ETHNONYMS: Pahaya, Pawyer, Pech, Pesch, Popya, Poya, Poyai, Poyer, Seco, Taia, Tawka, Taya
The Paya live in and around eleven villages in northeastern Honduras. The terrain in this area consists of pine- and savanna-covered upland valley. The greatest concentration of Paya Indians is in the towns of Dulce Nombre de Culmí and Santa María del Carbón in the department of Olancho; nevertheless, the Paya language is nearly extinct in the latter town. The language itself is difficult to classify. It is hypothesized that it is most closely related to the Chibchan and Cariban languages of South America. The size of the Paya population has been drastically reduced by assimilation and colonial pressures. In 1990 there were only 1,800 Paya Indians, and, of these, only a few hundred were able to speak the Payan language. Even more striking is a report in 1982 that documented only 17 "racially pure" Paya Indians.
Before the Conquest, there were thousands of Paya inhabiting up to 26,000 square kilometers. They were a seminomadic people that hunted, fished, and cultivated various crops. On his third trip to the New World in 1498, Christopher Columbus encountered the Paya and called them the Taia. During the colonial period, the Paya were ravaged by European diseases and military attacks by their neighbors, the Miskito Indians.
In 1864 the Paya were awarded legal title to their communal lands; however, the Honduran frontier continued to move eastward and eventually enveloped the Paya. Because of this, the Paya presently inhabit separate villages rather than a specific region. By the 1920s, only 600 Paya were left. Since the 1950s, loggers and immigrants have continued to exert pressure on the lands of the Paya. This pressure has resulted in erasing almost all vestiges of traditional culture.
There are, however, groups of Paya living in Las Marías that still maintain much of the traditional life-style. Although they have traded bark breechcloths for Latino clothing and blowguns for shotguns, they continue to catch iguanas by hand, to catch fish with handmade harpoons, and to navigate the waters of the local rivers in dugout canoes. Likewise, they adhere to traditional swidden agricultural practices. They raise maize, beans, and cassava with simple implements such as hoes, digging sticks, and machetes.
Many also continue to raise Opuntia, a nopal cactus plant on which the cochineal insect feeds. Cochineal is still used as a food and cosmetic dye. Where animals have not been overhunted, the Paya make use of deer, monkeys, wild pigs, wild turkeys, iguanas, and tapir.
Carranza, Sucelinda Zelaya (1984). "Santa Maria del Carbon: Un expediente de tierras payas." América Indígena 44(3): 461-466.
Kolankiewicz, Leon (1989). "The Pesch of Honduras Face Uncertain Prospects." Cultural Survival Quarterly 13(3): 34-36.
Miller, Marc S. (1993). State of the Peoples: A Global Human Rights Report on Societies in Danger. Boston: Beacon Press.
Olson, James Stuart (1991). The Indians of Central and South America: An Ethnohistorical Dictionary. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.