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