Wáiwai - Orientation

Identification. The name "Wáiwai," meaning "Tapioca people," originated with their northern neighbors, the Wapisiana, who were impressed with the enormous quantities of tapioca the Wáiwai consumed. The Wáiwai intermarried with many other groups and usually identified themselves locally by the village, headman, or river where they lived. They adopted the outsiders' name "Wáiwai" when missionaries moved in during the 1950s. As the Wáiwai assimilated more groups, the name came to include those that settled into the composite "Wáiwai" villages, such as the Parukoto, the Mawayana, the Sherew, the Taruma, the Hishkaryana, the Katuena, and the Karafawyana. Being "Wáiwai" is a matter of degree, occurring gradually as a group is incorporated into village life, learns the Wáiwai language, and intermarries.

Location. The Wáiwai live in small, remote villages in the tropical forests straddling both sides of the Serra Acaraí between Guyana and Brazil. Their ancestral location was the Mapuera River Basin, a northern tributary of the Amazon in Brazil. Gradual migration northward began in the early nineteenth century and increased in the early twentieth, as the Wáiwai expanded trade and marriage contacts. When evangelical missionaries settled among the Guianese Wáiwai in 1949, nearly all Wáiwai and many related tribes relocated near the mission. In the 1970s the direction of migration reversed and most members of the composite "Wáiwai" villages returned to Brazil. In 1989 there was one village in Guyana (on the Essequibo River) and three in northern Brazil (on the Novo and Jatapuzinho rivers in Roraima and the Rio Mapuera in Pará).

Demography. In the early 1950s visitors estimated the Wáiwai population to be 130 to 200. By 1989 there were approximately 1,200 people in the four composite "Wáiwai" villages. The increase was because of their assimilation of neighboring tribes, their relative lack of contact with regional colonists and their diseases, and the health care dispensed by missionaries and trained Wáiwai health attendants. Half the population is under age 18, and the birthrate is 4 percent per year.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Wáiwai language belongs to the Carib Family, one of the major linguistic families of lowland South America. Most of the other languages and dialects of the groups who joined their villages are also Carib; the exceptions are Mawayana (Arawak Family) and Taruma (now extinct, affiliation unknown). Wáiwai becomes the dominant language of the groups who join them. Reading and writing Wáiwai is taught in the schools, using an alphabet devised by the missionaries. Although children study some Portuguese (in Brazil) or English (in Guyana), relatively little is retained owing to lack of sustained contact with outsiders.

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