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ETHNONYMS: Generic for the linguistic family: Goajivo, Guahibo, Guayba, Jiwi, Uajibo, Uwaiwa, Waiwa. Specific ethnic groups: 1) Jiwi, Sikuani; 2) Cuiba, Chiricoa, Jiwi; 3) Hitnu, Macaguane; 4) Cunimia, Guayabero.


Identification. The name "Guahibo," presumably of Arawak (Achagua or Piapoco) origin, has been applied to several ethnic groups of the family. The self-designation "Sikuani," used by some with the connotation of "backward," has been redefined by newly politicized groups to mean "authentic" or "nonacculturated," and refers specifically to the largest ethnic group of Guahibo. The terms "Cuiba" and "Chiricoa" refer to the nomadic groups of eastern Casanare and Arauca. "Hitnu," equivalent to "Jiwi" among the Sikuani and Cuiba, means "people" or "human beings" and is the autodenomination of a small group (also known as "Macaguanes") of horticulturists of the Arauca forest. The names "Guayabero" and "Cunimia" designate groups originating in the Río Guayabero area and now settled on the central part of the river, where it is known as the Guaviare.

Location. The traditional Sikuani territory includes the tropical savannas of the eastern Colombian plains, especially the area between the Orinoco, Meta, Manacacias, and Vichada rivers. Beginning in the 1950s, some groups migrated toward the east, to the central Orinoco and the jungle areas of the Río Guaviare and to Amazonas in Venezuela.

Demography. According to official data, the Guahibo number around 30,000 people: 25,500 Sikuani (70 percent in Colombia and 30 percent in Venezuela), 2,500 Cuiba (90 percent in Colombia and 10 percent in Venezuela), 1,000 Guayabero, and 250 Hitnu.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Guahibo language is classified with Sikuani and Cuiba (central Guahibo), Hitnu, and Guayabero, with which it forms an independent language family. These languages, especially Sikuani, show an increased number of lexical affinities with the Piapoco and Achagua languages of the Arawak Language Family. These affinities can be attributed to borrowing owing to lengthy coresidence, exogamic interchange, and trade, and not, as some authors have suggested, a genetic relationship.

History and Cultural Relations

Early reports on the area describe the Guahibo (Guaiba and Chiricoa) as nomadic hunter-gatherers, whose form of life contrasted with sedentary river dwellers dedicated to horticulture. From the eighteenth century on, however, with the remainder of the Arawak (Achagua and Piapoco), they began to settle down on the banks of the Meta, Vichada, and Ariari rivers and to change their form of life from hunting and gatherering to that of semisedentary horticulture. From the end of the seventeenth century, after the departure of the Jesuit missionaries who were never able to congregate them in towns, the Sikuani gained control over the riverine territories. With different surges of colonization brought about by interethnic conflicts in the interior of the country, Sikuani territory was invaded by cattle ranchers who steadily advanced toward the east, dislodging the natives with bullets. For their part the Indians, especially the nomadic groups, took advantage of the violent circumstances to assault travelers and hunt cattle. On the border between settlers and nomads, a process of acculturation and Hispanicization began to develop, which affected mainly the Achagua and Saliva and, to a lesser degree, the Sikuani. As late as the 1960s, cattle ranchers of the plains continued to organize retaliatory raids against the nomadic groups.


The Sikuani live in dispersed villages formed by a few houses, with an average of less than 50 inhabitants. Villages that developed in the proximity of missions, near Creole villages, or at strategic points along communication axes are more nucleated, and their population exceeds 100 individuals. In the area of San José de Ocuné and on the Río Guaviare, there are some mixed Sikuani and Piapoco villages with an average of 100 persons. Settlement size and mutual proximity are determined by the availability of resources such as wooded areas and water supply and by such factors as distance from routes of communication and the possibility of maintaining relations through the presence of allied groups in the vicinity. Limited resources relative to the growth of the local population engender conflicts that trigger migration to new areas. The mobility of the Guahibo, a factor in the survival of the group vis-à-vis the influence of the dominant society, is based on the fact that there is no strict territoriality and that all Sikuani, whatever their original territory, consider themselves related and can establish new neighborhood relations and alliances in any part of the area. The creation of reserve zones and protected areas since 1970 has limited their traditional mobility somewhat and resulted in the definitive sedentarization of the last nomadic groups, such as the Cuiva of eastern Casanare and Venezuela and the Sikuani from the Tomo and Tuparro rivers.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The basis of Sikuani subsistence is horticulture of bitter manioc, of which some fifty varieties are cultivated, as well as other crops like maize, sweet potatoes, sugarcane, and domestic garden cultigens like peppers. Hunting, fishing, and gathering contribute an essential part of the diet, especially during the dry season, when Sikuani families sometimes travel for weeks and find abundant resources along the rivers, where there is a concentration of fauna. Pigs and chickens have been raised for some time to be traded to Whites for clothing, tools, and other goods rather than as a source of food. Cattle raising on a small scale has developed more recently, having been begun with official aid. Work as ranch hands or in official positions as bilingual teachers and health promotors are sources of income for some people.

Industrial Arts. Although items of daily use are made by nonspecialists, basketry and pottery are more or less specialized crafts executed for trade and economic gain by people with artistic abilities. Woven trays, for example, are made with designs that have symbolic value and are desirable trade items. Hammocks made of cumare- or macanilla- palm fibers are sold or traded in White-managed shops.

Trade. At the time of contact, there existed an active trade that connected all the groups of the Orinoco plains with those of neighboring regions. The Guahibo exchanged their game and their gathered products, as well as items from faraway places, for the horticultural products of riverine groups. With population loss came the loss of regional specialization, and the groups diversified their economy.

Division of Labor. Felling and burning the fields to prepare for cultivation is communal male work. Hunting, fishing, house construction, and canoe making are also men's tasks. A man who wishes to marry is expected to be capable of weaving a manioc press and other basketry items that are given to women to perform their work. Women do the planting and harvesting and prepare food, especially griddle cakes from grated and leached bitter manioc. Pottery making is a typically feminine task.

Land Tenure. Only with the creation of reserves and protected territories is the notion of landownership beginning to develop.


Kin Groups and Descent. Although all Sikuani consider themselves related, regional groups called wiria differentiate each other by certain linguistic features and particular mythical ancestors, generally animals. The tapir, jaguar, sardine, sloth, parrot, and macaw groups are the best known. A complete list would include some forty groupings of this kind. There is sometimes disagreement about the affiliation of a particular individual. Filiation is cognatic when the father and mother belong to the same wiria. When the father and mother belong to different wirias or ethnic groups, it is assumed that children belong to the father's or mother's group depending on which group is dominant in the community. The children of a Piapoco man and a Sikuani woman who live in a Sikuani community will be Sikuani. If, on the other hand, the couple lives in a Piapoca community, the children will be Piapoca.

Kinship Terminology. The terminology for cousins is of the Iroquois type, and avuncular terminology is bifurcate-collateral.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Although the tendency is predominantly toward endogamous marriage between bilateral cross cousins, Sikuani mobility frequently leads to marriages with distant groups. Especially common are marriages between Sikuani and Piapoco.

Domestic Unit. The Guahibo residential unit varies according to its phase of development. It is initially made up of a mature nuclear family in a neolocal home. Later it develops into an uxorilocal extended family by incorporating sons-in-law, who are required to render bride-service for several years. Eventually, constituent nuclear families become more independent and build their own homes either in the same village or further away. In the case of chiefs, some of the sons remain in their father's home and bring their wives to live with them virilocally, because the sons generally inherit social status within their community of orientation.

Inheritance. The scarce goods a man possesses go to his sons, and those of a woman to her daughters.

Socialization. Children are educated with affection and permissiveness. They learn different kinds of work by collaborating with adults. Moralistic tales tell of the punishment that awaits those who violate social norms. Formal education has been established since the middle of the twentieth century, first in the missions then in community schools with indigenous teachers. In the 1980s programs were developed to protect indigenous language and culture.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The Sikuani have a basically egalitarian society. Although chieftainship and shamanism are generally male positions, women have a great deal of influence on the community's decision-making processes. Factors in social stratification include the degree of acculturation and the prevailing life-style. Although indigenous identity is valued, there is an appreciation for proficiency in Spanish and knowledge of Creole culture; traditional monolingualism and nomadism are considered backward.

Political Organization. Leadership rarely goes beyond the village level. Each community is autonomous, and only with the development of the indigenous movement and the formation of Indian reserves have regional political organizations been created.

Social Control and Conflict. Social control is exercised through criticism of deviant behavior. In cases of serious conflict, accusations of sorcery are made, generally resulting in the migration of the people involved.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. For the Sikuani, the world is the result of the actions of deities and culture heroes who made the world livable by diminishing the power of cannibals and by exiling other beings that were harmful to humans. The main deity, Furna Minali, and the heroes Tsamani (the constellacion Delphinus), Iwinai (Pleiades), Kajuyali (Orion), among others, exiled Kuemainü, the great maneating serpent, by transforming it into the Milky Way and weakened the power of lightning by vanquishing it in combat. They gave people prayers and shamanic powers to cure illness and to rid themselves of their enemies and the grandparents of animals that inhabit lakes and caverns. In the latter half of the twentieth century, the influence of Christianity has been growing. As a consequence, the use of the psychotropic yopo (Anadenanthera peregrina ) has been discontinued. The forces of nature and the grandparents of the animals appear as ghosts, and their presence is a constant factor in the life of the Sikuani. Hunting or fishing must not be excessive, and the hunting of certain animals, such as tapir, requires special observances like sexual abstinence on the part of the hunter. The appearance of some animals, such as the fox, or the occurrence of some incident during a ritual is a bad omen.

Ceremonies. In early childhood and especially at the onset of menstruation, a ritual is performed in which a long prayer is recited naming all species of fish and animais of the hunt that might harm the child that is about to be weaned or the young woman who has reached the age of procreation.

Arts. The art perhaps most appreciated by the Sikuani is oratory. Dramatized narration of stories or discourses at political gatherings delights the audience. There are also virtuosos in pan-flute playing who perform in duet; some women and some men are particularly admired for their beautiful playing of songs.

Medicine. The basis of Sikuani medicine is the use of yopo, ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi ), and tobacco. It is by ingesting these mind-altering substances that shamans acquire the ability to see pathogenic agents like hair or crystals in the bodies of their patients and to extract and return them to whoever sends them. A yopo trance also allows the shaman to travel to the sky world, where he meets the hero-constellations, the inventors of shamanic curing and the givers of shamanic power.

Death and Afterlife. Through a divinatory ceremony with tobacco and yopo, the shaman can determine the identity of a generally distant enemy who is responsible for the death of a person. The itomo ceremony takes place two or three years after the body is buried. The bones are exhumed and painted with annato and reburied in an urn. A large number of people are invited to this feast, which lasts for three days. Manioc beer is served, and there is dancing on the secondary grave to the sound of flutes made from deer crania. Following the ceremony, the spirit of the deceased goes to live in the world of the dead, whence it will not return to interfere in the lives of its relatives.

See alsoCuiva


Morley, Robert, and Donald Metzger (1974). "The GuahiboPeople of the Savanna." Acta Ethnologica et Linguistica (Vienna), no. 31.

Reichel-Dolmatoff, Gerardo (1944). "La cultura material de los indios guahibo." Revista del Instituto Etnológico Nacional 1:437-503.

Rivet, Paul (1948). "La famille linguistique guahibo." Journal de la Société des Américanistes, n.s. 37:191-240.

Wilbert, Johannes, and Karin Simoneau, eds. (1991). Folk Literature of the Cuiva Indians. Los Angeles: University of California, Latin American Center.

Wilbert, Johannes, and Karin Simoneau, eds. (1992). Folk Literature of the Sikuani Indians. Los Angeles: University of California, Latin American Center.

FRANCISCO ORTIZ (Translated by Ruth Gubler)