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ETHNONYMS: Saramacca, Saramaka Bush Negroes, Saramaka Maroons


Identification, The Saramaka are one of six Maroon (or "Bush Negro") groups in Suriname. ("Maroon" derives from the Spanish cimarrón, itself derived from an Arawakan root; by the early 1500s it was used throughout the Americas to designate slaves who successfully escaped from slavery.)

Location. The Republic of Suriname, formerly Dutch and Guiana 6° N and 1975, since independent 54° and 58° is located between live in the W. and The Saramaka 1o northern extension of the Amazonian forest along the upper Suriname River and its tributaries, the Gaánlío and the Pikílío, andsince the 1960salong the lower Suriname River in villages constructed by the national government after the flooding of approximately half of tribal territory for a hydroelectric project.

Demography. The 22,000 Saramaka are one minority within the multiethnic nation of Suriname, which includes approximately 37 percent Hindustanis or East Indians (descendants of contract laborers brought in after the abolition of slavery); 30 percent Creoles (descendants of Africans brought as slaves); 16 percent Javanese (descendants of contract workers brought during the early twentieth century from Indonesia); 3 percent Chinese, Levantines, and Europeans; 2 percent Amerindians; and 12 percent Maroons. Together with the other Maroons in Suriname and neighboring French Guianathe Djuka (22,000), the Matawai, the Paramaka, the Aluku, and the Kwinti (who together number some 6,000)the Saramaka constitute by far the world's largest surviving population of Afro-American Maroons.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Saramaka, the Matawai, and the Kwinti (in central Suriname) speak variants of a creole language called Saramaccan, and the Djuka, the Paramaka, and the Aluku (in eastern Suriname) speak variants of another creole language, called Ndjuka. Both are closely related to Sranan-tongo (sometimes called Taki-taki), the creole of coastal Suriname. About 50 percent of the Saramaccan lexicon derives from various West and Central African languages, 20 percent from English (the language of the original colonists in Suriname), 20 percent from Portuguese (the language of the slave masters on many Suriname plantations), and the remaining 10 percent from Amerindian languages and Dutch. The grammar resembles that of the other (lexically different) Atlantic creoles and presumably derives from African models.

History and Cultural Relations

The ancestors of the Saramaka were among those Africans sold into slavery in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries to work Suriname's sugar, timber, and coffee plantations. Coming from a variety of African peoples speaking many different languages, they escaped into the dense rain forestindividually, in small groups, and sometimes in great collective rebellionswhere for nearly 100 years they fought a war of liberation. In 1762, a full century before the general emancipation of slaves in Suriname, they won their freedom and signed a treaty with the Dutch crown. Like the other Suriname Maroons, they lived almost as states-within-a-state until the mid-twentieth century, when the pace of outside encroachments increased. During the late 1980s a civil war between Maroons and the military government of Suriname caused considerable hardship to the Saramaka and other Maroons; by mid1989 approximately 3,000 Saramaka and 8,000 Djuka were living as temporary refugees in French Guiana, and access to the outside world had become severely restricted for many Saramaka in their homeland.


Traditional villages, which average 100 to 200 residents, consist of a core of matrilineal kin plus some wives and children of lineage men. Always located near a river, they are an irregular arrangement of small houses, open-sided structures, domesticated trees, an occasional chicken house, various shrines, and scattered patches of bushes. (The so-called transmigration villages, built to house the 6,000 Saramaka displaced by the hydroelectric project, range up to 2,000 people and are laid out in a grid pattern.) Horticultural camps, which include permanent houses and shrines, are located several hours by canoe from each village, and are exploited by small matrilineal groups of women. Many women have a house in their own village, another in their horticultural camp, and a third in their husband's village. Co-wives live in separate houses. Men divide their time among three or four houses, built at various times for themselves and for their wives. Saramaka houses are barely wide enough to tie a hammock and not much longer from front to back; with walls of planks and woven palm fronds and roofs of thatch or, increasingly, of corrugated iron, they are windowless but often have elaborately carved facades.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities . The economy is based on full exploitation of the forest environment and on periodic work trips by men to the coast to bring back Western goods. For subsistence, the Saramaka depend on shifting (swidden) horticulture, hunting, and fishing, supplemented by wild forest products and a few key imports such as salt. Gardens are planted most heavily in dry (hillside) rice, but include many other crops, among them cassava, taro, okra, maize, plantains, bananas, sugarcane, and peanuts. Villages have domesticated trees such as coconut, orange, breadfruit, papaya, and calabash. Garden produce, game, and fish are shared among kin. There are no markets.

Industrial Arts. The Saramaka produce the great bulk of their material culture. All men build houses and canoes and carve a wide range of wooden objects for domestic use, such as stools, paddles, winnowing trays, cooking utensils, and combs. All women sew and embroider clothing and carve calabash bowls. Some men also produce baskets, and some women make pottery.

Trade. Men devote a large portion of their adult years to earning money in coastal Suriname or French Guiana to provide the Western goods considered essential to life in their home villages, such as shotguns and powder, tools, pots, cloth, hammocks, soap, kerosene, and rum. Since the 1960s small stores have sprung up in many villages, and outboard motors, transistor radios, and tape recorders have also become common.

Division of Labor. Once the men have cleared and burned the fields, horticulture is mainly women's work. Hunting, with shotguns, is the responsibility of men, who do most of the fishing as well. Wage labor outside the tribal territory is a male prerogative.

Land Tenure. Land is owned by matrilineal clans, based on claims staked out in the early eighteenth century as the original Maroons fled southward to freedom. Hunting and gathering rights belong to clan members collectively. Within the clan, temporary rights to land use for farming are negotiated by village headmen. The establishment of transmigration villages has led to land shortages in certain regions.


Kin Groups and Descent. Saramaka society is firmly based on matrilineal principles. A clan (lo )often several thousand individualsconsists of the matrilineal deseendants of an original band of escaped slaves. It is subdivided into lineages (beè )usually 50 to 150 peopledescended from a more recent ancestress. Several lineages from a single clan constitute the core of every village.

Kinship Terminology. In keeping with matrilineal ideology, a strongly generational pattern is broken by bifurcate merging of males. Joking relationships prevail between consanguineal and affinal kin of alternate generations.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. The application of complex marriage prohibitions (including beè exogamy) and preferences is negotiated through divination. Demographic imbalance owing to labor migration permits widespread polygyny. Although cowives hold equal status, relations between them are expected to be adversarial. Marriages tend to be brittle; men average seven wives and women four husbands during their lifetime. The Saramaka treat marriage as an ongoing courtship, with frequent exchanges of gifts such as men's woodcarving and women's decorative sewing. Although many women live primarily in their husband's village, men never spend more than a few days at a time in the matrilineal (home) village of a wife.

Domestic Unit. Each house belongs to an individual man or woman, but most social interaction occurs outdoors. The men in each cluster of several houses, whether beè members or temporary visitors, eat meals together. The women of these same clusters, whether beè members or resident wives of beè men, spend a great deal of time in each others' company, often farming together as well.

Inheritance. Matrilineal principles, mediated by divination, determine the inheritance of material and spiritual possessions as well as political offices. Before death, however, men often pass on specialized ritual knowledge (and occasionally a shotgun) to a son.

Socialization. Each child, after spending its first several years with its mother, is raised by an individual man or woman (not a couple) designated by the beè, girls normally by women, boys by men. Although children spend most of their time with matrilineal kin, father-child relations are warm and strong. Gender identity is established early, with children taking on responsibility for sex-typed adult tasks as soon as they are physically able. Girls often marry by age 15, whereas boys are more often in their twenties when they take their first wife. Protestant missionary schools have existed in some villages since the eighteenth century; such elementary schools came to most villages only in the 1960s. Schools ceased to function completely during the Suriname civil war of the late 1980s.

Sociopolitical Organization

The Saramaka, like the other Maroon groups, maintain considerable political autonomy within the Republic of Suriname.

Social Organization. Saramaka society is strongly egalitarian, with kinship vertebrating social organization. No social or occupational classes are distinguished. Elders are accorded special respect and ancestors are consulted, through divination, on a daily basis.

Political Organization. The Saramaka have a government-approved paramount chief (gaamá ), a series of headmen (kabiteni ), and assistant headmen (basiá ). Traditionally, the role of these officials in political and social control was exercised in a context replete with oracles, spirit possession, and other forms of divination, but the national government is intervening more frequently in Saramaka affairs (and paying political officials nominal salaries), and the sacred base of these officials' power is gradually being eroded. These political offices are the property of clans (lo). Political activity is strongly dominated by men.

Social Control. Council meetings (kuútu ) and divination sessions provide complementary arenas for the resolution of social problems. Palavers may involve the men of a lineage, a village, or all Saramaka and treat problems ranging from marriage or fosterage conflicts to land disputes, political succession, or major crimes. These same problems, in addition to illness and other kinds of misfortune, are routinely examined through various kinds of divination as well. In all cases, consensus is found through negotiation, often with a strong role being played by gods and ancestors. Guilty parties are usually required to pay for their misdeeds with material offerings to the lineage of the offended person. In the eighteenth century people found guilty of witchcraft were sometimes burned at the stake. Today, men caught in flagrante delicto with the wife of another man are either beaten by the woman's kinsmen or made to pay them a fine.

Conflict. Aside from adultery disputes, which sometimes mobilize a full canoe-load of men seeking revenge in a public fistfight, intra-Saramaka conflict rarely surpasses the level of personal relations. The civil war that began in 1986, pitting Maroons against Suriname's army, brought major changes to the villages of the interior. Members of the "Jungle Commando" rebel army, almost all Djuka and Saramaka, learned to use automatic weapons and became accustomed to a state of war and plunder. Their reintegration into Saramaka (and Djuka) society remains problematic.

Religion and Expressive Culture

The Western category "religion" encompasses every aspect of Saramaka life. Such decisions as where to clear a garden or build a house, whether to undertake a trip, or how to deal with theft or adultery are made in consultation with village deities, ancestors, forest spirits, and snake gods. The means of communication with these powers vary from spirit possession and the consultation of oracle-bundles to the interpretation of dreams. Gods and spirits, which are a constant presence in daily life, are also honored through frequent prayers, libations, feasts, and dances. The rituals surrounding birth, death, and other life crises are extensive, as are those relating to more mundane activities, from hunting a tapir to planting a rice field. Today about 20 percent of Saramaka are nominal Christiansmainly Moravian, but some Roman Catholic and, increasingly, evangelicals of one or another kind.

Religious Beliefs. The Saramaka world is populated by a wide range of supernatural beings, from localized forest spirits and gods that reside in the bodies of snakes, vultures, jaguars, and other animals to ancestors, river gods, and warrior spirits. Within these categories, each supernatural being is named, individualized, and given specific relationships to living people. Intimately involved in the ongoing events of daily life, these beings communicate to humans mainly through divination and spirit possession. Kúnus are the avenging spirits of people or gods who were wronged during their lifetime and who pledge themselves to eternally tormenting the matrilineal descendants and close matrilineal kinsmen of their offender. Much of Saramaka ritual life is devoted to their appeasement. The Saramaka believe that all evil originates in human action: not only does each misfortune, illness, or death stem from a specific past misdeed, but every offense, whether against people or gods, has eventual consequences. The ignoble acts of the dead intrude daily on the lives of the living; any illness or misfortune calls for divination, which quickly reveals the specific past act that caused it. Rites are then performed in which the ancestors speak, the gods dance, and the world is once again made right.

Religious Practitioners. Major village- and clan-owned shrines that serve large numbers of clients, the various categories of possession gods, and various kinds of minor divination are the preserve of individual specialists who supervise rites and pass on their knowledge before death. A large proportion of Saramaka have some kind of specialized ritual expertise, which they occasionally exercise, and for which they are paid in cloth or rum.

Ceremonies. Saramaka ceremonial life is not calendrically determined but rather regulated by the occurrence of misfortune, interpreted through divination. The most important ceremonies include those surrounding funerals and the appeasement of ancestors, public curing rites, rituals in honor of kúnus (in particular snake gods and forest spirits), and the installation of political officials.

Arts. Saramaka life is permeated with aesthetic concerns, and activities from planting a garden to verbal repartee are judged in aesthetic terms. All men are woodcarvers and some are adept at the related art of engraving the exterior surfaces of calabash containers. Women are responsible for the decorative sewing on clothes and the carving of calabash bowls. Body arts include hairstyling and complex cicatrizations. The arts of performancesinging, dance, drumming, tale tellingare widespread and highly appreciated.

Medicine. Every case of illness is believed to have a specific cause that can be determined only through divination. The causes revealed vary from a lineage kúna to sorcery, from a broken taboo to an ancestor's displeasure. Once the cause is known, rites are carried out to appease the offended god or ancestor (or otherwise right the social imbalance). Since the 1960s, Western mission clinics and hospitals have been used by most Saramaka as a supplement to their own healing practices.

Death and Afterlife. The dead play an active role in the lives of the living. Ancestor shrinesseveral to a villageare the site of frequent prayers and libations, as the dead are consulted about ongoing village problems. A death occasions a series of complex rituals that lasts about a year, culminating in the final passage of the deceased to the status of ancestor. The initial rites, which are carried out over a period of one week to three months depending on the importance of the deceased, end with the burial of the corpse in an elaborately constructed coffin filled with personal belongings. These rites include divination with the coffin (to consult the spirit of the deceased) by carrying it on the heads of two men, feasts for the ancestors, all-night drum/song/dance performances, and the telling of folktales. Some months later, a "second funeral" is conducted to mark the end of the mourning period and to chase the ghost of the deceased from the village forever. These rites involve the largest public gatherings in Saramaka and also include all-night drum/song/dance performances. At their conclusion, the deceased has passed out of the realm of the living into that of the ancestors.


Herskovits, Melville J., and Frances S. Herskovits (1934). Rebel Destiny: Among the Bush Negroes of Dutch Guiana. New York and London: McGraw-Hill.

Price, Richard (1975). Saramaka Social Structure: Analysis of a Maroon Society in Surinam. Río Piedras, P.R.: Institute of Caribbean Studies.

Price, Richard (1983). First-Time: The Historical Vision of an Afro-American People. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Price, Sally (1984). Co-Wives and Calabashes. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Price, Sally, and Richard Price (1980). Afro-American Arts of the Suriname Rain Forest. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.