Awá Kwaiker

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Awá Kwaiker

ETHNONYMS: Awá, Awá Cuaiquer, Coaiquer, Cuaiquer, Kuaiquer, Kwaiker


Identification The name "Kwaiker" was imposed by Spanish conquistadors and missionaries, who named the group for the river where they were discovered. They call themselves "Awá," which means "people." They may further identify themselves as "Inkal," which means "mountain" or "jungle" (i.e., "mountain people"), thus differentiating themselves from the Blacks of the coast, "Ijakta Awá," and Whites, "Wisha Awá." Since the name "Awá" has only recently been introduced, both names are used to avoid confusion. Some people, however, following Spanish spelling, use "Cuaiquer" instead of "Kwaiker."

Location. The Awá Kwaiker occupy an area in the extreme southwest of Colombia and the northwest of Ecuador between 0.45° and 1.20° N and 77.45° and 78.30° W. They live in a tropical-rain-forest climate at an elevation of between 500 and 1,500 meters in an area of steep, eroded hills.

Demography. In 1989 the Awá Kwaiker population was estimated at 7,000, of whom 5,000 live in Colombia and 2,000 in Ecuador.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Awá Kwaiker language belongs to the Barbacoa Subgroup of the Chibcha Family. This language is related to all native languages of the Pacific coast from Ecuador to Guatemala.

History and Cultural Relations

The origin of the group is not clear. Previously, it was thought that they were part of the Pasto group, which lived in the high Andes. Recent archaeological and linguistic evidence, however, link the Awá Kwaiker with Mesoamerican civilization.

It is known that between 100 and 400 b.c. the Tumaco civilization existed on the Pacific coast. The archaeological remains of this civilization show clear cultural links with the Mayas and Aztecs. Undoubtedly, migrants settled in this area, but they mysteriously disappeared. When the Spaniards arrived, they found only Indians with a very low level of technological development. It is difficult to maintain that the Tumaco completely disappeared, thus it is hypothesized that some of their descendants populated the coast at the time of the Spanish Conquest.

This supposition is supported by the following documentary evidence. One of the most famous warrior groups, the Sindaguas, was almost exterminated in 1635, when they were condemned to death. The records of the trial list the surnames of the condemned Indians: six of the eight names listed are the same as six of the eight traditional surnames of the present-day Awá Kwaiker. In addition, the Spanish captain Francisco de Prado y Zuñiga, who was sent from Popayán to carry out the sentence, reported that his interpreters were able to understand the language and that the "Sindaguas" spoke Mayan. Later historical evidence shows that the Awá Kwaiker also have surnames of groups that lived in distant areas of the coast, which leads to the assumption that this is not a distinct Indian group, but rather a mix of various groups that lived in the coastal area. Later, roads were built and the region was invaded by settlers attracted by the gold found in the rivers. Since then, the Awá Kwaiker have been stratified internally by degree of cultural assimilation.

Those who stayed near the road, working as unskilled laborers, assumed the customs and even the surnames of the peasants. Their present-day descendants, about 30 percent of the Awá Kwaiker population, have forgotten the ancestral language and customs and now live on small plots of land. A second stratum settled in nearby areas because the need for access to the market obliged them to maintain intermittent relations. Nevertheless, proximity to mestizo settlers created cultural and territorial conflicts. At the present time, this group, about 35 percent of the population, is rapidly being assimilated, and traditional practices are reserved for private familial situations. Young people commonly migrate seasonally in search of work and are therefore more vulnerable to change and unaccepting of Indian identity. The remaining 35 percent of the population consists of those who traditionally try to avoid contact with outsiders and, as a result, have settled in distant and hard-to-reach areas between the Nulpe and San Juan rivers close to the Ecuadoran border.


The total area of settlement is about 3,500 square kilometers, but it is crossed by the road to Barbacoas and Tumaco, along which live about 20,000 mestizos and Blacks. The Awá Kwaiker live along the Gualcala, Vegan, Güisa, Nulpe, and San Juan rivers, forming small nuclei of dispersed dwellings. This residence pattern is the only system that guarantees equilibrium in the poor and fragile ecosystem. In Colombia and Ecuador there are about seventy settlements, averaging no more than 100 inhabitants except in places with infrastructure such as bridges, small health centers, or schools, where the population may be more densely concentrated.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Originally, the Awá Kwaiker were hunter-gatherers who supplemented their diet through the cultivation of a variety of maize that grows under almost wild conditions. After cutting down the jungle vegetation, the Awá Kwaiker throw the maize down and wait for it to sprout. No more is done until the harvest. In spite of this, the harvest is usually good because sunlight, as well as decomposing organic material, is channeled toward the crop. The farmer refrains from planting in the same area for at least five years, when the area has been covered by secondary growth. At the present time, the growing of maize is complemented by the cultivation of plantains and sugarcane and the raising of farm animals such as pigs and chickens. As with crops, the Awá Kwaiker invest little time and energy in the care of their animals: they mature almost in the wild. The key to survival is to live with what nature offers. They sell a few animals and their products and surplus maize: that is, they maintain a certain number of animals that function as fixed capital, and live on the income generated by these animals.

Industrial Arts. Crafts are directed toward satisfying needs of daily life. Because of the need to carry loads on their backs, the Awá Kwaiker make baskets of various sizes as well as jigras (bags made of vegetable fiber). Ceramic work has almost disappeared, and kitchen utensils are now bought in the market. Nevertheless, the construction of containers and canoes from the huge trees found in the area is still an important activity. Musical instruments are very important: among these are marimbas, drums, maracas, and flutes.

Trade. Commerce is limited: per-capita annual income is rarely more than the equivalent of $100. In general, the Awá Kwaiker sell maize, chickens, and pigs and buy salt, kerosene for lamps, machetes, rubber boots, and a suit of clothes for each family member.

Division of Labor. The sexual division of labor is very clear: the couple is the basic unit, supplying all the necessities of life. The woman combines domestic chores with child rearing and animal husbandry. Sometimes she is required to work in the fields and carry loads. The man dedicates his time to farming, hunting, and fishing (i.e., to food procurement), which has led to his having absolute authority in the family. The woman, on the other hand, is subordinate and is treated like a child. She is very quiet and is excluded from certain rituals.

Land Tenure. Originally, the Awá Kwaiker possessed large areas of land where they could hunt, fish, and rotate crops. With the colonization of the area, in spite of growth of the Awá Kwaiker population, not only were their holdings diminished, they were also forced to obtain legal titles to the land. This problem was more marked in areas close to the main road and towns: in more remote areas, especially close to Ecuador, the Awá Kwaiker retained larger domains and kept traditional property rights. At the present time, because of unclear property titles and pressure from other farmers, the National Institute of Land Reform has given the Awá Kwaiker three pieces of land under a reservation system (i.e., community property, not to be sold). The possibility of turning over additional land where the remaining Awá Kwaiker live is being studied.


Kin Groups and Descent. In general, the Awá Kwaiker are organized by kinship relationships based on marriage alliances that unite two families, which subsequently share land and work. This system is reflected in residence, inheritance, and property rules that tend to conserve the ecological balance. Kinship relationships are initiated when a group of brothers marries a group of sisters; in this way the family is enlarged, and ties of solidarity are created. At the present time kinship lacks the same importance because the majority have been forced to migrate, and, before leaving, they sell their land, according to Colombian law. Nevertheless, this kinship relationship can still be found, because in each settlement one or two surnames predominate as a result of marriage ties.

Kinship Terminology. Family-group members call each other "cousin," which is recognized until the third generation.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. The Awá Kwaiker generally marry between the ages of 15 and 16. This is used as a mechanism to limit family size, and the practice is reinforced by moral and social sanctions. In addition, their standard of beauty in women is closely related to the physical characteristics of youth, so that after this age a woman might not be able to marry. The fact is that, in a simple economy at a low level of subsistence, more workers are not needed, and so the older children, who are large consumers of family resources, have to leave the family group. A prospective groom speaks to the father of the prospective bride, who usually accepts him, depending on the amount of land that his father has. Marriage is a way to increase property holdings and, as a result, fathers carefully control the movements of their daughters. Also for property reasons, residence is patrilocal. Initially, the couple lives together for a period of about one year in a relationship called amaño (test period), during which the woman must demonstrate her dedication and ability as a housewife. If they decide to marry at the end of this period, the relationship is quite stable, although there are some cases of infidelity among both sexes. If they do not marry, the woman returns to her parents in disgrace: if she has children her chances of being able to amañar again are even more reduced.

Domestic Unit. The family is the primary social unit: it is a patriarchal organization composed of parents, sons and their wives, and grandchildren.

Inheritance. Although inheritance was traditionally from grandparents to grandchildren and under the control of kinship groups, it is at the present time from parents to children. It is now a more commercial transaction and involves legal documents. Nonetheless, parents have the power to divide property according to their personal preferences and affection for their children, which guarantees them good treatment in their old age.

Socialization. Awá Kwaiker children are not overprotected, nor do they receive special treatment. On the contrary, they are exposed to various risks. At about 6 or 7 years of age children accompany their parents to work and have their own duties: in the community, every one has to earn his or her own living. The formal education available is not adequate for the needs of the group; there are very few schools and these are poorly equipped. In addition, the teachers are strangers to the community who do not share the cultural background of the children.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The social organization of the Awá Kwaiker is based on rules of behavior regarding production and personal relations that are intended to produce a balance among territory, population density, and provision of resources. The behavioral norms are affirmed in social gatherings where, in some way, every one finds out who is violating the norms: who is committing adultery, who is stealing, who has lost her virginity, and so on. As a result, these gatherings are public occasions for examining one's conscience.

Political Organization. The Awá Kwaiker lack a formal political structure because the family, under the authority of the father, is the immediate and definitive agent of social control. Recently, the Colombian government, through the Office of Indian Affairs, has been organizing the Awá Kwaiker into a cabildo system, a type of Indian council similar to other traditional organizations. Here, it is not necessarily the older people who have more authority, but rather those who are more qualified to carry out the relevant duties.

Social Control. Social censure is the traditional method of social control. The law of reciprocity operates, so that peace between two people is reestablished by reimbursement for something stolen and, in general, when compensation is made for an infraction. In these types of cases there is no formal judge who mediates between the contenders: they resolve their differences themselves.

Conflict. One of the major bases of contention is the defense of territorial rights, which often leads to aggression and conflict. The Awá Kwaiker are aggressive among themselves, but, when confronted by Whites, they adopt an attitude of passive rejection: they avoid speaking or sharing activities with persons outside their own group. For their part, the farmers of the surrounding area see the Awá Kwaiker as backward, incompetent, ignorant, and odd. The local authorities share this view, and, consequently, there is no guarantee that the rights of the Awá Kwaiker will be defended.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Because it is not easy to establish close relationships with the Awá Kwaiker, given their reserved behavior with strangers, it is difficult to describe their religious beliefs. Nonetheless, it is known that they do have a rich corpus of myths and symbols, through which they attempt to explain their world. Their environment, the jungle, is populated with spirits who control their lives. The Awá Kwaiker conceive of a supernatural world populated by imaginary beings physically similar to the Indians but with divine powers. These beings are in charge of watching over people's lives and regulating and organizing the world according to the values considered important by the Awá Kwaiker. The Awá Kwaiker also have adopted other beliefs of the surrounding settlers and Indians of other groups which, in the end, also operate as forms of social control. Although many Awá Kwaiker attend Catholic religious services, they do so fundamentally owing to their desire to imitate customs that give them prestige in the eyes of Whites, rather than because of a real internalization of these religious beliefs.

Religious Practitioners. Among the Awá Kwaiker rituals are tied to traditional medicine; as a result, shamans are the curanderos (traditional doctors), who base their practice on knowledge passed from generation to generation.

Ceremonies. Honoring ancestors, wakes, and the celebration of funerals are the most important ceremonial events. In spite of the influence of the church, traditional beliefs still dominate on these occasions. Here the Awá Kwaiker manifest the oldest elements of their culture, as these ceremonies are private events: in addition, the customary intoxication permits uninhibited and spontaneous behavior.

Arts. The most important musical instruments are the marimba and different kinds of drums, some of them inherited from Black African slaves. Many of their songs also show Black African influence, although each is based on a single set of notes, which may be repeated indefinitely. Present-day dancing is done in couples; the Awá Kwaiker prefer traditional Ecuadoran rhythms.

Medicine. The Awá Kwaiker see illness as a punishment for the violation of behavioral norms. As a result, there is a psychosomatic component to illness, as feelings of guilt affect the nervous system and, in turn, other parts of the organism, for example in cases of lack of appetite. Thus, the function of the curandero is to reestablish good relations with the spirits that are punishing the person, while administering natural medicine in order to strengthen the organism. If the problem persists, the Awá Kwaiker will go to a medical doctor.

Death and Afterlife. Death is seen as passing to another life. As a consequence, when the dead are buried, food, tools, and clothes are placed in the tomb so that the person will be able to fulfill his or her duties in the next life. Because of this belief, very sick people, especially old people, receive no special care to prolong their lives, since this would be contrary to supernatural design. In fact, the funeral rituals that are celebrated at the end of a year are enacted with the objective of bringing the spirit of the dead person to the celebration. Funerals are also a means of "freeing" widows and widowers so that they are able to remarry.


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