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Wayuu Culture

Some describe the Wayuu of the Guajira (Wajirra) as a society where the men do nothing and the women do all the work. From the viewpoint of someone raised in a patriarchal culture, it may seem valid. In truth, these traditionally nomadic people are matrilineal, meaning name, place in society and property pass through the mother. The desert shapes their beliefs, just as the wind shapes the sands: The Wajirra is the land of dreams and death. Wayuu society is divided into 12 clans, each with its own name, symbol and animal. Not only is this identification passed through the mother, but also the definition of who is Wayuu. In the case of marriages with alijuna (non-Wayuu), the child is only Wayuu if the mother is.

Community duties follow gender lines. Women are responsible for the household and child-rearing; the men for fishing and goat-rearing. Women fetch precious water; the men, firewood. Women weave süi (hammocks) and susu (bags); the men, womu (hats) and waireñas (sandals). Healers may be of either sex. Some specialize in dreams, upon which Wayuu place special significance.

The youngest daughter inherits property, as she is the nearest to life. The eldest daughter, being the closest to death, is responsible for funerary rituals. The Wayuu have two burials: The first is immediately after death and a second occurs five to 10 years later. For this, the daughter undergoes a year-long purification before disinterring and cleaning the bones for the second entombment.

At puberty, only females have a rite of passage. This entails over a year of isolation from the community, during which time she learns the customs of being a woman, songs and dances, and weaving. Because of modern-day demands of school attendance, this ritual now is done in two or three months. Only in isolated rancherías (shanty towns) is the longer term still used.

The most important male figure to a child is the eldest maternal uncle. It is he who disciplines. When a potential fiancé asks for a Wayuu woman’s hand in marriage, he must go to the uncle, who sets the bride-price. If the husband seeks a divorce, the woman keeps the dowry; if the wife, then she must return half the bequest.

The Wayuu way of dispute resolution, applied by Pütchipü’üi (orators), was recognized in 2010 by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Dance, or yonna, is performed only for rituals. Recreational dancing, as at discotheques, is not a part of Wayuu culture. To learn more about Wayuu culture and society (in Spanish), visit: URL:

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