Handicraft as marker of identity or loss of traditional culture?

The case of the Wayana

Published in: SWI Forum, jrg. 15/2 (December 1998) and 16/1 (June 1999); Sustainable Development. The challenge of the beating heart of the Amazon.

Karin Boven




Over the last few years there has been an increasing tendency in Suriname to use the motifs of indigenous cultures to decorate texts, business cards, tourist leaflets, buildings or even aeroplanes. Although the different tribal peoples who use these ornaments within their traditional cultures were brought into contact with the Western world quite some time ago, these decorations were hardly ever used outside their cultural context, by non-indigenous people.

Apparently these decorations have an attraction for other people nowadays. This attention to 'the exotic' is related to the quest for new experiences, new ideas, the opening up of not yet fully explored areas completely different from the ordinary, in combination with interest in local cultures. A quest which can be described as eco-tourism.

In this article I discuss the situation of the Wayana in particular focussing on the use of decorations and ornaments in their traditional culture and the Wayana's present-day production of handicraft. In addition I point out the possible spin-off effects of this income-generating activity caused by eco-tourism.


Eco-tourism and handicraft industry

Eco-tourism was developed in the mid 1980s based on concepts as environment and sustainability. Eco-tourism is characterised by a so-called 'respectful attitude', which ideally should have a positive effect on the local community and be kind to the environment. With the rise of eco-tourism the indigenous peoples all over the world have become a business opportunity for the tourism industry (Indigo 1999: 4-6). Of course this boom in the tourist industry did not pass over Suriname; in fact Suriname has a lot to offer although the sector finds itself still in a premature phase. The role of local communities in Suriname, for instance, is not well defined; advantages and disadvantages of the participation of indigenous people still have to be weighed up.

Handicraft industry is one of the activities related to eco-tourism. Handicraft production can be income-generating for both men and women; and thus offers an opportunity for sustainable economic development. However, some points have to be taken in consideration:

As tourism creates an important market for wood production, weaving, pottery and other arts, it can also facilitate the temptation to give up traditional methods and principles in order to service the wishes of the consumers. This generates changes in both the form and use of symbols that were essential for transferring traditional knowledge in former times (Indigo 1999:6). A clear illustration of this is given in the section Changes over time.

These effects of tourism, often summarised as a loss of traditional culture, are well known.

A related negative point is that local communities profit less from the tourist industry than tour operators located in cities. This is also the case in Suriname. The management of a tourist project is hardly ever in hands of local communities themselves.

Eco-tourism has to search for an alternative approach which does justice to indigenous values such as land rights, language, intellectual property, and has respect for religious activities and traditional art. Up to this point of my article only the negative effects of the tourist industry have been mentioned. Let us leave these for a while (however, we shall come back to these effects in the last section) and turn to the possible positive effects, thereby focussing on one particular people, the Wayana.


Reinforcing group identity

As a possible positive effect of eco-tourism I must mention the empowerment of culture identity which could form a good starting point for further developments. To illustrate this I provide some background information about theWayana.

The Wayana, an ethnic group belonging to the family of Carib speaking peoples, live in Suriname, French Guyana and Brazil along the Lawa, Tapanahoni, Litani and Paru rivers respectively. They count some 1000 people. Up to the present they live as a tribal people depending mainly on self-sustenance agriculture, hunting and fishing. Some money is earned by labour in the wood sector, small-scale gold-mining and the selling of fish and game and handicrafts.

The first contacts between Europeans and Wayana date from the 18th century, when the Wayana were still mainly located in Brazil. Their current situation varies amongst the three nation states, but can in general be described as economically poor, with a lack of infrastructure, lack of education and without land rights. This dire socio-economic situation places the Wayana in a vulnerable position and renders them easily influenced by anyone who, to give an example, offers them large amounts of money.

The culture of an ethnic group is not static, rather it is a dynamic process which can be reproduced from generation to generation. All cultures are subject to change; the culture of an ethnic group is influenced, for example, by interethnic contacts. More specifically an ethnic group exists by virtue of interaction with other ethnic groups. This was the case with the Wayana in past and present times. And although the Wayana are mixed with different indigenous peoples and have been influenced by Creole and Western behaviour they are still able to distinguish themselves from other groups by way of specific features (see footnote 2).

When the members of a group become aware of their ethnic identity, they come to evaluate this more and more. One way for people to set themselves off from others is to use symbols or signs to express their specific identity. Wayana decorations and ornaments are indeed specific expressions of their cultural identity. Tourism and the handicraft industry therfore, can have an empowering effect, if they are well controlled.

Theoretically tourism, in the line of what is presented above could have the following positive effects:

handicraft industry

attention for traditional culture

both men and women involved income generating activities.

Tourism re-evaluation of cultural identity improvement of living standard

training of younger members sustainable development

empowerment of ethnic group

Figure: tourism as a possible generator of sustainable development

Wayana decorations and ornaments make statements of 'we and them'. To the Wayana it is very clear what is specific for the Wayana and what is not. In traditional Wayana culture decorations and ornaments can not be separated from their meaning; it is the context, the cosmology that is essential. Let us have a closer look at the settings, that is the context in which ornaments and symbols are used among the Wayana, as well as their meaning.



Rituals take place in daily life; the way the Wayana eat together, speak to each other, hunt, etc. all

involves certain rituals. In these daily rituals however, people are dressed 'normally', no specific ornaments or decorations are used. A cultural phenomenon of the Wayana in which all kinds of different ornaments, symbols, dress styles, etc.are used, is the ant and wasp test. During this ritual which is spread out over a period of several months, people are initiated into the next phase of the human life cycle. Girls are initiated after their first menstruation, boys at the age of 15-18 years. After initiation the members of a society are designated capable of playing the role that is expected from him/her, a role that is differentiated by gender. Girls have to become hard working, not lazy, women. Boys are to become good hunters. During the ceremony people are beautifully dressed with red loin cloths (kamisa) and feather crowns. They wear strings with red and blue beads around their neck, arms and legs. Certain men wear capes made of strips of the bark of a tree. Women wear aprons of beads or plant seeds, decorated with symbols. Both men and women are painted with kupë.


Men wear beautiful 'belts', also decorated with different symbols. The centre in which this ritual takes place is the communal roundhouse, the tukusipan. It is in this communal house that the maluana is located at the inside of the roof. A maluana is a large wooden disc (1 meter in diameter), decorated with coloured mythical beings.

At the basis of this particular and also other rituals lies the interrelatedness with the spirit world. For humans to be able to live well, a balanced relationship with the spirits is necessary. These forest-, water- or death spirits can be harmful if one does not take care according to the Wayana rules. These spirits are perceived to be dangerous creatures. The Wayana shaman is the specialist who guards the balance and is capable of restoring the relationship between spirits and humans. Spirits usually appear in the form of a tiger-, caterpillar-, or (water)snake-like creature.


Wayana symbols

Wayana art can be grouped into two types, namely figurative and geometric forms. The maluana is an example of how figurative forms are used. Geometric forms are used in/on basketry, belts, aprons, pottery, body painting, necklaces and weapons.

Illustration 3: mulokot, a waterspirit (CAWAY, 1988)

Geometric forms of the Wayana are very similar to the motifs as used by other Amazonian indigenous peoples. The maluana however, is a unique form of art of the Wayana. Wayana decorations are basically the same figures and symbols that have been reproduced generation after generation. An individual producer however, has enough artistic freedom to choose for certain combinations of symbols or colours. The production of ornaments is also differentiated by gender. Men make the maluana, other wood products, basketry and ornaments with feathers. Women make pottery, spin and weave cotton, aprons and necklaces.

Almost all figures represent beings whom the Wayana met during their northward trek from the northern bank of the Amazon River in the direction of present-day Suriname and French Guyana, a trek that started about 2 centuries ago. During this migration they met among others tigers, snakes, caterpillars, water animals, all with extra-proportional and abnormal forms. These 'abnormal' forms indicate that these figures in question are master spirits. The animal spirits still play a central role in Wayana cosmology and are expressed by means of narratives, decorations and ornaments. In fact all ornaments and decorations are related to the spiritual world (de Goeje 1941:90). Interrelatedness is the key word to describe the Wayana worldview; all different elements are interconnected with each other. Mulokot, a water spirit is one of the figures on the maluana, it is the main protagonist in a myth, and it is the form of an ant mat which is used during the first initiation of boys. Other figures that appear on the maluana or as decorations of basketry are used during initiation in later life stages; such figures are mainly tigers or caterpillars.

Illustration 4: kuluwayak, a two-headed caterpillar (CAWAY, 1988)


Up to the present caterpillars hold a very important position within Wayana culture, because of their mysterious nature by which they are capable of transforming themselves. The Wayana always represent the caterpillar with two heads; indeed it is difficult to differentiate the head from the tail and to stress the fact that this creature is very dangerous.

Ornaments and symbols within the traditional Wayana culture thus are an expression of their history, their experiences and knowledge systems; their worldview. By reproducing the symbols the Wayana reconfirm this worldview, generation after generation.

Illustration 5: sikalewot, a two-headed caterpillar (CAWAY, 1988)


Changes over time

In this section I focus on some concrete activities that are taking place in the production of handicrafts at the present time as a result of eco-tourism.

Nowadays there is a difference between what is produced for own use and what is made for the tourist industry. I illustrate this with some examples. Men make bows and arrows, in spite of the fact that they use the rifle when hunting. War clubs are decorated with feathers and symbols, but were used only in the past to fight with neighbouring tribes. One old shaman makes masks which are a relic from former centuries. The ritual in which this tamok mask was used ceased to exist at the beginning of the 20th century. Most Wayana of this generation have never heard about this ritual, nor are they familiar with the meaning of the mask. The masks are sold in souvenir shops in Cayenne and Paris. The above-mentioned maluana, is a very popular item among tourists and people interested in ethno-art. Instead of making the original large shields, the Wayana now make the shields smaller in size or in the form of fruit plates to facilitate the transportation. In place of the coloured clay of the river which was used in former times, the Wayana currently use normal paint which they buy in shops. Another item which is used is a stencil, whereas in the past the figures were drawn free-hand. Furthermore basketry, necklaces etc. are plaited or produced with great precision, all decorated with traditional symbols. All the above-mentioned objects were and sometimes are still used by the Wayana. New, non-traditional items are the miniature aeroplanes and canoes made of wood by men and young boys.

The production of handicraft among the Wayana living along the Lawa and Litani rivers of Suriname and French Guyana, is relatively extensive. On an ordinary afternoon, when walking through a village almost everybody is busy making handicrafts. Girls help their mothers with the twining of cotton or perforating plant seeds in order to make necklaces, bracelets, etc. Boys help their fathers looking for bamboo for the arrows, or other plants and trees, sawing, sandpapering or painting.

The fact that specifically the Wayana of the Lawa and Litani rivers and no Wayana of the Tapanahoni for example are involved in this handicraft production needs some further explanation.

In the 1980s an association, called CAWAY, was founded in the French village Twenke, with the purpose of preserving and promoting Wayana art and culture. The production of handicrafts based on traditional knowledge was taken in hand by some elderly Wayana and Apalai who started an apprenticeship programme for young men and women. By means of networking via French teachers and health workers, trade relations were established with Cayenne and Paris.

When this activity proved to be income-generating everybody was interested in following courses in the training centre. Within the same association young people worked together with the elderly to record myths and songs and to publish them in both Wayana and French. The association also served as a kind of saving- and credit-loan cooperation, facilitating the purchase of certain goods. Traditional culture was becoming interesting again. It was inevitable that the Wayana living on the opposite side of the Lawa and Litani rivers were attracted to these activities. Thus nowadays also the Surinamese Wayana produce and sell handicrafts to the French tourist market. The initiative was followed up by the setting up of two other associations on the French side, which at the moment involve three indigenous tribes.

The association CAWAY is in my opinion a good example of how handicraft production for the tourist industry can generate sustainable development. In this case many factors contributed to the success of this venture, namely the study of the existing traditional culture involving people of different age groups and gender; permanent supervision; strictly regulated visits of tourists to the area; as well as funding. All these factors have served as empowerment of the cultural identity of this people and have improved their living standards.


Final remarks

In this article I have focussed on the Wayana in order to show how the handicraft industry can reinforce group identity and offer economic opportunities.

Although handicraft among the Wayana of the Lawa and Litani rivers is produced for another purpose and with different methods and forms than in the past, I do not think that we should consider this a loss of traditional culture. Although the context in which the items were used in the past is fading (a lot of rituals do not take place anymore) the case of the Wayana has shown that handicraft production can stimulate a re-evaluation of culture and a transferral of knowledge from older to younger generations. To come back to the title of this article I consider handicraft as produced by the Wayana to be a marker of identity. The reinforcement of group identity is necessary to counterpoise outside influences as brought in by, for instance, missionaries, golddiggers and others who are imposing their way of thinking or living onto Wayana society.

When thinking about the role of eco-tourism and handicraft industry as possible motors of sustainable development full involvement of the local communities is essential. Their participation in decision-making about and execution of (future) projects should be real. Agreement on conditions is necessary among all the parties involved.

If eco-tourism wants to become a concept which is accepted by indigenous people it is necessary to study and supervise all its effects and to establish balanced partnerships. The involvement of indigenous communities in tourist policy-making should become a fact.

The example as presented in the section Changes over time can serve as a model for further actions. The Surinamese Wayana should get extra attention; many years of neglect have already resulted in an extreme loss of culture.

Present-day tourist operators (they are already active among the Surinamese Wayana of Apetina and Paloemeu) could perhaps focus on the integration of the keywords cooperation and balance into their programmes, in order to promote sustainable development for the communities involved.



  1. Boven, K.M

Wayana symboliek in het leven van alledag. In: De Ware Tijd (10-10-1996)

1997 Een monster als inspiratiebron voor Wayana kunst. In: OSO, Tijdschrift voor Surinaamse taalkunde, letterkunde, cultuur en geschiedenis. Jaargang 16, no.1.

  1. Hunters and Spirits in the Southern Forest. Wayana stories.
  1. CAWAY folder, Twenke.
  1. De Goeje, C.H.

De Oayana-Indianen. In: Bijdragen tot de taal-, land- en volkenkunde van Nederlandsch-Indië. Deel 100.

  1. Hurault, J.

Les Indiens Wayana de la Guyane Francaise.

  1. Hussak van Velthem, L.

Arte indigena: referentes sociais e cosmologicos. In: Indios no Brasil (ed. Luis Donisete Benzi Grupoioni).

  1. Johnston, A.

Ecotoerism, de toeristenindustrie staat terecht. In: Indigo, Tijdschrift over Inheemse volken. No.1.

  1. Roessingh, C.

De Belizaanse Garifuna. De contouren van een etnische gemeenschap in Midden-Amerika.