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By: Alberto Sibaja

During my long career as an artisan dedicated to the making of masks in R.A.M. (Amalgamated Moldable Rock) stone, I have been constantly asked about the significance of my work. The history is long and dates back to the beginning of the year 1980 when I joined in the search for two mountaineering companions who were lost forever in the jungles of Talamanca. Long stays within those tropical forests allowed us to live together mainly with three Bribrí and Cabecar tribes from Talamanca and, to a lesser degree, with the Huetares of the central valley and from the Atlantic coast. Farther along, my curiosity led me to the Cotos, Térrabas and Borucas in the south Pacific in the basin of the great river of Térraba. They are tribes that are already fairly trans-culturized but still full of legends and ancestral traditions, the same as the Huetares who are located very close to the capital, or the Malekus, Chorotegas and Ramas, in the north of the country. In all the tribes with which I was able to live, I found simple, pacific, uncivilized people without secrets. Executors of a great culture and tradition. People integrally linked to the tropical jungles of our country to such a point that when we demolish the forests, we also destroy their way of life and culture. I heard among them stories of magic, sung by the „Sukias‟, the old wise ones, about the powers of their ancestors who melted stone with magic waters and worked it as if it were mud. Legends of witch warriors who reduced the heads of their vicitims of war to the size of a fist, narrations of how the Usekör (the Supreme chaman) transformed himself into a jaguar to defend his people; tales of the charms of the batrachian frogs who are allied with the Indians and who overflow the rivers to frighten their white enemies. They revealed to me how Sibö created the world, in what form Surá (Sibö‟s wife) makes souls in the subterranean kingdom - a paradise hidden in the groud where the Indian will return after his death. They spoke to me about the labyrinth language of the stones (petroglyphs); a living writing that confesses the mysteries of the jungle and reveals the secret paths along which only the heart of an Indian knows how to find his way. In Costa Rica eight indigenous groups have been identified and are distributed in 21 reserves that cover a surface area of 320.888 hectares and in which more than thirty thousand indigenous live. Our artistic work attempts to represent these Indian people, their joy, pain, religion, conquest, magic, politics, customs and myths through facial expressions that we have commonly called masks. But on not having the function of masks, they are actually faces in stone. Our designs are carried out based on the legends and the power structures mainly of the Bribrí-Cabecar tribes. Each facial expression corresponds to a legend and to a degree on the chamanic scale that goes from Usekör (maximum hierarch) to Kepra (the people), next adding to our work Afro-Caribbean and racially mixed faces. Distinguishing within our collection of “masks” what scale of power belongs to a certain facial expression is relatively easy if we look at the organizational chart and its explanation of the power structures among the Talamancan tribes. 1

(Chamanic scale)

1- SIBO: Created the indigenous by using corn seeds, (Distö), that he planted in pairs, giving origin to the clans (Wak).  Represented in male faces without attributes nor petroglyphic drawn work 2- SURA: Sibö‟s wife. She is the protector spirit of greatest hierarch among the Cabécares who conceive their kingdom and paradise to be in the center of the earth.  Represented in female faces without attributes nor petroglyphic drawn work

3- USEKORPA: The Usekör are the maximum political and religious leaders, the only representatives of Sibö-Surá. They are great and powerful chaman. They are jaguar men, masters of metamorphosis, masters of the elements.  Represented in serious faces, severe but not aggressive, meditative, silent, powerful. 4- BRUPA: Called „caciques‟, meaning Indian chiefs, or kings they are the political and military heads. They were paid tribute and were the dispensers of the village goods. Great „caciques‟ were: Garabito, Corobicí, Abacará, Yorusté, Guarco and many more who fill the pages of our history.  Represented in jovial but firm faces, expressing their gift of command. 5- TSOKORPA: Elder „sukias‟(old wise ones), they were in charge of transmitting the word of the great chaman, messages that they sing during ceremonies and other celebrations. They know the history, tradition and legend of their villages by memory. All the advice of the Sukias are under their jurisdiction. It is the Tsokorpa who have kept alive through oral transmission the culture of the indigenous people throughout time .  Represented in every face that shows the tongue as symbol of knowledge in history, tradition and life of its people.

6- KYOWAK: Heads of each population nucleus, clan chiefs who acted under the political and military lineaments of the Brupa (4).  Represented by jovial, chubby and joyful faces 7- AWAPA: Awa sukias, healers of the jungle, wise old men and women, respected and influential councellors. To give advice, the Water used three magic stones that he put in his hand and would blow secrets among the songs. Interpreting the movements of the stones is their way of responding to the consultation.  Faces of old men and women, some in the act of blowing.

8- YERIA: Warriors and hunters, valiant defenders of the Indian territories and villages. They are broken down into three classes: Dicöm or „jaguars‟, Sárwak or „colored monkeys‟ and Tsakuból or „those with two heads‟.  Represented by agressive and violent faces. 2

9- BIKAKRA: Sukias who organized ceremonies, feasts and meetings. They started the dances, chicha (corn liquor) parties and masquerades.  Surprised faces, generally represented with the eyes and mouth open.

10- OKOMPA: Sukias in charge of the ceremonies and funeral chants - highly elaborate rituals that are divided into several stages; from embalming the corpse that they left to decompose in the trees to the polishing and burial of the bones. The Oköm are chaman of a serious and mournful aspect.  Represented with somber and mournful faces, or better, in the act of singing.

11- TAMIPA: Cooks for the initiation graduations, chicha parties, funeral feasts and whenever there was cause to celebrate.  Represented by femenine, joyful and chubby faces.

12- KEPRA: The Indian people in general, they call themselves Distö - corn seeds reserved for reproduction.  Represented in common faces, joyful or sad, racially mixed and Afro-Caribbean.

The aboriginal population of Costa Rica has its origins in two geographic regions of great cultural influence: 1) The Mesoamerican region: With influences from the Aztec, Olmec and Maya cultures. Its spacial expanse is located in the northeast of our country (Guanacaste). Its aboriginal settlers cultivated mainly corn, beans, pumpkin and cotton. They can be distinguished from other groups through their artwork in ceramic, jade, stone and objects of gold. The South American region: With a large expanse in our country, it includes the regions of the Caribbean watershed, the central and south Pacific. The South American influence is reflected in the language of its settlers, the type of dwelling, their political and religious organization and their art. Their culture has marked Amazonic influences.


Even after more than 500 years of conquest and colonization, different indigenous groups have survived in our territory that have conserved their ancestral culture, language and customs. It is mainly the Talamancan Indians who, even today after five centuries, still resist “culturization” and proclaim “Talamanca has not been totally conquered!” CABECARES Are located on both sides of the Talamanca mountain range toward the Atlantic and the Pacific. This group is one of the most preserved and numerous in the country, with an authentic ethnic identity and with the least altered habitat. The Cabécares are simple, timid and very hospitable Indians, dedicated to agriculture, hunting and fishing activities. They maintain a very complex kinship system of matrilineal clans that they share with the Bribrí. They live in huts with straw roofs and sleep in hammocks. They profess a belief in their god Sibö.


BRIBRIS Also located on both sides of the Talamanca mountain range, the Bribrí form an immense indigenous group that has dispersed in the big valleys and mountains in the provinces of Limón and Puntarenas. They share the god and power structure of the Cabécares. Many scholars have considered the Bribrís and Cabécares to be one single ethnic group. The Bribrís are generally bilingual; they speak perfect Spanish and Bribrí. Many Bribrís have taken up the conveniences of our civilization, however others still live in the mountains in Indian ranches with conical structures.

BRUNCAS OR BORUCAS Located in Buenos Aires of Puntarenas on two reserves: Boruca and Curré. In spite of the fact that their lands were radically diminished by Spanish colonizers, the Borucas, different from the majority of the other groups, were never removed from their original lands. The Borucas were hardened and courageous Indians. They attacked the Spanish on the roads wearing masks made of balsa wood. Their native language, Brunca, is known today only by elders and is being inexorably lost due to the fact that long ago Catholic missionaries prohibited them, under severe punishment, to communicate in their own language. GUAYMIES Located in the south Pacific of the national territory in the border zone of Costa Rica-Panama. The Guaymí population in our country comes from the mountainous zones in the northern part of Panama. They speak Guaymí and very little Spanish. Religious missionaries such as the Catholic, Bahai, Jehovah‟s Witness, Evangelists, etc. have contaminated the Guaymí‟s own beliefs to such a point that it is impossible to have them define their religious concepts, except the clinging to their native god NABU and to the harmful spirits. HUETARES The Huetares or Pacacuas form a fairly reduced indigenous group. They have shown resistance in spite of being located very near to San José in Quitirrisi of Mora and Zapatón of Puriscal in the hills of the central Pacific. Having been very affected by colonization and traffic moving toward the urban centers, the Huetares still maintain traditions that allow them to conserve their ethnic identity. GUATUSOS OR MALEKUS A small indigenous group in population and territorial expansion. Located on the plains in the northern part of the Guatuso canton in the province of Alajuela. They have conserved their cultural expression and speak Maleku. They venerate their god TOKU. CHOROTEGAS Their splendour having been wiped out by the conquest, the Chorotegas have been reduced to a small settlement on the Matambú indigenous reserve, located between the cantons of Hojancha and Nicoya in the province of Guanacaste. They are potters descended from an excellent tradition whose ancient art fill the display cases of our museums. TERIBES Immigrants from Panamanian lands, they are located close to the southern border in Yorkin and Sixaola. The Teribes live in mountainous places with difficult access. They have conserved their language and engage in hunting and fishing. Etnographic studies incorporate these indigenous people into the Talamancan groups.


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