Skip to main content



ETHNONYMS: Barnaré, Guaiapi, Ouyampis, Oyampi, Oyampik, Oyampiques, Waiapi, Walãpi, Wayampi


Identification. The Wayãpi are an Indian group located in French Guiana and Brazil (Federal Territory of Amapá). In the literature the name Oyampi" is defined as "man eaters," disregarding any etymology. According to the Wayãpi themselves, corroborated by scientific etymology, their name is derived from the Wayãpi words waya (warrior) and yapi (to shoot an arrow), meaning "warriors who hit the mark."

Location. The Wayãpi occupy the same territory today as they did during the nineteenth century, but now there are uninhabited areas between subgroups. Their present locations are at the confluence of the Camopi and Oyapock rivers, at the headwaters of the Oyapock in French Guiana, and along the northwestern tributaries of the Amapari and Carapanatuba rivers (the latter a tributary of the Rio Jari) in Brazil.

Demography. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, population reports indicated there were 6,000 Wayãpi; by the beginning of the twentieth century, there had been a drastic reduction to 450. Contemporary censuses cite 310 Wayãpi in Brazil (1988) and 525 in French Guiana (1990).

linguistic Affiliation. The Wayãpi language belongs to the Tupí-Guaraní Family, within the Tupí Macrofamily. There are dialectal differences between the northern and southern groups, but this does not impede mutual understanding.

History and Cultural Relations

The Wayãpi Indians are not indigenous to their present territory. Their migration is documented in early Portuguese sources. During the first thirty years of the eighteenth century, they migrated from the lower Rio Xingu to the Rio Jari, and then proceeded northward along the Jari and the Amapari rivers.

At that time, they had been in contact with Jesuit missionaries and were sent by the Portuguese to fight against the French colonists. Historic documents, as well as their own oral tradition, indicate that this alliance came about very quickly, but between 1780 and 1815, they became totally isolated.

From 1820 on, some groups of northern Wayãpi began making contact with French officials, but, for most of their communities, the era of isolation in the forest continued through the nineteenth century. It was not until the 1940s that the Oyapock headwaters villages were contacted by French geographers, and only in 1973 did the communities in Brazil come into contact with officials of the Fundação Nacional do Indio (National Indian Foundation, FUNAI).

Today, Wayãpi communities range from the moderately acculturated (Camopi and Aramirä, respectively the northernmost and the southernmost communities) to the traditional (Trois Sauts and Mariry). Furthermore, there is evidence of two groups, located at the headwaters of the Eureupousine River (French Guiana) and the Rio Yengarari (Brazil), who have made no contact at all, either with the main group of Wayãpi or with non-Indians. Some Wayãpi work in their own communities as civil servants in the French and Brazilian administrations, but the majority still practice traditional life-styles.


Wayãpi oral tradition contains references to a distant past of large villages with important headmen. By the nineteenth century, however, travelers were reporting small, dispersed, mobile villages of some extended families with prominent family headmen, who managed to gather kin groups under their authority both by attracting sons-in-law and by keeping their own sons at home, despite the rule of exogamy. This political feature persists today, but the mobility of the communities has been severely curtailed by patterns of Western settlements. This is espacially true in French Guiana, where communities are being stabilized by the introduction of schools, field hospitals, solar-energy installations or electric-generating plants, and, in one case, even a town hall. Although traditional dwellings (oka ) with raised floors and thatched roofs of Geonoma palms are still constructed, more modern houses, still with raised floors but with planked walls and corrugated iron roofs, are common now.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Wayãpi practice slash-and-burn agriculture with long fallow periods and subsist primarily on bitter cassava, sweet potatoes, cush-cush yams, bananas, and, only among southern communities, peach-palm fruits. Among the Rio Amapari and upper Oyapock River groups, hunting is most important, whereas fishing is predominant for the northernmost group. There is little participation in the cash economy with the exception of one southern community (Mariry), which carries out limited exploitation of gold claims. Civil-service salaries are integrated into the gift system in the communities of the upper Oyapock. In the Camopi region, however, there is an increasing trend toward individualism.

Industrial Arts. Until recently, crafts were a matter for the whole population: cotton textiles and ceramics for women; basketry, bows and arrows, canoes and paddles, and houses for men. Since the end of the 1970s Western goods have been taking the place of Indian ones, with the exception of baskets and cotton textiles, principally hammocks woven on looms. Small dugout canoes are still made, but big outboard-motored canoes are bought from the Saramaka or from the Karipuna Indians in the lower Oyapock. Bows and arrows are still commonly used for fishing, along with cast nets; for hunting, shotguns are now used.

Trade. Historically, the Wayãpi were linked into a network controlled by Wayana Indians in an area extending, from west to east, from the Tapanahoni River in Suriname to the Rio Amapari in Brazil. This network involved Bush Negroes, Wayana, Apalai (Aparai), Trio (Tiriyo), Emerillon, and Wayãpi Indians and was based on preferential intertribal pairs of trading partners called yepe. The Wayãpi traded mainly cotton thread, hunting dogs, and feather crowns in exchange for manufactured goods such as axes, knives, cutlasses, and fishhooks. Today this network has been disrupted by increasing control of the national boundaries.

Trade is still alive among Wayãpi subgroups and increasing between villages in Brazil and French Guiana. Along with traditional goods like tobacco, letterwood for bows, and feather headdresses, such Western products as ammunition, tools, fishhooks, pans, and glass beads are increasingly traded.

Division of Labor. Today the division of labor is the same as in the past. Men's agricultural work consists of the felling of trees and bushes, whereas women plant, tend gardens, and gather. Hunting and fishing are men's affairs, but women participate in the collective fish-drugging parties. Women cook, care for children, and make ceramics and textiles. Men build houses, make canoes and weapons, fashion featherwork, and weave baskets. Some men, principally in French Guiana, in addition to their traditional activities, earn money as boatmen or guides or work as part-time civil servants.

Land Tenure. There is no individual claim on virgin land until it has been cleared and a garden planted on it, but in the case of old, fallow garden land, permission is required from the man who first cleared it. Territorial rights do exist for hunting and fishing; grounds are shared by members of one or two communities, but members of distant villages cannot enter these grounds without permission. Those who discover fish-stunning poison vines and palm trees colonized by edible grubs become their owners and invite their relatives for collective fishing and grubgathering parties. These lands have come under increasing threat from wildcat gold miners, colonization, and tourist projects. There is a new awareness of and concern for tribal land. Both the northern and southern groups are striving for official delimitation of protected areas.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Wayãpi term for people is yanewãku ("our people"), referring, according to the situation, to the nuclear family, the village's inhabitants, or all the members of the tribe. Kin within a village are named eletã lang ("those of my place"). These categories are opposed to ãm k ("the others").

The past existence of patrilineal clans named apä or imiäwänge ("those to whom we are linked") is supported by oral tradition, but, beyond a formal link to one of the seventeen ancestral groups, principally among the northern villages, no corporate descent groups remain. Descent is now bilateral, although some patrilineal patterns persist, (i.e., to determine the inheritance of leadership and to establish the ethnic identity of the offspring of intertribal marriages).

Kinship Terminology. Wayãpi kinship terminology is of the Dravidian type, drawing a clear distinction between kin and affines at the first ascending, one's own, and first descending generations. For the first ascending generation, they use single terms for father's father and father's brother, -lu, and for mother's mother and mother's sister, -i ; there are distinct terms for mother's brother, -elati, and father's sister, -yaye. For the generations of grandparents and grandchildren, no distinction is made between kin and affines. All terminology includes one set of terms for address and another for reference.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Among all Wayãpi groups, preferential marriage is between cross cousins. For example, a female has two ideal spouses, mother's brother's son or father's sister's son, both called erne (my husband). In fact, 55 percent of present-day marriages respect this rule, a relatively high percentage considering the demographic crisis of the last 100 years. Following the logic of this system, levirate and sororate are also relatively common. Marriages take place without any particular ceremony and are arranged by parents according to kinship rules. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, there has been a marked tendency toward village endogamy, but when a surplus of marriageable girls is available, village groups try to grow through accretion, by attracting external sons-in-law as permanent residents. The future bride takes beverages to her intended, whereas he, in return, supplies her family with fish and game. This period of exchange may last several years if the bride is still very young. It ends when she takes her hammock and goes to live in the house of her parents-in-law. There are no strict rules of residence, and a year or two later, when the husband builds his own house, it may be located near that of his parents or that of his in-laws.

Female puberty rites are considered very important, for without them, a woman cannot hope for a good procreative life. Girls usually marry at about age 15 and boys at about age 20, but a number of marriages between young girls and much older men can still be observed.

Polygynous marriages exist but are uncommon, mostly owing to the demographic crisis. They are, nevertheless, well regarded. Divorce is almost unknown in older generations and is still very rare in younger ones. Although permitted, but it is recommended only in the case of female sterility.

Domestic Unit. Oral tradition recalls a past with collective houses (tapui ), but for the last 150 years nuclear-family households have been the rule. Within a village, extended families tend to form a cluster of households all using the same manioc-processing house (kulata letä ).

Inheritance. Wayãpi "own" sex-specific articles, such as bows and arrows (and today, shotguns) for men and cassava squeezers for women. Each sex avoids touching the possessions of the other. But no such rule holds for many domestic items, like knives, calabashes, or spoons. When a person dies, he or she is interred in a special burial place in the bush, where people are forbidden to go. Formerly, the deceased was ornately dressed, and the most prestigious of his belongings were buried with him. His house was abandoned, and possessions too large to go into the grave with him were destroyed. Today, however, new value has been placed on some of these goods: the high cost of such Western articles as shotguns and outboard motors has singled them out for collective family inheritance and use, and the settling process has given new value to the houses, which are reoccupied by kin or lent to foreign visitors. Only traditional burial rituals and sites are still respected, despite administrative pressure.

Socialization. Birth is an important affair among the Wayãpi, and there are numerous pre- and postnatal prescriptions, taboos, and rituals for father, mother, and the newborn infant. They are meant to insulate the baby from the dangerous spiritual forces of the natural world. Most prominent among these rituals are the couvade (yekwaku ) for father and the moon-long seclusion for mother. With increasing medical assistance, evacuations for in-hospital deliveries have given rise to psychological traumas because hospital-born babies cannot be protected from these spiritual assaults. Infants enjoy constant physical contact with the mother and very often are not weaned until they are 3 or 4 years of age. This is followed by a period of fearsome autonomy, characterized by total liberty. Initiation to subsistence activities, crafts, and other knowledge and skills takes place only at the initiative of the child and never by invitation or pressure from an elders' directive; techniques are learned by imitating adult gestures, and knowledge is gained by listening silently to their talk. On the other hand, social codes, particularly kinship rules and obligations, are inculcated early, mainly by the mother's designating other community members by their kinship terms. Rebukes and corporal punishment are rare, but irony is a frequent resort. Today, there are schools for both the northern and southern groups, but not in all communities. Of these, only the Brazilian mission schools is bilingual (Portuguese/Wayãpi); all others teach in French or Portuguese. The high value placed on schooling in the 1970s is increasingly questioned by some parents.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The traditional sharing-out system of Wayãpi society is egalitarian only in the economic sphere; politically, this system tends to perpetuate the leadership of those who have the most to share, in the form of cassava beer, collective lunches, and, more recently, ammunition, gasoline, and the like. Greater quantities of such goods accrue to men who have many daughters to marry but also manage to keep their sons close to them.

Women are not consulted on political matters, but a number of them are well versed in genealogical ties and are particularly consulted over matters relating to matrimony. Moreover, grandmothers bestow a secret name of female ancestors on a girl after the first year of her life.

In French Guiana, French citizenship and communal structures have been imposed on traditional order and leadership. Northern Wayãpi and the largest subgroup of Emerillon (another Tupí-Guaraní tribe) find themselves coresidents of a single commune, where the mayor is Wayãpi and his council is composed of Wayãpi and Emerillon. However, the indelible links between these elected offtcials and the traditional structure soften the disruptive effects of the new political system.

Political Organization. Communities are linked by kinship and marriage, but village endogamy tends to generate competition and factionalism. Formerly, this factionalism led to endemic hostilities, which are today expressed in shamanistic practices.

New intertribal organization through the Association des Amérindiens de Guyane Française (AAGF) is coming into being, but its influence is largely limited to young people who are concerned with bilingual education, access to the wheels of French administration, and collective control of ancestral territory.

Social Control. Rules for proper conduct between kin and affinal groups are important. A man has a relationship of dependency with his in-laws, of respect toward his father-in-law, and of avoidance toward his mother-in-law. Disputes are rare in traditional villages and are usually caused by intoxication from imported alcohol. During cassava-beer drinking bouts, subjacent conflicts are treated through oral contests, with a tone of grinding irony. Adultery is not common; discretion is the rule of conduct.

Conflict. As was often the case among Tupí tribes, ancient war, wanini, involved cannibalism and was triggered by the pursuit of revenge, -lepi. As this word also means "payment," war between communities was only one episode of an alliance based on exchange. Colonization transformed the basis of war: cannibalism disappeared in the eighteenth century because the Portuguese encouraged the barter of war captives for guns. Wayãpi suppliers thus came to be referred to as "Portuguese Indians" in early texts. Since the end of the nineteenth century, pressure from government agents, the demographic crisis, and the sorrow that followed in its wake have brought about the progressive disappearance of war.

Wayãpi are now warriors without war, because the feeling of immense frustration is always alive. The only way of continuing conflicts between communities is through the shaman's performances.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Wayãpi beliefs are basically TupíGuaraní ones, with the slightest touch of Christian influence dating from an earlier brief stay in Catholic missions and from the incorporation of poor fragments of Christianized Indian tribes after the Wayãpi penetration into French Guiana at the beginning of the nineteenth century. A high God, Yaneya ("our master"), created the universe with the help of one or two teams of architects. A set of four worlds, circular and flat, are surimposed one on another like cassava griddles. The middle one is inhabited by humans; below that is the world of the wo'o, gigantic sloths that think they are the true humanity. Above the humans' disk are two skies: that of the vulture, master of decomposition and rot, and above it, the Creator's residence. For the Wayãpi, there is a fundamental lack of understanding and also of sympathy between the Creator and his human creatures, who blame him for the loss of eternal life, the symbol of divinity. After the failure of his terrestrial stay and his destruction of "first humanity," he was killed by his own son. He now lives on high, disinterested in human destiny.

The world is in a precarious equilibrium. Humans must therefore respect the harmony of nature and never kill too much game or fish, or pick too many fruits or forest produce. Without these precautions, the game masters, or any one of the other forest masters (ya ), take revenge on the village, especially on the weakest, the children, by sending illness and calamities.

Religious Practitioners. It is precisely one of the shaman's tasks to identify the cause of the illnesses and cure them. The shaman (paye ) is also able to travel through the different floors of the universe, helped by tobacco juice (makule ); a hallucinogenic plant, takweni (Brosimum acutifolium ); and the "voice" of his rattle (malaka ). He is the sole human being able to domesticate forest spirits, which become his pets (leima ) and work for him to restore the lost harmony. To those guilty of disrupting world equilibriums, he prescribes taboos affecting the sick person and his family. Such taboos, which can last from several months to a whole lifetime, consist of food prescriptions and hunting and fishing restrictions.

Ceremonies. Wayãpi life is not regulated by a fixed ceremonial calendar. For example, the community decides to celebrate the principal gathering product, a palm fruit, wasey (Euterpe oleracea ), only in those years when it is exceptionally abundant, with the intention of boosting the next year's crop. This means that feasts are basically propitiatory. They are held for a variety of products, such as maize, or before fish-drugging parties (paku and kumalu dances).

Ants are applied to the bodies of girls and boys to help them to "change skin" (i.e., make the transition from adolescence to adulthood), thus promoting the children's future lives. This is, however, more a family ritual than a communal ceremony.

Christian rites were unknown until the late 1980s, when a Catholic priest decided to baptize all the babies of the northernmost village. It was a poor and ridiculous masquerade bereft of any religious sense for the villagers.

Arts. As among so many Indians tribes, Wayãpi arts and crafts are finely manufactured and beautifully decorated. Basketry, its weaving patterns symbolizing the world of animals, holds a prominent place. A great variety of specialized arrows with specific decoration has made the Wayãpi renowned in French Guiana. In the sphere of music, on the other hand, the main body of songs and rhythms are giving way to imported ones.

Medicine. Shamans may prescribe some medicinal plants to patients but, for the most part, plant medicine is a secular matter. Today, traditional herbal remedies are being replaced by Western drugs, for French medical assistance is well organized and efficient. The increase in the Wayãpi population may be attributed to vaccinations, the treatment of intestinal parasites, and the possibility of rapid evacuation of the most serious cases to urban hospitals.

Death and Afterlife. Death is the moment when a human being meets Yaneya in the uppermost level of the sky. The deceased are wrapped in their hammocks, a man with his cutlass and his bow, a woman with her spindle and some meters of cloth, both men and women with their knives, combs, and numerous necklaces of glass beads. He or she is then placed in a grave. The corpse, teänge, will thereafter decompose, whereas the shadow, also named "teänge," will wander around the village on the lookout for people to carry off in sickness and death, to share its misfortune. The only fortunate part of the deceased is the soul, taiwe, which will journey upward to join those of his or her family and ancestors. The soul, however, must provide proof of having lived a virtuous life. If it can't, God will burn it, then recreate it, allowing it to exist thereafter in eternal bliss, drinking cassava beer, dining on the souls of game and fish, those very animals and fish once killed by the living here below. It is in this final state of afterlife that the Wayãpi are at last reconciled with Yaneya.


Gallois, Dominique T. (1986). "Migração, guerra e comércio: Os waiapi na Guiana." Antropología. São Paulo: Universidade de São Paulo, Facultade de Filosofia, Letras & Ciências Humanas.

Gallois, Dominique T. (1988). O movimento na cosmologia waiãpi: Criacäo, expansão e transformacäo do universo. São Paulo: Universidade de São Paulo, Facultade de Filosofia, Letras & Ciências Humanas.

Grenand, Françoise (1982). Et l'homme devint jaguar: Univers imaginaire et quotidien des indiens wayapi de Guyane. Collection Amérindienne. Paris: l'Harmattan.

Grenand, Françoise (1990). Dictionnaire wayãpi-français, lexique français-wayãpi. Langues et Sociétés d'Amérique Traditionnelle, 1. Paris: Peeters; Selaf.

Grenand, Pierre (1982). Ainsi parlaient nos ancêtres: Essai d'ethnohistoire wayapi. Travaux et Documents, 148. Paris: Office de la Recherche Scientifique et Technique Outre-Mer (ORSTOM).

Grenand, Pierre (1987). Pharmacopées traditionnelles en Guyane Créoles, Palikur, Wayapi. Mémoires, 108. Paris: Office de la Recherche Scientifique et Technique Outre-Mer (ORSTOM).


Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Wayãpi." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . 20 Feb. 2019 <>.

"Wayãpi." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . (February 20, 2019).

"Wayãpi." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Retrieved February 20, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.