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ETHNONYMS: Ndyuka, Ndyuka Nengee, Ndjuka, Djuka, Okanisi, Aucaners


Identification and Location. The Ndyuka live in the northern extension of the Amazon rain forest in the Marowijne (Maroni) river basin, which is shared by the Republic of Suriname and French Guiana in South America. The heartland of Ndyuka territory is considered to be the lower part of the Tapanahoni River, a tributary of the Marowijne. This area is now part of Suriname, formerly Dutch Guiana and independent since 1975. The Ndyuka are one of six Maroon ("Bush Negro") groups in Suriname. Maroons are the descendants of rebel African slaves who built independent communities in the Americas. For cultural and linguistic reasons Suriname's Maroons can be divided into two groups. The western Maroons include the Saramaka, Matawai, and Kwinti, who are settled along successively more western rivers in central Suriname; the eastern Maroons include the Ndyuka, Paamaka, and Aluku, all of which have settlements in the Marowijne basin.

Demography. There are no reliable census data for the Ndyuka. During Suriname's civil war (1986-1992) eight thousand Ndyuka fled to French Guiana. In that period, according to relief organizations, another ten thousand Ndyuka still resided in villages in Suriname's interior. Before the civil war thousands of Ndyuka settled in Suriname's capital, Paramaribo; others were forced to take up residence there in 1986, at the beginning of the armed struggle. Since many neighborhoods in Paramaribo are now populated by Ndyuka, it is safe to estimate the numbers of those living in that city at ten thousand. Finally, a few thousand Ndyuka live in the Netherlands, concentrated mainly in Amsterdam, Tilburg, and Utrecht. On the basis of such data and impressions, the total number of Ndyuka can be estimated to be between thirty thousand and thirty-five thousand.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Ndyuka speak a variant of a Creole language called Nengee or Ndyuka Tongo (Language of the Ndyuka) by the eastern Maroons. Nengee or Ndyuka Tongo is closely related to Sranan Tongo, the Creole of the coast. Much of the Nengee or Ndyuka Tongo lexicon derives from various West and Central African languages. As much as 30 percent of the Ndyuka lexicon can be traced to English (the language of the original colonists in Suriname), 10 percent to Portuguese (the language of many Surinamese plantation owners), and another 10 percent to Amerindian languages and Dutch. The grammar resembles that of the other, lexically distinct Atlantic Creoles and presumably derives from African models.

History and Cultural Relations

The ancestors of the Ndyuka escaped from plantations on the Surinamese coast in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. After a protracted guerrilla war they concluded a peace treaty with the Dutch colonial regime in 1760. They were the first Maroon group in Suriname to be granted semi-independence, more than a century before the abolition of slavery (1863) in Suriname. Like the other Maroons, the Ndyuka had considerable autonomy in their remote forest villages, which outside observers called states-within-a-state. During the last decades of the eighteenth century the Aluku fought the longest and most bitter of the Maroon wars against Dutch mercenary troops and were defeated in 1793 by an alliance of Dutch troops and Ndyuka volunteers. The Paamaka, who were hiding in forest villages near the central part of the Marowijne River, established relations with the Ndyuka early in the nineteenth century. For the first half of that century Aluku and Paamaka were in essence Ndyuka vassals.

Involvement with the larger economic world has greatly influenced cultural and social life at different phases of Ndyuka economic development. After 1793 most Ndyuka men worked as independent lumberers, felling trees, squaring logs, and floating them in rafts to buyers on the plantations or in Paramaribo. In the first decades of the nineteenth century, hundreds of Ndyuka left their villages in the interior to build settlements on the coastal plain, below the rapids and falls of the Marowijne River and closer to their customers. As lumbering became more important, Ndyuka settlements on the coast became more permanent and obtained village status with the planting of a village mortuary and ancestor poles.

During the late 1880s new economic opportunities arose when rich deposits of gold were discovered in the hinterland. Ndyuka men abandoned the lumber trade to become boatmen who transported gold miners up and down the rivers. They paddled and punted dugout canoes loaded with miners and their equipment to remote places in the interior of Suriname and, more commonly, French Guiana. Ndyuka and Saramaka boatmen gained a monopoly over river transport in both countries. This period of prosperity was brought to an end after 1920 with the sudden decline of the gold industry.

During the 1950s various agencies of the Suriname government began to employ hundreds of Ndyuka, many of whom settled in Paramaribo. During the 1960s and 1970s the pace of migration to the capital increased. This process was spurred by the departure of tens of thousands of Creoles and Hindustanis to the Netherlands in the years before and immediately after independence (1975). Since 1970 about one-third of Suriname's population, more than two hundred thousand people, has settled in the Netherlands. Many Ndyuka bought real estate and other forms of property (taxis, buses, vans) at bargain prices.

After a small group of young Ndyuka men ambushed a military post in 1986, the military government reacted with collective reprisals against Ndyuka communities in the coastal region. The massacre by the army of the inhabitants of Moi Wana, a small settlement on the coastal road, prompted the flight of thousands of Maroons to French Guiana. Others found shelter with relatives in the capital. A full-scale rebellion of Ndyuka, Saramaka, and Paamaka against the army ensued. Although armed resistance ended in 1992, tensions still flare up when international commercial interests threaten to encroach on Maroon lands in the interior.


Two ancestor shrines are central to Ndyuka ritual life: the mortuary (kee osu) and the ancestor pole, or "flagpole" (faakatiki). Without these two shrines no settlement can claim village status. A village (kondee) is therefore clearly distinguished from a settlement (kampu) regardless of the number of its inhabitants. Some Ndyuka settlements on the Marowijne and Lawa rivers may have as many as five hundred or a thousand inhabitants, whereas some villages have fewer than a hundred.

Villages and settlements are built on islands in the river or on its banks and consist of an irregular arrangement of small houses, domesticated trees, shrines, and bushes. Vil· lages appear to be abandoned for a good part of the year, when most men leave for work elsewhere and their families withdraw for extended periods to their forest camps. Most Ndyuka own such camps, which range from makeshift shelters on or near their gardens to full-fledged settlements for groups of kinsmen and their spouses. When asked why they often spend more time in their forest camps than in the village, Ndyuka contrast the freedom in their camps with the suffocating village life, in which people are believed to be constantly watching their neighbors.


Subsistence. The Ndyuka economy has always been based on swidden agriculture, supplemented by hunting and fishing and participation in the colonial and postcolonial economy. The major garden crop is dry (hillside) rice. Other crops include cassava, taro, okra, maize, plantains, bananas, sugarcane, and peanuts. Domesticated trees include coconut, orange, breadfruit, papaya, and calabash. Garden produce, game, and fish are shared among a small group of kinsmen. There are no markets.

Industrial Arts. When opportunities for employment decrease, the Ndyuka produce the bulk of their material products. Men build houses and canoes and carve wooden objects such as stools, paddles, winnowing trays, cooking utensils, and combs. Women sew, embroider, and carve calabash bowls. Essential goods obtained from the outside include shotguns, tools, pots, cloth, hammocks, salt, soap, kerosene, and rum. Increasingly, with economic expansion, articles bought in local shops or in the city are replacing locally made wooden utensils. Gas stoves and electrical appliances have become much more common in the last twenty years. Women buy dresses and many household articles. Outboard motors have long been common; transistor radios and tape recorders are ubiquitous.

Trade. Around 1954, when Suriname gained a semi-independent status, the authorities in Paramaribo began to invest in the exploration and exploitation of the interior. Many Ndyuka, as well as many other Maroons, became employed as boatmen or workers for government agencies. During the 1950s and 1960s hundreds of Ndyuka families settled in the capital to be closer to their employers. Since about 1985 the newly exploited gold fields of the Sella Creek, a tributary of the Tapanahoni, have formed a mainstay of the Ndyuka economy. At the beginning of the twenty-first century access to these deposits remains controlled by the Ndyuka, who often employ Brazilian workers. Horticultural production is in a steady decline, and Ndyuka gold miners buy food from shopkeepers or from other Maroons.

Division of Labor. The task of clearing and burning the fields is done by men, whereas planting, weeding, and harvesting are mainly women's work. Hunting with shotguns is an exclusively male activity, as is wage labor outside the tribal territory. After the outbreak of hostilities in 1986, when men had to hide from public view, women from the Cottica River area began catering to the rising demand for agricultural and other products in French Guiana, where the missile base at Kourou stimulated an economic upturn. Increasingly, Ndyuka women trade in urban goods, traveling by boat to the interior, where a new generation of gold miners is active. Men often charter airplanes, and women make use of modern equipment such as cooler chests and insulated bags to trade in frozen foods, roasted meat, and salted fish.

Land Tenure. Each matrilineal clan holds title to a section of the forest. Actual land use and ownership are, however, determined by smaller matrilineal groups, lineages, and segments of such groups. Every clan member has the right to hunt and gather in the part of the forest owned by his or her clan. Many Ndyuka assume that they hold corporate ownership rights over their tribal territory, believing that it was guaranteed by eighteenth-century peace treaties. However, the national government acknowledges and acts only on a presumption of individual property rights.


Kin Groups and Descent. The dominant principle of Ndyuka social organization is matrilineality. All Ndyuka know to which of the fourteen matrilineal clans (lo) they belong. With few exceptions, Ndyuka villages are "owned" by a clan. Clans are divided into matrilineages (bee). Each lineage can be subdivided into matrisegments (wan mama pikin or mama osu pikin). As is common in matrilineal societies, other principles structure kin relations as well. Bilateral consanguineal kin groups (famii) play a fairly important role in Ndyuka culture. Additionally, the priests of Afro-Surinamese cults or other important elders sometimes are successful in encouraging consanguineal and affinal kin to take up residence in their village quarter. Such a following (foloku) gradually may assume a corporate identity"the People of So-and-So." Generations after the founder has died some of these followings continue to be recognized as corporate groups.

Kinship Terminology. In contrast with Ndyuka matrilineal ideology, Ndyuka kinship terminology is remarkable for its symmetry. In what appears to be a standard Hawaiian type of nomenclature, kinsmen on the father's side have the same terms of reference as those on the mother's side. In the ascending generation, for example, kinship terminology does not discriminate between father's brother and mother's brother or between a classificatory father's brother and a classificatory mother's brother. All these relatives are called tiu. The same holds true for a father's sister and a mother's sister, who, along with all their classificatory equivalents, are called tia. Like Hawaiian, Ndyuka terminology always indicates the sex and generation of each relationship. But unlike Hawaiian and more like Eskimo terminology, fathers are distinguished from their brothers, and mothers from their sisters.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Older people remember that the matrilineage once was exogamous, but for at least the last fifty years marriages within the same lineage have been accepted as long as they do not involve members of the same matrisegment. Marriage to an actual father's sister's daughter is not permitted. The Ndyuka regard this as a form of incest; it is "too close." A preferred alliance is marriage to a classificatory father's sister's daughter. People call such a marriage "replanting the seedling." As the Nyduka see it, by taking a wife from his father's matrilineage, a man continues to contribute to that lineage.

In Ndyuka society almost one-third of marriages are polygynous. Rules forbidding a man to marry his wife's (classificatory) sisters are strongly sanctioned. To marry two sisters is unthinkable; to have sexual intercourse with one's wife's sister is sinful and will arouse the wrath of the ancestors. Divorce is relatively easy and common; almost 40 percent of all marriages in a 1962 census of three Tapanahoni villages had ended in divorce by 1970.

Marriage is a contract between individuals and kin groups and involves continuous bargaining. A man has to supply his wives with a house, a garden plot, a canoe and a paddle, a hammock and mosquito net, and various household utensils. A newly married couple is likely to settle in the wife's village or opt for an ambilocal solution by residing alternately in the man's and woman's villages. Later in life many couples decide to settle in the man's village, especially if he has attained the status of village headman. In some larger villages that are home to the political and religious elite, 25 percent of married couples have opted for virilocal residence. If one disregards marriages within the village, about 30 percent choose uxorilocal residence, while ambilocality is preferred by 28 percent.

Domestic Unit. The overwhelming majority of men and women have houses in more than one village. House ownership is an individual matter. Upon marriage a man will build a house for his wife in her village and cut her garden plot whether he intends to settle there or not. He also will maintain a house in his lineage's village. It is not unusual for a man to own a third house in his father's village. In view of the fact that nearly one out of every three men has more than one wife, the number of houses and garden plots that must be kept in a good state may rise above three. People, especially men, have to travel a lot. In the Tapanahoni River area, if one excludes the 15 percent of all marriages that are autolocal, in which partners pay only brief visits to each other, about a third of all adults live polylocally, with more than one place of residence. For a man this implies that he cannot identify too closely with one domestic unit since this would mean a loss of maneuverability in other groups. It is imperative to spread his interests over a number of villages, depending on how many wives he has.

Inheritance. When a village headman dies, only a male matrilineal relative can succeed him. The position of the headman's assistant, the basia, however, is open to sons as well. The inheritance of goods is not restricted to matrilineal relatives; the goods are divided among relatives. The ideal is that "everyone" should share in the inheritance: the deceased's matrilineal kin, his or her children, and other villagers. In reality the inheritance is shared by the famii, the small group of localized consanguineous kin. However, when divination shows that the deceased is a witch, his or her possessions are confiscated by the Great Father and his priests.

Socialization. After spending its first several years with its mother, a child is raised by an individual man or woman (not a couple) designated by the famii: girls normally by women, boys by men. Even when a child is raised by a matrilineal relative, father-child relations are warm and strong. Children assume responsibility for sex-typed adult tasks as soon as they are physically able to perform them. Girls are married by age fifteen, and boys not until their twenties. Until the 1960s only one elementary school existed in the Tapanahoni region because of Ndyuka opposition to Protestant and Catholic missionaries. The demands of city life and the opening of government schools have made this opposition disappear. Schools were closed during the civil war of the late 1980s.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The Ndyuka, like the other Maroon groups, maintain considerable political autonomy within the Republic of Suriname. Ndyuka society is strongly egalitarian, and no social or occupational classes are distinguished. Elders are accorded special respect. Burial societies and spirit medium cults provide cross-cutting ties between greatly autonomous matrilineages and followings. Two associations are responsible for mortuary rites: gravediggers (oloman) and coffin makers (kisiman). All adult men are members of one of these sodalities. Some women join the gravediggers association but play narrowly circumscribed roles. The headmen of the gravediggers (basi fu olo) occupy strategic positions in the important corpse divination ritual.

Within the domestic unit and the local community status differences are apparent. The Ndyuka distinguish three classes of coresidents: those matrilineally related, the goon pikin or pandasi; inhabitants for whom it is a father's village (dada meke en pikin) ; and affines (konlibi). These positions enjoin a specific behavioral code. A woman who decides to settle among her man's lineage mates tries to ingratiate herself with the women of his lineage; grateful for her labor, the host village will treat her with respect. A man staying with his wife also is treated as a respected guest as long as he does not take sides in local disputes and behaves modestly in public. The highest possible praise for such an affine is, "He is living the right way; he tries to make himself small."

Political Organization. The Ndyuka have a hierarchy of political functionaries appointed at council meetings and confirmed by the administration of Suriname. Confirmation by the government implies official recognition and the payment of a salary. The hierarchy is headed by a Paramount Chief (gaanman). Villages usually have two or three headmen (kabiten). The office of village headman is the property of a matrilineage. Two basia assist each headman. Regularly, a host of issues is submitted to arbitration in council meetings (kuutu) that vary in size from a few elders of the small family group to congregations of all the senior men of village or tribe, collectively referred to as lanti ("the citizenry"). Considerable power is wielded by priest groups of the main deities. Illness and misfortune bring clients to their shrines and serve as occasions for thrashing out controversies.

Social Control. Many important decisions affecting village life are made by a collective of male elders, usually after consultation with senior women. As many elders use these palavers to display their oratorical gifts, such council meetings (kuutu) may last for hours before decisions are reached. Other conflicts and disagreements that are felt to be relevant only to a small group of kinsmen are discussed by a few men and women in the seclusion of a house, usually early in the morning. Gossip plays a role in controlling behavior.

Conflict. Before the 1990s physical aggression was strongly condemned and constituted a reason to convene a village council. The party resorting to violence would be fined regardless of the facts of the case. The only exception to this rule was adultery. A cuckolded husband, assisted by a few brothers, was allowed to give the adulterer a beating. Afterward the elders would assemble to discuss whether the wronged party had observed the rules that pertain to such cases: No sticks or other weapons were permitted, and no fights on the river or in the fields. All citizens were obliged to intervene and put an immediate end to the punishment. Other fights were few in number and were mainly between women. When men were involved, adultery was almost invariably the cause. During the civil war (1986-1992) units of the Jungle Commando, the rebel army, used similar tactics, intervening in conflicts that threatened to become violent. After 1985 the expansion of gold fields in the central Tapanahoni area brought an influx of Brazilian miners. Physical aggression between Ndyukas and these foreigners, but also among the Ndyuka, became much more common. The erosion of the authority of the traditional council meeting and of village headmen and the Paramount Chief, a process that began before the civil war, has proceeded rapidly. This development contributed to higher levels of physical aggression in the 1990s.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Ndyuka insist that human knowledge is severely limited, and other paths to the unknown are therefore highly valued. Much of what is "unknown" is the domain of the gods. Ndyuka recognize numerous gods (gadu) who are believed to be powerful and immortal beings, though few are considered omniscient or omnipresent. The Ndyuka pantheon has a three-tiered structure. At the top of the supernatural hierarchy is Masaa Gadu (the Lord God), the source of creation. Immediately after Masaa Gadu, but definitely at another level of spiritual power, are the Great Deities: Gaan Gadu (Great Deity) or Gaan Tata (Great Father), Ogii (Danger), and Gedeonsu. These divine beings intervene directly in human affairs, take sides in conflicts, and punish humans for their sins. Unlike Masaa Gadu, who protects all humankind equally, the Great Deities are tribal or national gods. It is said of Gaan Tata that he was so indignant about the injustice done to the Ndyuka that he led them out of slavery, fighting alongside his people like Yahweh among the Jews. Even today Gaan Tata is seen primarily as a staunch defender of the Ndyuka people against their enemies, the most outstanding of whom are witches (wisiman). The deity is also pictured as a defender of traditional Ndyuka culture, upholding menstrual taboos and persecuting thieves, adulterers, and homosexuals. Ogii is the king of the forest spirits, a critical agency that is ambivalent toward gods and humans and, unless appeased, is an enormously destructive force. Gedeonsu is considered a shielding, comforting deity. In their prayers to him the Ndyuka say, "When we are hungry, we know where to run to. You will always be there to take care of us, to offer us solace/' During the civil war a delegation of guerrillas asked and obtained the support of Gedeonsu and important medicine men (obiaman) associated with that deity.

Most gods of the third tier, the minor deities, are potentially invading spirits. Until about 1970 the Ndyuka recognized four main pantheons: the yooka (ancestors), papa gadu or vodu (Reptile Spirits), ampuku (Bush Spirits), and kumanti (spirits residing in celestial phenomena such as thunder and lightning, carrion birds, and other animals of prey). These minor deities constitute a spiritual realm full of variety and color. They are depicted as human beings endowed with specific supernatural powers. They control particular domains and have distinctive interests, predilections, and frailties. Also like human beings, many deities mate, procreate, and produce hybrid types. They exhibit great differences in super-natural power, and their relations with humanity vary from benevolence to hostility. Except for the kumanti spirits, all can turn into avenging spirits (kunu) when offended.

Among the invading spirits, bakuu (demon spirits), which are classified as subsidiary to the forest spirits, are the most numerous. Their provenance can be traced to Paramaribo or to the coastal towns of French Guiana. In the first stages of bakuu possession the human carrier can expect help from the demon, but gradually the demon will corrupt its human vessel and become a threat to the lives of the medium's relatives. Missionary efforts have been made by Protestants, mainly the Community of Evangelical Brethren (Moravians), and the Roman Catholic Church, but the results have not been impressive. Recently, some Nyduka have responded to nonconformist or Pentecostal initiatives.

Religious Practitioners. There is no formal cult for Masaa Gadu. Worship of the Great Deities (Gaan Tata, Ogii, and Gedeonsu), however, has an organized framework. Shrines are dedicated to these powers, and priests officiate there. These institutions have a marked impact on social and political life. All the major problems facing the Ndyuka are discussed at the oracles of these deities. When a new medium seeks legitimization, his or her first trip is to one of these oracles. The importance of these Afro-American cults for the social and cultural life of the Ndyuka cannot be exaggerated. The oracular priests are specialists. The cults of the minor deities are led by medicine men. Every generation a prophet emerges who pronounces on the unsatisfactory state of social routines, governance, and public morals in Ndyuka society. Some of these prophets have had a great impact on religious institutions and daily life in general.

Ceremonies. Nearly all spirits first manifest themselves on New Year's Day (yali). The return of hundreds of migrants from Paramaribo and from the Netherlands creates a climate favorable for decision making. The antiwitchcraft ritual characteristic of the Gaan Tata cult takes place regularly but has no fixed dates. Ceremonies to further the well-being of all Ndyuka are held every two or three years by Gedeonsu's priests. The minor deities sometimes are summoned to add luster to the worship of the major powers but mostly have their own specific rituals directed by leading mediums. Men and women who are mediums of snake, forest, or sky spirits form rudimentary organizations. For particular occasions (New Year's Day) or the death of a fellow medium they assemble to perform their dances under the direction of renowned medicine men (basi) who are especially knowledgeable about the spirits being honored.

Arts. All Ndyuka men practice woodcarving. House fronts, stools, paddles, and winnowing trays used to be elaborately decorated, in some cases with doo-doo tembe (through-and-through) designs, and often were embellished with copper nails and small buttons. Houses and utensils made in the first half of the twentieth century show that this period was marked by an explosion in artistic mastery. Gainful employment, however, has been detrimental to Ndyuka art: Decorations have become less labor-intensive and simpler in design. Nevertheless, a new wave of prosperity gave an impetus to the arts: From the 1950s on, house facades, canoe prows and sterns, and paddles were painted in bright colors. The results are often spectacular, especially the intricate, multicolored, and geometrically patterned house fronts. However, when thousands of Ndyuka began to reside permanently in Paramaribo around 1970, few homeowners were interested in having their house fronts decorated in an elaborate way. Ndyuka women carve calabash bowls and spoons. They also sew narrow-strip garments, and in the 1970s they started to do cross-stitch embroidery.

Medicine. Illness is usually but not always considered to be caused by the displeasure of an ancestor or a deity. Through divination, specialists seek to understand which spiritual agency is involved and the reason for its displeasure. Often dissatisfaction with divination induces people to consult other mediums, medicine men, or oracles. If the minor spirits are considered responsible for illness and misfortune, they are placated with food, libations, and specialized drumming and dancing. Patients and their relatives also visit clinics and hospitals to get Western medicine and treatment. Western medicine is rarely seen to be in conflict with Ndyuka medicine.

Death and Afterlife. In the Ndyuka worldview the dead are always present among the living. Nearly every day village elders congregate at the "flagpole," the main ancestor shrine, to speak with the ancestors, pour them a generous libation, and solicit their help in cases of illness and misfortune. These daily prayers are not monopolized by the elders of a matrilineage but are considered the responsibility of every permanent adult male resident in the village. The elders address themselves to the ancestors who once were among the village's permanent residents.

A death in the village initiates a long series of rituals that take a year or longer, to complete. These funerary rites are supervised by the association of gravediggers, a responsibility sometimes shared with the coffin makers, the other burial association. Until the early 1970s the obligatory opening ritual was the inquest, the "carrying of the corpse," an ancient West African tradition. The basic idea is that a ghost, if properly cross-examined by gravediggers and other elders, will have to reveal its secrets and that its newly acquired omniscience may prove of inestimable value to the living. Since the last decade of the twentieth century a number of Ndyuka villages have resumed corpse divination.

During the inquest the interrogators' first priority is to establish whether the deceased was a witch or sinned in other unforgivable ways. If this turns out to be the case, the corpse must be removed from the village at once and brought to an unhallowed site in the forest. There a shallow grave awaits the sinner, and the ultimate humiliation of being left unburied awaits a dead witch. Witches and sinners are gadu dede ("killed by God") and are not entitled to a coffin or to elaborate funerary rites, which are reserved for the upright, a category of dead called "Gathered by the Ancestors" (yooka dede) and honored by the community with an elaborate burial.

For other cultures in French Guiana and Suriname, see List of Cultures by Country in Volume 10 and under specific culture names in Volume 7, South America.


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