PRONUNCIATION: SOO-moo and MISS-key-toe
LOCATION: Nicaragua; Honduras (Eastern coasts)
LANGUAGE: Sumu; Spanish
RELIGION: Protestantism (Moravian Church); Catholicism
The Sumu and Miskito are indigenous (native) groups living on the eastern coasts of two Central American countries, Nicaragua and Honduras. The area is commonly known as the Atlantic or Miskito (also spelled Mosquito) Coast. The Sumu and Miskito are traditional enemies. The Miskito is the largest, and the Sumu the second-largest, native group in the region.
The Miskito are a mixed-race people resulting from intermarriage between escaped African slaves and other Amerindians. In the seventeenth century, English traders and settlers in the area wanted help in their colonial rivalry with the Spanish. They introduced the Miskito to guns and ammunition to get their assistance. The Miskito used these weapons to expand their territory, as well as to dominate the Sumu, demanding tribute (money) from them, and often capturing them for use as slaves.
The persecuted Sumu ultimately retreated inland. The Sumu population declined sharply as a result of Spanish, British, and Miskito aggression and the spread of European diseases. The Miskito became the most important non-European population on the coast. From the mid-seventeenth century to the late nineteenth century, the Miskito prospered.
In the late nineteenth century, banana growers began bringing in black English-speaking laborers from Caribbean islands controlled by the British. These laborers (and their descendants) became known as Creoles, and replaced the Miskito as the area's dominant nonwhite group. Both the Miskito and the Sumu were relegated to a lower social status.
In 1979, the Nicaraguan government tried to tighten its control over the native peoples of the Atlantic coast. The Miskito resisted and tried to form an antigovernment alliance among the native groups of the region. They gave the alliance the name Misura , combining the groups' names: Miskito, Sumu, and Rama (a small native group). However, most of the Sumu did not want to become involved in the hostilities, and tried to stay out of the conflict. When Violeta Barrios de Chamorro was elected president in 1990, she established a new ministry to serve as a liaison with the peoples of the Atlantic coast. The Sumu have drawn international attention because the violence since 1979 has decreased their numbers to the point that they have nearly disappeared.
The Sumu live in isolated inland villages along the main rivers of what is known as the Atlantic or Miskito Coast, located in Nicaragua and Honduras. (Many of the areas they occupy can be reached only by water.) While the Miskito Coast is extremely diverse geographically, most Sumu live in the tropical rain forest.
There are three main subgroups among the Sumu. Each speaks its own variant of a common language. During the prolonged warfare of the 1980s, the Sumu suffered persecution at the hands of both the government and the Miskitos. A great number of their settlements were destroyed. Many Sumu fled to refugee camps in Honduras, but most have been repatriated (returned to their homeland) in the years since 1985. Those who have returned are attempting to rebuild their shattered communities. Altogether, there are thought to be about 150,000 Mikito in Nicaragua and 50,000 in Honduras; and about 14,000 Sumu in Nicaragua and 1,000 in Honduras.
Both the Sumu and Miskito languages are derived from the Chibchan Indian language family of South America. Outside influences have caused both groups to borrow words from the other's language, as well as from English and Spanish. Most Sumu and Miskito are multilingual, speaking Spanish in school and their native language at home. In addition, many learn to speak the other native language (either Sumu or Miskito). Few Sumu or Miskito know how to write in their own language.
The Sumu traditionally believed in a Sun god, called Mapapak, who lived in the heavens. Other forces of nature, including the Moon and the wind, were also worshiped. A variety of spirits (walasa, nawah, and dimalah) were thought to have either harmful or helpful influences on human beings. They were even thought capable of causing death. Much Sumu folklore has been preserved by its shamans (holy people), called sukia, who also serve as priests, exorcists, herbalists (healers), and spiritual advisors.
The Sumu and Miskito in Nicaragua mostly belong to the Moravian Church, a Protestant sect. Practice of traditional religion declined with the arrival of Moravian missionaries in the nineteenth century. The Sumu traditional religion involved Sun and Moon worship and a belief in both good and evil spirits, practices that some Sumu continue to this day. Miskito traditional religion included belief in spirits (lasas) and omens in addition to worship of the moon.
The major holidays of the Christian calendar are celebrated, including Christmas (December 25) and Easter (late March or early April). They are combined with the traditional practices of singing, dancing, and drinking.
Festivities mark major events in the life-cycle, such as weddings and funerals. Both the Sumu and Miskito mark major life events—births, marriages, deaths—with Christian ceremonies.
The Sumu family traditionally functioned as an independent, self-sufficient economic unit. Men cut down trees and hunted, while women performed agricultural work and household chores. Today, both men and women participate in the cash economies (employment for wages) of the countries in which they live.
Among the Miskito, it is common for villagers to magnify personal quarrels into major feuds between communities.
Both Sumu and Miskito dwellings are typically wooden, split-bamboo, or post-and-pole structures. Roofs are thatched or corrugated tin, and floors are made of board, split bamboo, or palm branches. They mostly consist of one room—although some have interior divisions—and generally have windows and doors. Instead of having a foundation, houses are usually raised several feet or meters off the ground on posts.
Traditional herbal remedies are used in conjunction with Western-style medicine. Herbal remedies using roots, leaves, bark, and seeds are still used for a variety of purposes, including the treatment of poisonous snake bites. However, modern medicine is beginning to replace traditional folk remedies for many illnesses.
Most Sumu and Miskito live in extended families with two or three generations under one roof. Sumu men formerly had more than one wife, but today monogamy (having only one spouse) is the rule. Courtship customs include the giving of gifts by the man to the young woman's parents. These may include food and firewood. Once married, the couple generally lives with either the wife's or the husband's parents until their own house is built. At one time, marriage with outsiders was strictly forbidden. Today it is common for the Sumu and Miskito to marry blacks, mestizos (mixed-race peoples), or members of other native groups—even their traditional enemies. In addition to their domestic responsibilities, women take part in farm work, including planting, weeding, and harvesting.
Formerly, Sumu and Miskito women made loincloths and skirts from pounded tree bark or locally woven cotton. Other clothing was made from cotton that was spun, dyed, and woven by hand. Today, however, like other inhabitants of Nicaragua and Honduras, Sumu and Miskito wear mass-produced Western-style clothing, mostly lightweight cotton.
Dietary staples for the Sumu and Miskito include root crops, such as sweet manioc (cassava) and yams; plantains and green bananas, which are boiled or baked; rice and beans; and fish. Corn is pounded to make tortillas. A fermented beverage called mishla or wasak is made from ripe plantains and bananas mashed together with corn, palm fruits, and other ingredients, and mixed with water. Fish and wild game are eaten when available. The Sumu also keep chickens, ducks, turkeys, pigs, and cows.
The Miskito eat two main meals each day. The morning meal is eaten shortly before dawn. The late-afternoon meal is eaten after people return from work.
Honduras and Nicaragua, where most Sumu and Miskito live, both have free, required primary education. However, the educational systems of both countries are inadequate, with low enrollment and graduation rates. Consequently, adult illiteracy (inability to read and write) is high. Estimates of the adult illiteracy rate are as high as 80 percent in rural areas, where most Sumu and Miskito live. Schools are understaffed and undersupplied, with as many as eighty students per classroom. In the 1980s, the Nicaraguan government instituted the first bilingual education programs for native people, taught in the Miskito language.
Many of the traditional Sumu flute melodies imitate bird calls. Accompaniment is provided by rattles and drums.
The Sumu have traditionally lived by subsistence agriculture (farming that provides for the farmer's basic needs with little surplus for marketing). The Miskito, in addition to subsitence agriculture, have engaged in hunting and fishing as well. Both groups have raised root crops, corn, plantains, bananas, and other produce. Villagers traditionally helped each other with major tasks, such as house-building. They had a system of labor exchange called biribiri . Today, however, the exchange of labor has been replaced by payments of produce, supplies, or cash.
Baseball, soccer, basketball, and volleyball are popular in Nicaragua and Honduras. Cockfighting is a favorite spectator sport among the Sumu and other groups living along the Miskito Coast.
Holidays and other special occasions are marked with singing and dancing. The Sumu also celebrate by drinking alcoholic beverages including mishla, a fermented beverage made from fruit and water.
A favorite pastime of the Miskito is kihrbaia (strolling), especially on Sundays.
Traditional Sumu crafts included spinning, weaving, and dyeing cotton for clothes and household items such as sheets. These crafts have been replaced by the production of decorative items that can be sold. These include carved tree gourds, bark tapestries, and majao bags. Bark is also used for making blankets and mosquito netting. Twine for weaving bags and hammocks is made from pounded bark.
The Miskito weave bskets and make gourds into functional items They also produce bark cloth that is made into bed coverings.
The Sumu, Miskito, and other native groups in eastern Nicaragua and Honduras generally have limited opportunities in terms of income, education, and employment. Many hold low-paying, dangerous mining jobs.
Drug traffickers from Colombia, hoping to use Nicaragua as a place to ship drugs, have been actively resisted by the Miskito.
Americas Watch Committee. The Sumus in Nicaragua and Honduras: An Endangered People. New York and Washington, D.C.: Americas Watch, 1987.
Helms, Mary W. Asang: Adaptations to Culture Contact in a Miskito Community. Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 1971.
Olson, James S. The Indians of Central and South America: An Ethnohistorical Dictionary. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991.