Special day honors country’s tiny native minority

Today is called the Día del Aborigen Costarricense, which will be marked mainly in public schools.

The day is designed to honor the native peoples who live in Costa Rica. The formal ceremony will be at the Colegio Indígena de Ujarrás, en Buenos Aires de Puntarenas where the national anthem will be sung in Bribri. In addition to the Bribri, the Cabécar and the Boruca live in southern Costa Rica, as do the Térraba. Also there are the Guaymí or Ngöbe who migrated across the board from their ancestral lands in Panamá.

There are 24 native reserves in Costa Rica, and perhaps the easiest to visit from the Central Valley is that of the Quitirrisí, that is

just off the highway to Puriscal. The Maleku are in northern Alajuela province. In Guanacaste are the Matambú or Chorotega.

The Bribri are perhaps the most populous with estimates ranging higher than 10,000. But other native groups number in the hundred.

Columbus and the Spanish who followed him brought diseases
that greatly reduced the native numbers

that once may have been 200,000. Exact numbers are difficult to determine because some of the native peoples live far from modern Costa Rica. One estimate is that 73 percent of the native peoples still live on the reserves. The government estimates that natives living on reserves make up less than 2 percent of the country’s population.

Only some retain traditional ways. At other reserves the daily language is Spanish and the problems of the day are identical to anywhere else in Costa Rica. An exception might be days when there are traditional celebrations.

Preservation of the languages is a challenge, and the public school system has its own challenge in finding qualified teachers who speak the native languages. Many natives who live in remote areas remain unable to read or write. Many children are monolingual in their traditional language.

There also is the threat of land thefts by non-natives.

Many with native blood live all over Costa Rica and have intermarried with the rest of the population. Those who remain on the reserves usually are poorer and less healthier than the average Costa Rica. The Ministerio de Seguridad Pública helicopters frequently transport ill individuals and pregnant women from the various reserves, including the high Talamancas.

At villages high in the mountains or far from modern life, smoke from wood fires takes a toll.

There are a number of medical missionary efforts to help the native residents.
Project Talamanca, founded in 1996 by dentist Peter Aborn, has received international recognition. And there are many others. Sometimes U.S. Service members visit as part of their medical or construction training.

Although most of what is known about the pre-contact residents comes from Spanish reports, anthropologists are certain that the existing populations either came from somewhere else or were greatly influenced by other civilizations. Human occupation of

Costa Rica dates back at least to 10,000 B.C.
The Matambú or Chorotega in Guanacaste are believed to have fled from slavery from the Olmec or early Maya cultures. Today their descendants continue to make ceramics in the same style and sometimes with the same molds that use to make their way to Aztec markets.

Cultures on the Caribbean side show great influence from South America.

Much of the early history is hidden because sea levels have risen perhaps 120 meters, nearly 400 feet, since the end of the Ice Age.  Many great pre-Columbian settlements are hidden below the Caribbean and Pacific waters.

One that is not is Guayabo, which is on the slope of the Volcán Turrialba. This was a thriving city for thousands of years but was abandoned before Columbus arrived for reasons still unknown. The drainage system to handle the heavy tropical rains has won international awards.

Archaeologists say that pre-Columbian cultures here frequently are overlooked because they built with perishable materials and did not make giant stone structures as in Guatemala and Mexico. An exception are the stone balls in southern Costa Rica where a new museum has been installed. Still no one really knows who made the balls or for what use. The spheres are attributed to the Diquís culture.

An interesting side note is that the Bribri in Talamanca say they have never made peace with the central government. A revolution in 1709 created Pabrú or Pablo Presbere as the native hero. He was executed by the Spanish, but the Asamblea Legislativa gave him the title of the defender of liberty of the Indigenous people in 1997.

An archived news story of a reporter’s visit to a remote Cabécar village is HERE!

Stone balls in Palmar Sur along with an  antique train engine.

Stone balls in Palmar Sur along with an
antique train engine.

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