Native people – Cocama tribe

Ethnonyms: Kokama, Pampadeque, Pandabequeo, Ucayali, Xibitaona

Most of the 15,000 to 18,000 Cocama live in Peru, in the Lagunas and Ucayali River areas as well as in the drainages of the Marañón, Pastaza, Nucuray, and Urituyacu rivers. A mere 20 Cocama live in Colombia, and 411 in Brazil The Cocama have survived centuries of colonial rule, slave raiding, and epidemics better than almost any other native group, and now have a growing population. The Cocama language belongs to the Tupí-Guaraní Family. The branch of the Cocama on the Río Huallaga is known as the “Cocamilla,” and is culturally the same except for slight differences in dialect.

The Cocama were first contacted in 1549 when a Spanish expedition led by Juan de Salinas ascended the Ucayali. At this time, the Cocama subsisted by fishing and swidden horticulture. In the seventeenth century they became raiders and were feared by the Spanish and neighboring Indian groups throughout the region, where they were known as pirates of the rivers. When the Jebero rebelled in 1644, the Cocama supported them. When the Spanish sent an expedition to subdue the Cocama it was well received because it included a Jesuit priest and a mestizo whom the Cocama believed to be a reincarnation of one of their chiefs. In the middle of the seventeenth century, the Jesuits built a mission at Santa Maria de Ucayales, but abandoned it in a short time. Some 100 Christianized Cocama families then accompanied the Jesuits to their mission on the Huallaga. In 1669 the Spanish sent another expedition against the Cocama because of their continuing raids on surrounding groups. Some were converted and settled at the mission of Santiago de la Laguna, founded in 1670 on the Huallaga. In the 1680s, following a great smallpox epidemic, most of the Cocama abandoned this mission and took refuge among the Omagua. The Cocama population fell from 7,000 to 800 by 1700, largely as a result of this epidemic. In 1767 the Jesuits were expelled from the New World, and the Cocama came under Spanish rule. From then until Peruvian independence in 1824, the Cocama worked as forced laborers on haciendas and in the mining and timber industries. After independence, some returned to the Ucayali area, whereas others went to the Marañon, Pastaza, Nucuray and Urituyacu regions in search of new farmland. It is believed that many migrated to Brazil during the rubber boom.

Cocama people are now very acculturated and assimilated. About 25 percent of marriages are with mestizos. Most Cocama continue to live in their own villages or neighborhoods, however. They have a number of cultural traits that distinguish them from mestizos, and although the Indians are nominal Christians, they still practice shamanism and hold to many of their own religious beliefs. Older Cocama speak their own language among themselves but are bilingual; children speak only Spanish.

The Cocama are sedentary slash-and-burn horticulturists who generally build their houses on the banks of rivers or lakes. They occasionally have to move their settlements to areas where there is new land for clearing. They raise maize, sweet potatoes, taja-cara (Solanum immite), beans, yams, sicana (Sicana odorifera), pumpkins, peanuts, pineapples, cayenne peppers, peach palms ( Guiliema gasipaes), avocados, papayas, guavas, and bananas, as well as the nonfood plants cotton, tobacco, and barbasco for poison-ing fish. They rely heavily for food on fish, manatees, and turtles. Nowadays commercial fishing is an important part of their economy; they also sell farm products such as rice, maize, and beans. The Cocama have an individualistic sense of property: what a woman produces belongs to her, and when she sells it what she makes is hers. The same is true for men. The subsistence garden belongs to the nuclear family, and fathers are responsible for the children’s maintenance. Cocama men work in lumbering and ranching, and some are skilled workers such as carpenters or mechanics.

The Cocama traditionally used stone axes and knives made from the peach palm (pupunha or chonta) to clear the forest but often avoided this task by planting on beaches between wet seasons. Hunting and gathering were of little importance, with the exception of collecting turtle eggs. The Cocama kept chickens, pigs, and dogs after they were introduced by Whites. They relied upon the spear and atlatl as their chief weapons. The Cocama are famous for their pottery, which has linear and rectilinear designs of red, white, and black.

Cocama men sometimes made the decision to go to war. Their attacks depended primarily on surprise and took place at dawn.

Traditionally, Cocama people lived in villages of thirty to forty multifamily houses. The houses had gabled roofs that reached almost to the ground. People slept in cotton hammocks and used bark-cloth mosquito nets; today they sleep on platform beds and use imported mosquito nets.

At 1 year of age, Cocama children took part in a ritual called usciumata that involved the cutting of their hair by a chief. At puberty, a girl was secluded in a hammock for one month, eating manioc tubers only once a day and spinning cotton, after which she received a new name. Following this initiation, she was sexually free until she married. Preferred marriage was between a girl or woman and her mother’s brother. There was a period of bride-service.

We are cooperating with Cocama community in Padre Cocha, near Iquitos. They have there their own maloca, also botanic garden and their farms.