Warao - History and Cultural Relations

According to Warao oral tradition, relations with the neighboring Lokono, an Arawak-speaking population, were peaceful, but not so with the Carib-speaking Cariña ("red faces"), or Musimotuma, who are still feared today. From the beginning of colonial times the Río Orinoco (Wirinoko in Warao) was the main entrance for explorers, missionaries, and scientists to the lands of El Dorado, which supposedly lay farther upriver. Located at the limits of the Spanish colonial empire, the Warao worked for and traded with the Spanish and the neighboring Dutch alike, but from a secure home base in the swampy interior of the deltaic islands, where they lived by exploiting the starchy pith of the moriche palm, a relative of the Metroxilon or sago palm of Oceania. Until the decline of the rubber boom earlier in this century, the Warao suffered greatly, serving as forced laborers. After the agreement in 1922 between the Capuchin order and the Venezuelan government, Spanish missionaries arrived in the Orinoco Delta and in 1925 established the mission of Divina Pastora de Araguaimujo, the first organized effort to permanently penetrate the Warao heartland. In the meantime, migratory Warao from the Río Sakobano with family ties among the Lonoko south of the Rio Grande had imported from there a new cultigen suitable for growing in the swampy delta environment, the tarolike "Chinese" ocumo or ure ( Colocasia sp.). This freed the Warao from their dependence on palm starch and the swamps and allowed them to establish themselves in the open river arms of the delta. It also made them available as a cheap labor pool for newly established sawmills and palmetto factories as well as commercial rice-growing operations.

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