Lands of Freedom: Preserving and Honoring the Heritage of the Matawai

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A new ACT storytelling production maps the oral history and cultural heritage of a Surinamese Afro-descendant forest community

Edward C. Green papers, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution (box 3).

The Matawai Maroons of Suriname—descendants of enslaved Africans who fled into the rainforest over 300 ago, where they have remained ever since— in partnership with ACT, are launching a new interactive Storytelling Map showcasing their centuries-old oral histories about their ancestral lands and culture. Through a combination of recorded oral histories, interactive maps, vintage photographs, and archival documents, Lands of Freedom: the oral history and cultural heritage of the Matawai Maroons in Suriname tells how the Matawai came to settle in their territory in central Suriname. 

The Matawai are one of six Maroon groups in Suriname. Their traditional lands in the rainforests of northeast South America are home to centuries of oral histories and traditions that risk being lost as older generations die out, and as younger ones move away or lose interest.  

To prevent this, the Matawai partnered with the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT) to record, compile and digitize an unprecedented repository of stories, including place-based narratives mapped to more than 700 sacred sites, settlements, and other places of significance across their territory. Together, they created a novel, open-source, offline-compatible app called Terrastories, which allows local communities to locate and map their own storytelling traditions about longstanding places and narratives in their heritage.  

“My inner wiseman had been sleeping all this time, but then I realized it was not too late,” observed Josef Dennert, a Matawai elder, about why he wanted to get involved with the project. Dennert and several dozen other elders have been interviewed and video recorded by Matawai youth, sharing hours of ancestral histories. “I had to follow them, and finally apply my knowledge.”  

In 2018, thanks to a support from the Smithsonian Institution’s “Recovering Voices” program, Dennert along with two other Matawai traveled to Washington, D.C. to research the papers of Edward C. Green, who recently donated ethnographic research on the Matawai to the Smithsonian’s National Anthropological Archives—the first time any Matawai have seen the findings. 

Published in celebration of Suriname’s National Maroon Day, the storytelling map presents these invaluable oral histories, vintage photographs, and archival documents recovered by the Matawai in recent years, in conjunction with interactive maps, to tell the story of how the Matawai came to settle in their ancestral lands in central Suriname. 

Produced in collaboration with UNESCO, the National Archives of Suriname, and Smithsonian’s Recovering Voices program, Lands of Freedom serves as an important landmark in the endeavor to preserve, recognize, and honor the intangible cultural heritage of the Surinamese Maroons. 

The storytelling map is currently available in English and Dutch. Translation to the native Matawai and other languages will be added in the future, along with more content contributed directly by the community.

Cover photo: Edward C. Green papers, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution (box 3).

Amazon Conservation Team

The Amazon Conservation Team partners with indigenous and other local communities to protect tropical forests and strengthen traditional culture.

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