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ETHNONYMS: Miskitu, Moskito, Mosqueto, Mosquito, Moustique


Identification. The name "Miskito" is of foreign origin. It may be derived from various European spellings for "musket," because the population in question was originally distinguished from its neighbors as a literally musket-bearing group. "Miskitu" emerged as an ethnonym for the ethnic identity of the Miskito people following the Sandinista Revolution. The other terms are no longer commonly used but are found in historical literature by English, North American, and Spanish writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Location. The Miskito inhabit the eastern regions of the Central American republics of Nicaragua and Honduras, a territory bordering the Caribbean coast and known historically as the Miskito (or Mosquito) Coast, La Mosquitia, or La Costa Atlántica. Much of this region is hot, low-lying savanna, crossed by numerous rivers and lined with gallery forests that extend from the interior mountains to the Caribbean. The heartland of the Miskito territory is the Río Coco or Wangks River, which today delineates the border between Nicaragua and Honduras.

Demography. The population has expanded more or less constantly over the last 300 years and numbered at least 75,000 as of 1985.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Miskito language is related to the Macro-Chibchan Language Family of northern South America. As a result of over three hundred years of continued European contact, many foreign words have been added, and significant grammatical changes have occurred. Historically, three major linguistic divisions have been recognized, all mutually intelligible but differing somewhat in vocabulary and pronunciation; one is characteristic of the Miskito living along the coast of eastern Nicaragua, another of the Miskito living along the Río Coco, the third of the Miskito of eastern Honduras.

History and Cultural Relations

Prior to European contact, this territory was populated by numerous native tribes, each resident along one of the many rivers. Although Spain colonized western Nicaragua and Honduras during the sixteenth century, the eastern regions were not contacted until approximately 1700. At this time the population of the Miskito Coast began its long affiliation with English-speaking peoples, first buccaneers and later traders and settlers. In the late seventeenth century a small Indian population near the mouth of the Río Coco obtained guns and ammunition and other trade goods. This population also began to accept Black slaves fleeing from various Caribbean and Central American locales, who quickly intermixed with the local Indian population. This mixed native-Black society became the Miskito peoplethat is, the Miskito did not exist in pre-Columbian times but developed as a result of European-African-Native American contact and admixture.

This native-Black Miskito society had access to European guns and thereby expanded their territory at the expense of other Indian groups. Some of these Indian groups were assimilated into the Miskito, who expanded from the mouth of the Río Coco north along the coast of eastern Honduras, south along the coast of eastern Nicaragua, and upriver along the banks of the Río Coco. Those indigenous natives who were not assimilated were pushed farther into the interior. Today, their survivors are known collectively as "Sumu." Their population has declined steadily, whereas that of the Miskito, who are frequently identified as "Zambos," meaning a mixed Indian-Black population, increased, making them the dominant coastal group. Miskito success derived from their peaceful relations with the small groups of English-speaking traders and settlers who came to the coast and from their role as middlemen between English traders and Sumu. The Miskito also developed a strong hatred for the Spanish-speaking peoples of western Nicaragua and Honduras. These attitudes persist to this day.

After Nicaragua and Honduras became independent republics, the dominant anglophone foreign influence on the Miskito Coast was the United States. By the late nineteenth century, various U.S. business concerns found the area attractive, including those interested in banana production. Banana-plantation managers imported darkskinned, English-speaking laborers from the West Indies. Descendants of this new West Indian population, called "Creoles," became identified as the dominant "Black" population of the coast; they lived predominantly in the port towns that developed in the early twentieth century. The Miskito, who spoke a distinctive non-European language and lived in rural villages, now became known as "Indians," although they continued to intermarry with many types of foreigners. After centuries of de facto isolation from western, Hispanic Nicaragua, Miskito life has been strongly affected by the Sandinista Revolution, which began in 1979 and which will almost certainly draw the Miskito Coast closer to the Hispanic cultural pattern and national political organization of the Republic of Nicaragua. The description of Miskito culture that follows refers to conditions prior to the Revolution.


Prior to European contact, the indigenous native tribes lived in small camps along the riverbanks. After contact, some Miskito settled in small coastal villages close to lagoons in which fish were abundant and in the vicinity of English trading posts located near the river mouths. The Río Coco Miskito, however, established interior villages along the banks of the river below the rapids that impeded travel toward the interior. After the mid-nineteenth century, Moravian mission stations replaced trading posts as foci for Miskito village development. The Moravian missionaries encouraged strong community organization, and mission church activities provided a new focal point for Miskito community identity and cooperation. Miskito villages have varied in size from a few houses to 600 or more persons. Villages are kept cleared of grass; homes are built on pilings. They may be constructed of split bamboo or of sawed lumber; roofs are either thatched or of corrugated metal. There may be a separate kitchen. Houses were traditionally large, thatched, open lean-tos but now are partitioned into several interior rooms and a porch and contain doors and windows.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The indigenous tribes combined cultivation of manioc and other root crops, plantains, and maize with hunting and fishing. Pigs, cattle, horses, chickens, and various agricultural foods, especially rice, beans, and bananas, were introduced after European contact. The Miskito also worked for Europeans for barter or wages. The coastal economy in general has been characterized by boom-and-bust cycles; foreign entrepreneurs have periodically invested in rubber, timber, gold, or bananas. When foreign companies were hiring, the Miskito sought labor opportunities; when depressions struck, the Miskito relied on their continuing subsistence agriculture and fishing for support.

Industrial Arts. Aboriginal pottery is no longer produced, but many other traditional household utensils and furniture are still woven of strips of tree fibers or carved of wood. Traditional dugout canoes are still made, as is bark cloth, formerly used for clothing but now used as bed covering. European-style clothing has been worn since contact.

Trade. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Miskito flourished as middlemen between interior Sumu and English traders. The Miskito also became feared slave raiders throughout much of eastern and interior Central America during the period when Indian slaves were bought by English plantation owners in Jamaica. The Miskito have always eagerly participated in trade with Europeans, exchanging coastal raw materials for manufactured goods. They have readily adopted English styles of clothing, home furnishings, foods, tools, and weapons.

Division of Labor. Miskito women have always tended agricultural plots, though men clear plots and help with planting and harvesting seed crops (rice, beans). Men have traditionally fished and hunted and taken jobs with Europeans. Within the family, women and men share childrearing responsibilites, although most of the day-to-day domestic work falls to women. When men are away performing wage-labor, perhaps for several months, women ably conduct all necessary household, agricultural, and fishing activities.

Land Tenure. The Miskito have never had a concept of landownership, but they do recognize family use of agricultural plots. During the latter half of the twentieth century, the intrusion from the west of Hispanic frontier farmers has begun to threaten the availability of land to Miskito in some areas. Miskito claims to territory as an essential future resource have become a critical issue in relations between the Miskito and the Nicaraguan government.


Kin Groups and Descent. Nothing is known about the composition of precontact indigenous kin groups. There is no evidence of descent groups or lineages. Three types of kin groups are recognized today: the taya, the kiamp, and the nuclear family. The taya is a loose kindred including all living persons considered to be Ego's relatives, regardless of where they live. Descendants of Ego's great-grandparents of both mother's and father's families are included. The kiamp includes only part of the tayaall living descendants of a pair identified by the surname of the male. Ego is a member of his father's kiamp. Neither taya nor kiamp serves any corporate function, but both afford oases of hospitality for traveling Miskito. The nuclear family or the household is the usual cooperative domestic group.

Kinship Terminology. Kin terms have undergone changes following contact. The modern kinship system is characterized by Hawaiian cousin terms with bifurcate-collateral terms in the parental generation. Before the twentieth century, cross and parallel cousins were distinguished. Generational depth has declined on both sides of the family.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Couples traditionally were monogamous, but polygyny was allowed. Marriage residence was ideally matrilocal, although population growth and increased village size has encouraged village endogamy in the twentieth century. Matrilocal residence was favored because of the frequent and lengthy absences of men seeking wage labor. Matrilocal residence also encouraged solidarity among core groups of related women, which are important socialization agents. A couple will postpone church marriage until they are sure the marriage is stable. Formal divorce is absent; a couple simply separates.

Domestic Unit. The domestic unit is generally the nuclear family. One or several related nuclear families with additional single relatives may compose a household.

Inheritance. Traditionally, all property was either destroyed upon the death of the owner or buried with him or her. Today, property is inherited by the surviving spouse or by children of the union, but lack of firm guidelines leads to much conflict.

Socialization. The core group of matrilocally resident or village-endogamous related women (mother, sisters, daughters) is the most important socialization unit. These conservative women, who do not mingle with foreigners, continue to inculcate children with traditional Miskito customs and language. Children are raised permissively and are strongly individualistic (especially the boys) yet cooperative village members.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Miskito society has always been egalitarian, with status based on age, parenthood, and kinship categories.

Political Organization. Each Miskito village is politically autonomous, although linked by relatively weak ties to the Nicaraguan state by a village headman. Regulations of the Moravian church (or other mission churches)effected by church elders, pastors, and lay pastorsdirect village life to some extent. During the colonial era the Miskito were said to compose a "kingdom" with a "king." There is little solid evidence for such a kingdom, and the Miskito kings recognized by the English had limited power within Miskito society. The traditional political format emphasized regional strongmen involved in external affairs but held in check locally by community elders.

Social Control. Communities control individuals informally through gossip but tolerate a high degree of forceful expression of personality, especially in men. Women's behavior is more closely monitored.

Conflict. Intervillage feuds and mistrust are common, as are personal quarrels within a village. The Sandinista Revolution involved the entire Miskito region in large-scale military action, leading to severe population dislocation, the destruction of villages, and refugee conditions for many. In colonial times the Miskito were widely feared by all neighboring groups as ferocious slave raiders. Today, many have fought against the Sandinista intrusions.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Little is known of traditional religion beyond beliefs in various harmful spirits and in spirits inhabiting natural phenomena. The Miskito readily adopted Christianity; the Moravian church is by far the dominant mission group. The Catholic church and several fundamentalist Protestant churches also proselytize. Belief in dreams, in strange and inexplicable omens and occurrences, and in the power of the moon persists. Specific native deities are unknown, but an impersonal "Father" spirit may have been recognized. Evil spirits were more important. The Christian trinity is now accepted, although belief in evil spirits, frequently associated with the Christian Satan, continues.

Religious Practitioners. Native shamans acted as curers, diviners, and exorcisers. During the twentieth century, village lay pastors and fully ordained native pastors have worked with foreign missionaries.

Ceremonies. Prior to Christianization the Miskito conducted group ceremonies, particularly funeral rites, characterized by dancing and extensive drinking of locally made intoxicants. They now celebrate the Christian ceremonies of the mission churches.

Arts. Traditional Miskito songs are popular, and simple round dances may be performed on holidays. Theatricals concerning a legendary Miskito "king," now an important ethnic symbol, are performed in some communities. Decorative arts are not developed, although wooden masks were traditionally carved for funeral ceremonies.

Medicine. Traditional herbal cures are combined with Western medical care. Illness was traditionally thought to be caused by evil spirits, and remnants of that belief persist, but God's will and the weather are more commonly blamed today.

Death and Afterlife. Death can be foretold by dreams or other types of omens. Traditional funeral rites were relatively elaborate. Today, Christian rites are followed. The spirit of the deceased is thought to continue to associate with the living for a while.


Dennis, Philip A. (1981). "The Costeños and the Revolution in Nicaragua." Journal of lnteramerican Studies and World Affairs 23:271-296.

Helms, Mary W. (1971). Asang: Adaptations to Culture Contact in a Miskito Community. Gainesville: University Presses of Florida.

Nietschmann, Bernard (1973). Between Land and Water. New York: Seminar Press.


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