Thursday, July 12, 2012

"We are resilient": The survival of the sailing canoe among the Rama of Nicaragua

A Co-post with guest, Ervin Hodgson, of the Rama people of eastern Nicaragua

 Two Rama sailing canoes on Bluefields Lagoon. Photo by Will Meadows and Lauren Greubel, also in, Peoples of the Sea
National Council for Science and the Environment, Oceans 2030, January 2011 

In August 2010, I first met Ervin in Bluefields, an old pirate town at the edge of Bluefields Lagoon, home of the some 4,000 Rama people who inhabit the rainforest islands just inland from the vast pacific Ocean. We were friends right from the start and began discussing issues of culture, environment, and education just about as soon as our eyes met. Lauren, my girlfriend, and Sergio, Ervin's brother, contributed to our dialogue in the front of an old inn as the evening grew closer. The next day, Ervin had invited us to Rama Key, the capital island of the Rama people, whom migrate much of the year using canoes called Doris (plural) or Uut in Rama.

It was the mark of our friendship when we first got into the Dori at a small dock at the edge of town. It was unconditional trust from the both of us, and for the canoe, to get us to the island safe. Ervin's mother, a wonderful woman with a great sense of humor, kept noting the waves crashing into us and how she didn't want to get wet as Sergio powered the small motor away from the town and towards the Rama lands.

An upturned Dori blending in with the beach at Rama Key.
The island, teeming with life and a beautiful community, hosted us well as we discussed and ate savory drum fish and sweet plantain with Ervin and his family. Rama Key, an island with two hills set in the middle of the Lagoon, is best accessible via boat or canoe. It is an incredibly peaceful place with a Rama community that is always welcoming. Ervin's home, nearly visible from the picture above is open air, looking over the waters. Rama pass through the main island village periodically throughout the year as they migrate from fishing and subsistence work on their traditional lands.

Our conversations rarely strayed long from serious topics. Ervin, the sole environmental studies teacher at the island's school, as well as the only Rama with a computer and one of two to obtain a master's degree, is a visionary with his mind focused deeply on environmental and cultural challenges. Those challenges, often one and the same, have deeply scared this land. 

Loss of language, traditional practices, and tribal property has been due to colonial pressures for hundreds of years on the Rama lands. Recent issues including climate change, the agricultural frontier and the government's refusal to recognizes indigenous lands, logging, and violence, has made it hard to maintain economy and identity for the Rama. The changes in the canoe over time reflect the changes in the cultures.  Though much is unknown in history, it is clear that the styles of the canoes have changed over the past few thousand years, particularly influenced by the arrival of Europeans and the adaptations to the Rama sail. Materials have become harder to find as logging takes the biggest of the trees and felling too many trees conflicts with Rama traditional ethics. Motors and materials besides wood receive mixed feelings, though useful to the Rama. 

While under vast changes, the Rama, as reflected in the changes in the canoe, survive and maintain who they are. The canoe is the mode of transportation, what allows mass harvesting of food such as fish and rain forest crops. It is of chief importance to the people and part of their being.

A Dori from the base of Ervin's family's house.
Traditionally the Dori or Uut is built along a river bed deep in the rainforest. A tree is selected by an expert builder. The builders usually spend five days or more along the river bed carving the inside first and then the outside of the canoe once they have done the felling of the tree. Traditional tools are few and far between these days, axes and steel blades making up the majority of the tools used. Three different canoes are built for the purposes of transpiration, hunting, and for children's play. 

"Language is observation about the environment" Ervin would tell me, speaking of identity and how with the loss of a language, can mean a loss of an entire way of thinking about the environment. Described as "moribund" in previous decades, the Rama Language, with the leadership of the late Miss Norah Rigby, has regained its natives speakers from two to a few dozen in recent years. Canoes are another observation about the environment, deeply embedded in culture, about how we interpret and deal with our material world. Ervin tells me of the vast lexicon in Rama language that describes knowledge of the seas, the trees and weather; the simple, barely noticeable, yet vital, tricks needed to build a canoe properly and sail it well. This is the importance of language.

A Dori off Rama Key
Ervin and I paddled a Dori further into the lagoon on our last day together. "We are resilient" he said to me. Those simple yet powerful words stuck with me. They are put to action by Ervin and his work to protect the environment he loves and the Rama community's work to protect the culture and traditional knowledge sustaining them.

Ervin, with watchful yet peaceful eyes looking over his beautiful home.
To read more, see an article I wrote with Ervin in 2011 for Cultural Survival Quarterly


  1. I had no idea there are sailing canoes! Are the sails made of canvass? If not, what materials. Are there other cultures other than the Ramas who utilize canoes with sails and lastly is this a technique you could teach to other cultures?

  2. A great group of questions. The Rama sails are made out of canvass, a more modern material, as the Rama traditional dugout were influenced by English Dori boats over the last few centuries, creating a hybrid of sorts. Sails are utilized by traditional boat and canoe cultures all over the world. The sails are extremely diverse in material, shape, and size. Many canoes in Oceania, for example, utilized sails, and have been for thousands of years. These sails are traditionally made out of fibrous plant materials woven together like a large basket, except in the shape of a sail.

    On your question of teaching other cultures... this is a difficult one. Culture learns from culture and the idea of harnessing the wind has some inherent value. So cultures that arn't utilizing sails can always learn how, yet this is more so a decision to be made by those cultures to decide what practices they cultivate.