views updated May 21 2018


LOCATION: Nicaragua; Honduras
POPULATION: About 200,000
LANGUAGE: Dialects of Miskito; English; Spanish
RELIGION: Moravian church (majority); Catholicism; fundamentalist Protestantism; Christianity mingled with folk beliefs


The Miskito (also spelled Mosquito) are an indigenous people living in the Caribbean coastal lowlands of Nicaragua and Honduras. They came to international attention in the early 1980s as a result of their resistance activities against Nicaragua's Sandinista government. They are the largest native group in the region (often referred to as the Nicaraguan Atlantic Coast or the Miskito Coast) and have lobbied prominently for the cultural, territorial, economic, and political rights of the region's indigenous peoples.

Although considered a native people, the Miskito as a distinct group actually came into existence as a result of European colonization of the Caribbean region. Their forebears, unaffected by Spanish settlement of western Nicaragua and Honduras in the 16th century, later began welcoming escaped African slaves fleeing British possessions in the region. The mixed-race people that resulted from intermarriage between the slaves and the local population became the Miskito. Introduced to guns and ammunition by English traders and settlers in the area (it is commonly thought that "Miskito" comes from "musket"), they expanded their territory northward, southward, and westward from its original location at the mouth of the Rio Coco.

Those of the region's native groups that were not assimilated into the Miskito were pushed into the interior and became known as the Sumu. The Miskito became the most important non-White population on the coast, living in peace with the British and serving as an intermediary between them and the Sumu. From the mid-17th century to the late 19th century, the Miskito prospered, thanks to their trade with the British and the abundant natural resources of their territory, which at one time extended as far as the present-day nations of Belize and Panama.

In the late 19th century, an ethnic shift occurred in the region when banana growers began bringing in Black English-speaking laborers from the West Indies to work on their plantations. They and their descendants, who became known as Creoles, took the place of the Miskito as the area's dominant non-White group, settling mainly in the newly established port towns while the Miskito remained in rural villages, retaining their traditional language and way of life. Since Nicaraguan and Honduran independence from Britain in the 19th century, the United States played a greater role in the region, especially in the area of banana production, and its corporate interests, especially the United Fruit Company, now United Brands, remained influential well into the 20th century.

When the Sandinista government that came to power in 1979 moved to consolidate its control over the Miskito and bring them into line with its political and economic policies, it met with widespread resistance. In response, the government forced thousands of Miskito out of their homes, sending them to relocation camps. Activists who joined the resistance were imprisoned, tortured, and killed, and thousands "disappeared." Entire villages were looted and destroyed. Altogether, some 20,000 people were sent to relocation camps. Another 40,000 fled, becoming refugees. In spite of the magnitude of their persecution, they insisted on resisting independently, refusing U.S. pressure to join the Contras and other opposition groups. Their plight drew international attention, and they eventually won significant government concessions. By 1984, the government agreed to grant them limited political autonomy.

President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, whose 1990 election ended Sandinista rule, established a new ministry to serve as a liaison with the Miskito and the neighboring peoples of the Atlantic coast—the Nicaraguan Institute for the Development of the Atlantic Region (INDERA). The example provided by the Miskito of Nicaragua has inspired demands for autonomy by both the Honduran Miskito and other indigenous peoples in Nicaragua. The call for indigenous autonomy spread to many other countries in Latin America. In 1992 Miskito signed an agreement with the Nicaraguan government in which several "security zones" were guaranteed for this Amerindian tribe. Besides, and with the intention of integrating Miskito community to the Nicaraguan nation, 50 Miskito were accepted in the police force.


The Miskito live along the Caribbean coasts of Nicaragua and Honduras. Their lands have a total area of 37,000 sq km (14,300 sq mi)—equal in size to Taiwan or the Netherlands— and extend 900 km (560 mi) along the Caribbean and 400 km (250 mi) inland up the Rio Coco River. The two major towns of Puerto Cabezas and Puerto Lempira are the communication centers with the outside world. A vast number of Miskito villages are located along the jungle river basins throughout the Caribbean coast. The Coco River (Wangki), one of the largest rivers of Central America, is considered to be the heartland of the Miskito people.

Miskito territory is extremely diverse geographically, with a large inland savanna, a tropical forest to the west, coastal lowlands, and the most extensive continental shelf in the Caribbean. Its varied lands include mangrove forests, estuaries, coral reefs, seagrass pastures, and the greatest concentration of coastal lagoons in Central America. Its major rivers include the Coco River (also known as the Wangki), Prinsapolka, Awaltara (Rio Grande), and Kuringwas.

In 1991, a conservation organization called Mikupia (an acronym that also means "Miskito heart") was formed to protect the abundant resources of the region, with support from the World Wildlife Federation and the Boston-based human rights group, Cultural Survival. In the same year, President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro created the 1.3 million-hectare (3.2 million-acre) Miskito Cays Protected Area, the largest coastal protected area in Latin America.

The Miskito, like the other indigenous groups and the Creoles living on the Miskito Coast—a population collectively called costeños—consider themselves separate from the other inhabitants of Nicaragua and Honduras, whom they call "the Spanish." Altogether, the Miskito are thought to number as many as 200,000, around 150,000 in Nicaragua, where they are the largest indigenous group, and 50,000 in Honduras. Most of the Miskito population is centered in the northeastern-most part of Nicaragua, along the riverbanks and in mining areas in the interior, including Siuna, Rosita, and Bonanza.

Before the persecution by the Sandinistas in the 1980s, there were over 260 Miskito communities with 500 to 1,000 people each. Sixty-five of the 100 communities near the Rio Coco River, the most densely populated area, were destroyed by the Sandinistas. Many Miskito migrated to Honduras in the 1980s to avoid political persecution by the Sandinista government. Major settlements in Honduras are located near the Laguna de Caratasca and the banks of the Rio Patuca.

The Miskito's habitat is located in a tropical zone usually hit by natural forces. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch, and in 2007, Hurricane Felix, hit Miskito territory, causing severe damage.


Besides their native language, which is also called Miskito, the Miskito speak Spanish and English and are familiar with the English-based dialect spoken by the local Creole population. Because of their historically positive attitude toward Britain and the United States, in contrast to their enmity toward the Spanish, they are more likely to speak English than Spanish at home, in addition to Miskito.

Miskito belongs to the Misumalpan family of languages. There are three distinguishable dialects, belonging to the Miskito of eastern Nicaragua, those living along the Rio Coco, and those of eastern Honduras. The dialects, characterized by differences in vocabulary and pronunciation, are all mutually intelligible. Miskito has been influenced by the grammar and vocabulary of West African languages, as well as Spanish, English, and German.

In areas where Miskito is spoken, it has been adopted as the language of the Moravian church, in both spoken and written forms. (The Bible, hymn books, and other religious texts have been translated into Miskito). It has been given official status as an indigenous language in the Nicaraguan Constitution, and the Nicaraguan government has also recognized, by decree, the Miskito's right to be educated in their native language.


During the colonial era, the British nominally considered the Miskito society a "kingdom." Although its accepted leaders, or "kings," had little real power, legend has transformed them into an important cultural symbol, and they are now a popular subject for local theatrical presentations.

The Miskito believe it is possible to predict a person's death by dreams and other omens.


Miskito people were originally animistic and, in spite of centuries of exposure to Christianity, many of them have maintained their religious practices. In Miskito culture, shamans play an important and varied role serving as healers, diviners, and exorcists. For these Amerindian aborigines there are different kinds of super-natural beings. These deities have the power to affect human well-being, crop failures, and bad hunting, among another.

Even though many of the animist traditions have been kept by a large number of Miskito, Catholic influence in the zone has resulted in a syncretistic Christo-animism. Today, the dominant religion of the Miskito is the Moravian church, which gained a foothold as early as the 17th century through its missionaries and had most of the population converted by the beginning of the 20th century. (Its adherents also include other non-Hispanic populations of eastern Nicaragua, including the Sumu and Rama and the Creoles.) Moravian pastors are important figures in Miskito communities. Their congregations generally provide them with food, an obligation that may take the form of actually planting the pastor's rice and beans themselves. Catholic and fundamentalist Protestant churches have also gained some converts among the Miskito. The traditional folk religion of the Miskito included beliefs in spirits (lasas), omens, and in the powers of natural phenomena such as the moon. Its rituals, including funerals, involved dancing and drinking. When Christianity was introduced, some elements of folk religion were mingled with Christian beliefs and practices.


The Miskito observe the major holidays of the Christian calendar. Christmas (December 25) is an important holiday and is observed mainly in church. Christmas and New Year's (January 1) are especially festive because there is no plantation work at that time of year.


Major life transitions (such as birth, marriage, and death) are marked by religious ceremonies, usually following Christian traditions.


Villagers tend to magnify their personal quarrels, and feuds between different villages are common.


Miskito people live in close family units forming small and autonomous villages. Each of these villages has a leader in charge of administrating justice while settling differences among the village's residents. A sense of personal or private property is almost unknown among this people. Land is owned or sold except in the larger commercial towns. In rural areas, families have communitarian fields sharing tasks as well as the crops yielded by their common efforts. Rice, beans, and yucca are some of the main staples cultivated by Miskito people, while native bananas and plantain are gathered.

Miskito homes are built of split bamboo or lumber with roofs of thatch or corrugated metal. Some houses, usually wooden, consist of two structures, one that serves as a kitchen and the other as sleeping quarters, while bamboo homes are more likely to be composed of a single structure. Houses typically have a porch with a bench and a chair or hammock, and an open front yard that is used for both leisure and various types of work. The Miskito spend most of their time out of doors, and their houses are designed basically as places to cook, eat, sleep, store things, and take shelter from the elements when necessary.

Healthcare is limited or nonexistent in most villages and, therefore, infant mortality is one of the highest in Central America and life expectancy is one of the lowest. Western medicine coexists side by side with folk medicine among the Miskito, and a patient may receive conventional medical treatment and a "bush remedy" for the same ailment, as well as prayers by the local lay pastor. There are two types of folk practitioner: the curandero (herbalist) and the sukya (shaman). They use many similar treatment methods, but the curandero makes diagnoses based on the patient's dreams, while the sukya relies on chanting. Folk beliefs attribute illnesses to God, evil spirits, or the weather.

In addition to its distinctive culture, language, and way of life, the Miskito region is isolated from other areas of Nicaragua and Honduras by dense tropical rain forest and rugged mountains that make for difficult travel conditions. There is no comprehensive road network. Only a narrow dirt road connects Miskito lands to those outside them, and even this road is only open seasonally and takes two to three days to negotiate in a specially equipped four-wheel-drive vehicle. Many areas can be reached only on foot or by boat or airplane. There are port facilities at Puerto Lempira and Bilwi.


Young people engage in flirting activities to attract a potential mate, although parental consent must be obtained for marriage. Premarital sex, although common, is officially frowned upon. A couple may have both a civil and a church ceremony, although church weddings are often prohibitively expensive, and civil marriage is accepted in the eyes of the community. Fidelity is expected of both partners once they are married. Family life revolves around having children, who represent the union of the husband's and wife's families. The two families do not consider themselves related to each other until children have been born. In addition, children are their parents' only secure source of support in old age. When a woman remains childless, her husband is likely to father children by other women, and there is a good chance that their marriage will dissolve.

It is a common practice for children to have a godparent, or libra (often a female relative), who promises to be responsible for them in the event that the mother dies. Multiple family members, such as grandparents, older siblings, and unmarried aunts, help care for a child. It is considered acceptable for parents to have a child raised by someone else if they cannot afford to do it themselves.


Modern Western-style clothing, either store-bought or sewn from manufactured cloth, has replaced the traditional dress of the Miskito, which was made of locally woven cotton or bark- cloth and included loincloths for the men and cotton waist wraps for the women.


The Miskito eat two main meals, a morning meal eaten shortly before dawn and a late-afternoon meal eaten after workers return from their labor on the plantations. A light snack may be eaten at noontime. Although the Miskito eat the universal Latin American staple of rice and beans, they regard these foods primarily as cash crops and maintain a disdainful attitude toward them, referring to them as either "English food" or "Spanish food" in contrast to their traditional native foods, which include wild game, bananas, and plantains. Manioc (cassava) and other tubers, eaten boiled or baked, is another dietary staple, as are green bananas.

Rice is ground and prepared as gruel or in small cakes. Coconut milk is heavily used as a flavoring and a thickener for soups and sauces. Meat and fish are eaten sparingly. Maize is not an important part of the diet and is used mostly to make beverages, such as atol, made from mashed green corn. A typical Miskito dish is a stew called "rundown," consisting of green bananas, plantains, manioc or other root crops, fish, and coconut milk. Fermented fruits and vegetables are also popular and may be wrapped in leaves and buried until they have soured. Popular beverages include coffee and wabul, a beverage made from mashed boiled bananas or plantains and water.


Although Honduras and Nicaragua, where most Miskito live, both have free, compulsory primary education, the educational systems of both countries are inadequate, with low enrollment and graduation rates and high adult illiteracy. There are government schools in larger villages and Spanish is taught after the third grade. However, because of the precarious economic situation of this people, the majority of Miskito children do not attend school. Estimates of the adult illiteracy rate in Honduras range from 27% to over 40% and as high as 80% in rural areas (where most Miskito live). Schools are understaffed and undersupplied, with as many as 80 pupils per classroom.

While the Sandinista government effected some improvements in Nicaragua's poor educational record under the earlier Somoza regime, these mostly occurred in the early 1980s before the Contra war drained the country's resources in the latter half of the decade. A 1980 literacy campaign reportedly reduced adult illiteracy to around 23%. During the same period, the government recognized the right of native groups to be educated in their own languages and instituted the first bilingual programs for the Miskito in 1984. By the end of the decade, however, illiteracy had risen to pre-1980 levels and many primary- and secondary-level students were still not enrolled in school. However, rural access to education did improve during the Sandinista era.


Together with their common history and territory, the Miskito have a common culture that, together with their language, has been passed down from generation to generation. In the centuries since the first European contact, some of the Miskito's indigenous art forms—like their religion—have mingled with aspects of European culture. Thus the traditional dance called the aobaia is now commonly performed at Christmastime.

The Miskito have a large collection of love songs, of which the following is an example:

Lalma tininska mairinWandering lady humming-bird
Naiwa mamunisnatoday I sing your praises.
Naha paiaska kra winaWith this blowing breeze
Yang mai lukisnaI am thinking of you.
Prais mai alkra.Precious thoughts sent to you.

Another interesting aspect of Miskito musical tradition is the fact that in their culture men are in charge of performing medicinal as well as secular songs. In the case of healing songs, they are performed with vocal tension while secular songs are carried out with a more relaxed inflection. One of the most characteristic musical instruments used by Miskito men during their performances is the mirliton. This musical device is built with bat's wings, stretched between reeds, and surrounded with beeswax. The singer places the mirliton in his mouth in order to alter his vocal quality during funeral rites. Performance contexts include healing, initiation rites, funerals, collective ritual dances, and social gatherings.


The Miskito have traditionally engaged in hunting, fishing, and subsistence farming, raising beans, rice, yams, bananas, corn, cotton, and sugarcane. Other sources of cash are fur-trapping and extracting the sap from wild rubber trees. Miskito also work as hired laborers for fruit and logging companies, and as gold miners. Increasing numbers are becoming migrant workers and sending cash remittances home to their families. Modern Miskito are eminently farmers. Even though their principal staple crop is the cassava, they also keep poultry, cattle, and other farm animals.


Informal games of baseball are often organized on Sunday afternoons after church.


Kihrbaia, or strolling, is a favorite pastime, especially on Sundays. During their leisure time, villagers also enjoy relaxing at home or visiting with relatives. Church activities are an important diversion for women and young girls, who look forward with great anticipation to church conferences held in neighboring villages. For the most part, they are closely tied to their homes and immediate villages while men, who often travel about seeking work, are typically more mobile.


The Miskito weave baskets and fashion gourds and calabashes into both functional and decorative objects. They still make bark-cloth, which was used for clothing before their adoption of Western-style garments. It is now made into bed coverings. Other handmade items include carved and woven household utensils and furniture and dugout canoes.


The Miskito generally fare worse than the mixed-race (mestizo) or black (Creole) populations in terms of income, education, and job opportunities. The Sandinista Revolution of the 1980s severely disrupted the lives of the Miskito population, threatening their subsistence and personal safety, leading to large-scale relocations, and creating refugee conditions for many. In the early 1990s, many Miskito were forced to migrate to other regions in search of work, separating from their families for extended periods of time.

Drug traffickers from Colombia have started using the Miskito Coast as a transshipment route and fueling stop, but cocaine consumption by the Miskito has not become a significant local problem. In fact, the Miskito have attempted to resist the intrusion of drug traffickers into their regions.


The Miskito cosmology, like that of many indigenous peoples, describes an egalitarian duality between the masculine and feminine realms. In Miskito tradition, women are revered and violence against them is considered deviant. However, colonization, Christianity, and cultural assimilation have eroded egalitarian Miskito traditions. Today, a key concern of Miskito women is gender-based violence. For them, violence does not only stem from gender discrimination and women's subordination within their families and communities, but it also arises from attitudes and policies that violate collective indigenous rights.

Miskito practice matrilocal residence and Miskito women act as the keepers of traditional customs and values. In addition to their domestic responsibilities, women take part in farm work, including planting, weeding, and harvesting. Even though in the past Miskito women did not work for wages, today a few women, accompanied by men, work in town as domestics or in plantations. However, the discrimination that Miskito women confront in the labor market keeps many of them outside the wage economy and in the subsistence sector. Few of the jobs open to Miskito women pay a living wage, and many women who wish to work for wages cannot find employment.

The economic crisis that began in the 1960s in Nicaragua pushed Miskito men to look for alternative sources of income by commercializing their natural resources and agriculture. This change eroded traditional views of communal labor and reciprocity, and altered gender roles since women were predominately the agricultural laborers.


Dennis, Philip Adams. The Miskitu People of Awastara. Austin: University of Texas Press: Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies, 2004.

García, Claudia. The Making of the Miskitu People of Nicaragua: the Social Construction of Ethnic Identity. Uppsala: Universitetet, 1996.

Hale, Charles R. Resistance and Contradiction: The Miskitu Indians and the Nicaraguan State 1894–1987. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994.

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

———. "Miskito." In Encyclopedia of World Cultures. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1992.

Jukofsky, Diane. "Heart of the Miskito." In The Law of the Mother: Protecting Indigenous Peoples in Protected Lands,edited by Elizabeth Kemf. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1993.

Merrill, Tim L. Honduras: A Country Study. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1995.

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

— — —. "The Miskito Nation and the Geopolitics of Self-Determination." In The Ethnic Dimension in International Relations, edited by Bernard Schechterman and Martin Slann. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1993.

Noveck, Daniel. "Class, Culture, and the Miskito Indians: A Historical Perspective." Dialectical Anthropology 13, no. 1 (1988): 17–29.

Olson, James S. The Indians of Central and South America: An Ethnohistorical Dictionary. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991.

Pérez Chiriboga, Isabel M. Espíritus de vida y muerte: los miskitu hondureños en época de guerra. Tegucigalpa, Honduras: Editorial Guaymuras, 2002.

Whisnant, David E. Rascally Signs in Sacred Places: The Politics of Culture in Nicaragua. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

Whitten, Norman E., Jr. "Ethnogenesis." In Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology, edited by David Levinson and Melvin Ember. New York: Holt and Co., 1996.

—revised by C. Vergara


views updated Jun 08 2018


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.