Christian Sørhaug, Research Fellow, University of Oslo
Museum of Cultural History, Section for Ethnography
In writing up my thesis I am concerned with the domestication of global forces through consumption. The ethnography is centered on a small Warao village in the Orinoco Delta, Venezuela. In the marshes of the delta, with its myriads of river and creeks, the Warao live a relatively sheltered existence. But the isolation which the delta offers is only partial, and there is a range of actors and forces that interact with Warao everyday life. They qualify to the term “remotely global”, being an out of way place.
The Warao have been interacting with a range of ethnic groups, like the Arawak, and Carib, but lately the most significant other is the Hotarao. The Hotarao is a rather large ethnic group that the Warao use to designate the White-Creole people, like missionaries, politicians, traders and tourists, but especially the White-Creole population that live in the urban areas around the Orinoco Delta. Hotarao means “people from the raised/hard land” which makes out a contrast to the Warao meaning “people from the river’s edge/soft (marshes) land.” (Heinen 1998-1999)
Being the significant other the Hotarao have been in regular contact with the Warao for many decades, especially in the form of the Capuchin missionaries. The Capuchin first established a mission in the 1920’s and have since been actively seeking to transform Warao society into an image of their liking. Later Venezuelan state policy makers, doctors teachers, development agencies, NGO’s and traders have made their way into the area, all seeking to transform Warao society in different ways.
Even though there have been a multitude of forces seeking to influence Warao society, they have in large part been resilient towards these actors and institutions wish to transform them in their own image. Warao identity is very much alive, and is there is pride involved in being a Warao. In my thesis I am preoccupied with how the Warao have reconfigured, reconstituted and recreated themselves through the different types of global forces manifested through material culture and consumption activities (global forces being all the above types of Hotarao that exists).
So far in the process of writing up I have 5 major chapters that in different ways touch upon the problem of consumption, material culture and globalization, tentatively as follows:
The Wetlands: A village as a place that gathers things
The Orinoco delta is inhabited by the Warao Indians, numbering about 25.000, concentrating themselves in the south-eastern part. The fan like delta is divided by eight large rivers the major ones being Manamo and the Wirinoko (Rio Grande) moving into the Atlantic Ocean. The majority of the Warao live in the south eastern littoral zone of the delta where the rivers, creeks and channels carve out a range of island. Here the villages are built along the edges of the river on stilts to stay clear of the tidal waters that daily flood the landmasses. The houses are built with palm thatched roofs and bridges going out into the river. In the tidal zone the Orinoco Rivers enormous water masses clash with the tidal waves that daily flood the landmasses creating vortexes, or disturbances in the water. One of the words that the Warao use to designate such disturbances is hobure, which is also is the name of the village where I have done fieldwork.
Hobure: The houses are built on stilts along the river’s edge with the swamp forest in the background.
Hobure, translated as “crazy waters”, is a community of about 250 people distributed on 35 households. The households are of varying sizes, but the majority has two major structures, the hisabanoko and hanoko. Hisabanoko is “the place for eating/food” where food is prepared and consumed, and is the house that is the furthest out into the river. The hanoko is the “the place for hammocks” which is the sleeping place where the hammocks are hanging from the roof beams, with small fireplaces in between them to hold the mosquito and the cold nights away. Behind the hanoko you also find the nahimanoko “the menstruation place” where women are during their menstruation. This is often a structure that several households share. It is located the furthest away from the river towards the forests to create distance to the nabarao – the river people that is attracted to the smell of blood and can kill menstruating women, but also children.
There is also the school, the church and a dysfunctional water tower in the village, structures that stand out in this place. While the household structures seem to have been built by things that have been gathered in the surrounding environment, these structures are made out of elements that have an origin far away from the village.
Hoisi: Through the whole village is a walking bridge (hoisi) connecting all the households. Moving about in this swampy environment usually requires a canoe.
The houses are for the most part built with Yawihi palm as roof materials, and manaca palm stems are used as floors. The house pillars, roof stems and roof skeleton is made from different types of wood, held together by its own weight, lianas and nails. Nails are used to the extent that the house owner can afford it.
The old chool: Now abandoned for a new school in the other part if the village, the concrete floor on the inside serves as a football arena for the boys playing.
Knowledge of building houses is passed between the generations and had a standard quadrant form. The school was contracted by the local government to outsiders who have the knowhow to build such school. The church on the other hand built the house with the cooperation with the villagers, partially with materials gathered from the forest. In contrast to other houses in the village it has wooden planks for walls and windows, zinc roof and floor boards. The building of the church versus the school also reflect the more cooperative relation the old capuchin missionaries have with the villagers versus the more unilateral relation that the government have with the people of Hobure. Maybe the worst working relationship is manifested in the structure left behind a water project funded by the government and the Red Cross. A large water tower stands slightly in the back of the village accompanied with a large water tank. A tube goes through the entire village offering each household a water tap. The water project failed due to bad construction and lack of funds, but the enormous structure stands in the village as a reminder of even another failed development project that has ended on the “garbage heap of development projects”.
The Warao have a subsistence economy based on gardening, fishing, gathering and hunting. The root crop ure (Colocasia Esculenta), originally an Asian tuber, has been introduced to the delta area in the early 20th century by Warao migrating workers coming from Guyana. This root has shown to be perfect for the delta habitat where one have been able to adopt the root without requiring much technological equipment or knowledge (Heinen 1974). The ohidu palm which used to be the major subsistence source as palm starch, is still of importance in relation to the making of hammocks, getting grubs, making fishing equipment and fruits. In the noara, or the nahanamu, ritual the fertility of the palm was celebrated, and likewise there was a gathering of people from different villages looking for potential partners. The pattern of uxorilocal marriages pulls young men out of their villages joining up in new vicinity neighborhood villages.
This chapter investigates the migration of Warao to a garbage heap and their relation to garbage. Warao Indians living in the Orinoco Delta, Venezuela, travel to a large garbage heap outside of Ciudad Guyana. Ciudad Guyana was started as a planned community with a few thousand inhabitants in the sixties and has today grown to almost a million inhabitants. This enormous growth has been made possible due to the shifts in the world economy, with the expansion of markets for crude oil, steel and other minerals which make out the central industrial activities. But the city, situated along the Orinoco River, some hundred kilometers from the Warao home land, also produces large amount of garbage. This garbage is daily transported to Cambalache, a large wasteland, where a range of people scavenge and live of the garbage. Some poor white-Creoles live of the garbage, but for the most part it is the Warao, who is the major ethnic group in this part of Venezuela, that exploit this recourse.
Especially young Warao men travel to this garbage heap looking for commodities that they otherwise could not buy. The ethnic group Warao, in relation to the larger Venezuelan White-Creole population, experience major stigma and racism. Being marginalized from participation in normal job market many turn to begging and scavenging as alternative strategies for living in the city. By going straight to the garbage heap a range of consumer goods are made available without engaging with the money based economy, and one can even avoid going to urban centers at all. An important substitute to the subsistence economy in the Orinoco Delta, in addition to gardening, fishing and hunting, is gathering. People gather berries, fruits, grubs etc, from the forest. The salvaging that is done at the garbage heap can be seen as an extension of this gathering praxis, where recourses are harvested from the environment.
An extended family gathering: Standing in the garbage, the family of the village headman of the community of the Warao that have established themselves outside of the garbage heap
Life at the garbage heap implies an engagement with an extreme environment. Cambalache is called a red zone in Venezuela, where the security situation is especially bad, and the Warao refers to the place as wabanoko – the place of death. The smell, touch, sight and feeling of moving around in the garbage is intense, and the idea that you can fall sick due to rotten smell, koera, leads many Warao to fall sick in their initial days at the garbage heap. But when you get to know the smell, juku naminaya, you get used to it and it no longer makes you sick.
The ethnic stigma that is imposed by the Venezuelan White-Creole society toward the Warao is in part generated through such stigmatic activities like begging and gathering at the garbage heap. These types of activities lead to statements about the Warao – “No son seres humanos” – they are not human. The Warao themselves are aware of the stigma such activities lead to. As one of the women in my village screamed out when she got word that her daughter living in the city working for a Creole family that had forced her to eat out of the garbage, Oko Warao, basura nahorona – “we are Warao, we don’t eat garbage”.
Engaging with things and the problem of consumption
Globalization has been in part an understudied phenomenon in the Amazonian ethnography that has been focusing on isolated social groups and a fundamental cultural “otherness”. Today most isolated groups have had some type of contact and most Amazonian indigenous groups are struggling with coming to grips with this interaction. Nation state, global corporations, NGOs, missionaries and international development agencies are all actors in the frontiers of the Amazon engaged with different sets of motivations for interaction that impinges on the native populations. Here I am particularly concerned with the implementation of industrialized consumer goods and how they are domesticated and indigenized.
A central question I want to raise in this part of the thesis is how foreign consumer goods can be part of constituting Warao ethnic identity. The Amazon has been flushed with consumer goods; textiles from India, TV-sets from Taiwan and Salsa music from Spanish speaking Caribbean immigrants in the US are some aspects of material culture that the Warao engage with and are fascinated by. The research question is therefore circulating around identifying patterns of change related to the engagement with such consumer goods, and how this pertains to the question of identity.
Pedro and his freezer: Just before Christmas Pedro has prepared for the celebration.
Studies of identity and material culture in the Amazon have centred on the craft production; weaving, ceramics, canoes, hammocks etc. Little attention has been directed towards the position of industrialized consumer goods and their position in the making of identity. During fieldwork I found a profound interest and engagement with a range of commodities that Warao identified with. People in Hobure endorsed a range of commodities and used these to make statements about themselves and their own worth.
Again the “Other”, the White-Creole population (Hotarao), that the Warao interact with, plays an important role in this want for commodities. A part of my argument is that industrialized consumer goods are prestige objects that the Warao engage with to enhance their own standing in relation to the White-Creole. These goods are domesticated within the household and indigenized as a part of what is means to be Warao.
Shamans and Diosarotu – the owner of God
Though much of Warao ceremonial and ritual life have been transformed through their interaction with White-Creole society, and especially the Capuchin Missionaries that established themselves in the delta in the 1920, shamanism continuous to be of the utmost importance in everyday life. Questions of life and death, sickness and health, is administered by shamans. There are three major types of shamans among the Warao; Wisiarotu (wisiratu) – the owner of pain; Bahanarotu – owner of “objects”; Hoararotu – owner of the “hoa” (type of song), here it is the Wisiratu who is the most regular. The suffix – arotu indicates “owner”, or the one that has mastery over something.
Augustine posing for the camera: Asking Augustine for a picture about the healing praxis, he quickly ordered his grandchild on the floor and demonstrated. Most curing sessions takes place in the hammock.
The concept of “hebu”, meaning spirit, is fundamental in understanding Warao cosmological beliefs and ideas about sickness. When the shaman, let’s say the Wisiratu, enters the home of a sick person, he will often enquire about the pain, but also about the life situation to his patient. The point of this interview as I see it is to try to understand what type of hebu it is that is making the person sick, or if it is a hebu at it all. Alongside beliefs about hebu there is also the idea that smell can make you sick. The anthropologist Werner Wilbert has suggested a theory about pneumatics (Wilbert 1998-1999). The theory states that there is a correlation between bad smells and sickness among the Warao. In this environment stagnant pools of smell are able to destabilize the body equilibrium, something I especially witnessed in the Wastelands, where Warao said they got sick from the smell of garbage. This type of sickness is seen as distinct from hebu, and must be cured by other means, like plant remedies. If the Wisiratu is of the opinion that the disease is caused by hebu he will initiate a curing session. Wisiratu curing consists in localizing the hebu massaging the body of the patient, establishing contact with the hebu through singing, sucking out the pathogen and finally offering smoke as food, or offering, for the hebu. As one shaman told me when he tried to explain the Wisiratu praxis; “the Wisiratu is like a police, and when he captures the criminal, hebu, he sends him to prison, or his home, nahamutu – the sky”.
Among the multitude of types of shamans I also found a diosarotu, which best can be translated as the owner of God. Stumbling over this type of shamanism happened as I was sick. Having been cured by a Wisiratu the day before, my adoptive mother was not satisfied and had sent for a Diosarotu. Rather intrigued by this new word, I was especially surprised when Gilberto, a know tidawena and one of the village authorities walked in and presented him as a Diosarotu. Tidawena means “twisted women” and is a term for homosexuals or transvestites, the “third gender” of the Warao. Gilberto sat down on his knees on besides my hammock, folded his hands, looked up to the palm thatched ceiling and said; “dear Jesus, my friend Christian is sick, could you please help me make him healthy”. Then he looked down and started massaging me, much the same way as the Wisiratu had done the day in advance. A clear difference was that he did not seem to stop at any particular place. After a while he stopped, folded his hand and started to mumble. In between the mumbling he pronounced words like “Benedicto” and “Dios Santos”. Gilberto, who did not know any Latin, was mumbling quasi Latin, imitating traits of the Capuchin Missionaries.
One potential interpretation of this hybrid form of shamanism could be that this is a way of trying to control the God. Shamanism can in general be seen as a way to exercise control over phenomenon that for lay persons are out of control. I suggest therefore that the Diosarotu is an experiment from the Warao point of view to manipulate and control God, portrayed as All Mighty by the Capuchin Missionary and the White-Creole society.
Tidawena – Cross gender: Skills and handicraft
Here I want to investigate the relation between gender, skills and consumption. Though the Warao society is relatively egalitarian, there is a range of fundamental distinction made continuously in relation to age and gender. How people make gender is very much part of which production, distribution and consumption activities they engage in. Men produce canoes, women hammocks; men distribute tobacco, women distribute food. The antithetical version of these gender images is found it the cross-gender, Tidawena – twisted women, and niborawena, twisted men. Tidawena is a common theme, while niborawena is much rarer. In Hobure there was only one niborawena – but it was not talked about.
As mentioned earlier, tidawena was a common term, used mostly for men who where homosexuals, but a common theme for them all, was that they preferred to engage in female activities – making hammocks, baskets, food and so on. They explicitly distanced themselves from male activities like hunting and making canoes. Niborawena, a more rear phenomenon, engages in shamanistic activities, smoking and the making of canoes. This inverting of gender images is common throughout America, referred to as the third gender. Elsewhere, I will also discuss the implication of the White-Creole macho-culture, making it relevant through the young men that have been visiting the city. Further the touristification of some of the handicraft – suitcase art – will be discussed, and how this affects the local economy.
Heinen, H. D. P. H. (1998-1999). “History, Kinship and the Ideology of Hierarchy Among the Warao of the Central Orinoco Delta.” Antropologica 89: 25-78.
Heinen, H. D. R., Kenneth (1974). “Ecology, Ritual, and Economic Organization in the Distribution of Palm Starch among the Warao of the Orinoco Delta.” Journal of Anthropological Research 30(2): 116-138.
Wilbert, W. (1998-1999). “Epidemology, Phytotherapy, and Pneumatic Chemistry: Warao Healt-Care in Culture-Historical Context.” Antropologica 89: 79-95.
Christian Sørhaug, Research Fellow, University of Oslo