primary-school years and sometimes longer.
Music and dance are important components of Pemon culture. They accompany all sorts of public festivals and rituals. Mari' or Mari'k, for example, is the Pemon word for the dance and music that used to be performed in public by the paisan (shaman) and his assistants.
Nowadays there are no paisans left in the Christianized Pemon villages. Some Pemon even seem to be ashamed of tokens from the past, such as old musical instruments. Still, on occasions when cachiri drinking makes them receptive to tradition, spontaneously an old dance starts. With sticks and empty cans and tins for instruments, they sing songs full of endlessly repeated short phrases, varied by made-up phrases, jokes, and bits of the old shaman songs.
For the Pemon, work is a basic part of life. There is no word for "working" other than senneka, which means "being active" more than "laboring." Only when the Pemon started working with the missionaries or miners did they adopt the Spanish word trabajo (work), which turned into trabasoman to describe work done in the European way.
The Pemon's means of subsistence (getting enough food to live on) are based on slash-and-burn farming, fishing, hunting, and collecting wild fruits and insects. There is now more flexibility in the division of work among the Pemon people. Traditionally, for example, men were responsible for preparing the soil for planting, while women were in charge of weeding, harvesting, and transporting the crops.
Spectator sports have never been common among aboriginal peoples. Most of the talents valued by these societies are part of their day-to-day life—essential survival skills. Fishing, hunting, and merely getting from one place to another require the ability to run fast, jump high and far, use the bow and arrow, swim, and so forth.
Pemon Indians who are in close contact with whites do pay some attention to spectator sports.
The Pemon culture is rich in oral literature: tales and legends that the American Indians call pantón. There is no specific time dedicated to telling stories, but the favorite moment is just before going to sleep. The morning is the time for telling and interpreting dreams, and storytelling might happen again after meals. Stories and legends are considered luxuries. People take special trips to visit other groups in order to collect them. The possessor of stories is called sak . A guest who tells stories or brings news or new songs is always welcome.
The Pemon value the abilities of their artisans. Outstanding persons are recognized for their individual skills. Some women are famous for the quality of their clay bowls.
Basketry is another major art form. Men make all of the baskets and fiber articles, including the eating mats and strainers used in everyday household work and cooking. But everyday basketry is different from the more complicated forms, which can be used in trade. As in the case of pottery, only certain men are skilled at making complex baskets.
The Pemon also make wooden dugout and bark canoes, paddles, and bows, and they weave hammocks and baby carriers.
Authorities and international support organizations identified land rights as the most pressing issue facing the Pemon in the 1990s. Venezuela recognizes land rights for its American Indian population. But in many cases it provides only provisional titles to land, which can be ignored easily. Gold, diamonds, and timber are once again attracting outsiders. Their arrival often leads to violation of Indian rights. The tourist industry is also threatening the region. What has been a controlled, eco-friendly enterprise could turn into an invasion if plans to build big hotels are approved.
Brill, E. J. Continuity & Identity in Native America. New York: E. J. Brill, 1988.
Cuentos y no cuentos. Fray Cesareo de Armellada. Caracas, Venezuela: Instituto Venezolano de Lenguas Indigenas, 1988.
George, Uwe. "Venezuela's Islands in Time." National Geographic (May 1989).