Social Organization. Sumu social structure was egalitarian. The head of the extended family—the eldest able-bodied male—was the highest authority figure. Shamans and elders were respected for their knowledge and wisdom but held no special status. Sometimes shamans or others with special skill or bravery rose to ephemeral leadership in times of turmoil or warfare. Missionary and government influence have brought new political positions into Sumu village life.
Political Organization. There were no chiefs, village leaders, or broad tribal organizations in traditional Sumu society. A loosely structured council of elders sometimes convened to resolve community relations. The Sumu did not traditionally delimit tribal lands.
Today Sumu villagers elect community leaders and establish political institutions. The Nicaraguan Sumu organized the Sumu Kalpapakna Wahaini Lani (SUKAWALA) or Sumu Brotherhood in 1974, and the Honduran populations set up the Federación Indígena Tawahka de Honduras (FITH) in 1987 to address political, cultural, economic, and territorial concerns. These entities have become the de facto Sumu governments. In 1990 FITH solicited recognition of a 2,300-square-kilometer reserve. SUKAWALA is struggling for legal title to Sumu lands in the Bosawás Reserve established in 1991. Their lands are not part of a proposed binational reserve system covering the rain forests north to the Caribbean Sea. The federations struggle to assure legal title to their lands within these protected areas.
Social Control. Crimes, land disputes, and other social issues were formerly resolved by the head of the extended family. Peer pressure was also a powerful leveling force. Offenders must now answer to community and federation leaders, and state laws and regulations are applicable.
Conflict. Since the seventeenth century, the Sumu have faced outside aggressions by other indigenous populations and Europeans and, later, by the postcolonial national governments of Honduras and Nicaragua, seeking to control them, their territories, and their resources. These clashes with outsiders greatly reduced both Sumu population and their territory. Recent solidarity against outside aggressions has strengthened Sumu identity and resolve toward their own cultural practices.