Healthcare in the Honduran Mosquitia Faces Special Issues
By Wendy Griffin
Studies of traditional healthcare and beliefs about how diseases are caused, diagnosed and cured among the Miskito Indians of the Honduran Mosquitia have generally taken place in the context of some event of global interest has taken place in the Mosquitia. For example there are two studies of “grisi siknes”, a hysterical disease caused by problems of stress or “nervios” which many Miskito Indians on both sides of the Honduran-Nicaragua border suffered during the Contra War. Isabel Perez, an Ecuadorian anthropologist married to a Honduran university professor, in her book Entre la Vida y la Muerte (Between Life and Death), tried to give the foundations of Miskito beliefs in illness and wellness, before analyzing specifically “grisi siknes” during the Contra War period whose name come from gris-grey in Spanish, and the English word sickness. 91% of the people who live in the Honduran Mosquitia come from a minority culture like the Miskito Indians, Tawahkas, Pech, and Garífunas, and for most Spanish is not the language they use at home.
More recently as over a thousand Miskito divers have become paralyzed due to decompression illness (the bends) while lobster diving for international seafood companies , the issue of how do you treat or prevent or do education about this illness, has had to take into account that Miskitos see it as as one type of illness caused by angry mermaids or water spirits (liwa mairin) who protect the aquatic life from over exploitation, illnesses generally treated by traditional healers, called sukya, rather than hospitals, which is the subject of Laura Hobson Herilhy, an anthropologist at the University of Kansas.
Danira Miralda’s book “La Guerra de Baja Intensidad y los Pueblos originarios de la Mosquitia” (The War of Low Intensity and the original peoples of the Mosquitia”) is full of references to “no hay medicina” “there is no medicine” in the Mosquitia, a rainforest area known to have at least 600 documented medicinal plants which traditional healers among the Miskitos, the Garifunas, the Pech, the Tawahkas, and the Ladinos or Spanish speakers used.
The reason for this contradiction is that the Moravian Evangelical Church threatens people, for example they might not be able to stay in the church or in the village, if they use traditional healers who know how to diagnose traditional illnesses and prescribe medicinal plant remedies. These healers, called sukya in Miskito, are associated to pre-Christian Miskito religious beliefs, and for example believe that before you pick a medicinal plant you must say the prayer or secret of the plant, called “sika” in Miskito, so that the spiritual owners of the plants will activate it and it will work. Trying to collect just the name and use of the plant does not work, according to these healers, because, you have to have the permission to take the plant and activate its medicine. These Miskito, Garifuna, and Pech Indian healers also often prepare themselves before collecting the plants, so that they are in the right state to collect plants and ask for permissions.
The Miskitos, like the Garifunas, are the result of the mix of Africans with Indians, and this belief in “sika” is similar to African medicinal beliefs about medicinal plant beliefs, such as in the Wikimedia article on Traditional African medicine. However, Native America healers in the US, and Garifuna and Pech healers in Honduras, also agree that it is not just a case of knowing a medicinal plant and for example, growing a whole field of it commercially and processing it into capsules, that there are permissions, prayers, payments, and mysteries involved, and these too are probably “censored” topics among Western medical doctors.
The issue of currently evangelical Christian missionaries and in the past Catholic missionaries telling traditional people not to use traditional healers and midwives, and medicinal plant cures, and not to learn from these people, even when no other locally available alternative, like government health clinics, were available, is probably also a “censored” topic.
I originally began to study Garifuna midwife techniques, to see if I could help understand why Miskito women had such high levels of infant and mortality, a problem reported to me by a MOPAWI Miskito employee Walstead Miller. I thought maybe if we could exchange experiences of the Miskitos and Garifunas, who live in similar eco-systems and so would have access to similar plants, we could lower the mother and infant mortality among the Miskitos. We were never able to do the seminars due to lack of funding, so I was not able to discuss with the women themselves the reason why Miskito women have such a high rate of mother and infant mortality.
In the entire Honduran Mosquitia, there is only one government hospital in Puerto Lempira, even though there are at least 120 villages large enough to have an elementary school. There are healthcare clinics in not more than three or four Miskito towns, such as Brus Laguna and Ahuas. There are almost no roads in the Mosquitia, with most people getting around by canoes, with or without outboard motors, and in the case of real emergencies paying for charter flights in and out of the Mosquitia or from the villages to the regional hospital in Puerto Lempira. There usually are not 4 doctors to serve the entire Mosquitia, and these doctors are often not graduated doctors, but rather students who are finishing a 5 year undergraduate program in medicine who are doing one year of social service, a requirement of Honduran medical schools. The total inability of the government or missionary provided health care to meet the sheer volume of needs of the Mosquitia, is one reason that local healers and midwives remain important in the Mosquitia, as they are in Africa.
One problem contributing to high maternal death rates in the Mosquitia may be that modern Miskito midwives may not be able to use the medicinal plants traditionally used by the Miskitos, either because the destruction of the rainforest has wiped them out, or because being part of the Moravian church they did not teach them to the new generation, and the new generation for the same reason may not have learned them. The young Miskito women may have gone to Spanish speaking government schools and taught to look down on traditional knowledge of Indians and Blacks and non-Christians.
There is also an added problem among Miskitos, that most of the people who are bilingual in Miskito and Spanish are men. The topic of childbirth among Miskito men is so taboo, that in a mixed meeting of teachers, the Miskito male teachers were so embarrassed to even say the word for Miskito midwives, as an example for the list of “Who are the Workers in my community”, a common topic in first grade texts, that in the end I have never heard the Miskito word for midwife spoken clearly.
If the Miskito men will not even say the word for midwife, we can imagine that the monolingual in Miskito women who go to a Western style hospital in the Mosquitia, are going to have a very hard time finding anyone who will translate for them with the doctors who are usually monolingual in Spanish, if there is some complication in the pregnancy. The Miskito midwives also simply may not know the same plants as the Garifunas, and it would be a benefit for them to be able to learn to use them, to help the other Miskito women.
The Miskito Indians, still a very traditional people in many ways and the group with the highest percentage of monolingual indigenous language speakers in Honduras, have a lot of beliefs regarding birth, and regarding the cutting of the umbilical cord, and the proper burying of the placenta, which are all acts that among the Miskitos they believe affects them their whole lives. The person who is given the ceremonial job of cutting the child’s umbilical cord at birth, calls the child “lapia” the rest of its life and there is a fictive kinship bond between them, which is true of most Honduran ethnic groups, including Black English speakers who call the midwives “goddies”, short for Godmother. The Garifunas use the Spanish word “comadrona” the big co-mother of the child, and the child usually calls their mother’s midwife, “abuela” (grandmother), even if they are of different races like mestizo children and a Garifuna midwife, like Yaya.
Another example of the sacredness of birth, Miskito mothers bury the umbilical cord under a tree, and that tree is that child’s tree their whole life, even if they move away. Adult Miskito men, even professionals in Tegucigalpa the country’s capital, will still talk about where their umbilical cords is buried, that their umbilical cord is buried in the Mosquitia, that it calls them home, that they are literally sons of the Mosquitia, because they are planted, physically planted as well as spiritually planted, in the earth in the Mosquitia.
A Maya Chorti man told me he did not believe in the necessities of total purity in the burying of the afterbirth, and so was not as careful as he could have been, and everyone told him that is the reason his children had eye problems. Garifuna midwives bury the afterbirth in a secret place, partly to avoid the danger of witchcraft against the person.
Can you imagine telling these traditional people in a US hospital, we are collecting the placentas to make replacement tissue for burns, as one US researcher is trying to get a patent to do? Or that we just throw them away as hazard waste, because of the danger that the mother might be HIV positive?
One researcher thought there were now more Mayas in the US, than any single Maya tribe in Central America. Are we being respectful to traditional people’s beliefs if they happen to give birth in a US hospital instead of at home in Central America or in Africa? Are we teaching doctors, who are overwhelmingly male, to be disrespectful to the beliefs of minority women? The theme of the Censored medical conference, also includes references to gender and gender issues, and these are some ways why the two issues are linked.
Besides the issue of midwives, the Miskito Indians believe in a wide range of illnesses caused by angry nature spirits, by upset spiritual owners of animals and trees as well as of fish or lobsters, and also by ancestor spirits called “isigni” among the Miskito Indians. The belief in witchcraft is also widespread in the Mosquitia. Pech Indians who have been cured or their family members have been cured of witchcraft (mal), and of diseases caused by upset nature spirits, by Miskito traditional healers, say they are alive today and their children are alive today because these Miskito healers healed them.
Honduran rainforest Indians like the Pech, Miskitos, and the Tawahkas are also essential for their knowledge of how to cure snakebites, because if you have been bit by a lance de fer snake (barba amarilla or tamagas) in the rainforest, such as during the time of the Truxillo Railroad, a subsidiary of united Fruit in NE Honduras, the worker would not live long enough to reach a government or banana company hospital if the local Indians or Garifunas did not agree to cure you. It takes about 40 minutes for a person to die of a lance de fer snake bite, while the trip from Sico to the banana company hospital by train took all day. Although lance de fer snakes are common in the area and United Fruit had a serpenterium to study poisonous snakes in Trujillo, the Truxillo Railroad reported almost no deaths to these snakes, thanks to these traditional healers. Among most NE Honduras ethnic groups curing snake bites and making them not come back is a speciality of male healers (curanderos) rather than female healers (curanderas).
Among both Mesoamerican Indians like the Nahua who used to live in the Trujillo area and later moved into the Mosquitia and for Africans snake magic as well as snake bite curing was an important aspect of their culture. The Honduran Spanish name for this snake Tamagas comes from the Nahua name, which is also the origin of the name of the one the highest levels of governors in the Pipil state, who spoke Nahua. In Honduran Spanish the phrase “ el mero mero Tamagas” (the really high up or important lance de fer) refers to some high ranking person not the snake. The towns in the Trujillo area had names like CeCoatl (One Snake), when the Spanish with Cortes arrived. The SiguaCoatl, the woman snake was also a high ranking position in Nahua and Lenca societies, and in spite of the name is thought to refer to a male official or leader. The Miskito word for mermaids who cause mermaid sickness (liwa sicknes) is “liwa marin” (the worm or snake female). The idea of large snakes in the water who bite children and cause them to drown or disappear also exists among the Pech Indians.
While the Pech Indians have lost most of their healing ceremonies as a result of adopting more seriously the Catholic religion since the 1960’s, they are very concerned about the possibility of losing the snakebite curing ceremonies as the Pech healers who know the ceremonies and the plants are now over 70 years old, and if the young people do not learn the plants, and the prayers, the Pech in the future and other Hondurans in their area may die of these poisonous snake bites. It can take all day to reach a government hospital from the Pech area, if the hospital even had any medicine which they often do not, and an untreated lance de fer snake bite can kill you in under an hour.
Another part of this Pech healing ceremony is the male healer (curandero) blows through a carrizo tube (acatl in Nahua) a technique known as “soplo” and used from Honduras all the way into the Amazon. However after a two and half year off and on search, even going up into the mountains in the nuclear zone of the Rio Platano biosphere and the Sierra de Agalta National Park, the Pech can not find any Carrizo to do the soplo part of the ceremony or for making a Pech flute, of which one example was recently donated to the Burke Museum at the University of Washington. Carrizo grows only at an altitude above 1,500 feet, which is also the attitude considered appropriate for growing coffee, a major Honduran export.
Traditional Indian and Afro-Honduran Music Threatened-The example of Carrizo Flutes
By Wendy Griffin
Without a doubt the rarest Honduran craft recently donated to the Burke Anthropological Museum at the University of Washington in Seattle is a Pech Carrrizo Flute, none of which had been made in the last 20 years. The reasons why this flute had not been made in 20 years highlight a whole range of the problems faced by rainforest Indian or Afro-Honduran crafts, especially those related to the religious ceremonies of Indian or Afro-Honduran peoples.
The maker of the Pech flute donated to the Burke Museum Don Hernan Martinez of Moradel, outside of Trujillo, also made an example of this type of traditional flute for himself to play in his son Angel’s Pech musical group which also includes Pech marracas (kamacha), Pech drum (tempuk), and either an electronic keyboard or guitar played by ProfesorAngel Martinez.
Since the Pech have forgotten most of the old songs in Pech, Profesor Angel and other Pech teachers like Profesor Gil Lugo Catalan are composing new comtemporary songs in Pech. The Pech Indians have rescued at least 3 traditional dances that in some cases had not been danced in 40 years, and last year danced in Central Park in Trujillo to traditional dances and music for probably the first in 1,000 years, when they were displaced from the Trujillo area,such as the archaeological site Silin Farm, by the arrival of Mexican Indians like Nahuas in the Post Classic period (900-1500 AD).
Why Intergenerational Loss of Traditional Knowledge and Crafts happens?
The problems of why there were no Pech Carrizo flutes for at least 20years include almost all the problems of intergenerational transmission of modern Indians—the Carrizo had mostly been destroyed in the habitat above 1,5000 feet where it was native to (this is also the recommended altitude for coffee), the few people who knew how to make it moved to a new eco-system where the plant was not available, the plant was supposed to be protected in protected areas like the Rio Platano biosphere Reserve and the El Carbon Anthropological Reserve, but it was not protected and was cut down, it is valued by the Pech and almost all other Indian groups but often not by Ladino cattle ranchers or coffee growers who can consider it in the way and cut it down, the part of the culture when it was played was lost when the Pech were converted to more orthodox Catholocism or Evengelical Christianity, and no longer did their traditional ceremonies where the music was played.
The lack of good intercultural educational programs meant that the Pech were taught Ladino folkdances,usually played on marimba an instrument of African origin, rather than teaching them their own dances and music. The Carrizo flute is also affected by the local extinction of animals and plants in their ecosystem which were needed to make it or which the music copied the sound of, and the lack of good intercultural education meant that Pech crafts were not being handed down in either the homes or in the schools.
Pech- An Endangered Language in Honduras
The almost complete loss of the Pech language which has an estimated 300 speakers, almost all older adults, out of 3,800 inhabitants, also affects the teaching of crafts and especially the stories associated with them from one generation to the other. In Honduras most indigenous languages in Honduras are in the endangered category according to the UNESCO Atlas of Endangered Languages except Miskito, which is still considered vulnerable, as more Miskito children go to school now. Profesor Angel Martinez, the Pech teacher who lives in Trujillo and whose father made the Carrizo flute in the Burke Museum, described the Pech as being in an ethnological crisis during his talk at the Central American Linguists Congress in Tegucigalpa in August 2013.
No Birds Means No Songs of Birds for Flutes
The first thing I heard about this Carrizo flute over 20 years ago, was that no one knew how to play it any more. There used to be two Pech flutes—one made of a jaguar bone and black wax, and one made of Carrizo, a bamboo like plant, and black wax. One of these flutes should sound like the rainforest bird the pavon, and the other one should sound like the rainforest pajuil. Both of these birds are considered delicious eating by almost every group in Honduras, and they are larger, so they have more meat to eat.
The reason Pech young people can not play the flutes correctly, even if they had one, was that there are almost no pavons or pajuiles left in Honduras. They are among the animals in danger of extinction in Honduras. Most things the Garifunas, the Pech, the Miskito Indians, the Tolpuan Indians and the Tawahkas ate sounds like a who’s who of endangered animal, bird, and aquatic life species in Honduras.
The story of the origin of the jaguar bone flute among the Pech is interesting, because it is the same story shown in an Aztec codex,such as shown in David Dominici’s book The Aztecs. In the Pech story collected in Lazaro Flores’s and book Dioses,heroes Hombres en el Universo Mitico Pech, (Gods, heros and Men in the Pech Mythical Universe) the grandfather thunder assigned the two grandsons, the morning star Kapani and the Evening star his twin, to hunt the animal with big whiskers and after they had killed a lot of different kinds of animals and him saying that is not the one, the morning star hunts the yellow tiger or jaguar, and kills it.
When they show it to grandfather, he says that is the one. The scene in the Aztec Codex shows the morning star as the god of hunt killing a yellow jaguar. Then the grandsons have to get the wax for the flute. The evening star gets stung in the testicles while he tried to get the wax. After they made the flute, they were allowed to go to the sky, so actually it is a pretty important story, as it is the story of the origin of the morning star (associated with Quetzalcoatl by the Aztecs, and Quetzalcoatl heads are found all over the area like on www.roatanet.com/ciudadblanca) and his twin the evening star. Among the Pech Indians the morning star is also associated with the hunt and in the earliest hours of the morning (kapani in Pech), when the morning star is out, but not the sun, it is taboo to hunt animals then, as they are under the protection of the Morning Star (kapani).
The Connection of Pech Flute Myths and Aztec Flute Myths
Since there are no jaguars in Central Mexico, but there are jaguar bone flutes in the ruins in Mexico and in the archaeological ruins near Trujillo, it seems that the Nahua speakers of Trujillo were exporting jaguar bone flutes to the Aztecs before the Spanish conquest. They also seemed to have exported whole jaguars, as whole skeletons are found in Aztec ruins as sacrifices. Wouldn’t that have been fun to travel from Trujillo to Mexico by canoe with a jaguar in the canoe?
Eduard Conzemius reports the jaguar bone flutes still being made in Honduras in the 1920’s when he was visiting the Pech, the Misktios and Tawahkas before the Truxillo Railroad, a subsidiary of United Fruit (now Chiquita) moved onto their areas. The lack of jaguars is only one reason why these jaguar bone flutes are not being made today in Honduras.
Teresa Campos, the Director of the San Pedro Sula Museum, is particularly interested in traditional musical instruments, having recently published an article on the 1,200 whistle, ocarina, and flute like objects in the San Pedro Sula Museum’s collection in a new journal devoted to the field archeomusicology. While “aerophones”, musical instruments that make music because you blow air through them made of clay or jaguar bones will remain the archaeological record, but those made of the bamboo like plant “Carrizo” will rot, and so she was excited about the possibility to acquire a collection of modern Honduran Indian musical instruments, including the Pech Carrizo flute known as a “arwa” in Pech, for the new San Pedro Museum’s Indian Craft Exhibit which was due to open in Janaury 2014, but the opening has been postphoned due to lack of funding.
Carrizo Flutes Were both Ancient and Widespread in Honduras
I was also interested in obtaining a Pech Carrizo flute, the arwa, because it is similar to all the other Carrizo flutes in Honduras-the ones previously made by the Maya Chorti, by the Lencas, and still made by the Tawahkas and the Miskitos, who call it bra or bará. Because the ceramics of the Lencas during the Classic period, known as Ulua polychrome, are so clear, in the collection at the San Pedro Museum, you can see what musical instruments the Lencas played in the Classic Period (300-900 AD), which included the Carrizo flute.
During the Colonial Period in Central America, the Catholic Church banned all indigenous instruments except Drums and Flutes from accompanying dances and ceremonies associated with Catholic Saints. These large dance-dramas such as Moors and Christians and La Huasteca (this dance is asscociated with la Malinche Hernan Cortes’s Maya-Nahua,-Spanish translator who was from the La Huasteca part of Mexico) by the Chortis or Guancascos of the Lencas continue until today, but most Lencas and Chortis have forgotten how to make the Carrizo flutes and how to play them They have either replaced them with plastic soprano recorders for their ceremonies needing this instrument, notes David Flores, or sometimes in the case of the Honduran Chortis substituted violin and guitar music known as “sons” for their ceremonias.
My Tawahka Carrizo flute that I was given by the Tawahka dance group Mayagna Rikni (Our Roots) in 1993 when they stayed at my house in Tegucigalpa, I had donated to the Ethnobotany lab at the UNAH in Tegucigalpa together with some other Honduran crafts like Garifuna maracas made in Trujillo, so that they would expand their understanding of ethnobotany to include craft plants used by the ethnic groups, instead of just medicinal plants.
Pech Bilingual Education Books Had Incorrect Drawings of Musical Instruments and Crafts
I also wanted a Pech Carrizo flute, because I was distressed because the new textbooks in the Pech language, part of the Cipotillos de Mi Pais collection (the little children of my country, cipote being a Honduran Spanish word derived from the Nahua word xipe or small) of the Honduran Ministry of Education’s PRONEEAAH project, has pictures of the musical instruments of all the ethnic groups in one section and pictures specifically of Pech musical instruments in another section, that were wrong.
A Pech Carrizo flute (arwa), and none of the Honduran Indian Carrizo flutes, do not look like a Chinese bamboo flute which was what was shown in the book. Not only was the picture of the Pech flute was wrong, but the musical bow, the bobo, was wrong as it was missing the gourd bowl resonator, the maracas were wrong, particularly the painting of them was incorrect, they showed the wrong gourd, they were missing the pita string tied on the outside, etc.
Not only the musical instruments were wrong, but almost all the Pech crafts in the book were wrong. A large round majao string bag used for storing meat before there was refrigeration is called ara’, but in the Pech book for the word ara’ they have a drawing of a modern leather purse. There is an example of the ara’ in the San Pedro Sula and Burke Museum.
The bilingual education books for the Pech had a word canasto, with a picture of a basket that no one in Honduras makes, while the Pech do not make “canastas” or closed weave baskets like those of Carrizo made by the Lencas and the Chortis, but rather they made “yaguales” called “arkás” in Pech, which are hanging baskets with a vine rim and a spider web weave inside. Two of Doña Juana’s yaguales, the Pech chief of Moradel outside of Trujillo are in the San Pedro Sula Museum and one is in the Burke Museum at the University of Washington.
Almost every Honduran ethnic group made yaguals—the Maya Chorti, the Lencas, the Miskitos, the Tawahkas, the Pech and even the Ladinos, although they vary whether they use pita (from a agave or maguey like plants that needs 90-125 of sun) or majao (purú in Pech, sani in Miskito, weñu in Garifuna) twine made from tree bark, because these groups live in rainforest where that much sun is not available and a number of people still have them in their houses hanging from the roof beams. They were good for storing lard, gourd bowls, salt, things you did not want rats to bother. Some Ladinos hung gourd bowls above them to help the rats slip down, and some more modern people put a hole in the bottom of a Coca cola bottle, and hung it on the string above the yagual, because with its curved shape and slippery glass, the rats just slide to the floor.
I thought maybe the problem with these books was that the artist did not have examples of what the Pech or other Indian crafts looked like and so I began last year having Pech crafts made that were no longer being made or used so that we could photograph them for a book on Pech crafts for Pech schools and for the San Pedro Sula Museum exhibit.
Traditional Indian and Afro-Honduran Music Threatened-The example of Carrizo Flutes(Part 2 of 3)
By Wendy Griffin
No one had made a Pech Carrizo flute (arwa) in 20 years, such as that now played by Hernan Martinez of Moradel near Trujillo, partly because the traditional Pech religious ceremonies which required three musicians playing the Pech flute and drum and marracas and a fourth person to say the prayers, had not been done since the road went into Culmi in the 1960’s, and all the Ladinos began moving in and the Catholic priest arrived every week, as opposed to once a year. The Catholic church also started the practice of training lay people in the communities to be Celebrators of the Word, and thus for the first time since the Spanish conquest there were people in the Pech villages blocking the playing of the traditional music and doing the ceremonies.
The Problem of Young People Not Learning Crafts Which Had been Marginalized
Don Hernan now 68 years old is one of the last Pech people who knew how to make the flutes, who had been taught by his father Don Amado, one of the last people to do many of the Pech healing ceremonies who died in 1997. It took Don Hernan two tries to make the two new Carrizo flute correctly, because since he had not made one in twenty years, he forgot where the finger holes went and did it wrong the first time. Fortunately he got enough Carrizo and cera prieta to make two more flutes, one that is now in the Burke Museum in Seattle, and one he kept to add Pech flute music to his son Angel’s traditional Pech music group in Moradel, which also uses the Pech drum( tempuk), and the maracas (kamacha). When I was able to buy all three, even though we could get no pita for the maracas due to the destruction of the plant, he told me proudly, “Now you have the whole orchestra”. I was excited.
I thought it was important to have the Carrizo flute made now, like most Pech crafts, because the main people who knew how to make them are either dead or ill or blind or quite old. Don Hernan is 67 years old. If we do not make the Carrizo flute and the other Pech crafts soon, there will be no one alive who knows how to make them. I heard about the last Miskito drum maker when he was 93 years old. Because the Moravian church is against traditional Miskito music from pre-Christian ceremonies, no one dared to learn to make the drum to accompany them. No one knows how to make the Tawahka drum or any of the Bay Islanders musical instruments. Part of that is also the coming of Protestant churches to the Bay Islands against dancing, something that also affects some Garifuna villages like Santa Fe.
I also wanted to have an example of the Carrizo, because one of the curing techniques of the Pech is called “soplo”, literally blowing on people. But the healer does not blow directly on the person, the healer blows through a hollow Carrizo tube. This healing technique of soplo through a Carrizo tube is also used by some South American Indians. According to the Wikipedia article on Shamanism, all shamans have pipes, and the Pech equivalent of a shaman’s pipe is a Carrizo tube
The San Pedro Sula Museum of Anthropology and History currently has money problems, and the board chair has threatened to close it if they can not figure out how to generate enough income to pay their bills, so that was why this first flute was given to the Burke Museum in the US, rather than the San Pedro Museum, which does however, have all the rest of the Pech crafts, except a musical instrument called a deer caller, which the Director of the Museum would still like to acquire. Hopefully they will be able to resolve their money problems and the craft exhibition can open there later.
Immigration and Urbanization as Reasons Crafts Die Out
The Pech traditionally lived in Olancho and along the Rio Platano and Rio Sico and Paualaya in the Mosquitia. The Pech craft people Don Hernan and Doña Juana have movied to the coast and live outside of Trujillo, so eventhough the village is in a protected area, it is totally the wrong eco-system to find either Carrizo or “cera Prieta” the Black wax of a special bee that produces white honey “miel de blanco”.
Don Natividad, formerly the chief of El Carbon, taught his son the Pech language and how to make Pech crafts and how to use Pech medicinal plants, but the son went to the United States to work, and it is a guarantee he will find no carrizo or “cera prieta” or anyone to practice Pech with there. Yaya, the Garifuna healer in Trujillo also trained her son Rudy, who has lived in New York for over 25 years. It made the headlines in New York City that it has become the place many languages die out due to the pull of immigration and the need to assimilate to be able to work.
The Problem of the Destruction of the Forest where Wild Resources Used by Indians Grow
Doña Juana, the Pech chief ofMoradel and her daughter, Isabel, went into the mountains of the Rio Platano Biosphere, in the nuclear zone beyond Las Marias where no one is allowed to go and where they had found carrizo10 years ago, but now the Ladinos have cut everything down even in this remote and off limits area and they were alarmed. Maybe these will be the last two Pech flutes we will ever see.
The Rio Platano Biosphere is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it has been on the Endangered List for several years. Compare the difference of the thick rainforest on the video about the Ciudad Blanca Honduras from 2000 on Youtube.com “Discovering the Rio Platano Biosphere In Search of Ciudad Blanca” with the tragedy of the cut rainforest in the Biosphere the 2011video on Vimeo.com “Paradaise in Peril” video which begins with showing the Biosphere map going up in flames.
The Problem of What is Happening with the Bees?
After two and half years of looking we were unable to have a Pech arwa Carrizo flute made by Don Hernan due to the lack of availability of Carrizo, which only grows above 1,500 feet, also the recommended altitude to raise coffee, and also because of the lack of the special black wax made by a special bee which also makes “miel de blanco”, the best medicinal honey in Honduras. For example, it is used to treat chronic bronchitis by Doña Juana whose mother suffered from this. The Pech considered this bee so important, they used it to demonstrate the sound of one of the words in the Pech alphabet in their literacy book, like American children learn I for igloo or for ice cream. For the letter e, the Pech taught ejtama, the Pech name for the rainforest tree liquidambar that only grows in the tropical cloud forest.
Each culture teaches words that it considers essential in first grade, and the Pech considered the name of this bee essential, even though I usually can not distinguish it from other bees, although it is quite different from the Africanized bees, which have reached the Pech area, because African bees will swarm around your head as you walk through the rainforest. This bee which makes the miel de blanco and the special wax, will not live in an area with African bees, which someone introduced further south in Latin America, thinking it was a good idea, and instead it was such a bad idea, horror movies have been made about them in the US. It is actually common that Honduran rainforest Indians can identify by name a number of different bees by things like their buzz, their flight pattern, the type of area they like to live in, while Western scientists tend to classify dead bees pinned under glass, said ethnobotanist Paul House. The Tolupan Indians of Montaña de la Flor are famous for their beekeeping in pieces of wood near their house, not in hives.
Only the wax from this special bee, called “cera prieta” (very black wax) in Honduran Spanish can be used, because it hardens, actually to the point that you could polish it, pointed out Hernan Martinez. Once you put the reed in place with it, it remains in place, while another black wax made by Honduran wild bees called “jimerito” always remains soft and gummy (pegajoso) so if you try to store a flute made with this, the reed becomes displaced, the flute is deformed, and you can’t play it. But this special bee of the miel de blanco and cera prieta is very scarce, as it only lives in certain rainforest habitats which are disappearing at an alarming rate.
I don’t know if the general problems that are affecting US bees that are dying out in massive numbers is also what is affecting this bee in Honduras. One specialist in food said in the US, “If the bees die out, within 4 years, we humans will die out.” Bees pollinize most of the foods humans like to eat, and if we kill the bees due to pesticide use, either because it kills them, or it weakens them and fall prey to mites or it disorients them and they can not find their way home to the hive. If people think we should not worried that we can not find black wax for flutes or medicinal honey, we should be alarmed that we arelosing the bees that produced them, as this is part of a much bigger problem. The Europeans often ban chemicals used in the US and Honduras afraid of the effect on the bees.
No Protection for the El Carbon Protected Area
It took us two and half years to get together both a few pieces of Carrizo and the wax. We had previously contacted the Pech craft people in El Carbon, a Pech village in Olancho near San Esteban, that we wanted to get this Carrizo and the wax. Don Natividad Garcia, who had previously been chief and is a good craftperson and knows what the carrizo looks like, and previously a hunter so he knows his way around the mountains above El Carbon, got up at dawn to try to get high enough in the mountains to find Carrizo, but even there, which is a protected area, there was no Carrizo and cera preta.
The Pech of El Carbon have had troubles before with Ladinos moving into the area above their village, even to the point of drying up one branch of the Aso Sewa (yellow water in Pech) River due to deforestation. When we went to El Carbon last July, the people were “asustado” (frightened and surprised), because of the land invasion of over 88 acres of land by Ladinos about which the authorities were doing nothing, and also Ladinos had started taking people to the isolated area and shooting them and leaving them for dead in the Pech village. The Pech chief’s wife said sometimes she heard gunshots at night, and her husband would be away studying and she could not sleep or sleep for “nerves”. She finally had to medically treated for nerves. She also could not forget the dead man when they found him with his hands behind his back tied, and he was in a crouched position, frozen, killed trying to get up. A Pech healer said the dead man was watching her, and she needed to be treated for that, too. Sometimes when the dead people watch you, the Pech believe, they come and kill you and take you with them.
Conflicting Views of Wild Plants Between Indians and Ladinos
(Part 3 of 3)
By Wendy Griffin
The Olancho Nahua Indians believed that this higher up area where Carrizo, a bamboo like plant, grows above 1,500 feet was closer to God, and that may have made the Carrizo (Acatl in Nahua as in Acalteca (now Agalteca), Yoro, Santa Barbara, Comayagua and Olancho and Agalta Valley, Olancho) growing area more sacred for them. The word Acatl in Nahua seems to be a general word for tall thin craft plants like tule for making petate mats, Carrizo for baskets or flutes and junco for baskets, and the Valley of Agalta, Olancho where the town of San Esteban is may have been named for its Carrizo, as well as because the people were followers of Ce Acatl Topoltzin (Our Lord One Reed), the Toltec King who supposedly died in the Ciudad blanca area in Huetlapalan, east of Trujillo. The name Toltec, comes from tolan or tulan, the place of a lot of tule, which seems also to have been called Acatan, the place of a lot of tule, junco and Carrizo. So Acalteca are people from the place of Tule, Carrizo and Junco, like the word Junqueñas (the women of Junco) for the women craft people of Santa Barbara. So these plants, two which grow by water and the other in the mountains, are central to the identity of this ethnic group.
High Up Places for Carrizo Sacred Places for Nahuas, Lencas and Mayas
There is an Olancho story (Olancho’s name comes from place of Rubber Ulanco in Nahua) about how God put the jilquero bird which has a beautiful song in this highest up place in the tropical cloud forest, so that it would be closer to him and he could hear it better. This bird’s Nahua name is the origin of the name of the town of Chiquimula, Guatemala which supposedly settled by people from Palenque also called Culhuacan, according to the Chiquimula Online website. Culhuacan was the Toltec neighbourhood in the Valley of Mexico founded after the destruction of Teotihuacan, and also was a place name in the Valley of Sula at the time of Spanish Conquest. The people in the Valley of Agalta, Olancho were identified as Sules and Comayagues or Payas in the Colonial period. Paya comes the name of Ce Acatl’s kingdom “Payaqui” (among Nahuas or Among Yaquis) or Hueyatlato (the big one or most important one, el mayor).
According to Conzemius, the Pech did not go to the very tops of mountains as there were sacred lagoons there and they avoided them. That the Nahua Indians of Olancho said their ancestors did human sacrifice in a secret cave beside the Mescal Lagoon along the way from Catacamas to the Ciudad Blanca or White City, shows that they may have had a good reason to avoid these highest mountain area. That the book Jugleland notes a high upcave by the Las Crucitas (little crosses) ruin in the Ciudad Blanca area may be significant. A number of Mesoamerican Indians including the Guatemala and Honduran Mayas and the Honduran Lencas did and still do ceremonies on mountain tops, where they often put crosses (representing the world tree), which would have been good reason for the Pech to avoid them.
Quite specific stories associated with human sacrifice at the Ciudad Blanca and with the Cholulatecas (Nahua speakers from Cholula, Mexico) or Chorotegas are reported by Theodore Morde’s1939 report La Ciudad de Mono Dios (city of the Monkey God) found in the typewritten edition in the IHAH library in Tegucigalpa. The Pech may have called the Nahua Chorotecas instead of Cholulatecas because Pech language generally does not have the l sound.
The Pech culture has developed in the Olancho and Colon rainforest mountains, especially over the last 500 years, and probably over the last 1,000 years, due to the Nahuas occupying the low lands in their area, so the Pech culture depends on plants in the high mountains, which has been threatened over the last 50 years as Ladinos move into the area to cut wood and grow coffee and raise cattle. I think one of the most important studies I have heard of is Paul House’s study of what plants Ladinos use, and what plants do they consider important and where do they grow.
Honduran Ladinos, Users of Secondary Forests, the Pech the Uncut Primary Forest
In Paul House’s study, the Ladinos only used two plants in the uncut forest—liquidambar for straight roof beams (as opposed to the Pech who take out this tree’s resin) and Carrizo for baskets. All their medicinal plants, their wood plants, most of their craft plants, their food plants, came either from their crops, but especially from the “guamiles”, the secondary forest that grows up after you cut the primary forest down and plant for a year and then let it lie fallow.
In his planned study of how many plants the people from Southern Honduras like San Marcos Colon, he wanted to know how many useful plants the people of southern Honduras used in the uncut forest,to compare it to the 116 useful plants per hectare the Tawahka Indians used in the uncut forest.. In all of San Marcos de Colon there was not half a hectare of forest left. The Ladinos of Southern Honduras can live without forest, the Pech, Tawahkas, Tolupan Indians, Garifunas and Miskitos can not.
To most Ladinos, the uncut forest is in the way. You have to cut it down to get the good stuff, like grass for cattle. And while this reduced the rain, this reduction, in fact, favors Ladino crops which come from seeds developed for the arid areas of Central Mexico that do better with less rain, rather than the Garifunas, the Miskitos, the Pech and Tawahka root crops that are fine in the rain of the Central American and South American and African rain forests. It also favors the growing of their rope plants like mescal,pita, and maguey, and henequen which need sun, and dry, as opposed to majoa used by the Pech, the Garifunas, the Miskitos, and the Tawahkas which grows in the rainforest, even in shade.
Why Don’t We Just cut All the forest Down?
The Pech of El Carbon heard this difference reflected in the accusations of the Mayor of San Esteban, Olancho which is the municipio or county where El Carbon is located. When they complained about Ladinos invading their lands and cutting down the forest there to him, the Mayor said, “You Pech are lazy, you were not doing anything with the land.” The wife of the chief of El Carbon said, “It is thanks to us that we have not cut down all the trees, that all of us have any air to breathe.”
The Mayor of San Esteban apologized. The Tawahka President of FITH Edgardo Benitez says, “This country just does not value trees and forest.” His father reported most of the mahoghany now cut with the Tawahka Biosphere Reserve where he lives.
I am very concerned that UNESCO has the area where Honduran languages are spoken on their Atlas of endangered languages as Mesoamerica, when the majority of the langauges and the culturals of Northeastern Honduras are Tropical forest tribes and depend on the rainforest, which the Mesoamerican Indians and their Ladino descendants do not. In fact, the practices of Southern Honduran Ladinos have changed Choluteca Department from having a rubber and a pink Mahoghany wood cutting industries, both of which require rainforest, in the 19th century, and there still being jaguars in southern Honduras which also requires rainforest, to there now being cactus. Pink Honduran mahoghany is now an extinct species of tree. Dr. Paul House looked all over the county of San Marcos de Colon in Choluteca to find one half hectare of forest to compare the Ladino use of forest, but in the whole county there was not half an hectare of forest.
The name of Choluteca comes from Cholulateca-people from Cholula, a valley in Central Mexico near Mexico City, where the Toltecs and other Nahua speakers went after they left the valley of Mexico. Cholula was sometimes called Tula or Tulan Cholula, the place of Tule, a water reed. The Tule mats (petates in Honduran Spanish and Nahua) were sat upon by nobles in their meetings as well as put on altars and used for sleeping. Many of the Ladina women in the Guadelupe Carney craft group who live outside of Trujillo reported growing up sleeping on petate mats.
That change from mahoghany forest to desert in Southern Honduras is pretty incredible in only one hundred years. The lack of rain and the problem of cattle meat for export not being accepted for export to the US due to contamination with agrochemicals, and so the farmers move into uncontaminated areas that still have water like the Colon, Olancho and Mosquitia rainforests, are some reasons why Ladinos are moving into the areas previously controlled by the Pech, Garifunas, the Tawahkas and the Miskitos.
I once asked what I thought was rhetorically to a Ladino cattle rancher, Why did they move into the area, and steal the land, but he answered me, saying, “The Honduran milk companies paid such a low price for milk that the cattle ranchers could not afford to buy the land, so they just stole it.” The two main fresh milk companies in Honduras Sula in San Pedro Sula and Leyde in la Ceiba were originally associated with the two main banana companies in Honduras, Standard (now Dole), and the Tela Railroad (originally United fruit Company now part of Chiquita), but I do not know if they are still the owners.
I asked my university English students at the UNAH what difference does it make if we cut down all the rainforest, and all of them answered, “I don’t know.” I showed them books with pictures of rainforest animals which I thought they might like to teach with in primary grades and they asked me, “Where do these animals live?” Olancho, the Mosquitia, Yoro, Atlantida, Colon. They had never heard of them.
These animals and these plants were essential to the life and culture of the Indians of Olancho and the Mosquitia like the Pech, but since the Ladinos who raised coffee or cattle did not know them, did not value them, did not see any use for them, they cut them down for grass or to leave it “limpio” (clean). One thing you can say about deserts, like beside much of the road between Tegucigalpa and Choluteca, they are “limpio”, no plants all the way down to the dirt. The answer of my students inspired my 12 years of writing for the newspaper Honduras this Week to teach them why the rainforest and its animals and plants mattered.
The European custom of favouring open areas cleared to ground, such as left by sheep or cattle grazing, was not the model followed by Honduran Indians, neither Maya Chortis in the west, nor the rainforest Indians nor the Garifunas in northeastern Honduras. One researcher of Maya Chorti medicinal and food plant lore estimated in the book The Maya Chorti Area, the nutritional value of the plants called “weeds” by the Europeans and which they let their cattle in the Indians’ gardens to eat was equal or of higher value to the Chortis than the actual corns, beans, and squash which the Europeans had identified as the food crops, which they also let their cattle eat. In 450 years of Indian and Spanish contact, we still have not solved that issue or conflict.
After this discussion about why does it matter if we cut down all the rainforest with my university students I wrote the 26 article series for Honduras This Week on the roles of Honduran animals in songs, stories, food, ceremonies, religions, and what was happening with these animals now, which I required the students to read for reading classes in English.
One student commented, “Why did we have to wait until we were in the University and in English classes to learn about Honduras and its plants, animals and ethnic groups?” I said, “I don’t know”, and I am sorry to say it has not changed. Maybe now it will, as at the Forum on the challenges of Bilingual Intercultural Education in Trujillo in December 2013 one of the decisions taken was there should not just be Intercultural Education for minority ethnic groups, but rather for all Hondurans as required by ILO Convention 169.