Religions and indigenous traditions in Talamanca, Costa Rica

Bjørn Ola Tafjord, Associate Professor at the Department of History and Religious Studies of the University of Tromsø, is studying dynamics of and interactions between religions and indigenous traditions in Talamanca, the south-eastern region of Costa Rica.


 Kjersti Gausvik



I asked him how he initially became interested in this topic.
– Many years ago I spent a year as an exchange student at a Costa Rican high school. The teachers there told us that there were no indígenas in Costa Rica. This seemed very unlikely, and with time I discovered that it is not true. There are in fact 8 different groups of Costa Rican indígenas today, and according to a census conducted in 2000 almost 64000 persons self-identified as members of these groups. When I for the first time got the opportunity to do a study of my own, as a master student in History of Religions at the University of Bergen, I returned to Costa Rica. My hope was to learn about the roles of religions in Talamanca, a territory that Bribris and Cabecars claim as theirs. Since then, almost ten years ago, I have kept going back, and kept learning.

His initial plan was to study a political process led by leaders of what the literature described as the indigenous Bribri religion. The events were briefly mentioned in the newest book on Talamanca that he had found in Norway. But when he first arrived in Talamanca to do his fieldwork, things took some unexpected turns.
– Once there I soon discovered that this particular political project had rapidly dissolved, most likely it was history even before the book I read was published. My plan was probably unrealistic anyway. Sìkuapa, ‘non-indigenous persons’, like me, are not expected to interfere in Bribri politics, especially not when related to tradiciones indígenas. Instead I ended up, partly by chance, being introduced to a community where the majority was Bahá’í. This came as a big surprise because I had never ever heard about Bahá’ís in Costa Rica, or even in Latin America. It is quite far from Persia, Iraq and Palestine, where this religion started as a Shi’i Islamic millenarian movement in the late 19th century, to the remotest of corners in Central America. When the people I met expressed their interests in studying how the Bahá’í Faith and others religions first came to Talamanca, and how they later developed there, I immediately thought this was an interesting case.

In Talamanca religions like the Bahá’í Faith and different Christianities (represented by Adventists, Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Pentecostals) have been introduced and adopted only since the early 1960s. Tafjord studies how such religions are adapted to changing local contexts and how they interact with each other and with what Bribris call tradiciones indígenas.
– In the local community that I work with, most people insist that their tradiciones indígenas are not religión, but something else, something more fundamental. This argument enables them to defend the practices that they consider part of their own traditions, especially when such practices come under attack from missionaries and religious leaders. I am particularly interested in the plurality of understandings that can be found, in regard to religiones as well as in regard to tradiciones indígenas, and in the negotiations that take place between different actors with different perspectives and different interests.

He underscores that different persons’ understandings and practices of tradiciones indígenas as well as of religions such as the Bahá’í Faith and distinct Christianities, vary, change, overlap, confirm each other and contest each other.
– Time and place are important. In Talamanca, as elsewhere, different perspectives, values, norms and practices relate to different times and spaces. When in church Christians may for instance condemn certain practices that are usually considered very indígena. All the same, later, even the same day, at a different place, at home for instance, the same Christians may perform the same practices that they themselves condemned while in church. Language is another important factor. Religiones are done primarily in Spanish, whereas tradiciones indígenas usually take place in Bribri.

When asked how his research might be relevant in a Norwegian context, Tafjord highlights two aspects. He points at the research process and how the researcher’s early expectations do not always match the realities that she or he meets in the field. He would also like to challenge some of the stereotypes that exist in Norway about Latin America and show that the reality is far more complex.
– The turns my study took after arriving in Talamanca might be a good example, I guess, of how things on the ground tend to be different from the images produced by books and articles. Perhaps what I do might contribute in challenging some of the stereotypes that exist in Norway and elsewhere regarding religions and indígenas in Latin America. In general I think there is an awful lot to learn from paying close attention to the diversities and to the complexities of even the smallest society.

Tags: Costa Rica
Published Mar. 26, 2010 2:09 PM - Last modified Oct. 25, 2013 4:39 PM