The Aluku and the Communes in French Guiana


The Aluku (also known as Boni) Maroons are just one of six ethnic groups, or "tribes," descended from African slaves who fled Surinamese plantations in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and successfully created their own societies in the forested interior (the other five groups are the Saramaka, Djuka, Paramaka, Matawai, and Kwinti).(1) The Aluku are distinguished from the others in that they are the only group to have established most of their traditional villages in French Guiana and to have chosen allegiance, as a group, to the French government, while the rest tied their futures to neighboring Suriname. All of these Maroon societies are undergoing rapid change as they confront, and become ever more a part of, the larger societies surrounding them. But Aluku society, because of its presence in a French overseas department that is actively pursuing a policy of assimilation, is perhaps experiencing the most profound and fundamental transformation of all.(2)

Although the Aluku have been involved in economic exchanges with the wider society since the gold rush of the nineteenth century (for which they provided river transportation and other crucial services), these initial involvements were largely under their own control. Even the pattern of temporary wage labor that developed in later decades had only a limited impact on Aluku society, leaving the traditional social and political structure in the tribal territory relatively unaffected. All of this began to change, however, in the late 1960s, with the creation of French communes in what had formerly been the Inini territory.

Before this time the interior of French Guiana, where the traditional Aluku territory was located, had enjoyed a special political status and had been administered indirectly, with a minimum of interference in the lives of the "tribal populations." In 1969 the Inini territory was dissolved and the French imposed a number of arrondissements, cantons, and communes. Suddenly the traditional Aluku villages came directly within the scope of the coastal society. Within the brief space of a few years, the Aluku found themselves immersed in a French governmental structure completely foreign to their own concept of government. The implantation of communes in the tribal territory, and the attendant policy of "francisation," opened the way for a rapid influx of outside influences. The extent of the changes that followed can be discerned by briefly comparing Aluku society before and after the creation of the communes.(3)

Life Among the Aluku

Twenty years ago, life among the Aluku was, in its general outlines, organized much as it had been throughout the previous century.(4) The society, numbering not much more than a thousand individuals, was divided into several named matrilineal clans - social groups whose members claimed to be descended from bands of slaves who had joined together while fleeing from the plantations, and sometimes from a distant common ancestress as well. Membership in these groups passed exclusively through women; a woman's children automatically belonged to her clan by birth. These clans, called lo, formed the basic unit of Aluku social organization.(5)

Most Aluku lo were concentrated in single villages founded by clan members, but some lo were divided between two or three villages. Each village had its clan chiefs, called kapiten, responsible for the members of their lo, as well as any other villagers happening to live there. The kapiten, in turn, answered to the gaanman, the paramount chief, whose authority extended to the entire tribe. Daily social life, however, was regulated primarily at the village level, with the kapiten playing an important part in most public transactions.

If a dispute arose, for instance, over land or damaged property, or if someone were accused of theft, adultery, or sorcery, the problem would be aired and ironed out in the context of the kuutu, a public meeting presided over by the kapiten and a council of respected elders. When someone died, for example, the kapiten and his assistants would set in motion a complex cycle of funerary and mourning rites that lasted a year or more and involved members of the deceased's clan, his fellow villagers, and his spouse's and other clans in a crisscrossing network of ceremonial obligations and economic exchanges. If a villager were found to be suffering from an illness or a spiritual problem, he or she would seek out the kapiten, who would assemble the other villagers and lead a communal session of prayer. Social solidarity was enhanced by these ceremonies, and by the fact that the members of each clan shared a number of special cults and spirits to which they were obliged to make periodic collective offerings.

This form of social organization was also well adapted to the economic life of the Aluku. Through a combination of hunting and gathering, fishing, and a system of shifting cultivation carried out largely by women, the Aluku practiced a subsistence economy that met most of their basic needs and ensured their independence. (They acquired some necessities by trading with the neighboring Amerindian, Djuka, or Creole populations, and they participated in the cash economy of the coast primarily through seasonal wage labor and river transport.) Each clan exercised rights over a certain section of the tribal lands, in which clan members could fish and forage freely. Under normal circumstances, the entire tribal territory was open to hunting by members of any clan, and the main river, the Lawa, was open to unrestricted fishing.

The products of Aluku economic life were distributed more or less evenly across the clan, and traditional mechanisms such as ritual and moral obligation toward kin and affines tended to ensure that even dependents - children, the elderly, or the disabled - received their share. For instance, if a hunter returned to the village with a substantial catch, he felt obligated to share it with all of those kin living in his immediate section of the village. Cultivators also distributed a portion, of their produce, participating in a traditional system of reciprocal exchange. Such traditional social norms served to curb the strong streak of individualism that pervaded Aluku culture.

Tied to traditional social and economic life was a lively artistic tradition. Finely carved and decorated objects - stools, paddles, combs, and patchwork cloths - circulated between husbands and wives, kin and in-laws as part of a traditional exchange system. The Aluku also had a rich repertoire of songs, dances, and drumming styles to accompany the major rites and crises of life.(6)

All in all, the Aluku possessed an integrated culture well-adapted to their environment, with an internal logic of its own. It was a unique synthesis of the varied African cultural traditions of, their forebears with other elements learned or created in the New World. And it fulfilled the basic needs - whether economic, social, spiritual, or aesthetic - of those who were born into it. That, however, was 20 years ago. Whether the same can be said today is questionable, as the following synopsis of life among the Aluku along the Lawa River in the 1980s will show.(7)

The Aluku Today

The traditional Aluku territory is now divided between three communes: Maripasoula, Grand-Santi-Papaïchton, and Apatou. The establishment of these communes has superimposed a French administrative structure - one still poorly understood by many, if not most, Aluku - over the traditional Aluku social system. The two systems - that of the gaanman, the clans, and their kapiten: and that of the maires (mayors), conseillers (municipal councillors), and the rest of the administrative apparatus - coexist, although the former has clearly begun to deteriorate as the latter gains the upper hand.

The most obvious effect of the introduction of communes is demographic: once-thriving traditional villages have emptied out, their populations drawn by the magnet of employment opportunities, relative monetary abundance, and public services offered by the administrative centers that have grown up with the communes. Those who have not migrated to the coast in search of regular jobs have swollen the populations of the new villages of Maripasoula and Pompidouville (Papaïchton), leaving traditional villages that once boasted 100 or more inhabitants with only 5 or 10 full-time residents.

As a result, important changes have occurred in traditional Aluku social organization and culture, only a few of which can be covered here. For one, the clans have become dispersed outside their original villages, and their members, including some of their kapiten, have been scattered somewhat haphazardly in the new communities of Maripasoula and Pompidouville. This has obviously weakened their effectiveness in carrying out their traditional functions. Patterns of cultivation have also changed correspondingly. In the past, cultivators tended to make horticultural camps at a good distance from their village, most often on lands that had come to be controlled by their clan; they would then rotate between their villages and these camps, which were spread far and wide across the river. Today, however, cultivation is concentrated primarily in the areas immediately surrounding Pompidouville and Maripasoula; the outlying lands, once dotted with camps, have been largely abandoned. This trend might eventually exhaust the soil in the areas around the main population centers, such as Maripasoula and Pompidouville; still, in Pompidouville, many women have ceased cultivating at all, choosing instead to purchase even their basic staple, couac (processed manioc), from others.

This points to the growing role of cash in the local economy and the corresponding waning of the previous subsistence economy.(8) Gone are the days when villagers produced the greater part of their essential needs, which were then distributed across the clan. The ratio of local production to consumption of imported goods is shifting in favor of the latter, and nowadays women are relying increasingly on canned food and other packaged goods to feed their families. Hunting is very clearly on the decline; many men claim not to have enough time and prefer to devote themselves to wage earning instead. Those few men who do hunt regularly are making a business of it and have begun hoarding (with the help of newly introduced refrigerators and freezers). The practice of distributing the catch, too, has been virtually abandoned, along with other traditional mechanisms of distribution. Everything and anything is sold - meat, fish, couac, rice, and cultivated and wild fruits - and almost nothing is given away. Those without money sit in a precarious position: although they might still receive occasional gifts of food, these are now seen as favors rather than obligations, and they are forced to buy most of what they need, or suffer.

"Today, everything is money," say many Aluku. They complain about this state of affairs, but can do little; the changed patterns of residence and the dispersion of clans have weakened the efficacy of traditional kin networks. Even if customary rules were to be formally restored, it would be difficult to pressure people into obeying them since the clans and their kapiten cannot function coherently, or with any regularity, in the new communes context. Whereas in the past individuals felt constrained by public opinion and the knowledge that their subsistence, like everyone else's, depended on cooperation within the clan, today they can often fall back on the external structures and financial emoluments introduced by the communes.

Along with these social and economic changes, there is a corresponding cultural deterioration in some domains. The traditional arts for which the Aluku were once famed, known as tembe, are rapidly disappearing. All but a handful of skilled artisans have stopped producing - claiming once again not to have time - and few of the younger generation are being schooled in these crafts. The traditional oral culture is also suffering; many young people are not being trained in the music, dance, folk tales, or oral history of their elders.

The policy of francisation, which has had little success, has managed nonetheless to add to the accumulating pressures facing the Aluku. Although the teachers at the government schools in Maripasoula, Pompidouville, Grand-Santi, and Apatou do their best, they can promise pupils only the very beginnings of competence in the French language and only the most rudimentary understanding of French society or the wider world; few pupils are able to pursue their education beyond this level. At the same time, students receive an incomplete education in their traditional society and culture, which in any case they come to devalue after being exposed to the French educational system.

Some young Aluku, having passed through the schools, no longer even know, or for that matter care to know, their lo affiliation or the names of any of the other clans. Yet the only existing structure that might serve in lieu of this system, that of the communes, remains poorly understood by most Aluku. This accounts in part for the increasing degree of indiscipline and the growing feeling of anomie among the Aluku youth. Although called upon to participate in local, departmental, and French national elections, many Aluku are unclear on what the stakes are and what it all really means. Even some elected Aluku officials remain uncertain about the full dimensions of their roles.

Needless to say, a true integration of the Aluku into the wider society has not been achieved, although Aluku society has been transformed in many ways by assimilation policies, the result is a feeling of social malaise among many Aluku, who sense - even if they cannot fully analyze the causes, and sometimes themselves unknowingly contribute to them - that their world is breaking apart. They are caught between two worlds: that of their ancestors, and that of the bakaa, those belonging to the coastal society.

The Future

Aluku society, like all others, has never been frozen in time, and change is inevitable. Nor do most Aluku desire a wholesale return to the way things once were. Although they are experiencing certain negative effects of changes that have perhaps been too abrupt and often beyond their control or understanding, they appreciate what they see as the benefits brought by the communes: high standards of medical care, social subsidies, employment, and education. Nonetheless, it is debatable whether these in themselves can compensate for the continuing deterioration of the traditional social organization and culture.

The question of how to improve the situation is a complicated one. More effective channels of communication need to be set up between the larger government and the Aluku as a whole. This can probably be achieved only with the help of a number of Aluku individuals who fully comprehend traditional principles of social organization and who have a solid education in the workings of the French governmental system. These individuals could act as formal mediators between the larger society and the Aluku, and as interpreters to the latter. Such cultural mediators, in order to be fully effective, would have to operate among the Aluku free of the divisive influence of party politics; elected officials generally have difficulty achieving the neutrality necessary for this sort of mediation.

Several Aluku kapiten have been trying to manipulate the religious system tied to the clan structure in order to coax people back to their traditional villages, and they have held meetings to discuss ways of once again decentralizing the population remaining in the tribal territory by making the old villages more attractive to live in. These efforts have been hampered by conflicting involvements with external party politics, however. An apolitical, cooperative dialogue, based on accurate cultural translation between the Aluku and the surrounding society, could conceivably be effected in various ways - for instance, a number of competent mediators could be formally appointed and trained, remunerated, and given specific duties and schedules. Whatever its form, the dialogue will have to take place if the Aluku are to be truly and equitably integrated into the larger society.

Equally important, in the long run, is the problem of formal education. If the Aluku are to receive a French education, it should be adapted to their needs, taking into account the special difficulties facing children who are taught in a foreign language and culture. A special educational program - once again, with much input from Aluku representatives who are competent in both cultures and can translate concepts appropriately and with the necessary subtlety - could be designed and implemented both in the interior and in certain schools on the coast. In the absence of such an adapted system, most Aluku schoolchildren are doomed to educational failure, particularly for those Aluku who choose to live outside the tribal territory. It is virtually impossible for an Aluku with only six or seven years of schooling to participate in the wider society on a par with those born in the majority culture. Even putting aside the question of ethnic discrimination, the Aluku lack the linguistic and cultural competence necessary to gain access to the more privileged sectors of the society. Unless this educational problem is rectified, the Aluku will continue to inhabit a society in which opportunities for economic and social advancement are vastly unequal.(9)

If the Aluku are to become full and equal participants in the larger society of French Guiana, then policies affecting the process of integration must give careful consideration to their special status. Most importantly, the Aluku themselves should be educated in what is at stake, and should have a say in how this process is to be achieved. The alternative - to exclude them from the planning of policies that affect them, and to ignore their cultural specificity - can only hinder integration and contribute to their transformation from a once autonomous, well-balanced society into a marginalized minority or, worse yet, an entrenched urban proletariat, despised by and despising of the wider society.


A number of encouraging changes have taken place since 1987, when this article was written. The official position of French Guianese authorities toward "tribal populations" such as the Aluku seems to be shifting from an assimilationist one to one explicitly advocating "integration" without loss of identity. In April 1989 a major program, entitled Sur les traces de Boni ("On the Trail of Boni," Boni being the name of a founding hero of the Aluku), was launched in Cayenne in conjunction with the bicentennial of the French Revolution. Sponsored by the Regional Council of French Guiana together with an Aluku cultural organization called Mi Wani Sabi, the program officially recognizes the liberation struggles of the Aluku ancestors and aims to foster widespread appreciation of the Aluku cultural heritage. Opening the program were a conference on Aluku history and culture, a display of archival documents relating to the Aluku past, an exhibition of traditional Aluku arts, and a series of dance and music performances.(10) The program is intended to be ongoing, and a number of further cultural events will be scheduled over the next two years.

This official recognition is unprecedented for the Aluku, who have traditionally been viewed with contempt by the dominant Creole society; its reinvigorating effect on certain cultural traditions, such as dance and music, is already apparent. Whether these initial, positive signs augur a willingness among policy makers to devise a long-range and more far-reaching set of strategies to address the problems discussed above remains to be seen.


(1) A French translation of this article, with minor differences, appeared previously in the French Guianese journal Equinoxe.

(2) This was at least the case before war broke out in Suriname in 198&, resulting in a massive flight of Djuka and Paramaka refugees into French Guiana and devastating their traditional way of life. The social changes among the Aluku discussed in this article will undoubtedly be further complicated by this recent influx of persons belonging to ethnic groups closely related to their own.

(3) The repeal of the "statut de l'Inini," the subsequent creation of communes in the interior, and the policy of francisation are discussed in Hurault.

(4) This description of traditional life among the Aluku is based on the works of Hurault, particularly Hurault (1961), as well as the reminiscences of contemporary Alukus collected during my own field work in the Lawa River area between 1983 and 1986. Price (1975) provides a useful comparison: a description of traditional village life among another, closely related group of Maroons during the 1960s, just before a number of major changes began to affect their society.

(5) The Aluku appear to differ from other Guiana Maroons in that their lo are not further divided into named corporate lineages, known as bee.

(6) For some idea of the richness of the broader tradition to which the traditional Aluku arts belong, see Price and Price (1980).

(7) This general description of social change among the Aluku is based on my own ethnographic field work in the Lawa River region (primarily in the villages of Papaíchton and Komontibo) between 1983 and 1986. This research was supported by a Fulbright-Hays fellowship and a grant-in-aid from the Wenner-Gren Foundation. A similar situation in the downriver (Maroni) village of Apatou can be discerned in a study of that community by Givens (1984).

(8) Communes, of course, must have administrative budgets. The completely artificial economy that the introduction of communes has created has brought a sudden influx of government funds, which are channeled to local populations through social subsidies and in a variety of other ways.

(9) Hurault has warned repeatedly about the potential negative effects likely to follow the introduction of an unadapted educational system among the tribal populations of French Guiana. His call for a program that might adapt the French system to the specific needs of the various populations has, unfortunately, gone unheeded. See also Renault-Lescure and Grenand (1985).

(10) These opening events, as well as the goals of the larger program, are described in de Groot, Hoogbergen, and Bilby (1989) and Jean-Louis and Anelli (1989).

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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