The Warao of Guyana

"Huts of the Warrows" (Warao, Warrau), British Guyana, 1800s

Anna C. Roosevelt. “The Warao of the Orinoco Delta: A Culture of Stilt Villagers.” A civilização lacustre e a Baixada Maranhense: da Pré-História dos campos inundáveis aos dias atuais. Ed. Alexandre Guida Navarro. São Luís: Café & Lápis; EDUFMA, 2019

“The indigenous Warao of the lowlands of the Orinoco delta are a numerous people whose cultural adaptation to their tropical forest floodplains includes houses built on pilings over water, as well as other structures. Here, we take a comprehensive look at the characteristics of Warao culture, as recorded over more than four hundred years. Though their culture is sometimes represented as a rare survival of early Holocene hunting and gathering, the evidence makes them seem more like a regional variant of greater Amazonian tropical forest culture. …

“Traditional Warao society is still organized in extended matrilocal families around an older female, her spouse, her daughters, their spouses, and their offspring. Warao still live by seasonal exploita- tion of the fruits, sap, and stem starch of cultivated and domesticated palms, collection of the fruits of cultivated and wild trees, shrubs, and herbs, cultivation of starchy crops, and fishing. Hunting of most large animals is tabooed, but smaller species are sought, and domesticated, including ducks. [231]

The thatched structures of their dispersed settlements are built on platforms elevated on poles or on the ground at higher alluvial levees. Small ritual buildings in settlements include a women’s ritual seclusion house on the west and on the east, a shrine with stone idols, ritual instruments, and a palm starch storage bin for seasonal festivals. The Warao rich religious ideology focuses on ancestral spirits and astronomical deities from a mythic cosmos established by the first shaman, a goddess called Mother of the Forest. Her alter ego the water serpent is embodied in the dugout canoe which Warao specialize in making. An annual festival patronized by leading women and officiated by priest-shaman of both sexes celebrates the harvest of Moriche palm starch with singing, dancing, feasting, and the making of special crafts. Renowned as hired navigators and indefatigable paddlers, the Warao have always actively traded their numerous useful products, from canoes, paddles, hammocks, and baskets to tame birds, hunting dogs, and smoked fish. [232]

"Traditional Warao villages on pilings shelter one or more extended families, each occupying a large rectangular multifamily house. Like the extended families in some other indigenous societies of the mainstream rivers, such as the Shipibo of the Ucayali floodplain in the Upper Amazon (GEBHART-SAYER, 1984), Warao reckon descent matrilineally and have a matrilocal residence pattern; thus, people trace their family relationships through the female line, and husbands come into the community from the outside to marry (HEINEN, 1972; HEINEN, 1988b, p. 26-29).

"In the mid-nineteenth century, Warao “group themselves according to the rivers in the Orinoco basin form which they believe they originally came” (note by Roth in SCHOMBURGK, 1848, p. 367), though there is now no sense of corporate matrilineages with recognized founders (SUAREZ, 1968, p. 110-126). However, “The matrilocal tendency of residence and polygynous unions ... strengenthens the importance of the wife-mother [aka woman!] in the nuclear family” (SUAREZ, 1968, p. 144).

"Warao express a “vehement” and “invariable” preference for female children (HEINEN, 1988b, p. 52-56; SUAREZ, 1968, p. 128; 1971, p. 89, 93), though Wilbert claims the Warao “always” want the first-born to be a male (1972, p. 103). The related women of a settlement show solidarity and cooperation. “Because of the existing residence rule, married men, as strangers in the society, face a closely-related group of females who condition public opinion and exert considerable pressure. Marriage partners display a high degree of true companionship” (WILBERT; LAYRISSE, 1966, p. 173). However, the relationship, which for the men involves life-long obligations to their wives and wives’ families, can engender hostility, even violence, from the women (SUAREZ, 1968, p. 125). [It's unclear what she means by this; is it women confronting challenges to this norm?]

"Hispanic missionaries and settlers have been uncomfortable with the female- oriented organization and have tried to persuade the Warao to organize on a patriarchal basis (HEINEN, 1988b, p. 43-50). Also, state entities have endowed men only with political offices, and male ethnographers have tended to assume that the heads of community households are the elder man, rather than the woman (OLSEN, 1996; SUAREZ, 1968; WILBERT, 1993, p. 254, 256)." [274-5]

What I find interesting about this old drawing is that men in South America usually not only monopolize the sacred trumpets, but enforce women hiding away from them, not being in their presence or even looking at them. But here the women (in skirts) are dancing with the trumpeters.

"Over and above residence and family organization patterns, ethnographers often have little to say about gender roles, though their diction and discourse imply male predominance and political and ritual leadership and leave out female political and ritual leadership in the household and community. But Warao characterize gender patterns differently than do the ethnographers. They describe both gender equality in daily family life and female predominance in the extended family and wider society. For example, in their oral statements about the family, Warao express gender egalitarian practices of child rearing, where both parents take responsibility. They also characterize the older female of the extended family as the “Owner of the House” and she directs most of the activities of the household including those of her sons-in-law (HEINEN, 1988b, 123), in contrast to ethnographers who characterize houses as owned or headed by the older male. For example, one Warao man characterizes his spouse as “my wife, the owner of the house” (HEINEN, 2009, p. 59). Another characterizes his house as “the mother-in-law’s house” (HEINEN, 2009, p. 104). Similarly, Warao describe the female house owner as directing the work of the sons- in-law in their work extracting trunk pith for starch in the moriche groves (in HEINEN, 1988b, p. 32-33, 104-106, 108-109), in contrast to ethnographers, who portray the sons-in-law as directed by their father- in-law, who is married to her (WILBERT, 1972). [275]

[I love her critiques of white and male bias and assumptions in anthropological / ethnographic texts, throughout the article, and the corrections she inserts.]

"In the Warao system, leaders who are respected and supervise larger numbers of people in food production, crafts, and ritual are privileged. “Although the Spanish missionaries introduced the positions of political office, true authority among the Warao is vested in the society’s three religious practitioners: the medicine man, the shaman, and the priest” (WILBERT; LAYRISSE, 1966, p.172). Despite the use of male gender in such statements, the same ethnographers acknowledge that either men or women can serve in roles of shaman, curer, or priest. They acknowledge, “Women quite frequently achieve a rather high status, and at some time in the past female priest-shaman seem to have been influential persons” (WILBERT, 1970, p. 24), “while sub-tribes seen to have been governed by female leaders” (WILBERT; LAYRISSE, 1966, p. 172)."

"The spirit ancestors are called Hebu and important ones among them are worshipped and propitiated as ancestral Kanobos. A complex mythic hierarchy of powerful ancestral gods and goddesses are represented as creators of the humans, the earth, and the cosmos. Propitiation of deities and spirits by the Warao, through “feeding” them with tobacco smoke and Moriche starch offerings, is thought necessary to avoid the vengeful supernaturals inflicting on humans bad luck, illness, or untimely death.

"Warao characterize their habitat as a forest ruled by an ancestor called Dauarani, the “Mother of the Forest”. Associated with a watersnake alter ego - the anaconda, the largest predator of the tropical lowlands - this mythic personage is seen an ancient creation goddess. Ethnographers characterize her as “the forest God”, who takes the form of a giant serpent as “Serpent Woman of the Red-Cedar Canoe” (WILBERT, 1972). The larger game animals whom Warao taboo for hunting are said to be her people of the forest. [274-5]

"This Warao deity greatly resembles the female serpent deities important in the creation stories of numerous greater-Amazonian groups (e.g., GEBHART-SAYER, 1984; HUGH-JONES, 1979; ROOSEVELT, 2013a; ROTH, 1915). This kind of deity is widely honored under the names “Woman Shaman” or “the Great Anaconda” in the oral histories of recent indigenous societies of the Amazon, Orinoco, and Guianas coasts (e.g., BRETT, c.1880, p. 180-187; GEBHART-SAYER, 1984; HUGH-JONES, 1979; ROTH, 1915). A woman shaman in anaconda guise also is also clearly depicted in the ancient and modern art of the famous Polychrome Horizon ceramic mound-building culture that spread from the Amazon delta island of Marajo to the mainstream and upper Amazon and coasts of the Guianas starting 1000 years ago (BROCHADO, 1980; ROOSEVELT, 1991, 2013a).

"However, the Warao believe that Daurani was the first shaman of the Warao who traveled as a boat and sang special songs. “She chanted like a priest-shaman whose function is to placate the gods and, in doing so, to guarantee health, fertility, and longevity to the people of the community” (WILBERT, 1993, p. 270). The Warao multilayered cosmos was created by Dauarani. As described by two male informants of the ethnographers Wilbert and Heinen, the cosmos is a place created at the time of origin through the interactions of supernaturals like Dauarani. The supernaturals are named according to their cardinal-directional, astronomical, animal, and human characteristics. (It’s not certain whether most Warao ritual savants have this very complex vision of the cosmos, since the references made to it during ceremonies are much more limited in number and character of supernaturals and levels and structures within the supernatural space)."

Warao women with a Franciscan missionary, 1970s.

'The most detailed ethnographic description states: “It is significant that the northern solstice points of Warao cosmogony are said to be inhabited by supernatural guarantors of sustenance and fertility. The Mother of Sago (Aruarani) is at the midsummer point of sunrise in the northeast. The northern solstice is identified with the sacred trumpet, whose ... master spirits reside with the God of Dance. Also located in the same place are the Grandmothers (Natue), patronesses of the moriche palm fiber.... Opposite the supernatural fertility beings of the northern solstices, the Mother of the Forest (Dauarani) resides at the sumer solstice of the midwinter sun. Just as the Grandmothers of the northern solstice are patronesses of female artisans (hammock makers) and of women in general, the Mother of the Forest of the southern solstice is the patroness of male artisans (boat makers) and of men in general” (WILBERT, 1993, p. 268). [277]

"One of the most important artisanal ceremonies involves making of the all-important canoe, for which the instructions are given from the leading older woman through her daughters to her sons-in-law (WILBERT, 1993, p. 25-86). Canoes were necessary for getting around in the delta and have long been an important trade item to outsiders (PLASSARD, 1868, p. 586). The making of the canoe is considered one of the most important skills and is acquired both through practice with an expert teacher and through the aid of the goddess. “An expert canoe maker is one who has learned to perfect his skill in dreams with a Serpent Spirit, who is reputed to have served the Warao culture hero Haburi as a boat when he made his escape from danger. The honor of having been chosen by this Serpent Spirit extends beyond this present life, for such a man will go forth after death to continue his existence in her presence” (WILBERT, 1972, p. 74-75). The soul of the canoe-maker “goes to a place next to the Mother of Moriche, where the spirit of the sacred trumpet lives. This spirit is the Mother of the Sacred Trumpets...” (WILBERT, 1993, p. 101).

"The elder women and men of the Warao households are the patrons and priests of periodic festivals to ensure health and prosperity in the community, and also cure the sick. The instruments and accoutrements used in the rituals have a complex and colorful iconography linked to Warao cosmology (WILBERT, 1993) but it has been little studied and illustrated. Shaman meet and greet visitors seated on animal-headed stools (PLASSARD, 1868, p. 581). Numerous Warao accounts show that both men and women can serve as shamans both in organizing and leading ceremonies and in curing [278](BARRAL, 1979, p. 358; HEINEN, 1988b, 2009, p. 82; HEINEN; GASSON, 2008; WILBERT, 1993, p. 167, 220-221) but the male ethnographers who have predominated in studies of the Warao have only interviewed and observed the men.

"Public ceremonies reaching out to the supernaturals address several of the deities and spirits thought to reside in the supernatural cosmos. Early visitors to settlements exclaimed that Warao constantly held ceremonial dances accompanied with singing and playing of instruments (GUMILLA, 1791; SCHOMBURGK, 1847, p. 151). Ceremonies are conducted under the direction and sponsorship of shaman and take place on the community dance platforms (Fig. 22), in front of the ritual structures, on the ground near settlements, or out in the forest." [279]

"Two modest ritual structures flank either end of the Warao settlement: the shrine for the moriche festival at the east and the women’s seclusion house on the west (WILBERT, 1972, p. 78-80, 95- 96; WILBERT, 1993). The shrine on the east is a structure that has a small hut elevated over a platform protecting the moriche starch bin for the annual harvest festival. (The illustration cuts away the front sheathing of the hut to show the starch bin within.) The ancestor stones representing Kanobos and shamans’ ritual paraphernalia are kept in the stage above the bin, which is accessed by a notched log ladder. A specialist shaman serves as guardian of this structure.

"The women’s seclusion house at the west of the settlement is about 4 by 5 meters in size and has a ritual fireplace. Ceremonies involving only women take place within the women’s seclusion house, which Crevaux called “their sacred house”, where they go during menstruation when they are freed from duties such as cooking for everyone. The female puberty initiation rite, in which girls’ hair is cut and buried, takes place in the seclusion hut, also used for births (BARRAL, 1979, p. 652; CREVAUX, 1883; WILBERT, 1972). The puberty transition of males is not ritualized thus, though both boys and girls are supposed to undergo the ant-bite ritual. [280]

The most important seasonal ceremony of Warao religion seems to be the the annual moriche starch harvest festival in which important figures honored are a Goddess of the Moriche and of the Sacred Trumpets with dancing, singing, eating, and drinking. The ritual is conceived of as offering propitiation to the ancestral Kanobo. During the moriche starch festival, the young men directed by the music master play the “sacred trumpets”, whose patron spirit is the goddess Dauarani. The processed and dried moriche starch is stored in the Kanobo shrine and used to make large flat cakes for rituals such as the girls puberty ceremony. [282]

"Like several other greater Amazonian groups, the Warao believe that the stellar bodies and planets are the souls of their ancestors both recent and ancient (DAVIS, 2014). A learned Warao woman, Tomasa Rivas, said “So, the stars are the souls of persons who existed before. Thus, the Indians believe. The large stars are the souls of those who died when adults. The small stars are the souls of children. The brilliant stars are the souls of the best Indians, those who had a name” (BARRAL, 1969, p. 123)."

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