Awá Kwaiker - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Because it is not easy to establish close relationships with the Awá Kwaiker, given their reserved behavior with strangers, it is difficult to describe their religious beliefs. Nonetheless, it is known that they do have a rich corpus of myths and symbols, through which they attempt to explain their world. Their environment, the jungle, is populated with spirits who control their lives. The Awá Kwaiker conceive of a supernatural world populated by imaginary beings physically similar to the Indians but with divine powers. These beings are in charge of watching over people's lives and regulating and organizing the world according to the values considered important by the Awá Kwaiker. The Awá Kwaiker also have adopted other beliefs of the surrounding settlers and Indians of other groups which, in the end, also operate as forms of social control. Although many Awá Kwaiker attend Catholic religious services, they do so fundamentally owing to their desire to imitate customs that give them prestige in the eyes of Whites, rather than because of a real internalization of these religious beliefs.

Religious Practitioners. Among the Awá Kwaiker rituals are tied to traditional medicine; as a result, shamans are the curanderos (traditional doctors), who base their practice on knowledge passed from generation to generation.

Ceremonies. Honoring ancestors, wakes, and the celebration of funerals are the most important ceremonial events. In spite of the influence of the church, traditional beliefs still dominate on these occasions. Here the Awá Kwaiker manifest the oldest elements of their culture, as these ceremonies are private events: in addition, the customary intoxication permits uninhibited and spontaneous behavior.

Arts. The most important musical instruments are the marimba and different kinds of drums, some of them inherited from Black African slaves. Many of their songs also show Black African influence, although each is based on a single set of notes, which may be repeated indefinitely. Present-day dancing is done in couples; the Awá Kwaiker prefer traditional Ecuadoran rhythms.

Medicine. The Awá Kwaiker see illness as a punishment for the violation of behavioral norms. As a result, there is a psychosomatic component to illness, as feelings of guilt affect the nervous system and, in turn, other parts of the organism, for example in cases of lack of appetite. Thus, the function of the curandero is to reestablish good relations with the spirits that are punishing the person, while administering natural medicine in order to strengthen the organism. If the problem persists, the Awá Kwaiker will go to a medical doctor.

Death and Afterlife. Death is seen as passing to another life. As a consequence, when the dead are buried, food, tools, and clothes are placed in the tomb so that the person will be able to fulfill his or her duties in the next life. Because of this belief, very sick people, especially old people, receive no special care to prolong their lives, since this would be contrary to supernatural design. In fact, the funeral rituals that are celebrated at the end of a year are enacted with the objective of bringing the spirit of the dead person to the celebration. Funerals are also a means of "freeing" widows and widowers so that they are able to remarry.

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