Yukpa - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Religion among the Yukpa was, until recently, exclusively animistic in nature, articulated by beliefs in the presence of supernatural powers in the surrounding plant and animal world. A creator, sometimes referred to as "God," was helped by various animals in creating the primordial Yukpa couple. All Yukpa are descendants of this couple. Mythical animals (e.g., frog, woodpecker, caiman, armadillo) and celestial bodies (sun and moon) are responsible, along with a mythical creator, for the existence and characteristics of the world. The world consists of two flat disks around which circulate two suns, one of which is now the moon. There is also in Yukpa cosmology an underground populated by a race of dwarfs (a few Yukpa are very short in stature and are said to be descendants of this race of dwarfs). By the middle of the twentieth century, Catholicism was introduced and the Yukpa began to integrate this new religion into the traditional belief system. In the 1990s almost all Yukpa settled outside of the mountainous Perija region profess to be Catholics, although the degree to which they practice and actually understand the religion tends to be limited.

Religious Practitioners. In a few traditional Yukpa settlements there continue to be priest-shamans ( tomayra ) who, through dream interpretation and songs, guide communities through the important rituals and ceremonies.

Ceremonies. The principal ceremonies marking life and changes in social status include birth, naming, marriage, and burial. In addition, the Yukpa celebrate harvest ceremonies of thanksgiving, which also function to strengthen social exchange. At these and other ceremonies the tomayra plays a major role by singing specific songs and leading the dancing.

Arts. Singing and dancing are important to Yukpa in religious as well as secular activities. These songs can become complex enough to require that they be recorded using mnemonic symbols and rehearsed before important ceremonies. The Yukpa practice some facial and arm tattooing and weave simple designs into their baskets. A few elder Yukpa men embellish their clay smoking pipes with artistic designs.

Medicine. Sickness is explained by reference to the supernatural, although today many Yukpa also understand parts of the Western model of disease causation. Among the Yukpa, individuals having knowledge of medicinal plants are known as tuanos. These shamans possess a superb familiarity with botanical remedies and, through metaphysical connections, are able to control the effect of these remedies.

Death and Afterlife. At death, the soul leaves the body through the right hand. The corpse is wrapped in mats and removed from the village. In earlier days it was set on a platform, but today it is buried immediately in a burial hut. The deceased's possessions are buried as well, since they will be necessary for the journey to the other world. To reach the afterworld, Yukpa must be guided to the path of the righteous by Kopecho, the mythical frog. Life in the Land of the Dead is very similar to life in the Perija.

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