ETHNONYMS: Chanco, Chocama, Noenama, Nonama, Waunana, Wounaan, Woun Meu
The Noanamá are a constituent group of the Chocó people. They originally inhabited the lower Río San Juan Basin and the upper Cauca Valley in Colombia, but in recent years many have left to live in Darién Province in Panama; presently, 2,000 of the 3,000 to 4,000 Noanamá live in Panama. The Noanamá speak a Chocó language. Many speak Spanish in addition to Noanamá. Also, many have married Afro-Colombians since World War II.
The Noanamá were first contacted by Spanish missionaries sometime after 1654. The missionaries wished to convert the Noanamá and tried to concentrate their population, but the Noanamá moved further upriver and away from the missionaries. Later, gold miners enslaved some to work in the mines.
Relatively little is known about the traditional culture of the general area in which the Noanamá live because the presence of Spanish conquerors, who found gold there, had devastating effects; disease, slavery, and warfare left but a tiny fraction of the pre-Conquest population of this once densely inhabited area. Following the Conquest, the remaining Noanamá became Catholics and were largely assimilated. It is known that they farmed maize and manioc, and that conditions were good for horticulture. Fish were caught and preserved by smoking. The Noanamá wore bark-cloth breechclouts. They lived in large houses in large villages; ten to fifteen houses were grouped together, and houses sat close to one another. Chiefs had considerable authority and received tribute from their subjects. The polygynous chiefs married nieces and/or sisters, probably in an effort to maintain a ruling class. Both intertribal trade and intertribal warfare were common. The Noanamá fought with lances, darts, wooden clubs, and wooden shields. Slain enemies were eaten, their skins stuffed with wood ashes, and their skulls covered with wax figures; they were then displayed with weapons in their hands in the houses of their slayers. Among the Noanamá's culturally similar neighbors, the Gorrón, women also went to war in the quest for these trophies. Shamans communicated with supernatural beings and practiced divination, magic, and sorcery.
Present-day Noanamá make their living by swidden horticulture, raising plantains, bananas, sweet manioc, sugarcane, and maize. They hunt with bows and arrows and blowguns with poisoned darts, but the shotgun is now the most common hunting weapon. Fish, which are an important source of food, are obtained with harpoons, hooks and lines, or poison. Almost the only source of cash for the Noanamá living in the Pacific lowlands of Colombia is felling forest trees and selling the timber to sawmills along the rivers.
The Noanamá are expert canoe builders and sell some canoes to their Afro-Colombian neighbors. Women paddle seated, using short paddles, whereas men stand and use long paddles or pole their canoes through the shallows.
The Noanamá live in round houses with overhanging eaves raised on stilts. They sleep on platforms covered with sleeping mats made from the bark of a tree. Today many Noanamá own sewing machines.
The Noanamá are skilled woodworkers; they carve many wooden household utensils and ritual objects. Their pottery is ornamented with anthropomorphic and zoomorphic motifs. Pots are used largely for storing water or fermented sugarcane juice, as ceramic cooking pots have been replaced by aluminum. The Noanamá also make clay tobacco pipes. Basketry is highly developed; the women make a great variety of baskets as well as straw hats.
The girls' puberty ceremony involves eight days of isolation and fasting, after which the girl is ceremonially painted and taken on a round of visits in the community. Premarital sex is permitted, but a new household is formed only when the young man is considered sufficiently skilled at canoe building, hunting, fishing, and farming to maintain a family. At the start of marriage young couples usually live with the wife's family, but eventually build their own house nearby.
Women wear kilts of brightly colored cloth and go bare breasted. At festivals they wear many strings of beads, and their kilts are heavily embroidered with coins and beads. The traditional costume is falling into disuse, however, and most men now wear shirts and pants.
The Noanamá are nominal Catholics and celebrate such festivals as Christmas, Easter, and St. John's Day with singing, dancing, and drinking. They make chicha and also distill a kind of homemade rum from sugarcane.
Among the Noanamá living along the Río San Juan in Colombia, the shaman is still a powerful figure. He is usually one of the tribal elders and acts as a healer as well as religious leader. The shaman has a great deal of knowledge about the medicinal plants that he uses in curing. A man who wishes to be a shaman must first apprentice to a master shaman. An important part of the apprenticeship is carving a set of wooden figurative batons. The carving is appropriate to the use of the baton in curing: most human illnesses require a baton carved with a human figure, but for snakebite a baton carved with the likeness of a snake is necessary.
The initiation of a shaman takes place in a solemn all-night ceremony attended by members of the community. During the ceremony chicha is distributed, the spirits are called by the shaman's assistant, and the new shaman receives his "spirit helpers," represented by a number of small carved wooden figures in a miniature canoe. These will assist him in curing diseases and other human ills.
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Gajdusek, Carleton (1970). Colombian Expeditions to the Noanama Indians of the Rio Diguirisua and the Cofan and Inguano Indians of the Putumayo. Bethesda: National Institute of Health.
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Wassen, S. Henry (1935). "Notes on the Southern Groups of Chocó Indians in Colombia." Etnologiska Studier 1:35-182.
NANCY M. FLOWERS