Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Wáiwai subsistence is based on hunting, fishing, gathering, and horticulture. The annual cycle alternates between markedly different dry and rainy seasons, the former a time of plentiful food and collective life, the latter a time of scarcity and dispersal to forest camps. The Wáiwai clear small, scattered gardens by slash-and-burn methods (swidden or shifting agriculture) and use them for only three years. The main crop is bitter manioc, a hard, poisonous tuber that must be laboriously processed to remove the toxin before it can be used to make bread, farina, and tapioca drinks.
Also cultivated are various fruits and other tubers, as well as arrow cane, cotton, and so on. The forest provides palm fruits, nuts, and utilitarian materials. The men hunt with bows and arrows, trained dogs, and sometimes shotguns, obtaining tapir, peccaries, rodents, deer, monkeys, wild fowl and (the Wáiwai will not eat the meat of carnivores or domesticated animals). Many varieties of fish are consumed. Manioc farina and canoes are sold to regional colonists for cash, and youths occasionally work for them for a few months. Artisanal items are also sold for cash or channeled to urban markets through government agents or missionaries, who in turn provide goods such as clothing, fishhooks and line, ammunition, soap, salt, and hammocks.
Industrial Arts. Except for the limited range of Western goods upon which they now depend, the Wáiwai continue to make most of the items they use, from bows and arrows to houses. They fashion a wide array of fine basketry items for manioc processing, carrying, and storage. They continue to make pottery, from small bowls to huge urns. Their manioc graters (wooden boards with hundreds of embedded stone flakes) are eagerly sought by surrounding tribes.
Trade. For several centuries, the Wáiwai have taken part in a vast intertribal trade network that stretches through the Guianas, Venezuela, and northern Brazil. The network linked up with non-Indians, such as the Bush Negroes in Suriname (descendants of escaped African slaves), who traded for Indian goods using manufactured goods they acquired from White colonists on the coast, who in turn imported the goods from Europe. Groups that now live with the Wáiwai were former trading partners. Villages have different trade specialties; the Wáiwai are renowned for their manioc graters, trained hunting dogs, and talking parrots. These and subsidiary goods are exchanged for manufactured goods such as iron tools, kettles, glass beads, mosquito nets, flashlights, and fishhooks.
Division of Labor. The Wáiwai contrast male and female activities in a number of complementary realms. Men provide meat through hunting; women provide vegetable foods through gardening. Both sexes fish, but men specialize in larger fish. Men dominate the public arena (leadership, oratory, relations with outsiders); women are prominent in the domestic arena (child care, food preparation, firewood gathering, and water collecting). Men weave basketry, hammocks, and loincloths; women make pottery and manioc graters. Men do featherwork; women do beadwork. Men construct houses; women keep them orderly. Men fell trees for village and garden clearings; women keep the clearings free of weeds. Both sexes, as family units, plant new gardens, and they may also harvest them or collect forest products together.
Land Tenure. The village and communal structures are said to "belong" to the chief, who opened up the first clearing at the site. Different gardens "belong" to various influential men who sponsor the collective work of clearing them and distribute family plots to those who helped in the clearing. Lands set aside as reservations and administered by the Brazilian and Guyanese governments for the Wáiwai belong to the tribe as a whole and may not be bought or sold individually.