Boruca, Bribri, and Cabécar - History and Cultural Relations

The earliest date for the acquaintance of these groups with the Spaniards is 1502, when Columbus landed in Limón on his fourth voyage. There were Spanish expeditions in 1519, 1522, 1523, 1526, 1539, 1540, and 1560, but more precise early information stems from the Spanish conquistador Juan Vásquez de Coronado. He met with officials of the three language groups in 1563-1564. At the time of Conquest, these and the other Costa Rican Indians were organized into chiefdoms. Those of the Boruca and their neighbors were destroyed in 1563; the Indians began to be reassigned into colonial social units, such as missions and ecomienda. The Talamanca on the other side of the mountain range managed to retain traits of the chiefdom type of social organization up to the first three decades of the twentieth century. The Boruca were considered pacified in 1608. A village was founded with that name in 1629. The site was a stop for the mule trains going from the Spanish capital Cartago toward Portobelo in Panama. During the seventeenth century, Boruca was the only village in the south Pacific region to become organized for colonial functions. By the end of the century, it consisted of a town hall ( cabildo ), the community hall ( casa comunal ), a shelter for travelers, and twelve huts. Up to the eighteenth century, the Indians that remained from neighboring disappearing groups were integrated into the village. In 1770 twenty-five huts and 155 Indians of both sexes were counted, and by 1801 there were 250 people in the village. When Costa Rica was granted independence, in 1821, the colonial impact included diminished population, change in settlement pattern (to this nucleated village and scattered homesteads), Catholicism, iron tools, pigs, chickens, and cattle. The first non-Indian settlers arrived in 1848, 1865, and 1875, from Chiriquí and from the Central Valley of Costa Rica. Between 1860 and 1940 the area remained sparsely populated and isolated, but the building of the Pan-American Highway opened up the region between 1945 and 1963 to massive immigration of non-Indians from the central part of the country. Ethnic conflict arose because of competition for land and other resources, which in some ways is observable even today. At the legal department of the National Commission of Indian Affairs (CONAI), there are cases of farms or lots claimed by both Indians and Whites. Other cases involve boundary disputes. Expressions of resentment over the presence of one or the other group can still be heard. The municipal council has never been pleased about the existence of Indian reserves in the cantón.

The early Spanish recognized the other two linguistic groups, Bribri and Cabécar, but treated them as a single nation because of their very close similarities in language and institutions. Both groups managed to retain a high degree of independence and isolation from European influence well into the twentieth century. A major revolt against Spanish colonial rule occurred in 1610. Following another such uprising in 1709, missions and non-Indian settlements were prohibited until 1882. Since 1882, there has been a gradual penetration, which became especially intensive after 1940, with the establishment of primary schools and the expansion of the Costa Rican non-Indian farming population into the Talamanca area. The traditional clan hierarchy of the Talamancans was observed until about 1920. Today it is delineated in stories and held in memory. Political, ritual, and other specialties were hereditary along clan lines. During the latter part of the nineteenth century, in matters concerning community threats (such as war, hostility on the part of foreigners, epidemics, natural catastrophes, famine, and crop failures), the Bribri and Cabécar clans were commanded by the useköl or kpa, the highest-ranking chief, who resided in Upper Coen (San José Cabécar), to observe periods of fasting and abstinence. Regarded as sacred, the kpa could not be touched, looked at directly, or spoken to directly. The next rank was held by the blu', called rey ("king") in Spanish, an executive chief who conducted war and foreign relations. The last king died in 1910. In the early 1990s the aboriginal culture is rapidly disappearing, but one can still find individuals, families, or hamlets that have maintained tradition rather extensively.

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