Chipaya - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Until very recently the chief religion was animism. Since the 1960s, worship of many gods and spirits—nature spirits, spirits associated with Catholic relics, etc.—has largely been replaced by worship of the Christian God. Most Chipaya are now associated with the Catholic Oblate Fathers, the Unión Cristiana Evangélica (a Bolivian evangelical denomination), or a group of Chilean Pentecostals.

Religious Practitioners. In the Christian groups there are usually about three men who share the leadership, one being recognized as the main leader but with all regularly participating in leadership functions. In addition, any adult male may exercise some functions of leadership in the absence of the designated leaders. In the animistic religion, the leaders were chosen yearly. The muyucamanaca, those charged with the religious practices associated with the fields and assurance a good harvest, were also chosen yearly; they sacrificed animals from their own flocks. In addition, there were many who practiced shamanism, mediating between individuals and the spirit world.

Ceremonies. Apart from Christian ceremonies today, the traditional yearly cycle started at the end of July with major festivities and ceremonies. Other major times of ceremonies and festivities were around the end of the year (fertility rites) and just before Lent. It is possible that these times were originally governed by traditional astral lore. Each traditional community festival begins the previous evening with ceremonies and activities, and, for the general populace, concludes with a festival meal provided by the festival leaders. Traditionally, any sheep, llamas, and pigs were sacrificed—mostly sheep. A major festival required sacrifices of each kind of animal. Dancing, processions, and religious practices were common parts of community festivals. Other ceremonies were part of family religious practices.

Arts. Religious art does not play a major role, although each year the Chipaya do make figurines of sheep, llamas, and pigs that are used in some ceremonies. Chipaya art is best seen in the weaving. Woven bags reveal a sensitivity to color harmony. The men's and women's woven "purses" and the knit caps of infants, boys, and men also show artistic ability.

Medicine. Traditionally, illness was always connected with the spirit world. Native healers used ceremonies and medicinal herbs in the healing process. From another perspective, "hot" and "cold" elements are important to health, and certain foods and herbs are classified as "hot" or "cold." In the early 1980s a Chipaya studied rural health and secured the government-funded position in the local health center.

Death and Afterlife. The wake and the funeral service are simple but important in avoiding offense to the spirit of the dead. Burial is aboveground, in a tomb of sod blocks, plastered over with mud. Traditionally, a triangular-shaped opening in the top structure on the front of the grave was made to receive the offerings for the spirit of the dead. When wind and rain erode the tomb and the bones are exposed, they are ceremoniously placed in the tshih khuya (bone house). The Chipaya were very concerned about pleasing the spirits of the dead because they were believed to have the power to inflict harm on the living. It was important to observe the proper ceremonies, especially during the first three years after death.

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