Language and identity formation; the case of the Wayana.

Karin Boven

Paper presented at the 49st Congress of Americanists, Quito, Ecuador, July 1997.


The Wayana live in Brazil, Suriname and French Guyana. Although separated by three national borders and influenced over time by surrounding indigenous tribes, Europeans and maroons they still exist as one tribe, with one culture and language.

Among the Wayana (as is the case in Suriname and French Guyana) different languages are spoken during different circumstances. For instance, during traditional rituals ceremony leaders use an (indigenous) language that is not understood by the 'ordinary' Wayana villagers. In other situations there is a clear preference for one of the national languages, a lingua franca or even English in relation to the wish for integration into the wider society.

This article starts by presenting some general data on the Wayana, in order to make a historical analysis of the formation of the Wayana language. I will try to show that the status and use of different languages are strongly related to the formation of the identity of the Wayana as part of a wider context.

I therefor start with three situations where ceremonial texts are used namely the 'magical' songs the ëlëmi, a chant named the kalau which is sung during the initiation ritual, and the language of the shaman. To continue I will have a look at the use of ‘modern’, non-Wayana languages and their influences on the Wayana vocabulary and society. This switching of languages will be placed in the context of setting, gender and general valuation.

Actual situation

The Wayana live in the Amazonian rain forest, along the Tapanahoni, Litany/Lawa and Paru rivers of Suriname, French Guyana and Brazil. The tribe consists of some 1000 persons or more. It is estimated that some 450 Wayana live in Suriname (150 along the Lawa and 300 along the Tapanahoni and Paloemeu), about 800 live on French soil, and about 200 live in Brazil. The size of the Wayana communities in Brazil and Suriname are decreasing owing to migration into French Guyana where the standard of living is very high in comparison with the neighbouring countries.

The national borders have little meaning for the Wayana themselves as they move very easily from one country to another, also due to the fact that everybody has relatives on the different rivers. This does not mean that there are no differences between Brazilian, French Guyanese and Surinamese Wayana. All three communities are influenced by the national society and are seen as citizens of one of the three nations. They therefor have to conform in some way to the national culture, legal system and language to name just a few examples.

Figure 1 Location of the Wayana

The Wayana community has in first instance, a very open attitude to the outside world. They welcome everyone and everything new, an attitude already described by different researchers during the past centuries. The national society in turn does not (want to) have much to do with a small minority like the Wayana. Giving special attention to such a small community usually doesn't fit within the nation building policies as is carried out in a multi-cultural society like Suriname. They are mainly seen as an exotic tribe that is interesting for tourism. In other cases they considered to be an obstruction, as they happen to be located in an area rich with minerals. This last fact is actual in Suriname and French Guyana were the Wayana habitat is flooded by goldminers, violence, destruction of the natural surroundings, prostitution and malaria.

The attitude of ignoring smaller ethnic groups is also found in the governmental education system.

In the local schools throughout Suriname the national language is taught and bilingual education is (officially) not permitted. The national language (Dutch) is spoken on formal occasions. In French Guyana and Brazil respectively French and Portuguese is used for this situation. In Suriname the Wayana often use the lingua franca Sranantongo when dealing with government officials.

Historical background

First encounters of Wayana with Europeans in the 18th century took place along the Paru and Jari Rivers in the northern part of Brazil, the District of Para (Patris 1766-1769, Leblond 1789). The Europeans visited the indigenous peoples for different reasons: for missionary purposes, establishing control, trade, research, etc. Their arrival, as we all know, set a whole continent in motion.

In those years the Wayana were surrounded by and in contact with different indigenous tribes like Trio, Apalai, Apama, Wayapi, etc.. The years after the encounters with the Europeans that took place at the mouth of the Amazon were followed by migration to the north. The Wayana probably fled for the European invaders and later on also for the Wayapi who were armed by the Portuguese. After some time had past they became attracted by the flow of goods which came about after the settlement of Europeans on the north coast of South America.

In the 19th century we see the Wayana not only surrounded by small to the Trio related tribes, Apalai and Wayapi, but also by the Aluku maroons, who were on the run for the Dutch colonists. The Aluku and Wayana became related as partners in trade, exchanging dogs and arrows for other utensils. Their close relation still exists today, although the renewed gold fever in the area tends to lead them into conflicts.

The 20th century shows a dramatic decline in number of indigenous peoples in the region, mainly caused by European diseases to which they had no immunity. This process was accompanied by the arrival of missionaries who, in order to facilitate baptism and protection of the indigenous peoples, promoted the formation of larger villages therewith changing the existing social structure of the communities. After their position had been established they forbid practising traditional culture (as was the case in Suriname). Interesting is that these missionaries have a strong focus on language. As a result of the extensive study of the language they were capable of translating bibles and Christian songbooks into the Wayana language. Literacy courses gave the Wayana the ability to read the Christian bible. Knowledge of the language proved in this case a powerful means to get a grip on the Wayana people.

The current Wayana ethnicity is composed of different tribes. The Upului, Roucouyenne and Apalai contributed to the formation of the Wayana identity a long time ago, followed by some Emerillion (French Guyana) and Trio (Suriname) in more recent times. All, in past and present brought their own languages or dialects and cultural traditions along, some of them remained, others disappeared or mixed with existing forms. In relation to my focus on language I'll give the following example as an illustration: elderly people spoke the Upului language among the Wayana until some years ago. The Dutch geographer De Goeje made a wordlist of the Upului language (1908), as he stayed among the Wayana. The Upului language became integrated into the Wayana language but can still be differentiated in the speech of elderly people. When I worked on the translation of myths my (younger) translators had to go to the elderly informants to check the meaning of some words, which appeared to belong to the Upului language.

Up until recently there was a movement of Apalai coming from Brazil to notably French Guyana, and also Suriname. Wayana and Apalai have intermingled for decades as said before, thus making two tribes into one, but still differentiated by their languages. Schoepf prefers to speak of an Apalai or a Wayana village according to the main language that was spoken, emphasising that in culture the tribes already are one (Schoepf 1972). Thus, where the Upului language ceased to exist as a separate language, the Apalai language is still actively spoken besides the Wayana one. People also refer to themselves as either Apalai or Wayana. This differentiation of ethnicity between Apalai and Wayana is strongly related to demographic factors; the Wayana outnumbering the Apalai (as was also the case with the Upului) against the strong identity of the Apalai, who were capable of preserving more traditional elements than the Wayana did. Here we also touch the main theme of this paper, as the formation of the Wayana language and identity seems to be connected to the historical relation between especially the Wayana and Apalai.

Summarising we see that the Wayana language is (directly or indirectly) influenced by neighbouring indigenous tribes, a process that started centuries ago and which can only partly be traced down with the help of for instance linguistic research and by study of oral traditions. From the 18th century on contact with at first Europeans and later with Maroon also brought some changes along, mainly based on the import of new concepts. Later on in this article I'll give some examples or these influences and how they are integrated in the Wayana culture and language.

Figure 2 Wayana and surrounding tribes

Contact and integration can mean enrichment of language and culture but it may also bring a loss of specific values and traditions along. Often language shift is associated with language loss, a community giving up its own language and replacing it with another, more powerful one. This happened for instance in the coastal Kari'na and Arowak villages on the savannah belt where the lingua franca of Suriname almost completely replaced the original indigenous languages. In contrast to this fact the Wayana still use their own language in daily life, but depend on other languages in ceremonial or non-Wayana settings. They then use languages that are considered to be more powerful than the one spoken daily.


During three main traditional events among the Wayana greater parts of the ceremony are sung in other indigenous languages. I chose to describe these rituals because of this remarkable fact and because especially these rituals have such an importance for the Wayana as they form the means to express and reinforce their cultural identity. To be able to understand their context in Wayana society I will give some information on the ëlëmi, followed by the chant kalau and finally the shaman's speech.


Elëmi are 'magic' songs, which are used, for example, for curing, poisoning or charming.

Among the Amazonian indigenous peoples they exist throughout the region. Information on ëlëmi can be found in some literature on Wayana culture. Both de Goeje (1941) and Jara (1989) for instance published an anthropological approach of ëlëmi, and present some songs and translations. De Goeje places ëlëmi and pïjai (medicine man/shaman) songs in one category, while Jara makes a difference between the two (Jara 1989:1) stating that ëlëmi, 'though a curing practice, is not necessarily linked to shamanism. The alemi singer addresses himself to the animals and this marks his difference from the shaman, who addresses the spirits of his own tradition'. The ëlëmi singers certainly do have a good relationship with the animals and spirits of the forest. With their songs the illness(spirit) is asked to leave and healing powers of nature are summoned to come. And as mentioned above, ëlëmi can be used as a charm as well. Elëmi are based on analogies. The ëlëmi singer summons spirits of animals or plants whose characteristics correspond, from the healer's point of view, to the illness of the patient.

Elëmi are sung in a special way; with a whispering voice and very fast. Afterwards a relatively large amount of money has to be paid for a song, due to the supposed magical effect of the ëlëmi. Both men and women can sing ëlëmi. In the field I only met elderly people who still knew to sing and use it. Elëmi singers at Kawemhakan in the early nineties were Iliwa, Mokolepka, Antïkï (of Trio origin) and Aputu; two women and two men. Every person has a speciality or specialities and is known for that among the villagers. Thus for example, if I need to be cured for a wound I should go to Mokolepka, but if I want to seduce a man I should ask Antïkï to sing out his ëlëmi. Those four people were known to be excellent hunters and connoisseurs of their natural surrounding, apparently preconditions to be able to master ëlëmi.

During my fieldwork I recorded several ëlëmi at the village of Kawemhakan. The Trio ëlëmi singer sung in the Trio language. Songs sung by the other three persons who were of Wayana or of mixed origin mainly consisted of Apalai words although in daily practice they did not control this language. The ëlëmi texts collected by de Goeje (1941) are mainly in the Wayana language. So we see that a few decades after de Goeje, the situation on the Surinamese side is changed; more and more Apalai and Trio influences are incorporated into this ceremony. The Wayana ëlëmi in the nineties are only used for minor problems.

As concluding remark for this case I can state that the Apalai or eventually the Trio language is estimated more capable of producing the expected results than a Wayana magical song. Apparently the Wayana songs lost status compared to some years ago, when Wayana songs were still in use. It seemed to me that the singers who knew how to use Apalai words were respected for this knowledge. Also the fact that the patient does not understand an Apalai or Trio ëlëmi, gives power to the ëlëmi singer. Some Wayana even undertook the journey to Brazil only to learn to sing Apalai ëlëmi.


In this chant the history of the Wayana and the origin of the traditions are being told. As far as I know about the Surinamese and French Guyanese situation, on the Litany River only two men are left who know the complete song by heart. The men that still know the chant gain status and are highly respected for their knowledge. This gives them power that leads to ritual leadership.

I never heard of women singing the kalau, not even parts of it.

The kalau chant is sung during the initiation ritual of the Wayana, which is called eputop, where initiates are stung by ants or wasps. The kalau continues for several hours. Hurault says the chant kalau, related to the dance with the same name (which is performed during the initiation) is one of the most important and original cultural aspects of the Wayana. He states that at the same time it is an initiation ritual as a compilation of Wayana myths on which their conception of the universe is based (Hurault 1968:122). As said before, the man who sings the kalau is very much respected for his knowledge. As a leader he directs the ritual concerning song, music and dance. A choir responds to him by singing. The audience cannot understand what is sung, except for a few lines. The kalau always starts with the same sentences Kajaja jamananë....

I could not retrace the origin of the chant. Speaking with Wayana about this chant they say they do not know what language is used. Some others say they think it resemblances the Apalai language. Even coastal Carib can make something out of it. Hurault says that the kalau is sung in a secret language, incomprehensible to the Wayana. He suggests that in some cases there is inversion or adjunction to the syllables, and also that it is a collection of probably extinct languages. Hurault gives us translations of the kalau in French (Hurault 1968:123-131), but not the original text.

It is clear that the text is kept alive by learning it by heart, generation after generation. Camargo states that the resemblance with the Apalai language is striking, and also that the Wayana language may have been closer to Apalai in a remote past. Further research on this subject will be done in the near future.

What we see by looking at the contents and the form of the language the text is written in, is the expression of a dynamic process of adaptation and change which forms the Wayana identity. The kalau still brings a very far past within reach. It preserves words and events originating of former contacts with surrounding indigenous (Apalai related) tribes or of a past where language differences with the Apalai were less. The Apalai language seems to be the modem by which means the collective history can be remembered.

The speech of the shaman

A shaman is the intermediary between the world of the human beings and that of the spirits. The shaman has a special position in his relationship with the spirits, a position that he obtained during his initiation period. Among the (Surinamese) Wayana the shaman, who is called pïjai, is still respected, feared and consulted by the villagers. During my fieldwork I attended several seances with several pïjai. Their main task now is to cure ill persons, though in the past they were also consulted for affairs concerning agriculture and hunting. During the seance the shaman calls upon his spirits, while protected by his hut of palm-leaves, the mïmne. During the time that he spends in his hut you'll hear a lot of voices, noises and languages, which represent different spirits. A pïjai is (in his trance) able to speak another language. Whole sentences, verbs, differ from everyday vocabulary and all members of animal and vegetal worlds carry different names.

Every shaman possesses a head-guardian spirit. The shaman communicates constantly with this spirit. During this contact the pïjai speaks his 'professional' language. The head-guardian spirit speaks, on behalf of the shaman, with all the other spirits that are needed during a particular seance. For instance the spirit of the fish, of the monkeys, and of the birds are summoned to appear. The head-guardian spirit translates all that is said to the pïjai, using the pïjai language.

I have put this situation into the following scheme:


spirits audience

head-guardian spirit ____________ pïjai __________ assistant

spirits patients

spirit language pijai language wayana language

Scheme 1 Languages spoken during a shaman's seance

The assistant of the pïjai understands what is said between pïjai and guardian spirit and translates it to the patients and the audience. The different practising pïjai can understand each other; thus the pïjai language is not an individual one. The pïjai language seems composed of (an) ancient indigenous language(s), perhaps mixed with 'self-made' words.

Among the Wayana it appears that the shaman of Apalai origin is considered to be more powerful.

Thus in the case of a shamanistic seance, other (Apalai, Trio) and ancient languages are used in a ceremonial setting. In the same line the Wayana pïjai is considered less powerful than the shaman of Apalai origin is.

Modern languages

Changes in the language take place where different people live together in one area and communicate with each other. The above paragraphs have given some proof of the importance of intertribal relations in the formation of cultural identity. In the periods after colonisation the trade relations between indigenous and maroon tribes for example brought new changes in culture and language. Remainders of these trade relations are the pidgin languages. In Suriname the Trio developed a trade language with their neighbours the Ndjuka and the Wayana with their partners in trade, the Aluku.

Recently some Aluku elderly still used 'forgotten' Wayana words. The words probably originate from the last century, when first contacts between Wayana and maroons were established in the region. The Aluku for example, use the word pitani for children, while the Wayana use mule or peitopït today. In the wordlist of the Goeje (1908:88), pitani is presented as an Upului word. The trade language, based on the Upului language, as used by the Aluku in their contact with the Wayana has stayed the same over the years, without too many innovations. Comparison with this trade language shows also the changes in the Wayana language itself over time.

At present it seems that the maroons don't think it necessary anymore to speak Wayana, also in relation with the fact that Wayana are more or less able to speak Aluku. This trend of adaptation of indigenous cultures to maroon culture is seen throughout the interior of Suriname; maroon culture and language seem to have a stronger internal power than most indigenous communities do and the Maroons are as a result more capable and conscious in dealing with the outside world.

In recent times words are borrowed from the national languages or the lingua franca and encompassed into the Wayana language. Therefor the phonology of these words (most words stand for new concepts) is changed. The Wayana word kutei for example originally comes from the French word bouteille and means bottle. Other examples from the French language are alumette = match becomes alume in Wayana and chapeau = hat becomes hapo. In Suriname we find a lot of words from the lingua franca Sranantongo. For instance, the word for nail in Wayana is sipiki, as in Sranantongo spikri. Ajun for onion and alesi for rice are copied exactly into the Wayana language. The use of foreign words is considered very progressive. Especially young men are very sensible to this fact.

Comparison and status of languages

In general the Wayana language is actively spoken within the Wayana communities. All the children still learn Wayana as their mothertongue. Youngsters, especially men, are more and more capable of speaking other languages like French, Dutch, Portuguese or Sranantongo, without losing their native one. Wayana estimate learning the national language higher than learning their own language. This is also the reason why they don’t even want to learn the Wayana language at school. For them learning another language means development opportunities and it therefor holds the key to the future.

Thus in-between the Wayana community members the Wayana language is still respected, but in inter ethnical relations the language of the other is preferred, especially when this other community is seen as more powerful because of political, economical, or cultural reasons. Considered more powerful than the Wayana language are the three national languages and Sranantongo (or other Creole based languages), because these languages are seen as the carriers of development, education, trade-relations and income.

Language* Use Gender

1. National languages/Creole languages external contacts strong male bias

2. Foreign or ancient indigenous languages ceremonial settings male bias

3. Wayana language internal (daily) use both sexes

* Estimation in order of importance

Scheme 2 Valuation of languages, use and gender

This high valuation among the Wayana of the national and Creole languages fits nicely in the governmental policy concerning the promotion of one national identity. In May 1998 a young Wayana man was made captain of the village Kawemhakan because of his skills in Sranantongo and Dutch, although from traditional Wayana point of view he was not (yet) the correct candidate. The ability to speak a national language or Sranantongo is currently almost solely under control of (young) males because they are the ones who are in contact with the outside world. Women therefor have even less access to information and participation in meetings when this language is used than they had before. The elderly people (male and female) have been put one step back, because they are not capable to handle the new demands.

For traditional cultural reasons especially the Apalai and other ancient languages are estimated higher. I think this has a lot to do with the acculturation process in which the Wayana are entangled leading them away from their own traditional values, customs and language. A language that used to be closer related to the neighbouring tribes than to date.

Final remarks

The purpose of my paper was to bring into picture, using a historical analysis how different factors have contributed to the status and use of the different languages as spoken among the Wayana. I focussed thereby on traditions, the national state, power and gender.

We have seen that the regional history before, during and after the colonial period was very important in this process of identity formation in which language plays an important role.

Adaptation and change, as happened in a recent past happened in the same way in a more distant past. Wayana and surrounding tribes mutually influenced each other for centuries. Some tribes became extinct and others were mingled with and integrated into the Wayana tribe. This process is not unique, but probably the open character of the Wayana tribe contributed to the fact that the Wayana culture (and language) has changed so tremendously during the years.

What we have seen throughout this paper is that the Wayana still speak their ‘own’ language. But when speaking to the outside world or when performing their rituals, they prefer or have to use another language than the one spoken daily. The choice seems to be based on the power to control the key to respectively future or past, which both gives status. This key is currently mainly in the hands of men, but of different age groups.

The kalau singers who control ancient languages and knowledge are very much respected for this fact and they have a leading role in several rituals that reinforce the Wayana cultural identity. Also the pïjai and the ëlëmi singers derive status on their mastering of different languages. All persons are mainly male and of an elderly age.

Clear is the preference for the Apalai language during the traditional ceremonies. Overall the appreciation for the Apalai culture among the Wayana is enormous. Not only as far as the language is concerned. The appreciation covers all cultural items: basketry, pottery, music, oral history and ethno-medicine. In French Guyana Apalai taught the Wayana how to produce typical cultural items again, as the Wayana had forgotten them some years ago. Thus for the Wayana to learn the Apalai language and cultural traditions means going back in history, back to the roots. Perhaps the Apalai people were more capable of preserving their traditions because their habitat was more isolated than that of the Wayana, and they were less easily influenced because of that.

Where Apalai or other (ancient) languages leads to ritual leadership, the knowledge of a Creole language, Dutch or other European language paves the way for village leadership; an appointment which is controlled by the government. This position is in hands of young men who seem better equiped to adapt themselves to the wider society, but who have hardly any knowledge about the ‘old times way of life’.

It seems to me that the still ongoing process of intermingling between the Wayana and the Apalai could turn out to be positive for both indigenous communities. Adapting cultural items and integrating them into their own culture facilitates the Wayana, together with the Apalai, to survive as an Indigenous ethnicity amidst maroons, Europeans, gold-diggers, missionaries and timber-cutters. Traditional knowledge, when integrated in present life, can hold the key to the future.


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Drs. Karin Boven

Department of Culture Studies

Ministry of Education (MINOV)

Zeelandiaweg 3

Paramaribo SURINAME

Tel: (597)-473725 or fax: (597)-450255 E-mail: karinb@sr.net