Wai-Wai Indians

The Wai-Wai (or Waiwai) reside in the north central area of the Brazilian Amazon close to the border of Venezuela and also in Guyana. River rapids and waterfalls help to stem the invasion of farming and logging industries. The Wai-Wai are among the smallest of the Amerindian groups of Guyana, and are a nomadic society that depends on hunting and gathering practices. The Wai-Wai form bands or tribes and their technology is characterized by lightweight, flexible basketry. Their background is part of the Cariban Indian linguistic group.

The Wai-Wai live in the interior of the rain forest. They use an agricultural slash-and-burn technique known as swidden to create small areas which they use for planting crops. This involves cutting or burning down patches of forest to create space for fields, and is typically used by people who practice subsistence farming. This sort of farming is known as shifting cultivation, as the land is often allowed to regenerate after it loses fertility, or if fewer crops are needed. Farming decisions are made on the basis of the needs of the family or tribe, not on market needs.

Light, thin soil and an annual rainfall of four meters can make it very challenging for the Wai-Wai to produce enough food, so they also hunt local fauna such as monkeys and birds. The Curare poison is still used on their arrow tips when hunting in the rain forest canopy. Their traditional dances are known for imitating the movements and calls of various forest animals and birds.

However, the remoteness and traditional way of life of the Wai-Wai does not mean that they are outside of Western influence. Western influence is severely corrupting the traditional tribal culture. They have converted to Christianity with their own native pastors. During the 1940s, a large portion of the Wai-Wai tribe migrated to Brazil following the path of the Christian missionaries who were forced to leave the area. Now most of the tribe is situated in Brazil, with a small number of tribal members still residing in Guyana. The religion of the Wai-Wai people, however, still contains traditional tribal elements, with medicine men or shamans who are believed to possess special spiritual abilities.

The Wai-Wai people have a culture that places a high value on female labor and productivity. It is this that determines success. The political clout and riches of a certain family or village is reliant on the abilities of the women of the family or community. Marriage is also important to the Wai-Wai. Most Wai-Wai woman are married by the age of seventeen.

The Wai-Wai tribe has a culture rich in artistic artifacts, and they are especially well-known for their woven baskets and hammocks. They also create pottery, woven combs, bone flutes, bows and arrows, blowguns, graters, beaded aprons, necklaces, and other crafts. They are very good working with feathers and usually decorate whatever they produce with small tufts of feathers.

They do amazing work with seeds, covering lion cloths, rattles and jewelry with elaborately woven cloth made of tiny seeds. The seeds they use to weave are called Tururri seeds, though they also sometimes use Job’s Tears seeds cut in half. The loin clothes of the Wai-Wai are made from minuscule tururri seeds, strung and woven together in a painstaking process, in order to produce an intricate and textured garment. It is strung around the waist and decorated with tufts of feathers.

Loin Cloths

Loin Cloths are made of tiny tururri seeds painstakingly strung and woven together to produce a beautifully textured garment. It is worn around the waist, ties in the back and is trimmed with feather danglers.

Wai Wai Basket

Baskets are especially important to Wai-Wai men.The men weave vanity baskets, which are traditionally used to hold feathers and face paint, the sacred accoutrements of their religious rituals. Wai-Wai shamans also use these baskets to store rattles and hallucinogenic drugs. They are small woven squares and cylinders, generally decorated with a simple repeating pattern.

Wai Wai hand woven men's vanity basket Wai Wai hand woven men’s vanity basket – used to store feathers and face paint or by shamen to store ritualistic paraphernalia such as rattles and hallucinogenic drugs – 9 1/2″ square

Hand woven basket with feather danglers Hand woven basket with feather danglers, 9 to 11″ tall and 6 1/2 to 7″ in diameter.

Ceremonial Rattles

The Shamanic rituals of the Wai-Wai feature rattles. These are often beaded and decorated with tufts of feathers. They are made from twill, a diagonally woven material.

Rattles Rattles
Shaman cylindrical twill weave rattle. Shaman rattle
Shaman cylindrical twill weave rattle.

wai wai rattles

Wai Wai Necklaces

Wai-Wai necklaces are beaded and often follow the same form, a square intricately beaded pendant dangling from a beaded string. They feature simple geometric designs and are adorned with brightly-colored feathers which offset the plain string and beads.

wai Necklaces wai Necklaces wai Necklaces
wai Necklaces wai Necklaces wai Necklaces
wai Necklaces wai Necklaces wai Necklaces
wai Necklaces wai Necklaces wai Necklaces

Wai Wai Combs

Combs play an important role in the life of the Amazon Indian. Combs are not only used as grooming tools, but are used to comb out evil spirits or negative energy. Combs are always an important item in a shaman’s basket so that the negative energy may be removed after a ceremony. These Wai-wai combs are hand made of natural reeds and fibers and trimmed with colorful feathers.

Baby Carrier

Sling-type baby carrier is made of bark cloth and decorated with natural pigment and a feather danglers, 47″ long and 4″ wide.


Sling-type baby carrier

Wai Wai Flute

flute

Power Stools

Power stools carved out of a single piece of wood by the Wai Wai Indians of Brazil and British Guyana. These seats for the shaman or headman are painted with the reddish paint derived from the Urucu pod. The black designs are masticated charcoal, approx. 19 inches long.

Additional Information

Socioambiental.org
Suriname before Columbus
EarthLink – with photos
Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology – with photos
Library of Congress Online Catalog

  • Farabee, William Curtis, 1865-1925. Central Arawaks, by William Curtis Farabee. 1918
  • Farabee, William Curtis, 1865-1925. Central Caribs, by William Curtis Farabee. 1924
  • Farabee, William Curtis, 1865-1925. Pioneer in Amazonia: the narrative of a journey from Manaos to Georgetown. [By] William Curtis Farabee … 1917
  • Fock, Niels. Waiwai; religion and society of an Amazonian tribe. With appendices by Fridolin Weis Bentzon and Robert E. Hawkins. 1963
  • Dowdy, Homer E. Christ’s witchdoctor: from savage sorcerer to jungle missionary. 1963.

SIBi Net – Rede de Servicos do SIBi/USP

  • Yde, Jens.; Material culture of the Waiwái. Copenhagen, National Museum, 1965.
  • Guppy, Nicholas.; Wai-Wai:through the forests north of the Amazon. London, Murray [1958].
  • Coudreau, Henri A;   France equinoxiale. Paris : Challamel Aine, 1887.
  • Schomburgk, Moritz Richard, 1811-1891.;  Richard Schomburgk’s Travels in British Guiana, 1840-1844 /Richard Schomburgk ; translated and edited by Walter E. Roth. Georgetown, [British Guiana] : “Daily Chronicle”, 1922-23.
  • Schomburgk, Robert H. Sir, 1804-1865. (Robert Hermann),;  Twelve views in the interior of Guiana: from drawings executed by Mr. Charles Bentley, after sketches taken during the expedition carried on in the years 1835 to 1839, under the direction of the Royal geographical society of London, and aided by Her Majesty’s government. With descriptive letter-press, by Robert H. Schomburgk … London, Ackermann and co., 1841.

8 thoughts on “Wai-Wai Indians”

  1. Hi both my grandparents are decents of the WaiWai Tribe i have trying to find a way to get in contact with someone who had access to the tribe as i would love to find out about my heritage. My my grandparents on my father’s side are from Guyana. If there is someone i can get in contact with please let me know.

  2. Hello

    I stayed with the Wai-Wai for 7 days 44 years ago. I will tell all about it over time. The Wai-Wai were born again Christians and it was Christmas time. (Most men were out hunting for the festivities). They hunted using a Long “tiger wood bow” with “long reeds made into arrows, Blow gun, Machete…

    When the hunting party returned home everyone in the village was up and out through the huts entrance to greet them. They returned in packed boats . The variety of animal for meet was numerous. Oh yea! The Chief was away, with some members of his tribe to Brazil. They went to visit the local head hunters just across the border,. The goal was to Preach the word of Jesus. I’ll be back with stories both long and short alike as time goes by. As Christians and others say…, God Bless you. Be well…

    Edward

  3. If any are interested I am the son of a Wai Wai woman. I was born in Texas, USA. But my mother is the grand daughter of the late high-chief of the Wai Wai tribe. My great grandfather was the converted witch doctor written about in the book “Christ’s Witchdoctor” by Homer E. Dowdy. I am a reliable source for information if anyone is interested in learning more about the Wai Wai people.

    1. My family and I (in Canada) are enjoying reading Dowdy’s book together. I would love to know more about your mother’s family history since that time.

  4. I am very interested in visiting your community. I have always had a great interest with the rain forest. I will also like to know if your art and crafts are for sale. looking forward to your reply,

    Regards
    Chris Jaipargas

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