Wasteko - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Ceremonies. The Wasteko maintain a strong belief in pre-Hispanic religious traditions and possess a rich repertory of oral history. Although nominally Catholic, most Wasteko interpret the world in a pre-Hispanic cosmological framework. Saints are associated with particular native deities. The elaborate history of Thipaak, the culture hero who brought maize to the Wasteko, is linked to accounts of other supernatural beings. Creation stories include references to human origins in male homosexual relations; to the lintsi ("flat asses"), giants who, lacking orifices for elimination, wasted their food because they only inhaled its aroma; and to people who lost access to special powers because they failed to respect the gods. Major deities include the Earth, Time, the Sun, and rain bringers who are associated with the East, the North, and the West. In addition, minor deities, conceived as male and female pairs, control specific realms of human interest, including sorcery (associated with the South), dance, medicine, pottery, beekeeping, and weaving. They are called fathers, mothers, grandfathers, and grandmothers. The ancestral nature of these deities, their association with the landscape of Wasteko territories, and the powers they control all reflect the integration of social, ecological, and historical elements in Wasteko ontology and epistemology.

Major ritual ceremonies include those that are deemed necessary for marriage, naming a child, and death. There are also special rituals for the New Year, house protection, illness, and agriculture. Details of religious beliefs and curing are found in Alcorn (1984).

Arts. The Wasteko are known for their music and for their traditional dances, which are named for animals and birds. Artistic expression is no longer elaborated in their material culture, although in pre-Hispanic times the Wasteko were famous for weaving and for producing engraved-shell pectorals and stone sculpture.

Medicine. The combination of isolation and poverty has meant that most Wasteko have only minimal access to modern medicine. Malnutrition and lack of sanitation contribute to a high incidence of tuberculosis. Intestinal parasites are endemic, and fungal infections, respiratory ailments, and traumatic injuries are common. Women have scant medical assistance during pregnancy, and they give birth in unsanitary surroundings. Many are so malnourished that they lack adequate milk for their babies and are forced to feed them maize gruel or powdered milk mixed with dirty water. In addition, few children are immunized against the common childhood diseases. As a result, early-childhood mortality is high. The Wasteko response to these conditions is a reliance on a complex system of traditional medicine, which employs over 550 species of medicinal plants. Illness is considered a social and physical phenomenon; one or more of the four essential parts becomes disordered—heart, soul, spirit, and "growing shoot"—Curers participate in a shamanic tradition, learning from their dreams and deriving their legitimacy from their innate ability to speak directly to the gods—a necessary skill for curers, who are described as lawyers who argue the patient's case before the gods. Both men and women may be curers, and their spouses often assist them. The curer's tools include an altar, candles, crystals, pitch-pine sticks, a hollow cane tube for sucking out illness, shoots of special plants, music, copal incense, aguardiente liquor, and, most important, language. Curers identify the causes of an illness, remove these causes, and help the body to return to a normal state of order.

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