The Wai Wai Tribe in Guyana – by Peter Halder

The Wai Wai Tribe in Guyana

by   Peter Halder

The Wai Wai is now an endangered Amerindian tribe in Guyana. In 2007, according to International Cry online website, there were only 240 Wai Wai left in Guyana.

Amerindian Tribes

The Wai Wai is one of nine indigenous Amerindian tribes in Guyana. The others include the Patamona, Arecuna, Macusi, Wapisiana, Carib, Warrau, Arawak and Akawaio.

Meaning

Wai Wai means “tapioca people” and they were given that name because of the enormous amount of the tapioca (cassava) they eat.  

Early History

The Wai Wai people and its tribal territory were discovered by the famous explorer R. Schomburgk during his exploration of the province of Essequibo in 1837.

Religion

U.S. Protestant Missionaries  established a permanent Christian Mission near the Wai Wai tribal area in the 1950s. The Paramount Chief of the Wai Wai and his tribe converted to Christianity by the end of the 1950s.

Location

The Wai Wai live in small remote villages in the southernmost tropical forest of Guyana. They migrated from Brazil in the early 19th century and their population increased to some 1,250.  As the tribe expanded , so too did trade and marriage contracts. When the Protestant Mission was established, nearly all the Wai Wai relocated near to it. In the 1970s, due to the uprising in the Rupununi area and events that followed, there was massive re-migration of the Wai Wai back to Brazil. By 1989, there was only one major tribal area remaining.

Dialect

The Wai Wai dialect is similar to that of the Carib. The Umana Yana Amerindian structure in Kingston, Georgetown, is a Wai Wai word meaning “meeting place.”

Tribal Land

Their tribal land, to which they hold title, covers about some 2,300 square miles. The area is known as Konashen and includes the headwaters of the mighty Essequibo River.

The paramount Chief of the people is the Kayaritomo. The Medicine Man is called a Yaskomo.

Culture

The Wai Wai is an artistic tribe that makes beautiful baskets and many other craft, including pottery, woven combs, bone flutes, bows and arrows, blow guns, graters, beaded aprons and necklaces.

Their traditional dances are known for imitating the movements and calls of various forest animals and birds.

Livelihood

The Wai Wai have a subsistence way of life. It is based on farming, hunting and fishing. The cycle of dry and rainy seasons produce plenty during the former and scarcity during the latter. Their main farming crops are bitter tapioca (cassava)  used to make bread (cassava bread), farina, casareep and drink (pywari and cassiri). They also plant fruit trees, arrow cane and cotton. The forest provides building material, wild fruits and nuts. The men hunt with arrows, bows, trained dogs and sometimes shotguns. Their meat supply comes from the wild cow, wild hog, labba, accouri, deer and wild fowl. Many varieties of fish are caught.

In 2007, during the second Latin American Parks Congress, the Wai Wai tribe of Guyana declared their land a “Community Owned Conservation Area”  The tribe has banned mining and logging from their land in the tropical forest in remote southern Guyana near the Brazil border. They have pledged to pursue a sustainable economic strategy based on eco-tourism,  research and traditional crafts. The paramount aim of the people is the preservation of their culture. Some of the tribe plan to become Forest Rangers. “We have always been keepers of the forest that support us, “ said the Kayaritomo.

Major Events

One major event for the Wai Wai was when the Governor-General of Canada, Sir Roland Michener, visited them in the 1970s. A Guyana Foreign Service Officer who was with the delegation said it was a surprise when the visitors discovered that the Wai Wai had evolved an indigenous religion, based on Christianity, which they called the “Hallelujah Religion.” He also said that when a block of ice was unloaded from the aircraft that took the official delegation to Konashen, a Wai Wai put his hand on the ice, shouted, withdrew it quickly and fell to the ground in reverence. The Wai Wai had never seen ice before.

Another had to do with the church which served the area. The Chief requested a piano for the church from a British citizen who visited the tribe. A Grand Piano was flown by BWIA to Guyana in 2000. The 800-lb piano was then transported by Skyvan to near Konashen and then, while still in the crate, was dragged to the church where it was later installed.

Amerindians of Guyana

The Amerindians in Guyana, called “Children of the Forest” number 55,000  and their population is expanding. They live in 120 communities in the hinterland, mainly in : Region 1 – Barima/Waini; Region 7 – Cuyuni/Mazaruni; Region 8 – Potaro/Siparuni; and Region 9 – Upper Takutu/Upper Essequibo. The tribal distribution is as follows: Region 1 – Warrau/Arawak/Carib; Region 7 – Akawaio/Arecuna; Region 8 – Patamona/ Macusi; Region 9 – Macusi/Wapisiana/ Wai Wai.

Sources:

  • Every Culture
  • International Cry
  • Guyana News and Information

End

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Comments

  • sgrft12  On July 30, 2013 at 6:19 pm

    Amazing History. Thank You for sharing. Cheryl Pieters Chookang.

  • Peter Halder  On July 30, 2013 at 10:03 pm

    You’re welcome.

  • Thinker  On August 6, 2013 at 2:56 pm

    The Wai-Wai were actually encouraged by missionaries to leave Guyana for Brazil. The so-called Rupununi uprising, led by ranchers, did not really affect them.

    The Hallelujah religion evolved among the Patamona, not the Wai-Wai.

    Let’s get the history right.

  • Ram Jagessar  On August 6, 2013 at 5:23 pm

    I believe the Warau section of the Wai Wai were the Amerindians who used to visit south Trinidad, and especially San Fernando and Cedros in the early years of the 20th century. They made some interesting contributions to life in Trinidad.

    When as a child I behaved wild, running and falling down all over, my mother wold say, stop behaving like a Warahoon! I think that was the common name used for the Warau. When they came to trade their fabulous string hammocks, cassava strainers etc they would be happy to get some rum in exchange. And of course they would get royally drunk, and be seen falling down all over the place and generally behaving the Warahoon!

    I understand too that some of the early Carnival costumes in south Trinidad, especially J’Ouvert of the period, were imitations of the dress of the Warau. The intention may have been to copy them, to mock them, or just to have some fun behaving drunk and falling down all over the place, very appropriate for Carnival.
    For reasons unknown the Warau reduced their visits to the south by the time I became a young boy in the fifties growing up in San Fernando in the early fifties.

    I ran across a Guyanese man in Toronto a couple of years ago, who said he was one of the last Warau around. He was part of a small Warau association that was trying to get recognition for the group. I wish him luck, and thank him for setting me right on the name. My mother is long dead now, but I can still remember her warning me, don’t be a Warahoon boy!

  • de castro  On August 7, 2013 at 5:56 am

    Wonderful article…well researched…

    We are all “children of the Forrest” which is “lungs of the planet”
    We destroy it at our peril…..the wai wai must continue in their culture
    of protection of their habitat….
    We live in “civilised” societies today (towns and cities)
    We are the “un-civilised” …the American Indians were rounded up
    and herded like cattle in reservations only to perish in the name
    “GOD KING AND COUNTRY”. ….Will /could this be repeated today…
    or will we be but fools and not learn from the mistakes of history.

    The amerindans of the Amazon are an endangered species and must
    be protected by international law enacted by the UN…if not so
    already…..their culture our heritage !
    We must not only see the leaves and trees of our planet…
    We must also see the forrest and the inhabitants of that forrest
    ..respecting their rights to exist ..by not “raping and plundering”
    their habitat as our ancestors have done…in name of their of
    their god king and country….
    my vision for the planet….A WORLD WITHOUT BORDERS
    ONE WORLD
    ONE LOVE
    as described by BOB MARLEY a legend and visionary.

    Peace and love
    Kamptan

  • hubert hintzeb  On August 8, 2013 at 5:59 pm

    The Amerindian tribes of Guyana are indeed an exceptional, self-sufficient and lovely people and I am speaking from my personal experiences (first as military stationed in the Wai-Wai territory of South Rupununi, (Region 9), then as a Forest Ranger in Regions 1 and 7. My ex-wife is from Region 1.

  • de castro  On August 9, 2013 at 2:32 am

    55.000 and growing gives me hope for the future…
    It would be interesting to know what their population was 47 years ago
    and what it is now….demographics…and how much of the rain forrest
    it takes to produce sustainable growth in their numbers….
    We cannot live without our lungs clean air or water hence the respect
    these inhabitants show for their habitat…unlike others on our planet
    who would rape and plunder in the name of “progress” …..
    wealth creation fed by the greed and averice of humans…
    A wild animal “kills” for food …a domesticated animal
    (humans) kills for pleasure…which is more “god-like” !
    A question that bugs my interlect/intelligence.
    Christianity teaches the good side of nature..
    Commonsence the bad and ugly…

    Godfather godson and godghost..becomes good bad and ugly in nature
    The three persons in god and nature….
    My understanding of the godthing…

    My respect for the “rainforest” amerindians right to exist remains “untouchable”

    Viv la vida…
    Kamptan

  • Peter Halder  On August 12, 2013 at 3:33 pm

    Indeed!

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