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Latin American Culture: 4 Things to Know About The Wayuu People

While the vastness and complexity of Latin American culture has resulted in a mix of many different lifestyles and customs, indigenous tribes throughout the Latin American region have managed to hold on to ancient traditions for centuries. The Wayuu people are one of these smaller indigenous communities rich in culture and art, much of which is is shown through their famous Wayuu bags.

With each culture comes a myriad of topics and traditions to study in order to understand the depth of that society; the same is true of the Wayuu people. Below are just four of the major points about the Wayuu that will expand and deepen your knowledge of one of the fascinating, yet undervalued cultures of the world. 

1. Background of the Wayuu People:

Two young Wayuu girls, one making a Wayuu bag

Deep in the La Guajira desert near the border of Colombia and Venezuela, you’ll find the indigenous tribe of the Wayuu people. Having migrated from the Amazon rainforest and Antillies in 150 AD, the Wayuu people have a long history of culture and tradition. More recently, however, both the Colombian and Venezuelan governments have exercised rights taking away from the Wayuu people’s freedoms and resources, even though they don’t fall under Colombian and Venezuelan jurisdiction as they have their own form of government. Not only do they courageously face struggles with governments, but many of their old economic activities have also declined drastically due to geographic hardships and commercialization. Visit A Brief History of Colombia's Wayuu Tribe to learn more about their history.

 

2. The World Famous Wayuu Bags

One of the Wayuu's major source of economic activity is the making and trading of their beautiful mochila Wayuu bags. Each of these pieces of art is created with a sustainable single cotton thread and takes an artisan up to two weeks to complete one single bag (depending on pattern complexity and size of the bag). Only the women are taught this skill, oftentimes from a mother or grandmother. They begin learning how to crochet when they are only 7 years old and are limited to learning simple techniques. It is when they begin their first menstrual cycle that the young women pass through the ritual of physical puberty, in which they are confined for 3-5 days. While in confinement, the mother or person that taught them how to crochet initially will finish passing on all the knowledge and information related to the art of crochet. 

Making these mochilas holds a deep meaning to the Wayuu artisans as it comes from their ancestors and is considered as part of their identity. Weaving is a symbol of wisdom, intelligence, and creativity that represents ancient traditions and knowledge of their culture. Each design incorporated into a Wayuu bag is unique to its weaver, telling a story through the bag’s colors, patterns, and shapes. 

When we talked with our Wayuu artisans about their mochila bags, they confided in us that they feel frustrated about the cultural appropriation that has happened before. Many people buy their products, export them and then brand them without giving the Wayuu artisans any recognition for their work. They are also sad that many buyers try to get discounts on the artisan’s products, even when the price is already low for the amount of work that goes into creating the mochilas. The Wayuu people are very proud of the work that has made them famous around the world and hope to one day receive the recognition and fair payment they deserve!

Wayuu Mochila bags from Colombia against a wall

While the Wayuu women are absorbed in their Mochila making, the men typically provide the food for the communities from fishing and grazing goats, sheep and cows. However, some artisan men focus on making easier crochet objects such as coin purses. Also, they are in charge of more strength required handcrafts including making the straps for the bags and clutches. Clutches are made using the tapiz (tapestry in English) ancestral technique (check out our video Making Wayuu Clutches to understand how the tapestry technique works). Visit our Wayuu Clutch/Small Bag page to see some of the men's designs!

3. Traditional Wayuu Patterns & Their Meanings  

The Wayuu people prefer not to make traditional designs for commercial purposes as these typically are very complex and time consuming and clients usually don't want to pay a reasonable price for them. We feel honored that our artisans shared with us some of their most traditional patterns (considered "Kaanas authentic designs") and their corresponding meanings. 

Named Pasata Looya” in their Wayuunaiki language, this traditional Wayuu pattern represents cow guts (an important symbol as cows are one of the main sources of food in the region)  Traditional Wayuu bag
Named "Antirajauyagua" in their Wayuunaiki language, this traditional Wayuu design symbolizes the paths in life. Traditional design on a Wayuu Bag
Named "Walaker" in their Wayuunaiki language, this traditional Wayuu design represents “Wale Keru,” the spider that, according to the Wayuu legend, taught the first Wayuu women how to crochet and incorporate different creative drawings into their designs.  Traditional design on a Wayuu bag

 You can learn more about the story behind the making of the Wayuu bags on our page Everything About The Mochila Wayuu Bags. To see some of the less traditional designs, visit our Large & Colorful Wayuu Bag page, Medium Wayuu Bag page, or our Mini Wayuu Bag page. 

Along with the patterns of the mochila bags, they also pay close attention to the colors they choose. The Wayuu people use a lot of neon and bright colors to transmit and reflect happiness. Along these same lines, the colors they see in the rainbow are often used, as rainbows are considered a sacred, natural phenomena. They also use browns, beige, and black as these are often found in nature and represent mother earth.

4. Wayuu Traditions

There are 5 main ancestral traditions that are very important for the Wayuu culture and considered crucial for their identity: the "Majaauyuu," a celebration of female adulthood; the sacred "Yoona" dance; the community's "palebreo"; large & close-knit families; and the making & trading of their Wayuu mochila bags. 

- The “Majaauyuu” celebration of adulthood of women during their first period. They are confined for 3-5 days and have to undergo some sacred practices during this time to prepare them for their life as an adult woman.

Traditional Wayuu Dance

- The Wayuu traditional and sacred dance called the “Yoona.” The Wayuu people use this dance to celebrate important occasions such a the 15th birthday of a woman, to welcome important guests to their community and during October 12th to celebrate the Day of Indigenous People Resistance. 

- They have a “Palabreo,” who works as a lawyer in their communities to settle disputes between community members. This person is chosen by the community and is known for being calm and behaving respectfully.

- For the Wayuu people, family is the most important thing in life. They tend to have large, close-knit families that support each other greatly.

-Their economy is based on the trade of their mochila Wayuu bags and other artisanal products, agriculture, fishing (in some regions) and animal grazing and hunting. 

Reasonable Things You Can Do to Support Indigenous Tribes

(that don’t include buying a plane ticket to do humanitarian work)

  1. Shop sustainable! We all share the air, and even though places like Colombia and Venezuela are far away to most of us, every little thing counts. Some of this is preventative action, but a lot of it now is corrective action (See our blog post How to be a Conscious Consumer to understand what fashion pollution is doing to the air)
  2. Set aside a small fund for "humanitarian purchases." This could mean a monthly, bi-monthly, quarterly, etc budget where you decide how that money goes into benefiting indigenous tribes around the world. There aren’t too many other ways to directly share the love than by supporting these artisans by purchasing their products. 
  3. Show the Wayuu people how you love the products they create by leaving comments and sharing your favorite products on social media to spread awareness of their talent and creativity. Not a fan of social media? Wear your Wayuu products boldly and share your love for them with your friends and family. 
  4. If you have the means, donate! Every dollar counts towards aiding these artisans (especially with the circumstances as they are with COVID-19). If you would like to donate, we have a GoFundMe campaign running which we created specifically to provide extra funding for our Wayuu artisans during this pandemic. All funds are donated directly to our artisans. We talk more about this initiative in the blog post about the impact of COVID-19 in the Wayuu indigenous community.
  5. Send us your feedback! We love to hear how we are doing with the types of products we have at IndiArts, the content we share, and how we can improve so that more people are excited to help out our friends of the Wayuu and others tribes!

A Note From the Author 

For a really long time, I thought that in order to help other people and do “humanitarian work,” I needed to go to other countries. For most of my teenage years, that’s what I strove for, but I always felt one step away. If only my minimum wage job paid me more so I could get that plane ticket. If only I knew of more people that were doing humanitarian programs abroad that I could go with. If only I was 25 and working in the medical field traveling to new places every month to help babies, little kids, and grown men and women. I’m not kidding, that’s what I laid in bed dreaming about when I was 17. 

If only, if only, if only. 

But my understanding has been changed, and I’ve come to realize the value of not spending the money on that plane ticket. Don’t get me wrong, my wanderlust, save humanity-driven heart still would if I could, but there are many reasons why I shouldn’t. For example:  

While goods will never overpower the value of experiences and people, I can help abundantly by purchasing sustainable, ethical, and fair trade products. (Spending $3000 on airfare to help 5 people for 2 weeks or spending $500 over the course of a year to purchase products from 8 different artisans, all of which are good for the earth and will last you a long time.)

Humanitarian trips are AWESOME (trust me, I’ve done a few), but I only know of a few people who are actually able to take them consistently and often (we’re talking 4-5 times a year) and sustain their own livelihoods. Most of us have families, jobs, and dogs we gotta take care of.

There are myriads of businesses (eh-eehmm...IndiArts) that focus solely on providing ethical, earth-saving goods made by talented people that you would go to do the humanitarian work for anyway. 

The whole “Give the man a fish or teach the man to catch his own fish” concept (teach & support the people that are striving to provide for themselves rather than just giving them what they need. Let people grow and succeed). 

Purchasing products from indigenous artisans benefits both sides! You get this seriously fantastic product that fits your needs, lifestyle, and helps the planet, while the artisan who made it receives a FAIR profit for beautiful, time-consuming work. 

 

This doesn’t mean that traveling far away to do some good in the world is bad or not of value, because it isn't bad and it is valuable. What I’m saying is that there are other ways to leave a positive impact on the world when those other options aren’t the most viable. In the end, what matters is how you feel you left your mark. And most of the time, it's how you leave your mark in small, consistent ways that makes the biggest difference in your life and the lives of others. 

 -Abby Christensen

 

    IndiArts Collective's Wayuu artisans from Colombia

     

     

     


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