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ETHNONYMS: Ouayeoue, Uaiuai, Waiwe, Woyawai


Identification. The name "Wáiwai," meaning "Tapioca people," originated with their northern neighbors, the Wapisiana, who were impressed with the enormous quantities of tapioca the Wáiwai consumed. The Wáiwai intermarried with many other groups and usually identified themselves locally by the village, headman, or river where they lived. They adopted the outsiders' name "Wáiwai" when missionaries moved in during the 1950s. As the Wáiwai assimilated more groups, the name came to include those that settled into the composite "Wáiwai" villages, such as the Parukoto, the Mawayana, the Sherew, the Taruma, the Hishkaryana, the Katuena, and the Karafawyana. Being "Wáiwai" is a matter of degree, occurring gradually as a group is incorporated into village life, learns the Wáiwai language, and intermarries.

Location. The Wáiwai live in small, remote villages in the tropical forests straddling both sides of the Serra Acaraí between Guyana and Brazil. Their ancestral location was the Mapuera River Basin, a northern tributary of the Amazon in Brazil. Gradual migration northward began in the early nineteenth century and increased in the early twentieth, as the Wáiwai expanded trade and marriage contacts. When evangelical missionaries settled among the Guianese Wáiwai in 1949, nearly all Wáiwai and many related tribes relocated near the mission. In the 1970s the direction of migration reversed and most members of the composite "Wáiwai" villages returned to Brazil. In 1989 there was one village in Guyana (on the Essequibo River) and three in northern Brazil (on the Novo and Jatapuzinho rivers in Roraima and the Rio Mapuera in Pará).

Demography. In the early 1950s visitors estimated the Wáiwai population to be 130 to 200. By 1989 there were approximately 1,200 people in the four composite "Wáiwai" villages. The increase was because of their assimilation of neighboring tribes, their relative lack of contact with regional colonists and their diseases, and the health care dispensed by missionaries and trained Wáiwai health attendants. Half the population is under age 18, and the birthrate is 4 percent per year.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Wáiwai language belongs to the Carib Family, one of the major linguistic families of lowland South America. Most of the other languages and dialects of the groups who joined their villages are also Carib; the exceptions are Mawayana (Arawak Family) and Taruma (now extinct, affiliation unknown). Wáiwai becomes the dominant language of the groups who join them. Reading and writing Wáiwai is taught in the schools, using an alphabet devised by the missionaries. Although children study some Portuguese (in Brazil) or English (in Guyana), relatively little is retained owing to lack of sustained contact with outsiders.

History and Cultural Relations

Intertribal marriage and exchange were already well-established features by the time R. H. Schomburgk first explored Wáiwai territory in 1837. Only occasional expeditions passed through the region until the 1950s, when U.S. Protestant missionaries established a permanent station near the Guianese Wáiwai. The local population swelled as more Brazilian Wáiwai moved north, seeking access to new trade goods and fearing rumors that a "Big Fire" would destroy the earth and all those who failed to convert to Christianity. With the conversion of an influential leader, most of the villagers followed suit by the end of the 1950s. They persuaded related groups in the region to join them. In the 1970s, with the newly independent Guyanese government hostile to U.S. missionaries, they and most of the Wáiwai moved back to former sites in Brazil. They continue to seek out uncontacted groups.


Precontact villages had populations of fifteen to fifty people, most housed in a single large house called a mîîmo. Settlements were dispersed over a large area and moved every five to seven years when the house became old, when a leader died, or when local resources became exhausted. Since contact settlements have undergone several changes: the number of villages have decreased as more people concentrated in larger settlements, the multifamily mîîmo has been replaced with smaller nuclear-family houses, settlements remain in one place for much longer periods, and residents must travel farther to new gardens and hunting grounds as nearby resources are depleted. Villages are comprised of neighborhoods, which are clusters of households linked by kinship, political, and tribal affiliations, an echo of former Wáiwai settlement patterns.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Wáiwai subsistence is based on hunting, fishing, gathering, and horticulture. The annual cycle alternates between markedly different dry and rainy seasons, the former a time of plentiful food and collective life, the latter a time of scarcity and dispersal to forest camps. The Wáiwai clear small, scattered gardens by slash-and-burn methods (swidden or shifting agriculture) and use them for only three years. The main crop is bitter manioc, a hard, poisonous tuber that must be laboriously processed to remove the toxin before it can be used to make bread, farina, and tapioca drinks.

Also cultivated are various fruits and other tubers, as well as arrow cane, cotton, and so on. The forest provides palm fruits, nuts, and utilitarian materials. The men hunt with bows and arrows, trained dogs, and sometimes shotguns, obtaining tapir, peccaries, rodents, deer, monkeys, wild fowl and (the Wáiwai will not eat the meat of carnivores or domesticated animals). Many varieties of fish are consumed. Manioc farina and canoes are sold to regional colonists for cash, and youths occasionally work for them for a few months. Artisanal items are also sold for cash or channeled to urban markets through government agents or missionaries, who in turn provide goods such as clothing, fishhooks and line, ammunition, soap, salt, and hammocks.

Industrial Arts. Except for the limited range of Western goods upon which they now depend, the Wáiwai continue to make most of the items they use, from bows and arrows to houses. They fashion a wide array of fine basketry items for manioc processing, carrying, and storage. They continue to make pottery, from small bowls to huge urns. Their manioc graters (wooden boards with hundreds of embedded stone flakes) are eagerly sought by surrounding tribes.

Trade. For several centuries, the Wáiwai have taken part in a vast intertribal trade network that stretches through the Guianas, Venezuela, and northern Brazil. The network linked up with non-Indians, such as the Bush Negroes in Suriname (descendants of escaped African slaves), who traded for Indian goods using manufactured goods they acquired from White colonists on the coast, who in turn imported the goods from Europe. Groups that now live with the Wáiwai were former trading partners. Villages have different trade specialties; the Wáiwai are renowned for their manioc graters, trained hunting dogs, and talking parrots. These and subsidiary goods are exchanged for manufactured goods such as iron tools, kettles, glass beads, mosquito nets, flashlights, and fishhooks.

Division of Labor. The Wáiwai contrast male and female activities in a number of complementary realms. Men provide meat through hunting; women provide vegetable foods through gardening. Both sexes fish, but men specialize in larger fish. Men dominate the public arena (leadership, oratory, relations with outsiders); women are prominent in the domestic arena (child care, food preparation, firewood gathering, and water collecting). Men weave basketry, hammocks, and loincloths; women make pottery and manioc graters. Men do featherwork; women do beadwork. Men construct houses; women keep them orderly. Men fell trees for village and garden clearings; women keep the clearings free of weeds. Both sexes, as family units, plant new gardens, and they may also harvest them or collect forest products together.

Land Tenure. The village and communal structures are said to "belong" to the chief, who opened up the first clearing at the site. Different gardens "belong" to various influential men who sponsor the collective work of clearing them and distribute family plots to those who helped in the clearing. Lands set aside as reservations and administered by the Brazilian and Guyanese governments for the Wáiwai belong to the tribe as a whole and may not be bought or sold individually.


Kin Groups and Descent. Kinship and descent are reckoned bilaterally, giving equal weight to both the mother's and father's sides. There are no lineages, clans, moieties, or other corporate groupings. Villages or neighborhoods are built up of epeka komo, residential groups of siblings and their families. From the point of view of an individual adult, other people are grouped broadly as either epeka komo (siblings' families; i.e., kin), woxin homo (families of spouse's kin; i.e., affines), or tooto makî ("just plain people," i.e., those with whom Ego has no relationship). These serve as general categories, derived from key relations, that schematize relations of nurture and exchange.

Kinship Terminology. Wáiwai kinship terminology is based on several criteria: distinctions of generation, gender, cross versus parallel relations, and relative sibling age. Accordingly, five generations are recognized; the same-sex siblings of each parent are called by parental terms, distinguished from parents' cross-sex siblings, who are potential parents-in-law. Parallel cousins are categorized as "siblings" and unmarriageable, whereas cross cousins are called by distinct terms and considered potential affines. The terminology thus follows the basic bifurcate-merging system, except for one set of relations that collapses generations: father's sister is called "grandmother" and nieces and nephew are categorized with "grandchildren." All terms are used on a classificatory basis, with some adjustments for relative age, multiple ways of reckoning kinship, and renegotiation upon marriage.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Wáiwai usually marry in their mid-teens. The preferred spouse is an actual or classificatory cross cousin (a form of delayed cross-generational exchange). Unrelated persons are also considered marriageable, in which case a sister exchange is often arranged (a more immediate form of exchange). The son-in-law owes an enormous debt to his parents-in-law for their daughter. He is expected to settle next to them, help them build a house and garden, supply them with meat and basketry, and be deferential. He gradually becomes more independent and eventually commands a son-in-law himself. Leaders try to keep both their married sons and sons-in-law next door. A village leader must have a wife; if she dies, he must remarry soon or lose his position. Each Wáiwai traditionally had a sequence of spouses through his or her life in a pattern of serial monogamy. Polygamy and polyandry occurred at times but were usually temporary. Under missionary influence new norms have been instituted: premarital celibacy, lifelong monogamy, and absence of divorce.

Domestic Unit. Formerly, a village had a single collective house sheltering four to ten families, each with its own section and hearth; today each nuclear family has its own house. The domestic unit includes the husband and wife, unmarried children, and any widowed parent.

Inheritance. Few or no goods are passed on to others after someone's death because of the custom of destroying the deceased's personal possessions and house.

Socialization. A baby's soul is said to be "soft" and easily detached from its body; socialization practices are designed to anchor it more firmly to the body and to gradually "harden" the soul by adulthood. A baby is in close physical contact with its mother for almost two years, carried continuously on her hip in a sling and sleeping in the same hammock. Independence is not accelerated, and contact with nonrelatives is discouraged, so children are shy and their identity remains closely bound to their extended family. Both parents are affectionate; corporal punishment is strongly disapproved. Toys are few; children's play is mostly an imitation of adult activities, and early on they learn to help their parents. Education at the mission or government school occupies about two hours a day from ages 7 to 14. Baptism has replaced traditional initiation rites for adolescents, which used to consist of menstrual seclusion for girls and ordeals of physical endurance (scratching and stinging insects) for both sexes. Teenage boys often rebel and experiment with non-Indian ways, but they eventually settle down upon marriage, the main transition to adulthood. Young adults who aspire to leadership practice oratory, assiduously meet obligations to their inlaws, and seek public ratification.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Social organization is based on complementarity between the sexes, cooperation among household heads, obligations to in-laws, alliances between siblings, and the recognition of certain men as especially influential. Corporate groups, social classes, or wealth distinctions are nonexistent.

Political Organization. The effective unit of political organization is the village; there is no overarching "tribal" or regional organization, but intervillage relations are complex. Leaders are considered primus inter pares, but the ranking of political status within the village is unusually elaborate. The village leader, kayaritomo, is someone who can mobilize a following in establishing a new village and who sponsors feasts. Under him are work leaders and their deputies and, nowadays, pastors, who together constitute a council of secular and religious leaders. The council is responsible for the smooth functioning of the village as a peaceful (tawake ) society.

Social Control. Control is managed through persuasion, public opinion, gossip, and shame; physical force is not used. Fear of witchcraft serves as a means of control, and pastors now often warn of punishment by the Christian God. All disagreements are handled with elaborate forms of diplomacy, negotiation, and indirect measures. Serious problems that threaten village life are handled by the council of leaders, who conduct lengthy meetings with both sides to find a resolution. Some disputes lead to public discussions at village church meetings, leading to confessions or punishment by a series of restrictions on activities.

Conflict. In the past some tribes developed enmities that sometimes broke out in violence, although warfare was not a cultural focus and customs such as ceremonial wrestling and trade served as curbs. Many former enemies now live together. Overt conflict, aggression, or discord are highly censured. The Wáiwai ethos rests on the contrast between being tawake, "peaceful, sociable," and tîrwoñe, "angry, hostile." Society is considered viable only if its members control their desires, meet obligations to others, and shun confrontation. They have avoided conflict with colonists (whom they consider "angry") by residing in or retreating to distant locales.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The universe is said to have five tiers: an underworld, the earth, and three heavens. Each is the locale of different powers, which the Wáiwai attempt to control in various ways. Many myths recount the origin of cultural practices, social groups, and natural features. A wide pantheon of spirits inhabits the forests, rivers, and heavens, some malevolent and some beneficient. The Wáiwai still believe in their spirits, although under the influence of Christian doctrine these are now considered manifestations of the "devil" and opposed to the Holy Trinity. The missionaries inculcated shame in the Wáiwai over their traditional religious beliefs and practices, many of which have been suppressed but not entirely replaced.

Religious Practitioners. Formerly, the shaman was responsible for invoking helping spirits for curing rituals and summoning the game through "game masters"; nowadays, Wáiwai pastors are the ritual specialists who invoke the Christian God in much the same way.

Ceremonies. Transitions in the life cycle of individuals (birth, initiation, and death) were marked by seclusion and rituals. The two most important collective rituals were shodewika festivals (intervillage dancing feasts) and yamo rituals (when fertility spirits, invoked through masked dancers, resided in the village for several months). Today festivals combining traditional dancing and feasting with Christian features are held at Christmas, Easter, and the start of the dry season.

Arts. The aesthetic elaboration evident in basketry, beadwork, featherwork, and body ornamentation is linked to the notion of "beauty," which expresses social integration and control over external powers. Most social occasions include songs and the music of various wind and percussion instruments.

Medicine. Before missionization shamans cured illness through contact with spirits by using tobacco smoke and "spirit stones." The Wáiwai do not have an extensive medicinal-plant lore. They readily took to the Western medicines introduced by the missionaries, whose health care programs kept Wáiwai mortality from contact diseases low. Trained Wáiwai health attendants now care for the daily medical needs of the village.

Death and Afterlife. Death is explained as soul loss caused by spirits, witchcraft, disease, or neglect of taboos. The personal possessions, pets, and house of the deceased are destroyed by his or her spouse or siblings in their grief and to avoid contact with residues of the deceased's soul. The corpse used to be cremated; nowadays it is buried. Male and female relatives mourn the deceased with wailing rituals. At death a person disintegrates into several souls; some take on animal forms that can become menacing invisible spirits, whereas the eye-soul travels up to the first heaven, a place of light, beauty, and immortality where all dance and feast unceasingly.


Farabee, William Curtis (1924). The Central Caribs. Philadelphia: University Museum, University of Pennsylvania.

Fock, Niels (1963). Wáiwai: Religion and Society of an Amazonian Tribe. Copenhagen: National Museum.

Howard, Catherine V. (1990). "Wrought Identities: The Wáiwai Indians' Search for the 'Hidden Tribes' of Northern Amazonia." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago.

Yde, Jens (1965). "Material Culture of the Wáiwai." Copenhagen: National Museum.