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ETHNONYMS: Mayangna, Ohlwa, Olua, Panamaka, Smoo, Smu, Somoo, Summoo, Sumo, Sumoo, Taguaca, Tahuajca, Taoajka, Tawahka, Towcka, Twahka, Twaka, Twanka, Twaxha, Ulúa, Ulwa, Woolwa, Woowa, Wulwa, Zumo


Identification. "Sumu" is the common name used since the mid-1800s to refer to a group of related peoples of eastern Nicaragua and Honduras. The Miskito, the traditional enemies of the Sumu, also called them "Albatuina" (slaves) or "Ialtanta" (flat heads); the Spaniards labeled them "Caribes" (savages) and "Chatos" (flat heads). Von Houwald (1975; 1990) claims sixty different names have been used to refer to them, many (Batuca, Patuca, Bocayes) corrupted from a particular river or region they inhabited. The Sumu call themselves "Mayangna," meaning "we" (yagna ) of the "sun" (ma ), referring to their origin myth (Rizo 1993, 31), or they identify themselves by their linguistic affiliation.

Location. Three Sumu groups now occupy the rain forests of the Mosquitia region of eastern Nicaragua and Honduras. The Tawahka, about 20 percent of the Sumu, live in northern Nicaragua along the Río Bambana where Wasakin, the largest Tawahka village, has 900 residents; other villages are along the Río Coco (between its Waspuk and Lakus tributaries) and farther north in Honduras on the middle Río Patuca. The Panamaka, about 70 percent of all Sumu, center on the Bosawás (Río Bocay-Sa slayaWa spuk) region, especially along the Bocay and Umbra rivers and along the headwater streams of the Bambana and Waspuk; others are southward along the upper reaches of the Prinzapolca, Matagalpa, and Escondido rivers and in the village of Awastingni, farther east along the Río Wawa. Musawás, on the Río Waspuk, has 1,700 inhabitants and is the largest Sumu village. The Ulwa, 10 percent of the Sumu, live in Karawala (with a population of 770) and Kara, near the mouth of the Rio Grande de Matagalpa; others are along the Río Sikia, a tributary of the Río Escondido. Some families choose to live in coastal Miskito settlements (Hale 1991, 27; Herlihy 1993; Williamson et al. 1993).

Demography. Eduard Conzemius (1932, 14) estimated from fieldwork in the 1920s that a mere 3,000 to 3,500 Sumu survived, remarking that the "day of their complete disappearance or absorption by the Miskito does not seem far off." The Tawahka, Panamaka, and Ulwa each numbered about 1,000 at the time. In 1990, 13,000 to 15,000 Sumu lived in Nicaragua and fewer than 1,000 in Honduras.

Linguistic Affiliation. Sumu languages are considered variants of a common family called Misumalpa, which includes the languages of the Miskito, Sumu, and Matagalpa who inhabited the prehistoric frontier between Mesoamerican and South American influences. The family apparently fissioned off its Chibchan trunk thousands of years ago and may have remained united until a century or two before Spanish contact, when Sumu languages separated. Of the remaining three, Tawahka and Panamaka are very similar, whereas Ulwa is more distinct; all contain loanwords from Miskito, English, and Spanish.

Sumu parlance declined with missionaries and government programs of the twentieth century, and a large part of the population is now trilingual. Children learn Spanish in school, speak Miskito in the village, and converse in Tawahka, Panamaka, or Ulwa with their families. Few Indians can read and write Sumu languages, but bilingual education programs may awaken new interest.

History and Cultural Relations

The Sumu were once the most widespread populations on the Caribbean slope of Central America. According to folklorists, they were nomadic bands of hunters, fishers, and collectors, but early accounts indicate they were farmers. Reports of cannibalism probably stem from ceremonial vengeance rites. European contact brought dramatic population decline and dislocation owing to Old World diseases, warfare, and the slave trade, but little evidence exists to estimate the magnitude of change.

The first images of Sumu life come from colonial times. Men wore loincloths, and women short skirts. Probably ten or more groups existed, including the Tawahka, Panamaka, Silam, Kum, Bawihka, Prinsu, Yusku, Boa, Ulwa, and Kukra. They occupied a territory inland from the Río Patuca in Honduras south to the Río Escondido in Nicaragua, bordered by Pearl Lagoon to the east and the savannas/uplands to the west, largely coincident with the limits of Spanish influence. Men had long straight hair, sometimes shoulder length, whereas women wore their hair down their backs with cut bangs in front; both wore decorative necklaces and bracelets. Infanticide controlled birth defects. Wooden slats were applied to flatten an infant's head.

Spanish authorities never effectively controlled the Mosquitia region. Some frontier missions evangelized western Sumu settlements during the seventeenth century, but most Spanish campaigns into the region found no wealth, and some ended in disaster. Concurrently, the east coast attracted British privateers from Jamaica who entered into commercial relations with the Miskito. To exert control over the area, the privateers, whose aim was to exploit forest resources, recognized a succession of Miskito kings. The British enlisted Miskito war parties in their campaigns against the Spaniards, giving them firearms and a degree of sovereignty. Firearms gave Miskito warriors the advantage over the Sumu, whom they conquered, enslaved, or commercially incorporated into the "kingdom." The Sumu were obliged to pay tribute to Miskito kings and governors in the form of dugouts, deerskins, maize, cacao, rubber, and more. In the face of this situation, Sumu families retreated inland. Miskito reign declined and the British withdrew by 1860, when Mosquitia became part of Honduras and received "Reserve" status in Nicaragua. The Miskito Reserve was incorporated as a Nicaraguan department, Zelaya, in 1894. Surviving Sumu groups lived relatively isolated from outsiders and maintained cultural traditions.

Since colonial times, most Sumu groupsincluding the Yusku, Prinsu, Boa, Silam, Ku, and Bawihkashave disappeared or assimilated into the expansive Miskito or Spanish-Indian (Ladino) cultures. The Ulwa, for example, once the most widespread group, were reduced by diseases and conflicts to only a few headwaters areas by the late 1700s. Conzemius (1932) found only about 150 Bawihka, and the Kukra were practically extinct by the 1920s.

Moravian missionaries, who began work on the Miskito Coast in 1849, launched evangelization efforts among the Sumu in 1910 (Oertzen et al. 1990, 41). Missionaries encouraged families to resettle around prayer-house sites or their homes. Musawás had eight lodges and a prayer house in 1922 (Oertzen et al. 1990, 308). A Honduran state education program agglomerated the Tawahka into a school-site settlement in 1916, but an epidemic forced its abandonment (Landero 1980). Despite good intentions, missionaries and educators were insensitive to indigenous identity, grouping Sumu with Miskito families in the same settlements and teaching them in English, Spanish, or the Miskito language.

The Marxist government of Nicaragua tried to bring about the political integration of the indigenous peoples after the Sandinista Revolution of 1979. Indian resistance forces demanded self-government and respect for their own traditions, fighting bloody battles against government troops during the 1980s. The Sandinistas occupied Musawás in 1982, killing and forcibly conscripting Sumu men, and began a mass evacuation of Sumu villagers from the Río Coco war zone. Some 3,000 moved to Honduran refugee camps; others stayed, living under threats of being killed, kidnapped, or forced into military service by one side or the other. The war destroyed Sumu community life in Nicaragua. Since 1985, most Sumu have been repatriated and have been resettling and rebuilding their former villages.

Though formerly integrationist, Nicaragua and Honduras have now begun to recognize the rights, identity, and political institutions of indigenous peoples. Nicaragua adopted the Autonomy Statute of 1987, establishing a regime of self-government, and Honduras is considering territorial status for its Sumu populations. Sumu identity and political clout are increasing because of international recognition of their role in conserving regional natural and cultural heritage. Nevertheless, road penetrations and agricultural colonization continually bring new conflicts, economies, and politics to Sumu territory.


The Sumu, riverine rain-forest people, build their settlements along clear-water streams, above tidal influence. They formerly lived in large (20 meters by 10 meters) multifamily lodges, dispersed, or in small clusters on high levee banks. In the early 1900s missionary and government programs began to agglomerate them into villages. Today there are about forty villages in Nicaragua and five in Honduras. Most have between 100 and 500 people, fewer than fifty houses, a church, school, and store. Houses are now smaller thatch- or tin-roofed, post-and-pole framed structures with board, split-bamboo, or palm floors elevated about a meter above the ground. Normally a house is sided with a door and windows; sometimes it has a divided interior.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Sumu subsistence has changed very little over time. The household is the self-contained economic unit. Farmers use slash-and-burn cultivation to grow root crops (sweet manioc, yams, and Xanthosoma ), plus maize. Plantains and bananas, which are grown in groves along the natural levee, are the staple foods. Eaten fresh, boiled, and baked, these fruits, when ripe, are also mashed, along with maize, palm fruits (especially supa, Bactris gasipaes ), manioc, and sweet potatoes and mixed with water to produce chicha drinks (wakisá ) that ferment into a "beer" (mishla or wasak ). Three types of gourds, cacao, avocados, and other native palm and fruit trees are grown in dooryard and outfield orchard gardens, along with medicinal herbs, dyes, spices, cotton, tobacco, and ornamentals. Old World fruit treescitrus, breadfruit, mangoand rice, beans, and sugarcane are also grown for food and sale, as are tomatoes, green peppers, and cabbage.

Bows and arrows, spears, and blowguns were the primary aboriginal weapons for hunting a diversity of forest game. Hunters now choose .22-caliber rifles and shotguns. The importance of wild game in Sumu diets depends on local ecological and economic conditions. Fishing is done with hooks, spears, nets, and, less commonly, bows and arrows; piscicides are uncommon. Animal husbandry is limited to raising wild forest "pets" in addition to some chickens, ducks, turkeys, pigs, cows, and horses. Dogs are used for hunting, but cats are rare. Villagers still depend greatly on foods, materials, and medicines collected from forest and regrowth fallow.

Sumu men have worked for foreign enterprises extracting roots, saps, resins, and gums for dyes, medicines, and other uses since the seventeenth century. Native woodsmen collected sarsaparilla and cut mahogany in the eighteenth century, bled latex from rubber trees in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and more recently tapped chewing-gum latex from chicle trees. Individuals have also worked as turtlers, shrimpers, and, most recently, divers for lobsters in the coastal fishing industry. Gold panning is an important cash-earning activity in some areas, and cash cropping increases with improved market access.

The Sumu cash-involved subsistence economy requires broad territories for agriculture, hunting, fishing, and collecting resources. The approximately 650 Tawahka Sumu living along the middle Río Patuca in 1990 used about 770 square kilometers, with only 5 percent under agriculture.

Industrial Arts. Sumu men craft dugouts, a trade and tribute item since colonial times. Men still cut tuno (Poulsenia armata ) tree bark that women pound into cloth (tikam ), formerly fashioned into loincloths and skirts, now into blankets and mosquito netting. Twine, used to weave carrying bags and hammocks, comes from the pounded bark of the majao (Heliocarpus Donell-Smithii ) tree. Silk grass formerly provided a durable fiber for nets, bowstrings, and fishing lines. Tree gourds still serve as bowls, and other kitchen utensils are made of carved wood. Women previously made pottery and dyed, spun, and wove cotton for clothes, hammocks, and bedsheets, but no longer do so.

Trade. No formal marketplaces existed among aboriginal Sumu populations, but evidence of gold ornaments links them to broad Central American trade networks (Newson 1987, 78). They traded dugouts, bark cloth, hammocks, woven bags, and pottery with the Miskito. Europeans exchanged commercial products for hides, dyes, feathers, resins, and timber. Today the Sumu use cash to buy tools, kitchenware, clothes, and many manufactured products, including foods. They fashion majao bags, decorative tree gourds, and cloth tapestries made from tuno bark for an expanding indigenous crafts market.

Division of Labor. Hunting and cutting forest are exclusively male activities. Women do household chores and help in planting, weeding, harvesting, and collecting forest-plant and animal materials. Few men still fish with spears or bows and arrows; using a line and hook, both sexes catch river crustaceans. Villagers have a labor-exchange system (biribiri ), commonly organized along kin lines, for more physically demanding work. Nowadays payments of meat, grains, bullets, or cash substitute for labor exchange, as wage labor has become embedded in Sumu life. Sumu men now specialize as boatmen, teachers, ministers, nurses, and storeowners.

Land Tenure. Landownership develops as former usufructuary rights and planted fields become the private property of the farmer who prepares them. Villagers share use of hunting, fishing, and collecting territories. Sumu land use exhibits communal attitudes toward resource use, and land has not historically been a commodity exchanged for profit.


Kin Groups and Descent. Little information is recorded about the kin-based features of Sumu life. Conzemius (1932, 146) observed that the children of two brothers or of two sisters are considered real brothers and sisters and are not allowed to marry each other. The children of brothers and sisters, however, are not considered blood relatives, and union of such cousins is common.

Kinship Terminology. Some studies and dictionaries list certain Sumu kin terms, but apparently no study of their kinship terminology exists.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Sumu men often took more than one wife, but it is unclear if polygamy was an aboriginal practice. Conzemius (1932) reported that non-Sumu marriages were forbidden, and offspring from such unions would be killed. Girls were betrothed at an early age, when a suitor asked the girl's parents directly. Even today the suitor must show his capacity to provide for his intended wife and bring her parents firewood, meat, produce, or other esteemed items. The Sumu may have once practiced patrilocal residence, but now newlyweds live with either in-laws until their own house is completed. The new groom avoided contact with his mother-in-law, who stayed secluded when he was at home. Divorce simply meant the separation of the couple and apparently was unaccompanied by any ritual. During the twentieth century, mixed marriages with Miskito, Pech, Blacks, and mestizos have become common. Today, perhaps due to missionary influence, most Sumu men have only one wife.

Domestic Unit. The extended family is the most common domestic arrangement. Lodges once contained three or more families under the same roof, but today each family normally has its own house.

Inheritance. Transfer and inheritance of land and property occur traditionally along kin lines, usually between males.

Socialization. Children learn traditions and subsistence lessons through daily apprenticeship alongside their parents. Boys sharpen hunting skills by playing with scaled-down spears and bows and arrows, and they accompany fathers on hunting, fishing, and farming trips. Girls learn domestic chores while helping their mothers. The grandmother cares for infants when the mother is gone, and grandparents and other elders enjoy relating tales and traditions to youngsters.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Sumu social structure was egalitarian. The head of the extended familythe eldest able-bodied malewas the highest authority figure. Shamans and elders were respected for their knowledge and wisdom but held no special status. Sometimes shamans or others with special skill or bravery rose to ephemeral leadership in times of turmoil or warfare. Missionary and government influence have brought new political positions into Sumu village life.

Political Organization. There were no chiefs, village leaders, or broad tribal organizations in traditional Sumu society. A loosely structured council of elders sometimes convened to resolve community relations. The Sumu did not traditionally delimit tribal lands.

Today Sumu villagers elect community leaders and establish political institutions. The Nicaraguan Sumu organized the Sumu Kalpapakna Wahaini Lani (SUKAWALA) or Sumu Brotherhood in 1974, and the Honduran populations set up the Federación Indígena Tawahka de Honduras (FITH) in 1987 to address political, cultural, economic, and territorial concerns. These entities have become the de facto Sumu governments. In 1990 FITH solicited recognition of a 2,300-square-kilometer reserve. SUKAWALA is struggling for legal title to Sumu lands in the Bosawás Reserve established in 1991. Their lands are not part of a proposed binational reserve system covering the rain forests north to the Caribbean Sea. The federations struggle to assure legal title to their lands within these protected areas.

Social Control. Crimes, land disputes, and other social issues were formerly resolved by the head of the extended family. Peer pressure was also a powerful leveling force. Offenders must now answer to community and federation leaders, and state laws and regulations are applicable.

Conflict. Since the seventeenth century, the Sumu have faced outside aggressions by other indigenous populations and Europeans and, later, by the postcolonial national governments of Honduras and Nicaragua, seeking to control them, their territories, and their resources. These clashes with outsiders greatly reduced both Sumu population and their territory. Recent solidarity against outside aggressions has strengthened Sumu identity and resolve toward their own cultural practices.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Little systematic study exists of the original Sumu beliefs. In 1915 Moravian missionary George Heath was told that long ago the Sun was looked upon as creator and supreme lord, and the Moon was also a god, but this worship ceased suddenly thirty or forty years earlier with the spread of the gospel among the Miskito (Oertzen et al. 1990, 302-303). Landero (1980, 16) recorded that this sun god, Mapapak (from Ma, "Sun," and Papak, "my Father") lives in the heavens (mapikidiká ), distributing life and happiness. Rizo (1993, 37) adds that "Father Sun," Moon, and Wind are represented in one image called Uwawau, the "Heart of the gods" and notes that the earthly world is submissive to the influence of other tiers inhabited by good and evil spirits. Nature was animated by all sorts of spirits (walasá, nawah, lilkadutni, or dimalah ) that punished humans when they violated the laws of nature, or were benevolent if humans were so.

Most Nicaraguan Sumu now follow Moravian beliefs, whereas the Honduran Tawahka are mostly Catholics. Most Sumu acknowledge the Christian design of the universe, along with the concepts of sin, heaven and hell, and private property, but retain some traditional beliefs.

Religious Practitioners. The suida is the Sumu shaman whose knowledge cures the sick, divines the hidden, and helps individuals communicate with gods, demons, and spirits. Shamans are advisors, conjurers, counselors, diviners, exorcists, folklorists, herbalists, priests, and teachers. The position was not hereditary; rather, it was acquired through apprenticeship. The ditalyang was reportedly another botanical healer, but the sukia possessed greater spiritual knowledge and had the ability to communicate with the supernatural. Indeed, a successful hunt may be attributed to the just and generous actions of the sukia (Rizo 1993, 38). Sumu pastors now teach Moravian and Catholic beliefs, and many hold political power.

Ceremonies. Sumu formerly held a "festival" (asang lawana ) at which men secluded themselves in sacred places deep in the forest to prepare young men to endure warfare. Other ceremonies proved the skills and fortitude of young boys. Menstrual seclusion sequestered the "impure" women in makeshift huts, where they were unable to "contaminate" food or forest. Today's simple ceremonies focus on life-cycle events, such as marriages and burials, or mark the end of communal-work efforts. These, as well as Christmas, Easter, and other Christian and state celebrations are normally accompanied by feasts with mishla (or other alcoholic beverage) drinking, singing, and dancing.

Arts. The arts, per se, were never highly developed in Sumu society. Pottery, figurines, and masks found on abandoned sites and in burials may indicate greater skill in the past. They had no writing aside from some crude pictographs etched into boulders, and stonework was probably restricted to the manufacture of grinding stones and grinders. Landero (1980, 18) described Sumu music as simple; the instruments were drums, rattles, and flutes, the latter often melodically imitating bird songs.

Medicine. The use of household remedies made from the bark, roots, leaves, and seeds of native plants is declining as manufactured medicines become widely available. Herbalists still use plant concoctions to cure deadly snake bites and other ailments. The sukia could also effect a cure by exorcising the evil spirit from the patient. Today medical assistants work in some villages.

Death and Afterlife. Even before accepting contemporary Christian beliefs, the Sumu probably believed in an afterlife (Newson 1987, 82). Death was formerly believed to be caused by sorcery or evil spirits. Mourning their dead husbands, widows cut their hair short and endured self-inflicted pain. Some of these practices still occur. The dead are now buried in coffins in graveyards near each settlement.


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