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Identification. The Guajiro are an Indian group living in Colombia and Venezuela. The name "Guajiro" is probably of Spanish origin.

Location. The traditional Guajiro territory, with a land area of approximately 16,000 square kilometers, consists of a peninsula called "La Guajira" located in the Caribbean Sea between 11° and 12°30 N and between 71 ° and 72°30 W. The peninsula is divided by the Colombia-Venezuela border; although only one-fifth of its surface area is Venezuelan, roughly half of the Guajiro population lives on the Venezuelan side. This is a region of brush savanna and xerophytic vegetation, dotted with desert zones, that also includes several mountain ranges reaching upwards of 850 meters (Makuira, Kusina, Jala'ala, and Kamaichi). Rainfall is abundant from October to November (the period called juyapu ) and sometimes also in April or May (the period of iiwa ). The major dry season (called jouktai-jamü, "hunger-wind") lasts from May to September and sometimes even longer, preempting the rainy season and imperiling the lives of animals and people. In the north of the peninsula annual mean precipitation is approximately 20 centimeters; it can reach 60 centimeters in the south. The amounts are irregular, however, and the regional variations great.

Linguistic Affiliation. Guajiro is part of the Arawak Language Family. The speech of Wüinpumuin (the north-eastern region) is distinct from that of Wopumuin (the southeastern region), although the two are mutually intelligible.

Demography. A full census has not been taken. It is generally accepted, however, that the Guajiro number more than 100,000 (without taking into account mestizos or those who do not speak the language and are outside the lineage system). In 1938, as in 1981, there were approximately 47,000 Guajiro in Colombia. There are an estimated 60,000 in Venezuela, about two-thirds of whom live on the margins of the territory, in the city of Maracaibo, or in other areas.

History and Cultural Relations

In the southern part of the peninsula, there existed a population from around 1500 b.c. to just before the Conquest that, like the Guajiro, had a custom of double funerals; however, there is nothing to indicate that they were the ancestors of the Guajiro, who, from the linguistic evidence, originated in Amazonia. The Spaniards reached the coasts of Guajiroland in 1499 and began their penetration into the peninsula in 1526. According to chroniclers, there were several indigenous groups coexisting in the area (e.g., Anate, Atanare, Canoa, Caquetio, Cocina, Guanabucare, Makuira), but it is possible that they attributed several names to a given society, each one referring to various economic and social aspects of that society. The only other group that exists in the vicinity of the Guajiro today is the lacustrine Paraujano, who speak a closely related language and who are on the road to extinction.


In the traditional territory, the settlements are widely dispersed. The residential unit (miichipala, "place of houses") is an aggregate of dwellings, often separated by many tens of meters, that provides shelter for nuclear families sharing the same water source. There are generally between a few dozen and several hundred persons in a miichipala. The latter are all named, and sometimes divided into subunits, which are themselves named. The miichipala are, on average, several kilometers distant from one another, and large stretches of the interior of the Guajira Peninsula remain uninhabited. Traditional dwellings are comprised of a small house where hammocks are hung at night; a kitchen, which consists of a surrounding wall of cactus or branches, sometimes covered by a roof; and a porch roof, made of a flat overhang on posts, under which daily activities and the entertainment of visitors take place. Located farther out are the sheep and goat pens and the garden, which is protected by a fence.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Formerly, Guajiro society was probably egalitarian, based on an economy of horticulture, gathering, hunting, and fishing, depending on the region. Today, it is a strongly hierarchical pastoral culture. The first livestock arrived from Europe around the beginning of the sixteenth century. Hungry, curious, and adventurous, some of the Guajiro obtained livestock by raid and theft until they had semiwild herds of cattle and horses. Pastoralism progressively became widespread, probably facilitated by missionaries, who made many attempts at pacification; by Dutch, French, or English pirates hostile to the Spanish and in quest of food; and finally by the Black slaves who, by choice or by force, settled among the Guajiro. At the end of the nineteenth century, pastoralism was nearly general except, it seems, in the region of the Sierra Kusina, where it has developed since. The keeping of cattle, sheep, and goats is still the principal source of livelihood for the majority of the Guajiro on the peninsula. Horticulture, hunting, and fishing have become marginal as opportunities for smuggling and occasional wage labor have developed, even assuring essential income for mestizo families or families that have emigrated to urban zones. Livestock are destined for consumption or the market, but they are also a prestige item that is good to accumulate. Formerly, horses and mules were, along with cattle, the most valued animals. The former have practically disappeared. The wealthiest Guajiro now buy trucks or pickups.

Industrial Arts. Women weave hammocks of cotton with very rich motifs and coloring and belts decorated with similar motifs. They also crochet small bags that they sell at local markets or in Maracaibo. Men principally make sandals and produce colorful wool rugs using the saddle-blanket technique.

Trade. For centuries the Guarjiro have sold Whites brazilwood (Hematoxilon brasiletto ) to make dyes, divi-divi fruits (Caesalpinia coriara ), and skins. In the northwest of the peninsula, they fished for lobster and pearls and produced salt, an activity that still continues. There are weekly markets in many localities along the margins of the peninsula.

Division of Labor. Women tend to domestic chores, make the essential items of material culture, and work beside the men in pastoral activities and horticulture. Some occasionally hold political office. In the late 1980s eight of every ten shamans were women.

Land Tenure. Land is not owned, but its usufructs are associated with pasturage rights for visiting groups.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Guajiro are organized into some thirty nonlocalized clans (matrisibs) called eiruku, a term that also means "flesh" or "meat." Each one is associated with a proper name (or "flesh name," sünülia eiruki ) and a totemic animal, a "clan animal" (uchii shiiruku ). These clans are actually agamic and noncorporate, however. Filiation is matrilineal. Persons recognized as relatives, designated by the general term wayuu kasa tanain ("the people who are something for me"), constitute two groups: apüshi and oupayu. The former are uterine relatives in the strict sensean Egocentric group or matrilineage, depending on the authorwho gather together in the same cemetery the bones of their dead and act as a corporate group. The term "oupayu" refers to the close uterine relatives (apüshi) of Ego's father. The complementarity of these two groups becomes apparent: at the time of bride-price negotiations (in general, the price is determined by the father of the bride if it is his first daughter or, for the other girls, by their uterine relatives), in situations of conflict (in general, compensation is claimed by the victim's father if the wound is superficial, and by the victim's maternal uncle if the injury is serious or mortal), and, finally, in funeral arrangements (it is often the father or other uterine relatives of the deceased who are responsible for organizing the first obsequies, since the second funeral is always the responsibility of the apüshi).

Kinship Terminology. Guajiro kinship terminology is of the Crow type.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage entails a bride-price (apan'na ). The amount varies greatly according to the hierarchical position of the bride's lineage as well as her specific qualities (e.g., skillfulness in weaving and commerce, beauty). Matrimonial exchanges are generally limited to certain very limited circuits. Virginity is valued. It was long believed that the Guajiro adhered to a rule of matrilocal residence (a new couple living in the same miichipala as the bride's mother). No single rule, however, is strictly applied. A couple can change residence several times during a lifetime, the previous configuration corresponding to the most stable situation. For the majority of young couples, residence is initially uxori-matrilocal; then it can change several times, possibly to patrilocal (patri-uxorilocal or patrivirilocal) or neolocal. The coresidence of sisters and brothers is the next most common form. The choice of residence is the result of two processes: the mode of marriage and the logic of household formation. Polygyny is highly valued and characteristic of rich men.

Domestic Unit. An individual is affiliated with three distinct groupstwo of kinship and one of residence. This explains the great mobility of Guajiro society. A common household consists of a cohabiting group of siblings.

Inheritance. Property is owned both by lineages and individuals. Men and women both possess their own animals. The animals of a dead man not sacrificed during his funeral are generally distributed to his brothers and uterine nephews, who often share their portions with their sisters. A woman's children inherit her livestock at her death. Maternal uncles usually offer animals to their nephews. A father can also give animals to his children, a tendency that has developed during the twentieth century. In fact, the transmission of property is a complex process, varying according to the status of the lineage involved.

Socialization. Children are raised in a rather permissive fashion, but they participate in economic activities at a very young agelittle girls in household tasks, boys in tending the livestock. Pubescent girls were formerly subjected to a period of seclusion, which today is sometimes more symbolic than real.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The dominant functional units of Guajiro society are the groups of apiishi, the matrilineal relatives in the strict sense.

Political Organization. One or several groups of apüshi, in general not localized, can recognize a dominant male figure, an alaüla, a term that designates a maternal uncle, an "elder," and, by extension, a "chief." In fact, the alaüla of a matrilineage functions in all three capacities. He is the keeper of "Guajiro custom" (sükuaitpa wayuu ). The group to which he gives coherence is an economic unit. All of its members contribute to the payment of compensation for a misdeed caused on the outside by one of its members, to members' burial costs, and to the bride-price obligations of male members. In theory, the office of alaüla is inherited by one of the sons of the former's eldest sister, or failing that, by the most competent of his uterine relatives. In fact, situations of conflict among the constituent lineages can arise. The alaiila from the minimal lineage that considers itself the most wealthy can lay claim to the office, and fission can result.

Social Control. An alaüla is responsible for maintaining daily order in the domestic unit in which he resides.

Conflict. Serious offenses (homicide, body wounds) committed against members of different lineages are no longer, as formerly, subject to retaliation. Theoretically, there is always a way to arrive at a peaceful settlement. Each person who has suffered a wrong (aainjala ) is a victim (asirü ). The dispute (putchi ) is submitted to a go-between (pütchipu, püchejachi, or often an alaüla), chosen by lineages in conflict and considered neutral. The dispute is settled by the payment of compensation (maüna ) consisting of livestock, jewels, and money. The sum is accumulated by the lineage of the wrongdoer (womuyu ) and remitted to the victim's familial group. The amount paid depends on the recognized worth of the victim, that is to say on the status of the victim's lineage. On the other hand, Guajiro history shows that if the groups in conflict are unequal, the stronger can refuse all mediation in order to appropriate the weaker's assets and capture and enslave certain of its members.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Guajiro are little inclined to religious practices. They do not appeal to their divinities directly, and their rites few. Although their conception of the world is extremely dualistic, the Manichaeism of the Christian religion has made little impact on them.

The Guajiro invoke Maleiwa, their culture hero born from the remains of his mother, who was devoured by Jaguar. After having rejected Jaguar in the wilderness of Nature, which he personifies, Maleiwa created humans and differentiated the world, in which originally everything was anthropomorphic and related. Maleiwa, who is sometimes confused with the God of the Whites, is of little importance today. Guajiro mythic concepts are based on an opposition between two fundamental supernatural beings: Juya (rain), the hypermasculine hunter, and Pulowi, the subterranean woman, mistress of animals, who is associated with drought and death and who manifests herself in numerous places such as holes or little rises, which are called pulowi and are avoided by the Guajiro for fear of disappearing or falling gravely ill. The elements of the symbolic world are divided into two equivalent and complementary classes of which Juya and Pulowi, who are husband and wife, are the representations and relevations. Several other supernatural beings are also recognized: wanulüü, akalpui, keeralia, juyain, and others. The Guajiro also accord great importance to the ghosts of the dead, the yoluja, who haunt their dreams, dictate much of their behavior, and are the cause of many illnesses.

Religious Practitioners. Shamans as well as diviners still continue to corroborate traditional representations and beliefs, for example by curing sickness or epizootic disease or foretelling the appropriate site of new houses.

Ceremonies. Formerly, collective horticultural work was accompanied by a ceremony, which has today disappeared, called kaa'ülayawaa (goat dance), often accompanied, among the wealthy, by courses of horse meat (awachira ama ). It was an occasion for competitions, games of skill and team games, and for rendezvous between young people. Today the yonna dance, which is danced by a couple to the beat of a drum, is the most common collective demonstration. It is organized to celebrate an economic success; the visit of an important person, Guajiro or foreign (alijuna ); the end of a period of seclusion; and similar events. The dance is also frequently prescribed by a shaman at the end of a cure. But funerals, both first and second, remain the most important Guajiro ceremonies.

Arts. Songs (jayeechi ), sung as solos, often accompany gatherings; they can last for hours and so can become for men a true test of endurance. Their content can be biographical, historical, or ancedotal (love stories, lullabies, etc.). The Guajiro also play, also in solo, several types of flute and the Jew's harp.

Medicine. The Guajiro distinguish two types of sickness. Beyond a certain threshold of pain and when the domestic treatments by plants, firebrands (asijai ), and the like are found to be ineffective, the sickness is considered to be of the wanülüü type: its cause is supernatural. Nosology is of the etiological type. It distinguishes three great types of causes: encounters with or aggression by supernatural beings (oustaa ), aggression by ghosts of the dead (yolujasiraa ), and contamination (kapülainwea ) by animals or by those who have handled remains of the dead or the bodies of murder victims. Traditionally, only shamans could assure a cure. Today many Guajiro follow winding therapeutic itineraries that take them from shamans to doctors at "health centers" and, in passing, to the healers or "sorcerers" of the neighboring rural areas.

Death and Afterlife. According to the Guajiro, humans are part of a fatal cycle. When they die, their souls cross the "way of the dead Indians," the Milky Way, and they go to Jepira, the peninsula of the dead, passing from the state of person (wayuu ) to that of yoluja. To Jepira, the yoluja constitute a society comparable or opposed to that of the living, and then, "a long time after," "they are lost." Everything happens as though Juya and Pulowi were assimilating them. Long-dead Guajiro are then found on earth in the form of rain, which assures the rejuvenation of vegetation and life, or in the form of wanülüü, who bring sickness and death. The double funeral corresponds to the double fate of the dead. At the time of the second burial, to which the Guajiro accord extreme importance, the remains of the members of the same matrilineage are reunited, signifying anonymity and oblivion but also the force and the permanence of the group.


Goulet, Jean-Guy (1978). Guajiro Social Organization and Religion. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms. Translated as El universo social y reliqioso guajiro. 1982. Caracas and Maracaibo: Universidad Católica Andrés Bello.

Gutiérrez de Pineda, Virginia (1950). "Organización social en La Guajira." Revista del Instituto Etnológico Nacional (Bogatá). Translated as Social Organization in La Guajira. 1960. New Haven: HRAF.

Perrin, Michel (1976). Le Chemin des indiens morts: Mythes et symboles guajiro. Paris: Payot. Translated as The Way of the Dead Indians. 1987. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Perrin, Michel (1982). Antropóloqos y médicos frente al arte guajiro de curar. Caracas and Maracaibo: Universidad Católica Andrés Bello; Corpozulia.

Picon, François-Reneé (1983). Pasteurs de nouveau monde: Adpotion de l'élevage chez les indiens guajiros. Paris: Maison des Sciences de l'Homme.


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LOCATION: Venezuela and Colombia



RELIGION: Mixture of Roman Catholicism and indigenous religious traditions


The Guajiros are a people of northeastern Colombia and northwestern Venezuela. They have been seminomadic (not keeping permanent homes) for hundreds of years. They existed before the arrival of the Spanish conquerors, although their precise origins are uncertain. The Guajiro people is divided into clans. Each clan is made up of several family groups, with leaders who are recognized as princes.


The Guajiros live in the dry lands and coastal areas of the Guajira peninsula. This area borders the Caribbean Sea to the north and east, and Venezuela and the Gulf of Maracaibo to the west. The Guajiros have traditionally ignored the border that divides Venezuela and Colombia. They roam freely into and out of both countries. Their nomadic habits have been recognized and respected by both countries. They have been given citizenship by both. They have never had to follow the rules and formalities normally required of border crossers.

Reluctance to recognize national borders continues to this day. Members of the same extended families and clans may live either in remote desert areas or in cities such as Riohacha, the capital of the Guajira department (state). They may live in a neighborhood of the Venezuelan city of Maracaibo, where some have migrated to find work, or in smaller settlements such as Puerto López at the mouth of the oil-rich Gulf of Maracaibo. Many move from one location to another, freely crossing borders.


Although many Guajiros have had contact with Spanish-speaking people for many years, they continue to speak their own language. They often have three names each: a Guajiro name, a Catholic name given to them at birth, and another Spanish name that they usually use with white people. The Guajiro name is often kept secret. It is used only by close members of the family on the mother's side.

The story of Guajiro lives, their work, their loves and sorrows, and the landscape of sand and boat and sea is often recorded in poetic songs. These are often very sad. For example, in a song about a boat and an anchor, the following line is repeated in a lengthy, sad tone, like the repetitive call of a bird: "Eeeeeeeeee guarapáin tanai, eeeeeeeee guarapáin tanai." Then this sad lament changes into a joyful song.


Although the Guajiro Indians were gradually converted to Catholicism, some beliefs and practices from earlier times persist. Each clan has a symbol, usually drawn from the animal world. It stands for certain virtues and traits with which the clan identifies. This symbol is usually understood by outsiders as a totem. This means that the power, hopes, and virtues that the clan considers valuable are expressed by their choice of symbol. Sometimes this symbol is tattooed on a person's arm.


Religious life for the Guajiros is a mixture of Catholicism and traditional beliefs. These include a different view of the afterlife. The cape at the head of the Guajira peninsula, called the Cabo de la Vela (the Cape of the Sail), is called Jepira by the Guajiros. They consider it a sacred place because they believe that Guajiros who have passed away still wander there.

The Wayúu clan records its origin with this poetic myth: "We were born of the Wind of the Northeast and the Goddess of the Rains." Winter itself is thought of as the brother of the Goddess of the Rains, and the winter is appreciated by all the Guajiro Indians because it brings life-giving rains.


Guajiros who have migrated to the towns have become more involved in the celebrations and religious festivals of Catholicism. The Guajiros also mark special events in their lives according to their own traditions, especially the Guajiro ceremonial dance known as the Chichimaya. This is a fertility dance; it is often performed when a young girl reaches adolescence and is considered able to marry.

The Festival of Uribia mixes dances, songs, and music of African, Spanish colonial, and Guajiro Indian origins.


Many Guajiro infants are not only baptized into the Catholic Church, but also given a private Guajiro naming ceremony. The Guajiro name is part of the special relationships among family members. Clan identity comes to the infant through its mother. Similarly, the Guajiro name is usually spoken only by close family members on the mother's side. Maternal uncles have special authority and importance.

When Guajiros become teenagers, they are separated for a time. When they reach adolescence, girls are kept apart from other people and cared for by their maternal aunts. This is to help girls prepare for married life. For months, the girls have to drink specially brewed herbal teas. It is believed that the tea helps them get rid of childish attitudes and become more mature.

They also improve their skill in crafts such as weaving. This time apart is seen as a rebirth, and each girl is given a new name. After this, they are ready to go out into the world again, to meet the boys who will eventually become their husbands.

At this stage the girls have a coming-out party, and the Chichimaya, the Guajiro ritual fertility dance, is performed. During the dance, which takes place at dusk, a boy takes off his hat and waves it, dancing backward in a circle, daring a girl to catch him. The girl has to dance and chase him, trying to step on his feet so that he will lose his balance and fall.


Greetings can be very friendly and enthusiastic. When guests arrive, hosts hang up extra hammocks so that the visitors will be able to spend time with themand spend the night if necessary. Then the hosts will ask the visitor, "What news do you bring, waré?" The waré (friend) is expected to provide news about relatives and friends.


The health of the Guajiros depends on where they live. The Guajiros as a whole are in a period of change. Some have migrated to the towns. In larger cities, such as Maracaibo in Venezuela, there is a Guajiro district.

Even those who do not live permanently in towns are going more often to medical doctors in the cities and towns.

Guajiros who have not migrated to the towns still live in simple circular huts. Traditional house building is done by the community. The whole family lives under one roof, often in small groupings of huts with other members of their clan.


The role of the woman is very important among the Guajiros. The society is matrilineal. This means that the family name is passed on from the mother to children. The mother's relatives are very important. Most important are the maternal uncle and the maternal aunt.

If a boy wants to marry, his family has to offer a generous bride price. This may include thirty more goats. The Guajiros regard goats as extremely valuable assets.

Guajiros usually look for wives from a different clan. If a wife is unfaithful, the husband can return her to her family and her family must return the gifts they had received. If a husband has been unfaithful, he has to pay her family with a gift that equals the original bride price.

When a woman is expecting a child, her husband is required to protect her in specific ways. For instance, he has to ride ahead of her to search out dangerous snakes that might harm her or the unborn child.


Traditional clothes are striking and distinctive. Women wear long, flowing, flowery dresses down to the ankles. They fit loosely and therefore are cool in the hot climate. They also protect the skin from the sun.

Men are often tall and thin, with strong limbs. Their traditional loincloths are sometimes decorated with bright tassels and pompoms. They also wear pompoms on their sandals as a sign that may indicate their rank as a prince. When they go to town, they wear simple cotton shirts and trousers, as do other town dwellers in the hot climates of South America.


Corn and products made from corn meal are part of the basic diet. Protein is obtained from fish caught in the coastal waters of the peninsula. Turtles sometimes provide a source of protein and are considered a delicacy. On festive occasions, meat (usually goat meat) is grilled on simple open fires. Some Guajiros also keep pigs and hens.


The first efforts to provide schooling for the Guajiros were begun by missionaries. Literacy (ability to read and write) has been low. But in the last few decades this has been changing, as more Guajiros have migrated to towns, where education is more widely available.

Many young Guajiros do not go beyond primary school. Others may have just a few years in primary school without completing it. Those who have moved into towns are able to complete high school.

Parents who stay in isolated villages feel it is important for young people to survive in that environment. For them, education does not mean going to school but rather learning to herd, hunt, or fish; to build simple shelters; and to weave.


The Guajiros have preserved important parts of their own culture as they have absorbed belief systems and attitudes from the surrounding culture. The ritual Chichimaya is a ceremonial dance that has been preserved. Traditional instruments, such as flutes, rattles, and drums, are still in use.

Their myths, which often deal with their origins as a people, are preserved in storytelling and song.


For centuries, the Guajiros have dived for pearls around the Cabo de la Vela. They have also mined salt on land that traditionally belongs to them. Much of this land was taken over by the Colombian government, which then hired the Guajiros as paid labor. Guajiros do not usually like long, regimented working hours. They are used to working in a freer pattern, and working just enough for their basic needs. Relatives often share the same shift on a single job.

Some Guajiros have found work in coal mines, since Colombia has rich coal deposits in the region. Others work in the oil-rich area of Maracaibo in Venezuela.


Children who are adapting to town life are also beginning to enjoy Western-style sports.

In the traditional way of life, spectator sports do not exist. Elements of sports and athletics are included in dances and rituals during festivals, or in the tasks of daily life.


Town dwellers enjoy local radio and television programs and go to movie theaters. But the aspect of popular culture that people living along the Caribbean enjoy most is the carnival. Guajiros enjoy fiestas and carnivals as much as everyone else. The best-known fiesta in Guajira is the yearly event in Uribia. The Guajiros come in all their finery. Women wear jewelry and colorful flowered dresses, their faces dramatically made up with ceremonial paint. In Uribia, they mingle with other (non-Guajiro) peoples living along the coast, enjoy the dancing, and admire the ceremonial elegance of the Guajiros.


Weaving, jewelry making, and crafting musical instruments such as flutes and drums form part of Guajiro life. Their hammocks are well-known and are now sold in coastal towns. The women make their own dresses. Their specific cut and choice of flowery prints are much admired. Guajiros also make dugout canoes and basic fishing equipment such as nets, rods, and spears.


In the early 1990s, constitutional reform in Colombia allowed representatives of indigenous (native) peoples to serve in Congress. This is an important step forward. But it is still too early to know what effect this will have on the Guajiros and their problems. These mainly have to do with changing lifestyles and the growing differences between the people who live in towns and the rural people who continue to live in poverty.


De Friedemann, Nina S. Fiestas. Hogta: Villegas Editores, 1995.

Los Pueblos Nómadas, National Geographical Society. Mexico: Ediciones Diana, S. A., 1978.

Zalamea Borda, Eduardo. Cuatro arìos a bordo de mi mismo. Bogota, Colombia: Compañia Gran Colombiana de Ediciones S. A., 1959.

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