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Identification. The name "Baniwa" is a lingua geral (the old trade language of Jesuit missionaries spoken throughout the northwestern Amazon) term used since early colonial times to refer to the Arawak speakers of the Rio Içana and its tributaries in northwestern Amazon, Brazil "Curripaco" refers to one of five dialect groups (which include the Baniwa of Brazil) inhabiting the upper Içana and Guainía rivers of Brazil, Venezuela, and Colombia. "Wakuenai" ("people of our language") is an ethnonym used for all five dialect groups inhabiting the upper Guainía of Venezuela. To simplify this discussion, the term "Wakuenai" will be used throughout. Although each of these names is used regionally, the Wakuenai often refer to themselves by phratric names ("Hohodene," "Partridge children"; "Oalipere Dakenai," "Descendants of the Pleiades"; "Dzauinai," "Jaguar people").

Location. Since aboriginal times, the Wakuenai have inhabited the northwestern Amazon region, between approximately 0° and 3° N and 66°50 and 69°50 W, on the present-day borders of Brazil (Estado de Amazonas), Venezuela (Território Federal Amazonas), and Colombia (Comissarías del Guainía/Vaupés). In these three countries, their communities are distributed along the Içana and its tributaries, the upper Negro-Guarnía and its tributaries, and the lower Xié and Uaupés, Inírida, Casiquiare, and middle Orinoco rivers.

Demography. In 1985 the Wakuenai population in Brazil and Venezuela was calculated at 5,373 people living in 133 communities; in Colombia, their population is estimated to be about 400. There are also uncounted numbers living in or near urban centers (Manaus, Puerto Ayacucho). No figures are available for early postcontact times.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Wakuenai belong to the Northern Maipure Language Family and speak five mutually intelligible dialects named in accordance with the linguistic forms of affirmation or negation, or in accordance with the names of descent units to which their speakers belong. Aboriginally, dialects were probably associated with distinct territories; today, although dialects may predominate in a given region, speakers of all five dialects are commonly found together. Língua Geral has completely replaced the Arawak language in a number of communities.

History and Cultural Relations

Linguistic, archaeological, and mythological evidence suggests that from at least 3500 B.P. Northern Maipure speakers occupied the upper Rio Negro/upper Orinoco Valley, where they encountered forest-dwelling and nomadic Maku peoples. By the time of first European contact in the mid-sixteenth century, this region was inhabited by a diversity of Northern Maipure-speaking groups. From mid-eighteenth-century sources, it can be determined that to the north and northwest of the Waukuenai were the Piapoco, Guaypunaves, Warekena, Baniwa, and Puinave; to the northeast and east were Bare, Warekena, and Yavitero; to the southeast were Bare, Maipure, and Manao; to the south and southwest were Tariana, other Arawakan, and Tukanoan-speaking peoples; and to the west were Tukanoans and probably Cariban-speaking peoples. Wakuenai oral histories of their relations with other Arawak and Tukanoan peoples indicate shifting patterns of war making and alliance.

Fairly continuous contact with Europeans dates from the mid-eighteenth century, when the Portuguese and Spanish slave trade penetrated the upper Rio Negro/Orinoco, resulting in the intensification of intertribal warfare and severe tribal depopulation. Despite their losses, the Wakuenai appear to have remained relatively populous and may have absorbed renegades of the slave wars from other tribes. Following the abolition of Indian slavery in 1755, numerous Wakuenai were settled in colonial villages of the Rio Negro, where they came to form part of the caboclo (mestizo) population. Diseases and unstable conditions led many to return to their homelands at the end of the eighteenth century, where they attempted to reorganize their society. In the early nineteenth century Brazilian and Venezuelan traders began working among the Wakuenai and, often in alliance with the frontier military, exploited Indian labor. Their abuses became extreme by the 1850s, and growing Indian resistance culminated in a series of millenarian movements in 1857-1858, led by the Wakuenai prophet Kamiko, whose influence lasted for nearly forty years and extended to various tribes of the region.

By the 1870s the rubber boom reached the upper Rio Negro, intensifying exploitation of Wakuenai labor by White employers. Abuses by the frontier military at the beginning of the twentieth century, coupled with epidemic diseases, caused the Wakuenai to live under a virtual reign of terror. In the 1940s Protestant evangelism, introduced by the North American New Tribes Mission, stimulated a new wave of millenarian movements among the Wakuenai of Venezuela, Colombia, and Brazil. With the later installation of Catholic missions on the Içana, religious allegiances became seriously divided. Encroachments by gold panners and mining companies, as well as military projects to control the frontiers, have divided the Wakuenai even more, although these pressures have stimulated new forms of political organization focused on defending their land, resources, and culture.


Most villages are built near the banks of major rivers and streams; a few are found at the headwaters of small streams and on the banks of lakes and ponds. Seasonally occupied shelters are often built near garden lands or fishing lakes. On several occasions in the past, temporary refuge settlements were built in the forest to escape outside pressures or epidemics, but the dominant orientation of settlement patterns and ecology continues to be riverine. Settlements are widely dispersed, several hours distant from one another by canoe or trail. There are more than 150 villages in all (the majority in Brazil), with populations ranging from 10 to over 150 but averaging 30 to 40 people. Larger villages have schools, chapels, and community houses (or "Conference Houses" among evangelists) and frequently serve as religious, social, and educational centers for smaller villages. Settlements traditionally consisted of one or more multifamily longhouses (or roundhouses on the Guainía), divided into separate family compartments and a central space used for work or ritual purposes. Longhouses were oblong/rectangular constructions (e.g., 20 meters long by 17 meters wide by 7 meters high), with front and back doors, no windows, and pitched roofs of thatch, poles, and reeds.

The effects of contact and especially missionary pressures in the second half of the twentieth century have resulted in the replacement of all longhouses with settlements consisting of clusters of single-family houses. Houses are generally two-room constructions made of wattle and daub (variations: pole and thatch, bark walls) with thatched roofs. They are organized in linear fashion or distributed around a rectangular plaza, facing the river, and with a network of trails behind the village leading to gardens and the forest. Mission centers, government posts, and military airstrips have served as points of attraction, producing larger settlements with a more distinctly caboclo pattern of housing.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The two basic subsistence activities of the Wakuenai are fishing and agriculture, which are of complementary and equal economic and cultural importance. These are supplemented by seasonal hunting and gathering of wild forest products. The primary cultigen is manioc, of which up to fifty varieties are cultivated in swiddens. Collective fishing expeditions are the predominant activity during the dry, summer months. Fishing techniques involve the use of a variety of traps and nets, hooks and lines, bows and arrows, machetes and spears, and barbasco poison. Both fishing and agricultural cycles are synchronized with a variety of natural indicators and mythical calendars and linked to a series of important ritual activities. Hunting weapons still include blowguns and bows and arrows in certain areas, but the shotgun is more common. Phratries were traditionally the most important social units controlling resources within given territories. Given variations in environmental resources, fishing or agriculture may be more productive, giving rise to cooperative arrangements of resource sharing within and among phratries.

Extractive and commercial activities have probably contributed the most to changing subsistence patterns. Since early contact times, the Wakuenai have participated in a series of extractive activities to obtain piaçaba fiber, rubber, chicle, sorva (Couma utilis ), Brazil nuts, and, most recently, minerals (gold). As these resources are found in different areas, seasonal labor migration has become a common pattern. Commercial activities have included the production of artwork (baskets, manioc graters, hammocks, feather ornaments) and manioc for sale to merchants, missions, and the government. As the demand for these products has increased, they have become nearly permanent occupations in many areas. Both extractive and commercial production have thus created new productive sectors in the Wakuenai economy that seriously interfere with traditional subsistence activities. Protestant evangelism has also contributed to change by undermining traditional exchange rituals and by introducing a different set of religious festivals with its own system of intervillage production. On the other hand, communities have taken advantage of government assistance programs or cooperatives to regain economic self-sufficiency by utilizing traditional agronomic practices to increase manioc production.

Industrial Arts. Aboriginal crafts included ceramics, weaving, and the manufacture of manioc graters, blowguns, and poison darts. Except for making manioc graters and weaving, industrial arts have declined considerably since the beginning of the twentieth century or persist mainly where products are sold on the market.

Trade. Archaeological and historical evidence suggests that the entire upper Rio Negro Basin was connected to other areas by an immense network of riverine and overland trails used by both Arawak and non-Arawak peoples for trade and that specialization existed in the production of trade items. Wakuenai manioc graters and quartz (used in their manufacture and found on the Içana) were important trade items in both pre- and postcontact times. Trade with Europeans was limited in the eighteenth century but, by the early nineteenth century, had become an integral part of the Wakuenai economy.

Division of Labor. In subsistence activities, the division of labor between sexes is one of complementarity and interdependence rather than a rigid distinction between male and female roles. Men are responsible for cutting and burning new gardens; both men and women plant and weed new gardens; women harvest, replant, and process manioc and other plants. Both men and women fish with hook and line and participate in collective fishing expeditions, but men fish more often and use a greater variety of techniques, whereas women more often process the catch. Men are responsible for hunting, gathering in the forest, building and maintaining houses, manufacturing weapons, making canoes, weaving baskets, and cutting manioc graters. Women are responsible for preparing and cooking animals and forest products, some gathering, preparing adobe for houses, making ceramics, and setting stones in manioc graters. Ritual (including manufacture of ritual objects) and shamanism are predominantly male activities. With the intense commercialization of basketry in the 1970s, women participated more in weaving. Extractive activities have been almost exclusively performed by men.

Land Tenure. Traditionally, phratries collectively controlled defined stretches of riverine territory and their resources. Members of other phratries could freely travel within a given phratry's territory but not systematically exploit its resources without obtaining permission from the local phratry. Failure to do so could result in warfare. Within a phratry's territory, sibs identified specific areas for use as agricultural lands and as sacred lands (sites of ancestral emergence/houses of souls of the recently deceased) where no one was permitted to hunt. Forced removal and exile, migrations, and other sociohistorical circumstances have weakened landholding principles, resulting in a mixing of different phratries within a given territory. Phratric exogamy and marital exchange practices have also, over time, produced enclaves of affinal groups within a phratry's territory. No major influx of nonindigenous colonists has forced Wakuenai off their lands. In Colombia, in 1986, the national government created five separate reserves for the Wakuenai (but which include other indigenous peoples) on the frontier. In Venezuela, ten of the thirty Wakuenai communities actually have collective landownership titles issued by the National Agrarian Institute. In Brazil, in 1989, the federal government created five separate reserves (four "indigenous colonies" and one "indigenous area"), surrounded by national forests, to be permanently owned and used by the Wakuenai.


Kin Groups and Descent. Wakuenai society is divided into five or six exogamous phratries, each consisting of four or five patrilineal sibs ranked according to the order of emergence of mythical ancestral brother-spirits. In the past, sibs were categorized according to a system of ritual roles as chiefs, shamans, warriors, dancers, and servants; today, these roles are virtually nonexistent. Phratries are generally named after the highest-ranked sib of the group; in one case, a group of five phratries has united into a larger, unnamed unit of organization. On rare historical occasions, phratries have acted as corporate decision-making groups, but more important today is their strong sense of identity based on common mythical emergence sites and territories, an ideology of descent from first or historical ancestors, and ceremonial property (sacred flutes, chants, name-sets). The core of local communities is the male sibling group and, as on the phratric and sib level, male sibling ties form the basis of a system of hierarchical rank according to relative age; the meaning of the rank, however, is subject to local variations in practice. Traditionally, the agnatic sibling group of a community constituted the most important level of decision making.

Kinship Terminology. Terminological uses in general follow the Dravidian system.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Wakuenai marriage rules prescribe phratrie exogamy and a preference is expressed for marriage with patrilateral cross cousins (although either cross-cousin category is acceptable). Direct sister exchange is often practiced between preferred affinal lineages and sibs, and, in some cases, preference is expressed for marriages between people from equivalently ranked sibs of different phratries. Marriages are usually monogamous and arranged by the parents of the bride and bridegroom. Patrivirilocality is the dominant residence pattern; however, the rule of bride-service gives rise to temporary, and sometimes permanent, uxorilocality. Communities thus often include affinal relatives and can evolve into multisib/multiphratric communities or, in cases of two long-standing exchange partners, moieties. Evangelical missionary intolerance has greatly undermined residence patterns and cross-cousin marriage, thereby contributing to permanent uxorilocality. Husband-wife bonds are usually stable through a lifetime, but, in cases of infidelity or maltreatment, the affected party simply leaves his or her spouse.

Domestic Unit. Households generally consist of nuclear families, although elderly parents may reside with one of their married children. Even in the multifamily longhouses of the past, nuclear families were distinct spatial, social, and economic units. Nevertheless, villages today often appear as patrilocal extended families of several generations, with important interconnections among individual households.

Inheritance. The Wakuenai do not have a system of private property in lands or resources regulated by transmission. Phratry members' unlimited access to lands and resources is best understood as collective ownership. Cultivated gardens and houses are, nevertheless, considered private spaces; access is limited to nuclear families and, like other products of labor, they are considered to be individually owned. Traditionally, houses were abandoned after the death of their owners and garden lands could later be used by other phratry members. An individual's few possessions are either buried with the deceased or divided among his or her children.

Socialization. Past the age of weaning (3 years of age), children gradually begin to learn their rolesgirls help their mothers with gardening and domestic chores, and boys often form play packs engaging in male pursuits such as hunting and fishing. Parents or grandparents discipline children by scolding or admonishing. The most intensive instruction is accomplished in initiation rites (at 8 to 10 years of age for boys; at first menstruation for girls) in which children are taught the laws of the ancestors on correct social living (generosity, avoidance of violence and revenge), receive instruction in sacred myths and rituals, and learn a variety of skills useful in adult life. Through ritual fasting and abstinence, initiates learn to control physical needs, demonstrating they are fully cultural beings capable of controlling their own destinies. Missionary intolerance of these rituals has greatly undermined their performance and, consequently, the traditional basis of authority over children. Mission schools and cult activities have in many cases completely supplanted the socializing function of initiation rites.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Traditional social organization is based on a series of structural processes. Important among these are distinctions between kin and affines, or "other" groups regulating marriage and political and ritual relations; the hierarchical system of rank based on relative age, regulating social and economic relations and balanced by reciprocity and exchange; the complementary opposition of male/female roles necessary for social reproduction and subsistence activities; and the system of beliefs and practices related to the ancestors, which is central to life-cycle rites and the integration of society as well as having been central to historical millenarian movements. The imposition of international boundaries through Wakuenai territory has undermined traditional alliances and led to more interethnic marriages with other Indian societies in each of the three countries. Evangelical missionaries have created divisions by prohibiting marriages to non-Evangelicals; campaigning against ritual symbols, social practices, and traditional leadership; and encouraging urban migration. The fragmentation of Wakuenai lands into distinct reserves in Brazil, most of them open to development, may also have serious consequences for future social integration.

Political Organization. Oral histories indicate the existence of supreme war leaders in precontact times, but warfare and raiding were abandoned by most groups by the late nineteenth century. The system of hierarchical ranking among sibs probably never served as a model of institutional political power, and decision making, in the past as now, was based on general consensus and mutual assent of village elders and leaders. Leadership is often exercised by the eldest brother of the local group of agnatic siblings, yet there are so many exceptions to this, depending on local preferences and individual aspirations, as to leave unclear whether there is a rule for succession. Leaders vary a great deal in their exercise of authority, some encouraging community labor, others allowing individual families to work independently. Yet leaders must receive community consent to any decision they take and are expected to act as intermediaries in internal matters and as interlocutors in relations with outsiders. Besides this, they organize labor, preside over meetings and religious activities, distribute community production, and enforce community standards. Should a leader not fulfill these obligations, community elders decide by consensus on his replacement. In evangelical communities, the structure of religious authority is superimposed on the traditional hierarchy of elders and may thus weaken leaders' authority. In Catholic communities, young mission-trained catechists often conflict with the authority of leaders and elders. Wakuenai leaders in Brazil have formed associations to defend land and resource rights.

Social Control. Community meetings, elders' counsel, shamans' cures, and ostracism have served as important forms of social control. In cases of serious crimes, shamans from other tribes are sought out for retribution. Witchcraft continues to be an important force despite missionary intervention.

Conflict. The most serious conflicts in modern times have been brought about by the divisions produced by the radical practices of and pressures from missionaries, who have destroyed traditional cultural values and forms; pressures from outside economic interests; and the contradictions between the new materialist/individualist values, which have occasioned differences in wealth, and traditional communitarian laws and values. In many cases, these conflicts have led to family and community migration, ostracism of leaders, and an increase in accusations of sorcery.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Traditional religious beliefs centered on ancestral spirits and the laws of the ancestors; the creative and generative relations among humans, animals, and the spirit world; a profound faith in the abilities of shamans and ritual specialists to mediate between humans and the deities, in exceptional cases incorporating the powers of the highest deities; and a cosmic history remembered in sacred myths, which recounts the heroic deeds of the deities and the creation of the world through various cataclysmic destructions and renewals. The most important deities of Wakuenai religion are a Transformer/Creator/Trickster/Seer-Shaman who dwells in the highest level of the cosmos, about whom there is an elaborate mythology organized in several cycles; the Creator's son, an extraordinary human/animal/spirit being whose body consists of all material things, who imparts sacred knowledge to humanity and whose song opened the world to its present form; the patron of shamans; the owner of the earth, who began the cultivation of gardens; the Anaconda Lord of Earthly Waters; and a legion of lesser water, earth, and air spirits that both help and harm humanity. The cosmos consists of approximately ten tiers of heaven, earth, and below-the-earth, each inhabited by a different class of spirits. These beliefs have served as the basis for millenarian movements since the mid-nineteenth century. Christian missionaries have greatly modified these beliefsin many cases undermining them altogether, in others superimposing Christian notions on preexisting beliefs (e.g., millenarianism), reinforcing the latter rather than completely destroying them.

Religious Practitioners. Traditionally, shamans were key figures in Wakuenai culture. There is a hierarchy of shamans differentiated by levels of knowledge and capacity, from the most powerful "seers," prophetic and sometimes messianic figures, to lesser shamans able to perform limited kinds of cures. There is also a class of specialists, "spell-owners," similarly differentiated by degrees of knowledge, whose function is to perform spells and chants, from the most elaborate set of chants and spell blowing at rites of passage to the simplest curing spell. A third specialization is that of the ritual-dance leader, who leads ceremonial dances and songs in the annual cycle of festivals. The elders are well versed in Wakuenai myths and lore, and, as a class, elder men form the core of dance lines at initiation rites. Among Catholics, the catechists serve as intermediaries between the missions and communities; among Protestants, pastors, deacons, and elders proselytize, preach the gospel, lead the community in prayer, and organize the cycle of religious meetings and services.

Ceremonies. The traditional ceremonial cycle consisted of a series of festivals of exchange, named in accordance with the principal dance instrument used, and held whenever there was a surplus of wild fruits, fish, or game, generally among affinal groups. The most important of these were the initiation rituals, held in the early wet season, when sacred flutes and trumpets were played. In another, the Surubi festival, named after a type of fish, flutes made to resemble these fish were played; these flutes were distinctive to the Wakuenai. Mission-introduced festivals have largely replaced the traditional cycle, but, in certain areas, their revitalization is a powerful force in affirming ethnic identity and protesting domination by outsiders, as were the millenarian dances of the past century.

Arts. Ceremonial singing, ritual chanting, the playing of ritual instruments, myth telling, ornamentation and body painting, andin prehistoric timespetroglyphs were among the important art forms.

Medicine. Traditional medicine is based on herbal remedies, curing rituals by shamans and spell-owners, and dietary restrictions. In general, illness is seen as a process of partial disintegration of the soul and curing as its restoration. Evangelical missionaries have insisted, not entirely successfully, on the exclusive use of Western medicines, whereas among Catholics, traditional medicine has developed in conjuction with the introduction of Western medicine.

Death and Afterlife. Serious illness and death are believed to be the result of sorcery, malevolent spirits, or the failure to observe ritual restrictions. At death, the two parts of a person's soul separate, the collective animal-shaped soul becoming integrated to sib ancestral houses of animal souls, whereas the individual, human-body-shaped soul, after passage through a dark netherworld of shades, is purified by fire and then journeys to the celestial paradise of the Creator, where it is reunited with its collective ancestral soul. A similar process of polarization of souls is believed to occur with animal and bird species. Traditionally, funeral rites and secondary burial were important practices.


Hill, Jonathan D. (1983). "Wakuenai Society: A Processual-Structural Analysis of Indigenous Cultural Life in the Upper Río Negro Basin, Venezuela." Ph.D. dissertation, Indiana University.

Journet, Nicolas (1981). "Los curripacos del Rio Içana: Economía y sociedad." Revista Colombiana de Antropología 23:127-182.

Wright, Robin M. (1981). "The History and Religion of the Baniwa Peoples of the Upper Rio Negro Valley." Ph.D. dissertation, Stanford University.

Wright, Robin M., and Jonathan D. Hill (1986). "History, Ritual, and Myth: Nineteenth-Century Millenarian Movements in the Northwest Amazon." Ethnohistory 33(1): 31-54.