Wayuu people

Wayuu people

Wayúu people
Total population
approx. 293,777 in Venezuela (2001 Census)
approx. 144,003 in Colombia (1997)
Regions with significant populations
La Guajira Peninsula
 Colombia and  Venezuela
Wayuu, Spanish
Traditional, Roman Catholicism (mixed)
Related ethnic groups
Arawak group

Wayuu (also Wayu, Wayúu, Guajiro, Wahiro) is an American Indian ethnic group of the Guajira Peninsula in northern Colombia and northwest Venezuela. The Wayuu language is part of the Maipuran (Arawak) language family.


  • Geography 1
  • History 2
    • Guajira rebellion 2.1
    • Evangelization process 2.2
  • Demographics 3
    • Clans 3.1
    • Language 3.2
    • Religion 3.3
  • Lifestyle 4
    • Music and dances 4.1
  • Telemundo Controversy 5
  • Notable Wayúu people 6
  • See also 7
  • Notes 8
  • References 9
  • External links 10


Area inhabited by the Wayuus, between Colombia and Venezuela

The Wayuu inhabit the arid Guajira Peninsula straddling the Venezuela-Colombia border, on the Caribbean Sea coast. Two major rivers flow through this mostly harsh environment: the Rancheria River in Colombia and the El Limón River in Venezuela representing the main source of water, along with artificial ponds designed to hold rain water during the rain season.

The territory has equatorial weather seasons: a rainy season from September to December, which they call Juyapu; a dry season, known by them as Jemial, from December to April; a second rainy season called Iwa from April to May; and a long second dry season from May to September.


Guajira rebellion

Map of La Guajira in 1769

Even though the Wayuu were never subjugated by the Spanish, the two groups were in a more or less permanent state of war. There had been rebellions in 1701 (when they destroyed a Capuchin mission), 1727 (when more than 2,000 natives attacked the Spanish), 1741, 1757, 1761 and 1768. In 1718 Governor Soto de Herrera called them "barbarians, horse thieves, worthy of death, without God, without law and without a king." Of all the Indigenous peoples in the territory of Colombia, they were unique in having learned the use of firearms and horses.[1]

In 1769 the Spanish took 22 Wayuus captive in order to put them to work building the fortifications of Cartagena. The reaction of the Indians was unexpected. On May 2, 1769, at El Rincón, near Río de la Hacha, they set their village afire, burning the church and two Spaniards who had taken refuge in it. They also captured the priest. The Spanish immediately dispatched an expedition from El Rincón to capture the Indians. At the head of this force was José Antonio de Sierra, a mestizo who had also headed the party that had taken the 22 Guajiro captives. The Guajiros recognized him and forced his party to take refuge in the house of the curate, which they then set afire. Sierra and eight of his men were killed.[1]

This success was soon known in other Guajiro areas, and more men joined the revolt. According to Messía, at the peak there were 20,000 Indians under arms. Many had firearms acquired from English and Dutch smugglers, sometimes even from the Spanish. These enabled the rebels to take nearly all the settlements of the region, which they burned. According to the authorities, more than 100 Spaniards were killed and many others taken prisoner. Many cattle were also taken by the rebels. The Spaniards who could took refuge in Río de la Hacha and sent urgent messages to Maracaibo, Valle de Upar, Santa Marta and Cartagena. Cartagena sent 100 troops. The rebels themselves were not unified. Sierra's relatives among the Indians took up arms against the rebels to avenge his death. A battle between the two groups of Indians was fought at La Soledad. That and the arrival of the Spanish reinforcements caused the rebellion to fade away, but not before the Guajiro had regained much territory.[1]

Evangelization process

Wayuu riding on horses, 1928

The process of [2]

The friars then created the orphanages for Wayuu children beginning with the La Sierrita orphanage, built in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains in 1903, followed by the San Antonio orphanage, located by the [2]


The Wayuu are the largest indigenous ethnic group in Colombia.

According to a 1997 census in Colombia, the Wayuu population numbered approximately 144,003 – representing 20% of Colombia's total Amerindian population and 48% of the population of the Department of La Guajira. The Wayuu occupy a total area of 4,171 square miles (10,800 km2) within approximately ten Indian reservations, eight of which are located south of the Department (including a major one called Carraipia).

In Venezuela, the Wayuu population is estimated at some 293,777 individuals, according to the 2001 census, with some 60,000 living in the city of Maracaibo. This makes the Wayuu the largest indigenous group in Venezuela, representing 57.5% of the Amerindian population.

Wayuu communities are not uniformly distributed within these territories as their population is concentrated primarily in the outskirts of such settlements as Nazareth and Jala'ala, on the plains of Wopu'muin and Uribia, and within the municipalities of Maicao and Manaure, where population densities are some of the highest in the peninsula. This irregular distribution is intimately related to seasonal changes in the weather – during the dry season, a significant percentage of the population crosses the border into Venezuela to work in the city of Maracaibo and its nearby settlements; once the rainy season begins, these Wayuu tend to return to their homes on the Colombian side.

The Wayuu people refer to themselves simply as "Wayuu" and do not acknowledge the term "Indian", preferring instead the term "people". They use the terms Kusina or "Indian" to refer to other ethnic indigenous groups, while using the term Alijuna (essentially meaning "civilized") to refer to outsiders or persons of European ancestry.


Wayuu improvised hutch to hang hammocks

Families in the Wayuu culture are divided into clans, some of which are:[3]

Aapushana Eirakajaule
Sour with something
Land of the beach
Land of si´iya
Land of pans
Away from the pulp
round object
Inside the heart of the Wolunka house
Axe on the ground
Epieyu Lumoulein
where sleepiness is felt
Iguana Wo'upanalu'u
Close to the eyes
For the birds
Jayaliyuu Kalimiru´u
Animal teeth
to herd
Little "curarire"
Eyes without head
Jusayuu Polujalii
Beware of the Axe
On top of the land
Pausayuu Patsuarui
Arrive at the sea
Sapuana Tuikii
Inside you
Tijuana Uchali´i
A lot
Uliana Alainmapu
All come together
One on top of the other
When it turns into a boat
When it turns into a bat
The teeth of our eyes
Coming here
Going there
I have more power than you
The one that saws
Uliyuu Iisho´u Of Cardinal
Uraliyuu Aalasu
Passing by
My eyes are of sticks
Ulewana Iruwo´u Olive face
Walepushana Ishajiwo ´u
Alapuolu ´u
Burned eyes
Lying eyes
Walapuana Atuairuku Nurturing


The Wayuu language, called wayuunaiki, is part of the Arawak language family predominant in different parts of the Caribbean. They have some minimal differences in dialect depending on where in the region of La Guajira they live: the northern, central or southern zone. Most of the younger generation speak Spanish fluently but understand the importance of preserving their traditional native tongue.

To promote cultural integration and Bilingual education among Wayuus and other Colombians, the Kamusuchiwo'u Ethno-educative Center, or Centro Etnoeducativo Kamusuchiwo'u, came up with the initiative of creating the first illustrated Wayuunaiki-Spanish, Spanish-Wayuunaiki dictionary. [1]


The structure of representation of this culture integrates a series of important deities into their mythical universe. Their central figure is Mareiwa, god creator of the Wayuu and founder of society. Pulowi and Juya are a married deity couple associated with procreation and life, where Pulowi is the female figure related to the wind and dry seasons and Juya the male, is a nomad figure related to hunting who is seen as a powerful killer. Wanulu represents the evil god, illness, and death.

Children are born at home, assisted by the mother-in-law or the nearest female relative and represent for the Wayuu, preferring to feed children first and following strict diets when the surivival of children is not assured.

Puberty is not very important among boys, but girls are exposed to rituals as early as 12 years old or when they start menstruating, requiring them to go through a period of seclusion for anywhere from two months up to two years. The girl is obliged to have her head shaved and to rest in a hammock hung near the house. She is also fed with a special vegetarian diet called Jaguapi, and bathes frequently.

She is taught such skills as weaving, cooking, and how to "be" with her husband. Her existence is the leader of the society. The women are shamans and politicians, which explains why the puberty ritual focuses more on women than men. The Wayuu want their women to be full of wisdom and maturity. A Wayuu girl is taught female tasks such as sewing and is instructed on how to become a woman, including about birth control and pregnancy. The Wayuu also practice polygamy – only the man may have multiple wives. Nearly all marriages are arranged and accompanied by a dowry. Young girls are promised to men of the clan as young as 10–12 years old, around the time they are becoming of child-bearing age. The perceived intention is to wed her to a man before risking that she become pregnant out of wedlock or arrangement, a cause of great social shame for the Wayuu, and specifically for the woman's family's honor and credibility.

The Wayuu believe that the life cycle does not end with death, but that a relationship with one's bones continues. Burials are very important. The relatives of the dead act in a certain way: first, the cadaver is buried with personal belongings, and then, after two years, the body is exhumed, incinerated, put into ceramics, and buried once again in the clan's cemetery.


A Wayuu rancheria

A traditional Wayuu settlement is made up of five or six houses that made up caserios or rancherías. Each ranchería is named after a plant, animal or geographic place. A territory that contains many rancherias is named after the mother's last name because of the matriarchal structure of the Wayuu culture. The Wayuus never congregate into towns, and rancherias are usually isolated and far from each other to control and prevent mixing of their goat herds.

Typical Wayuu rectangular "day house" with hammocks by the Caribbean Sea.

The typical house is a small structure called a piichi or miichi, generally divided into two rooms where they hang hammocks to sleep and to keep personal belongings such as cotton made purses and ceramics to keep water. Living quarters can be either rectangular or semi-circular, and the rooftop is made up of dried cactus hearts. Traditionally, the walls are made out of yotojoro[4] – a wattle and daub of mud, hay and dried canes, but some of them have shifted towards a more modern construction style, using cement and other materials.

Close to the main house they erect a common area, similar to a living room and called a luma or enramada, but almost in the open. Built of six pillars and with a flat roof, it serves as a common area for everyday duties and to attend to visitors and business activities. Family members hang their hammocks in the room for the noon nap.

The dagger cactus (Stenocereus griseus), which the Wayuu call yosú, is the preferred source of roofing material and yotojoro wood. This plant is used for many other purposes: it can be planted to produce living fences around pastureland, and the young shoots are fed to goats. The fruit (iguaraya) is edible and pitahaya-like and are a popular food among the Wayuu. Because the demand for yosú as food or for wood can be seasonally high, the plant population at times declines to a point where little fruit or cuttings for fences are available. It has thus been proposed to develop techniques by which the Wayuu can cultivate and tend the cactus as a proper crop.[4]

Wayuu handcrafted mochilas woolen bags

The word Yotojoro originally referred to the cane-like inner wood of the yosú cactus. Given the varying availability of sufficient yosú wood for construction, other plants are also utilized. These include trupillo or turpío (Prosopis juliflora), jattá (Haematoxylum brasiletto), kapchip (Capparis zeylandica) and kayush (Peruvian Apple Cactus, Cereus repandus).[4]

Music and dances

The Wayuu have developed their own traditional music and instruments. Their culture directly associates economy and social life with music; such as in the case of raising cattle, in which the indigenous sang to their animals. They also used music for meetings and celebrations, as well as mourning in funerals. The Yonna is the traditional dance of the Wayuu and is used to honor guests.[5]

The Wayuus created many rustic musical instruments called Kashi, Sawawa (a type of flute), ma'asi, totoy and the taliraai (tubular flute), wootoroyoi (a type of clarinet), among others. In the Majayura, or ritual of the "young Wayuu virgin", the female dances towards the male for marriage, while other males perform rhythms with their traditional instruments until the male tumbles onto the ground.[5]

Telemundo Controversy

On April 1, 2010, the US Spanish language television network Telemundo broadcast an episode of "Caso Cerrado" (Case Closed), in which claims were made that Wayuu women are subjected to ritual genital mutilation. The group Fuerza de Mujeres Wayuu (Force of Wayuu Women) protested the show.[6] In August 2010, Colombia's Uribia Department for Indigenous Affairs stated that it would sue Telemundo NBC over these claims.[7]

Notable Wayúu people

See also


  1. ^ a b c Luis Angel Arango Library: The Guajira rebellion(Spanish)
  2. ^ a b Luis Angel Arango Library: The Capuchins mission and the Wayuu Culture(Spanish)
  3. ^ National Natural Parks of Colombia: National natural Park of Macuira/PAGE 13(Spanish)
  4. ^ a b c Villalobos et al. (2007)
  5. ^ a b Taliraai: Music, Gender and Kinship in the Wayuu Culture - Jacqueline Vilchez Faria
  6. ^ La mutilación genital femenina no es ni ha sido una práctica tradicional del pueblo Wayúu(Spanish)
  7. ^ Indigenous body to sue US TV channel


  • Villalobos, Soraya; Vargas, Orlando & Melo, Sandra (2007): Uso, manejo y conservacion de "yosú", Stenocereus griseus (Cactaceae) en la Alta Guajira colombiana [Usage, Management and Conservation of yosú, Stenocereus griseus (Cactaceae), in the Upper Guajira, Colombia]. [Spanish with English abstract] Acta Biologica Colombiana 12(1): 99-112. PDF fulltext

External links

  • Ubuntu Linux in Wayuunaiki - a project to bring Wayuunaiki language support to Ubuntu Linux
  • WayuuTribe.com - About the Wayuu People and Wayuu Mochila Bags - Art - An article about the Wayuu People and Wayuu Art
  • Unicef article on community radio keeping Wayuu culture alive in Venezuela
  • Video of the Wayuu Indigenous People of Colombia
  • pbs.org article on Wayuus
  • Denver Post article on Wayuus
  • Colombia's national library resume on Colombian policies towards Amerindian ethnic groups(Spanish)
  • Etniasdecolombia.org(Spanish)
  • Psicologia del Caribe: Wayuus
  • Wayuu artwork, National Museum of the American Indian
  • [2]