Dispatches From the Field #4

Sibö (the Bribrí god) made the first indigenous people from seeds of corn. He brought the seeds from a place called suLa’kaska, which means the Place of Destiny. At the time the earth was only rock, and Sibö knew he had to create soil in order to plant his corn seeds. On another planet there lived a tapir family. Sibö asked a bat to fly to that place and suck the blood of a little girl tapir. The bat did as he was told and when he returned to the earth he defecated on the rocks. A few days later the first trees began to sprout from that place. Sibö realized that his experiment to make soil was working, so he sent the bat again to suck the blood of the little girl tapir. The bat returned and again defecated upon the rocks and more trees grew. Sibö then made more soil from the flesh and blood of the little girl tapir. Sibö then planted corn seeds of all different colors to create the indigenous people of the earth; this is why indigenous people have different skin colors and tones. Sibö brought the seeds to the earth during the nighttime; that is why the awapa chant and do their curing ceremonies at night. He named the people dtsö, which means corn seeds. One of Sibö’s relatives, Plekeköl (the king of the leaf-cutter ants) created the white people of the earth which he named síkwa. The Bribrí belong to Sibö; he is their owner, they are his things, not his relatives. – Bribrí creation storysibu_sembrando_a_su_pueblo_by_gorgoncult

On October 15, I walked the one hour along the Yorkín River to get to Shuabb, crossing the Brís and Shuabb rivers which were both low and easily forded in Chaco sandals. I was passed by two guys from Yorkín who were going by horseback. Everybody else went by lancha (the motorized, dugout canoes used by the some of the residents of Yorkín, others use long poles to power their canoes up and down the river). The small community was hosting a Dia de la Cultura. I got there and took a seat in front of a makeshift stage on a low bench set upon cinder blocks. In a few moments a trio of young girls performed a corn ceremony (see video on Facebook) celebrating the creation of the Bribrí from corn seeds sown by their creator, Sibö. After the presentation, I was offered a calabash bowl of pejibaye juice. I noticed I was the first person served, perhaps this was because I was one of only two síkwapa ( white people, pa makes the word plural) in attendance.

Next, a group of elementary school students from Yorkín performed a traditional Costa Rican dance from the province of Guanacaste. The bright colors of their outfits were in stark contrast to the subdued earth tones usually worn by the inhabitants of Talamanca. It also struck me that this traditional Costa Rican dance came right after the traditional Bribrí ceremony, illustrating the syncretism of cultures that has been occurring for some time among the Bribrí. Please see videos on my Facebook page.

Soon after I finished my bowl of pejibaye juice, I was offered another calabash bowl full of hot rice and milk. Again, the Peace Corps volunteer and I were the first ones served. As I drank my hot rice and milk, I watched two other dances featuring high school girls performing modern dances much like you would see at an American high school. Most of the community members of Shuabb and Yorkín do not own televisions (there are only three in Yorkín) but they have phones, and they are up to date on the latest music and dance from Costa Rica and Panama.

Following these performances by the elementary and high school students, a large rope was then brought out into the Plaza and women began lining up on either side of the rope grabbing hold. “By God” I thought to myself “they’re gonna do a tug-of-war!” They did “the best two out of three” with the side that the Peace Corps volunteer was on losing both times. I teased her that she wasn’t putting up a good show for us síkwapa. It was next the men’s turn and I ran to get a position as the anchor at the end of the rope. In elementary school, I was always one of the biggest guys and was therefore always the anchor in good old tug-of-war, and here in Talamanca I am usually one of the two or three biggest guys around. There were about 12 per side, everybody digging in their heels and gripping the rope furiously. The officiator counted to three and we began pulling with all our might. I began sweating and slipping in the wet grass and mud. After what seemed like several minutes our side won, pulling the other team completely over with an exuberant final pull. We lined up again and once more defeated our opponents. I was sweaty and muddy and instinctively held up my hand to receive high-fives. Obviously the high-five has not made a comeback in Talamanca, as I was left hanging by everybody. Instead, I proceeded to slap the backs of my teammates. We were all smiling and breathing heavily. I sat back down and received a calabash bowl of banana horchata, again being served first.

The young people were playing volleyball and soccer while the teenagers danced to Panamanian hip-hop. I was beginning to feel like I really needed something to eat and was in the mood for some chicha (the alcoholic fermented corn beverage they drink in Talamanca). It was just then that I was given a banana leaf bowl filled with rice, palmito, chicken, and a boiled banana. There was still no chicha to be seen. I then saw the organizers start to pull out the Bribrí traditional bow and arrows. Two of the young ecotourism guides from Yorkín walked to where they were setting up. They attached 4” x 4” paper targets to strings and tied them to a branch of a tree about 50 paces away. While I was watching, I didn’t see anybody pierce the paper target, but several people hit it and even more were right next to it. I got two great photographs of the two young guides from Yorkín with their bows. WP_20151015_010I didn’t even think about participating in this event, as I didn’t want to make a fool of myself – the bowstring is so hard to pull that I have a difficult time holding the arrow in place with my arthritic fingers. I can manage it, but I can’t get anywhere near my target.

I noticed a few people beginning to leave the festival, and there being no promise of chicha on the horizon, I decided to say my goodbyes and head down the trail back to Yorkín. I took my time, and relished the views of the distant mountains and the Yorkín River Valley; a rare opportunity as most of the trails lead deep into the rain forest where sweeping views are at a premium until you get up rather high. I had the opportunity to reflect on this day and the blending of cultural influences that I witnessed. Tim Plowman, one of Richard Schultes’ students who worked in the Amazon basin as an ethnobotanist once said, “When you’ve lived in complete isolation, how can you understand what it means to lose a culture? It’s not until it is almost gone and when people become educated that they realize what’s being lost. By then the attractions of the new way are overpowering, and the only people who want the old ways are the ones who never lived it.” I would say that people don’t “lose a culture,” but rather lose aspects of culture. Indeed, cultural anthropologists often include the statement that cultures change in their description of it. It is a delicate balance that many of the Bribrí inhabitants of the Talamancan area are navigating; honoring and preserving their traditional culture while embracing and incorporating aspects of the modern world at-large, all while making it uniquely their own. Time will only tell how this balancing act will play out. (And I never did get any chicha that day L).



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