Sumu - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. Little systematic study exists of the original Sumu beliefs. In 1915 Moravian missionary George Heath was told that long ago the Sun was looked upon as creator and supreme lord, and the Moon was also a god, but this worship ceased suddenly thirty or forty years earlier with the spread of the gospel among the Miskito (Oertzen et al. 1990, 302-303). Landero (1980, 16) recorded that this sun god, Mapapak (from Ma, "Sun," and Papak, "my Father") lives in the heavens ( mapikidiká ), distributing life and happiness. Rizo (1993, 37) adds that "Father Sun," Moon, and Wind are represented in one image called Uwawau, the "Heart of the gods" and notes that the earthly world is submissive to the influence of other tiers inhabited by good and evil spirits. Nature was animated by all sorts of spirits ( walasá, nawah, lilkadutni, or dimalah ) that punished humans when they violated the laws of nature, or were benevolent if humans were so.

Most Nicaraguan Sumu now follow Moravian beliefs, whereas the Honduran Tawahka are mostly Catholics. Most Sumu acknowledge the Christian design of the universe, along with the concepts of sin, heaven and hell, and private property, but retain some traditional beliefs.

Religious Practitioners. The suida is the Sumu shaman whose knowledge cures the sick, divines the hidden, and helps individuals communicate with gods, demons, and spirits. Shamans are advisors, conjurers, counselors, diviners, exorcists, folklorists, herbalists, priests, and teachers. The position was not hereditary; rather, it was acquired through apprenticeship. The ditalyang was reportedly another botanical healer, but the sukia possessed greater spiritual knowledge and had the ability to communicate with the supernatural. Indeed, a successful hunt may be attributed to the just and generous actions of the sukia (Rizo 1993, 38). Sumu pastors now teach Moravian and Catholic beliefs, and many hold political power.

Ceremonies. Sumu formerly held a "festival" ( asang lawana ) at which men secluded themselves in sacred places deep in the forest to prepare young men to endure warfare. Other ceremonies proved the skills and fortitude of young boys. Menstrual seclusion sequestered the "impure" women in makeshift huts, where they were unable to "contaminate" food or forest. Today's simple ceremonies focus on life-cycle events, such as marriages and burials, or mark the end of communal-work efforts. These, as well as Christmas, Easter, and other Christian and state celebrations are normally accompanied by feasts with mishla (or other alcoholic beverage) drinking, singing, and dancing.

Arts. The arts, per se, were never highly developed in Sumu society. Pottery, figurines, and masks found on abandoned sites and in burials may indicate greater skill in the past. They had no writing aside from some crude pictographs etched into boulders, and stonework was probably restricted to the manufacture of grinding stones and grinders. Landero (1980, 18) described Sumu music as simple; the instruments were drums, rattles, and flutes, the latter often melodically imitating bird songs.

Medicine. The use of household remedies made from the bark, roots, leaves, and seeds of native plants is declining as manufactured medicines become widely available. Herbalists still use plant concoctions to cure deadly snake bites and other ailments. The sukia could also effect a cure by exorcising the evil spirit from the patient. Today medical assistants work in some villages.

Death and Afterlife. Even before accepting contemporary Christian beliefs, the Sumu probably believed in an afterlife (Newson 1987, 82). Death was formerly believed to be caused by sorcery or evil spirits. Mourning their dead husbands, widows cut their hair short and endured self-inflicted pain. Some of these practices still occur. The dead are now buried in coffins in graveyards near each settlement.


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