|A Warao family in their canoe
(Photo: Roar Johansen)
|Regions with significant populations|
|Venezuela, Guyana, Surinam|
The Warao are an indigenous people inhabiting northeastern Venezuela and western Guyana. Alternate common spellings of Warao are Waroa, Guarauno, Guarao, and Warrau. The term Warao translates as "the boat people," after the Warao's lifelong and intimate connection to the water. Most of the approximately 20,000 Warao inhabit Venezuela's Orinoco Delta region, with smaller numbers in neighboring Guyana and Suriname. They speak an agglutinative language, Warao.
On the wide Orinoco River and its fertile delta composed of islands and marshes, Warao people inhabit wall-less thatched-roof huts built upon stilts for protection against floods. These houses are usually built on the highest ground to avoid the annual floods. Sometimes a group of houses is built upon a single large platform of trees. The huts each possess a clay cooking pit or oven located in the center, with sleeping hammocks encircling it. Besides the hammocks, the only other furniture sometimes present are wooden stools, sometimes carved in the shapes of animals.
Warao use canoes as their main form of transportation. Other modes, such as walking, are hampered by the hundreds of streams, rivulets, marshes, and high waters created by the Orinoco. Warao babies, toddlers, and small children are famed for their ability to hold tight to their mothers' necks, as well as to paddle. They often learn to swim before they learn to walk.
The Warao use two types of canoes. Bongos, which carry up to 5 people, are built in an arduous process that starts with the search for large trees. When an old bongo is no longer usable, a consensus is reached by the male leaders of each household on which tree is best. At the start of the dry season, they find the tree and kill it. At the end of the dry season, they return to cut it down. It is then hollowed out and flattened with stone tools traded from the mountains (or local shell tools) along with fire.
The other type of canoe is a small, seating only three people, and is used for daily travel to and from food sources.
The Warao diet is varied with an emphasis on the products of the delta, mostly fish. By 1500 they had acquired basic horticulture, although many of their daily fruits and vegetables come from the wild orchards of the delta. In July and August, Warao feast on crabs when they come to the delta from the beach. Hunting is generally avoided due to cultural taboos. They occasionally also eat grubs found in the moriche palm tree.
The Warao are, according to their own reports, descended from an adventurous heavenly figure — the primordial hunter. This man originally dwelt in a sky world which had men, but was completely devoid of all animals except birds. Hunting these heavenly birds, the founding man used his bow and arrow to strike a bird in mid-air. The bird fell from the sky and eventually hit the heavenly floor. The birds burst through the floor and proceeded through the clouds and towards terrestrial land (Earth) below. The hunter went to the hole in the floor made by the bird and looked through. He saw lush and fertile land (Earth) and resolved to descend to it to partake of its pleasures: beauty, abundant game, fruit, et cetera. The hunter took a long rope of heavenly cotton, tied it to a tree, and threw it through the hole and lowered himself through the clouds to what is now Earth, forsaking his sky world.
The Warao have shamans, who perform music such as rain dances and songs.
The Warao of eastern Venezuela's Orinoco first had contact with Europeans when, soon after Christopher Columbus reached the Orinoco river delta, Alonso de Ojeda decided to navigate the river upstream. There, in the delta, Ojeda saw the distinctively stilted Warao huts, balanced over the water. Similar architecture in Sinamaica far to the west had been likened to Venice, with its famous canals below and buildings above; this new encounter propagated the name of Venezuela ("little Venice") for the whole land.
In the summer of 2008, indigenous leaders and researchers from the University of California, Berkeley issued a report detailing the deaths of 38 Warao in the Delta Amacuro state from a mysterious illness. The disease, which causes "partial paralysis, convulsions and an extreme fear of water" is believed to be a form of rabies transmitted by bats. Upon reaching Caracas to inform the government of the outbreak and request assistance, the leaders and researchers "met with disrespect on every level, as if the deaths of indigenous people are not even worth anything."
Tourism has come to the Warao which brings relative wealth for some. Several individuals have set up rough and ready tourist accommodation in their own homes. They offer canoe trips (hand and power) to see the wild life of the delta, also a chance to experience their traditional life and culture. These visits can be arranged in the state capital town of Tucupita through one of many travel agents.
There is little local crime in the area. However drugs are smuggled down the Orinoco river into the delta for transshipment to the USA. The Venezuelan Navy patrols the main river branches and the river police have stations at key points. The traffic movements of everyone are monitored and recorded. However they are tourist friendly.
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