This is the third post of a series of blogs describing the Bribrí people of Talamanca, Costa Rica. I have been living in the community of Yorkín conducting research since June of 2015. Yorkín is a community of around 270 people situated on the border with Panama which has experienced rapid culture change due to increased contact with outside influences and technologies brought about as the result of initiating ecotourism in the community. My research examines how these changes are influencing health.
In 1502 Columbus landed at the area of present day Limón during his third voyage, describing it as the costa rica– “rich coast.” His arrival sparked centuries of turbulent relationships between colonizers and the indigenous inhabitants of Costa Rica at large and the Bribrí in Talamanca specifically. The earliest accounts, such as that made by Juan Vasquez de Coronado, states that in the area the women worked alongside the men, even bearing arms and going to war. Coronado also described the land as being heavily populated and fertile, with an abundance of crops such as cotton, cacao, corn, and native fruits and plants.
In 1693, a war began with the Miskito Indians, whose traditional land was on the Caribbean coast in present day northern Costa Rica and southern Nicaragua. The incursion of the Miskitos was fueled and supported by colonial powers who provided them with armaments. The Miskitos served as guides for the English, French, and Dutch, who were waging war against the Spaniards. The Miskitos then directed their attention to the Bribrí, who they began capturing and making into slaves. In a strange twist of fate, the Bribrí ended up allying with their Spanish oppressors against the Miskitos. The Miskito Indians then adopted a system of monarchy similar to those of the colonial powers, which the Bribrí also later adopted. It is hypothesized that this system was adopted perhaps to be better organized for warfare and resistance. The Miskitos made slaves of and exacted tribute from the Bribrí up until the early 1800s. This century long period of war culminated in 1827 when the Miskitos left and the Bribrí won another war against the Naso.
In 1881, the Catholic Church finally saw fit to address the shortcomings in its dealings with the indigenous inhabitants of Talamanca. The Church mandated a new program of kinder, gentler relationships with the natives under the new leadership of Father Bernardo Thiel. Finally, after 300 years, the Catholic missions begin to take hold. Today, inhabitants of Talamanca for the most part describe themselves as Catholic, whether they practice the religion or not. Most others do not adhere to the Christian faith, but there is a smattering of Evangelicals and Adventists.
In 1858, American John Lyon was appointed governor of Talamanca, ushering in a period of the Costa Rican government collaborating, at least to a small degree, with the local inhabitants in the governance of Talamanca. In 1871, Governor Lyon appointed the first political leader among the Bribrí recognized by the Costa Rican government; his name was Chirimo. During my ethnographic data collection, I often heard the story of Antonio Saldana. In 1880 Saldana was appointed leader of the Bribrí. He is often referred to as the Last King of the Bribrí. Saldana agitated for increased rights from the Costa Rican government for his people. Minor Keith introduced commercial bananas to the area and the United Fruit Company moved in at the beginning of the 1900s. Bananas would prove to be an important food source and cash crop for the Bribrí. Saldana spoke out against the incursion of the United Fruit Company into the Talamancan Valley in which Bribrí were forcibly removed from traditional lands. He died in 1929 under mysterious circumstances, and many believe he was killed by interests representing the United Fruit Company. Others suggest it was most likely due to political infighting.
Geologist William Gabb traveled throughout Talamanca in 1873 and later published his accounts in the document entitled On the Indian tribes and languages of Costa Rica. His accounts are sometimes described as racist, often describing the Bribrí as lazy, unintelligent, and undisciplined. However, he later married a Bribrí woman, lived in the area for several years, and the last name Gabb is common in Talamanca. The Bribrí did not begin using last names until the 1950s. This was due to the urging of the Costa Rican government, which began a system of issuing national ID cards. The second half of the 20th century was characterized by an increased reliance on capitalism and an increase of contact with the larger Costa Rican, Panamanian, and global world in general, bringing about rapid culture change.
The Bribrí and their closest relatives, the Cabecar, belong to the Chibchan language group and in the past shared common leaders and a cohesive political entity until geographic features contributed to their isolation, effectively splitting the groups around 300 years ago. Legend has it that the god Sibö created both the Bribrí and the Cabecar, but they were split into two tribes by a great river.
The Bribrí for the most part live in the Talamanca Indigenous Reserve, which was set aside in 1977 by the Costa Rican government. It is located within La Amistad Biosphere Reserve in the southeast corner of the Limón province of Costa Rica. The area is characterized by mountainous rainforest. The Talamancan Range tops out at 3583 meters. The Skuy River forms the southern boundary of the community of Yorkín, flows into Rio Yorkín which forms the border with Panama. The Rio Yorkín flows into the Telire, and on to the Rio Sixaola in the valley of Talamanca. It empties into the Caribbean Sea south of Manzanillo, Costa Rica, in Panama. These river systems are important, not only for transportation of people and supplies, but they also provide an important protein-based food source for inhabitants of the area. According to the 2011 Costa Rican census, there are close to 13,000 indigenous people living on reserves in the country with close to 8,000 living on the Bribrí Talamanca Reserve.