The Wayana

© Stéphanie Guyon / Survival



What is their real name?

The Wayana are one of the 6 Amerindian peoples of French Guiana, together with the Lokono (Arawak), the Pahikweneh (Palikur), the Kaliña (Galibi), the Teko (Emerillon) and the Wayãpi. They are French because they live in a French overseas department (DOM).


Where do they live, and what is their environment like?

They live in the Amazon, some in the south of French Guiana, near the Maroni River, upstream of the city of Maripasoula, and the others on the other side of the Brazilian and Surinamese borders.



The climate is tropical, with a pronounced rainy season and a dry season, without rain. The forest is dense with trees 60m (197ft) tall and some more than a thousand years old. Rivers are the only means of access to this isolated region.


What is the size of the population?

In French Guiana today, there are more than 7,000 Amerindians, 1/10,000 of the French population, while in 1984 there were only 4,000. There are about 1,200 Wayana.


What languages do they speak?

Wayana is in the karib family of languages but, due to schooling, the Wayana are more and more francophone. Courses in Wayana are not obligatory in the curriculum. Because French Guiana is part of France, textbooks are in French, and teachers that want to teach Wayana do not have any books.

However, over the last few years, in elementary school, first graders can learn how to read and write in Wayana, and gradually switch to French over the following school years.


How do they dress?

They only wear a calambé, a little, red cotton square tied around the hips. For festivals, they decorate themselves with body paint : designs are drawn with a stick dipped in roucou, a red plant dye that also has the property of repelling mosquitoes. They also like wearing shorts, T-shirts, flip-flops and wristwatches, which are signs of modernity.


What are their houses like?

A carbet is a large rectangular hut with a roof of woven palm leaves. The air circulates easily below and people sleep in hammocks hung from the hut's frame. Two and a half kilometers (1.6 mi) of cotton string are needed to weave a hammock, representing what a family harvests in one year. The only other furniture is stools. Only the school has tables and chairs.


© Stéphanie Guyon / Survival


Villages also have a tukusipan, a round hut which serves as a community center for festivals. Men gather there to discuss village matters.


Which animals live around them?

The trees are the realm of birds with colorful feathers: agamis, toucans, macaws and other parrots, curassows, violet-ears and other hummingbirds, wild ducks, flamingos, red ibis and many others. The feathers' rich array of colors have always inspired the Wayana to create jewelry.

Adults and children are often accompanied by pets, like parrots, red-faced spider monkeys and tamarins. The jaguar, the 10-meter- (11-yard-) long anaconda and the 600-kilogram (1323-lb) leatherback turtle are the legendary animals of the forest.


What do they eat?

Cassave is prepared from manioc grown in gardens. The Wayana clear a parcel of the forest and then burn it. The ashes fertilize the poor soil. After about two years, the field is left fallow so that the forest can grow back, and a new parcel of land is cleared.

Manioc must be peeled, grated, drained and dried in the sun before being baked as pancakes on a metal sheet. They're eaten soft right away, or when fine and dried. Cachiri, manioc beer, is also made.

Various fish and eels are caught by bow and arrow, and the Wayana each eat a pound a day. Men hunt and bring back toucan, wild pig, deer, iguana, armadillo, sloth and other meat. The food is always heavily spiced with red peppers. Children also love iguana eggs.

Between meals, people eat coconut meat, bananas, cashews, pineapples, papayas and mangoes. In the village store, you can find products shipped in from Cayenne by boat, like coffee and rice.

Because of the climate, fish and meat must be smoked on a buccan, a sort of grill.


How do they hunt and fish?

During the dry season, when the rivers are low, they organize nivrées, fishing expeditions in which women and children participate. They poison the water with the juice of a liana, and then all they have to do is spear, bowfish, or grab the choking fish. The Wayana know that this type of fishing poisons the river, so they do not do it too often.


© Stéphanie Guyon / Survival


Men hunt more and more with rifles, but they are still excellent archers. They shoot birds mostly for their feathers, which are used in their ceremonial headdresses and for fletching. Boys learn how to use a bow and arrow at a very young age. They practice on targets in the form of animals during archery competitions.


What are their beliefs and rites?

The yoloks are essentially bad spirits that bring sickness and death. The shaman must find the guilty yolok, run it through with a magic arrow and curse the person who sent the spirit. To prepare medicine, he collects plants and all sorts of substances in the forest.

Next to the patient, he pronounces sacred words in a secret language only he knows, while blowing the smoke of a special cigarette. He brings together all the forces of nature, fire, water, rocks and plants, in his rituals in order to identify the guilty yolok and free the victim.


What do they celebrate?

Maraké is the festival where people gather for the beginning and the end of youth initiation rites. When they are twelve, children must pass tests where they must show their courage by overcoming pain.

Boys and girls are adorned with enormous bead necklaces and feather headdresses to dance for an entire night. Then a wicker adornment, decorated with plumes and hiding red ants and wasps, is placed on their body. (Read in the "musée vivant" section: a magnificent Wayana orok.)

The second test is a week-long fast, and the third is an archery challenge. After a maraké, a child becomes an adult. His hair is cut to symbolize this transformation. Today, some youth don't want to be initiated and rebel against these traditions, which they find old-fashioned.


What art do they make?

Using small branches, Wayana artists paint brightly colored animals on big tree-trunk slices to be hung from the center of the tukusipan frame as protection against the spirits.

They are also famous for their featherwork. Their feather creations are miracles of cutting and assembly in infinitely diverse and luminous colors.
Wicker baskets are made out of dyed, dried reeds. They have all sorts of forms for all sorts of uses, including carrying, stocking, drying and draining, as in the case of the "snake" used to drain manioc. They are woven with skillful geometric designs representing squirrels, ants or caimans.

Villages try to sell these beautiful creations, and to pass on the techniques of the old artists to the children.


What problems do they face today?

Illegal gold miners are polluting their rivers with mercury, poisoning the fish they eat. The authorities don't seem to want to make any effort combatting this illegal mining.

Alcoholism, drugs, prostitution, violence and suicide are evils that are gradually spreading in Wayana communities. The young have difficulty finding their identity, torn between traditional life, which they partly reject, and modern life, which does not promise them a bright future. A student who is graduated from high school finds it hard to return to his village, and just as hard to find a job.

The Amerindians of French Guiana have joined together in the Federation of Organizations of Amerindians of French Guiana (FOAG), which defends their rights.


Kindly translated by Jason Miller


To learn more, you can read the June 2006 article on the gold mine in French Guiana, and search the media center.

This article was based on issue 31-32 of Ethnies, published by Survival, and Wayana, collection Fleur de Lampaul-Les peuples de l'eau, éd. Gallimard 1995.