Wayuu people

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For other uses, see Wayuu (disambiguation).
Baile de cortejo Wayuu.jpg
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 a Native American ethnic group of the Guajira Peninsula in northern Colombia and northwest Venezuela. The Wayuu language is part of the Maipuran (Arawak) language family.


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[edit]

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[edit]

Wayuu riding on horses, 1928

The process of evangelization of the Wayuu people restarted in 1887 with the return of the Capuchin friars under reverend friar José María de Valdeviejas. In 1905, Pope Pius X created the Vicariate of La Guajira with friar Atanasio Vicente Soler y Royo as first Vicar, in an attempt to "civilize" the Wayuu people.[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 Calancala River, in 1910, and the Nazareth orphanage in the Serrania de Macuira mountains in 1913, creating a direct influence over the Rancherias of Guarrachal, El Pájaro, Carazúa, Guaraguao, Murumana, Garra patamana and Karraipía, with Nazareth exerting some control over the rancherias of Taroa, Maguaipa, Guaseipá and Alpanapause. The friars constantly visited the settlements inviting the Wayuu to attend mass. Wayuu children in the orphanage were educated with traditional European customs. Conflicts between the Wayuu people and the Colombian government decreased since then. In 1942 Uribia celebrated Christmas and New Year's Eve for the first time.


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[citation needed].

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]

Religion and society[edit]

The central figure of the Wayuu religion is Maleiwa (God) creator of everything, of the Wayuu and the founder of society. Pulowi and Juya, spiritual beings, like demigods, are a married 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. Wanülu represents the evil spirit being of illness, and death.

Children are born at home, assisted by the mother-in-law or the nearest female relative. Priority is placed on the well-being of the child as women prefer to feed children first and follow strict diets when the survival of children is not assured.[clarification needed]

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 chinchorro, which is like a large hammock hung near the house. She is also fed with a special vegetarian diet called Jaguapi, and bathes frequently. A Wayuu girl is taught female tasks such as sewing, weaving, cooking, how to be a wife for her husband and is instructed on how to become a woman, including issues of birth control and pregnancy.

Women play an important role in the society, but it is not quite a matriarchal one. The Wayuu want their women to be full of wisdom and maturity. Women serve important roles in the community. Nearly all marriages are arranged and accompanied by a dowry, which is given to the mother's brothers and uncles. Young girls are promised to men of the clan as young as 11 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. It should be noted also that the Wayuu also practice polygamy – only the man may have multiple wives.

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 five years, the bones are exhumed, put into ceramics or a chinchorro (hammock), 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 caseríos 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 matrilineal structure of the Wayuu. The Wayuus congregate in 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 Acrylic fiber made purses or mochilas and ceramics to keep water.

The Wayuu culture is well known for crafts and bags or mochilas. In their culture there are many styles of Mochilas. One of them is called "susu" which means backpack, where they can load their personal items and work items. Approximately measures between 20 and 30 cm wide by 35 cm high. The most representative in this culture is the management of the different patterns in the tissues. These fabrics are created thanks to the inspiration of nature and what the culture sees around. Among them we can find names like Molokonoutaya, Pulikerüüya, Pasatalo'ouya, Marüliunaya, Antajirasüyaa and many more. Each is given a specific name within the culture.

Wayuu Patterns. Wayuu-mochila-bags.png

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[edit]

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.[clarification needed][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]

Notable Wayúu people[edit]

See also[edit]



  • 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[edit]