Sumu - Orientation

Identification. "Sumu" is the common name used since the mid-1800s to refer to a group of related peoples of eastern Nicaragua and Honduras. The Miskito, the traditional enemies of the Sumu, also called them "Albatuina" (slaves) or "Ialtanta" (flat heads); the Spaniards labeled them "Caribes" (savages) and "Chatos" (flat heads). Von Houwald (1975; 1990) claims sixty different names have been used to refer to them, many (Batuca, Patuca, Bocayes) corrupted from a particular river or region they inhabited. The Sumu call themselves "Mayangna," meaning "we" ( yagna ) of the "sun" ( ma ), referring to their origin myth (Rizo 1993, 31), or they identify themselves by their linguistic affiliation.

Location. Three Sumu groups now occupy the rain forests of the Mosquitia region of eastern Nicaragua and Honduras. The Tawahka, about 20 percent of the Sumu, live in northern Nicaragua along the Río Bambana where Wasakin, the largest Tawahka village, has 900 residents; other villages are along the Río Coco (between its Waspuk and Lakus tributaries) and farther north in Honduras on the middle Río Patuca. The Panamaka, about 70 percent of all Sumu, center on the Bosawás (Río Bocay- Sa slaya Wa spuk) region, especially along the Bocay and Umbra rivers and along the headwater streams of the Bambana and Waspuk; others are southward along the upper reaches of the Prinzapolca, Matagalpa, and Escondido rivers and in the village of Awastingni, farther east along the Río Wawa. Musawás, on the Río Waspuk, has 1,700 inhabitants and is the largest Sumu village. The Ulwa, 10 percent of the Sumu, live in Karawala (with a population of 770) and Kara, near the mouth of the Rio Grande de Matagalpa; others are along the Río Sikia, a tributary of the Río Escondido. Some families choose to live in coastal Miskito settlements (Hale 1991, 27; Herlihy 1993; Williamson et al. 1993).

Demography. Eduard Conzemius (1932, 14) estimated from fieldwork in the 1920s that a mere 3,000 to 3,500 Sumu survived, remarking that the "day of their complete disappearance or absorption by the Miskito does not seem far off." The Tawahka, Panamaka, and Ulwa each numbered about 1,000 at the time. In 1990, 13,000 to 15,000 Sumu lived in Nicaragua and fewer than 1,000 in Honduras.

Linguistic Affiliation. Sumu languages are considered variants of a common family called Misumalpa, which includes the languages of the Miskito, Sumu, and Matagalpa who inhabited the prehistoric frontier between Mesoamerican and South American influences. The family apparently fissioned off its Chibchan trunk thousands of years ago and may have remained united until a century or two before Spanish contact, when Sumu languages separated. Of the remaining three, Tawahka and Panamaka are very similar, whereas Ulwa is more distinct; all contain loanwords from Miskito, English, and Spanish.

Sumu parlance declined with missionaries and government programs of the twentieth century, and a large part of the population is now trilingual. Children learn Spanish in school, speak Miskito in the village, and converse in Tawahka, Panamaka, or Ulwa with their families. Few Indians can read and write Sumu languages, but bilingual education programs may awaken new interest.

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