Indigenous Culture in La Guajira, Colombia

Individual and collective identity in Colombia has long been heavily conditioned by region and place. Peoples of the Guajira peninsula in far northeastern Colombia—at the northern tip of South America—historically resisted European conquest and cultural imposition and retained an impressive degree of autonomy. The Guajiro (Wayuu) people forged a unique identity and place in the national imaginary, during processes of state formation since Independence that attempted to incorporate Indians into a mestizo nation. Indigenous and peasant communities in the Guajira still remain in transition, increasingly displaced by extractive industries, persistent urbanization, and paramilitary violence since the 1990s. Guajiro society and culture are anchored in familial and linguistic ties, subsistence production at the family or community level, and rich oral traditions that inform popular philosophy and history. In October 1985, Manuel Zapata Olivella and the Fundación Colombiana de Investigaciones Folclórica’s team of local researchers conducted dozens of wide-ranging interviews with people in Ríohacha and other smaller towns in the interior of La Guajira. The ethnographic work represented in this portion of the Costeño Group documents “traditional Guajira popular culture” through the oral histories of community elders and ordinary residents of all ages.[1]

The Guajiro people are descendants of the Arawak and Carib tribes that spread across the wider Caribbean world, particularly its coastal areas.[2] They speak Guajiro, a branch of the Arawak language group.[3] The Guajira peninsula is a semi-desert zone with three basic regions – upper (alta), middle (media), and lower (baja or sur). Indigenous groups there have a semi-nomadic tradition dating back centuries. After the official demarcation of the modern border with Venezuela in the 1850s, indigenous residents of the Guajira peninsula have nevertheless transited back and forth for work and commercial exchange. They have increasingly moved to the urban outskirts of Maracaibo, where there is a large Guajiro sector. Recent census figures show a population of more than 270,000 Guajiro (Wayuu) people in Colombia and Venezuela combined, with roughly 150,000 living in La Guajira department.[4]

Philosophy, Cosmology, Religion

The primacy of oral traditions cannot be overstated in the case of Guajiro thought and culture, steeped in origin myths and a repertoire of stories (cuentos). Memory becomes the chief mode and repository for history in Guajiro thought, a markedly different dynamic than Western understandings. Indigenous Colombians have “long memories” that call up histories of conquest and colonization, projects never brought to fruition in La Guajira.[5] Stories and memory are the materials of Guajiro history and philosophy.[6] Stories are shared during times of togetherness, including the period after a death as people assemble for wakes or visitations. Family and friends of the deceased often gather for cuentos and chistes, where the familiar and fundamental combine with collective laughter to bring a measure of unity and peace. Señor Argote from Barrancas described the experience of cuentos at a wake,

“[When] I’m doing a cuento, people always gather around. They put me in the middle, to do the cuentos, family members and friends, and friends too. There I do the cuento they ask for, that I know. I am reciting the cuentos to them, the cuentecitos… there is a lot of loud laughing… you laugh so much and… there are times that it’s like that, in the wakes (velorios), until we wake up [the next morning] telling stories.”[7]

Catholicism did not spread in La Guajira as it did in most of Colombia, though there has long been a scattered Church presence. Capuchin monks led Catholic evangelization efforts in the region.[8] Wayuu cosmology does not postulate death as such. The dead move to a wandering existence in Jeripa – roughly the Cabo de Vela area. Burial rituals are a pillar of Guajiro religious culture. Material items necessary in daily life are interred alongside bodies, including the hammocks in which the deceased are wrapped.[9] These handcrafted hammocks are staple features of any Guajiro household, ubiquitous in common areas and individual rooms.   

Shamanism and popular healing and conflict mediation methods are fundamental to local cultural, social, and political life for Guajiro peoples, as they are to a host of black peasant and indigenous communities that Zapata Olivella and his colleagues interviewed during the 1970s and 1980s. Piaches and palabreros are individuals of particular wisdom and skill—and therefore relative authority—who function as local visionaries, healers, and spiritual guides. Both women and men can be piaches, yet the vast majority are women.[10] Palabreros—mostly men but including some women—are understood as “historian[s] of the traditions and the events that took place,” fully capable of the task because endowed with a “perfect memory.”[11] Both piaches and palabreros, the latter in particular, play crucial roles in the settling of disputes and other matters of local law.[12]

Within the Grupo etnográfico, one series of interviews with Guajiro community members in their seventies takes up the meanings and details of traditional laws, family relations and customs, along with collectively held teachings, beliefs, legends, and mythology.[13] Many stories relate to the local and regional landscape – mountains and hills, rivers, and the rain. Higua is the goddess of the rains for Guajiros, received warmly by the people and the land when she appears in seasonal downpours after periods of prolonged drought. Of the myths and stories in Wayuu culture’s prodigious collection, Don Gliserio Pana chose the story of the powerful deity Titan, who lives in Delumar mountain, in response to an interviewer’s query about the most consequential myth for Guajiros. Pana chose a tale of the divine punishment awaiting outsiders who come into the Guajira to abuse or destroy the ecological riches of the area.[14]

Family Relations and Gender Issues

Certain aspects of family structure and gender roles distinguish Wayuu from alijuna (non-Wayuu) social organization. Individuals identify with a family or clan that uses its own chosen symbol, and people typically have tattoos of their clan’s symbol. Wayuu family structure is a matrilineal and matrilocal one that gives women and the maternal side of the family special importance. This privileging of the mother’s family is evident in the extra respect and affection conveyed for maternal uncles and aunts, as community members consistently point to those relationships as their closest and most supportive.[15] Guajiros live in small rural communities called rancherías that are collections of homes in which residents from several families reside. Ample land for grazing is needed, as Guajiro people have long been goat-herders and pastoralists. Indeed, goats, cows, and other livestock function as currency in exchanges for other goods, in celebration of achievements, as payment to settle disputes, and as gifts among families of newlyweds.

Gender dynamics among Guajiros are striking for most Western observers and have garnered increasing scholarly attention in recent decades.[16] Conventions of sexuality include polygamy for men, while women have typically remained faithful to one partner. Guajiro mythology sometimes deals with erotic relations between male and female deities, yet traditional norms prescribe passivity and even little expression for women. But sexual mores are changing dramatically with the growing influence of Western cultures, amplified in the urban centers where indigenous people have migrated since the 1960s.[17] Particular value is placed on the Chicimaya fertility dance that is done after the “seclusion” of girls who have begun menstruation.[18] There, women are matched with a partner.[19]

As one might expect, some of the ethnographies from 1985 in La Guajira challenge conventional understandings. Though midwives are almost always women throughout the Americas, men also work as parteros in Wayuu culture.[20] Divisions of labor run along gender lines in terms of expectations and responsibilities for work, household, and family. The Grupo Etnográfico contains ample discussion of relations between men and women, marriage, divorce, infidelity, love, dating and courtship, imbued with the occasional longing, misogyny, and humor of vernacular speech from La Guajira and other regions of Colombia that have received little attention from academics.

Work, Development, and Resistance

Traditional activities like the crafting of distinctive Guajiro artesanías, fishing, hunting, cultivating cotton, and tending livestock continue to be integral to subsistence and work. Guajiro people learn early in life how to make backpacks, hammocks, nets, bags/purses, and a variety of musical instruments. Indigenous residents of the upper Guajira have long crossed into Venezuela to sell crafts in markets there, though border restrictions and documentation requirements had begun to complicate the process for indigenous residents of the peninsula by the 1980s. That decade brought an apparent decline of sales for indigenous women’s handcrafts, as thriving market venues proved hard to find on the Colombian side.[21] Guajiro men and boys engaged in fishing and other mariner activity off the coast, and became goat-herders and pastoralists.[22]

While Guajiro women made intricately-designed bags and hammocks, Guajiro men crafted wind instruments and drums for work as musicians. This ethnographic collection includes a number of interviews with men on music, instruments, fiestas, and the different forms of work to be found in the realm of music so integral to coastal Caribbean culture. José Ipuana described going to two-day fiestas as a drummer and getting paid in the form of a sheep and a jug of rum. It was customary to take one of his cousins or sisters along on such excursions, so that is what Ipuana did. He recounted making his own drums and other instruments, detailing the process and discussing the materials used. Ipuana and others played the drum to let people in the community or ranchería know where a party was being held.[23]

Capitalist development on the peninsula intrudes into once remote Wayuu territory and natural areas. Corporations and the Colombian government ramped up salt mining in the region in the 1930s, and Guajiros formed the bulk of the workforce in many salt mines. Even more transformative and disruptive to indigenous and peasant communities in the peninsula has been the proliferation of coal mining in La Guajira since the 1980s. The Cerrejón coal project began extraction in 1984—a year before this set of interviews was conducted—and garnered international attention around issues of development and the environment, land and human rights, pitting corporations and the state against indigenous groups and peasants in a protracted conflict over coal mining in the area.[24] Additionally, the coastal region’s centuries-old history of smuggling entered a new phase with the marijuana bonanza of the 1970s and a more generalized revival of extra-legal and informal economies on the Caribbean coast of Colombia.[25]

Indigenous groups and peasants living in the Guajira peninsula have faced increasing displacement and urbanization since the mid-twentieth century, and those processes accelerated during the 1990s. When Zapata Olivella and his team visited in October 1985, there was some scattered talk of politics and indigenous communities’ relations to the state, and expressions of a lack of hope in that socioeconomic context, evident in a handful of discussions with local people.[26] Guajiros refer to mestizos in towns and cities as los civilizados, pointing up the enduring tension between “civilization” and the ranchería, exacerbated in recent decades by television and other mass media.  

Indigenous people’s movements in the Guajira peninsula have organized—often unsuccessfully—to keep extractive industries out, and to make identity-based claims on the state that seek to capitalize on the political space created by the 1991 Constitution.[27] Within the social and cultural context of the Guajira peninsula, indigenous organizations depended acutely upon women’s leadership and rank-and-file participation to drive agendas for social change in the region.[28] The introduction of paramilitary groups into La Guajira in the late-1990s and early 2000s resulted in the breakdown of social networks, the destruction or dispersal of once isolated communities, and the loss of life. During the opening years of the twenty-first century, human rights violations and political violence traumatized indigenous and peasant groups in the peninsula.[29] Faced with the challenges of urbanization, capitalist development, and paramilitary violence, the Wayuu people have continued to build on a tradition of resistance to outside efforts at domination and control.


[1] Manuel Zapata Olivella Papers, Vanderbilt University Special Collections, Grupo etnográfico.

[2] For more on Arawak and Caribe connections to Wayuu communities on the peninsula, see Gerardo I. Ardila Calderón, “Acercamiento a la historia prehispánica de la Guajira,” in La Guajira: de la memoria al porvenir, una visión antropológica, ed. Gerardo Ardila, 59-80 (Bogotá: Universidad Nacional de Colombia, 1990).

[3] J.G. Goulet and Miguel Angel Jusayu, El idioma guajiro: sus fonemas, su ortografía, su morfología. (Caracas: Universidad Católica Andrés Bello, 1978).

[4] Censo general 2005: nivel nacional (Bogotá: Departamento Administrativo Nacional de Estadística, 2008).

[5] Mauricio Archila and Martha Cecilia García, “Violencia y memoria indígena en Cauca y La Guajira,” Memoria y Sociedad 19, no. 38 (2015): 26-42.

[6] On Wayuu philosophy and thought see Beatriz Elisa Sánchez Pirela, El pensamiento filosófico wayuu (Maracaibo: Universidad de Zulia, 2008).

[7] Manuel Zapata Olivella Papers, Vanderbilt University Special Collections, Grupo etnográfico, 85-41-C, p. 15.

[8] One of the most valuable historical, geographical, and ethnographical resources on the region and its people remains José Agustín de Barranquilla, Así es La Guajira: itinerario de un misionero capuchino (Bogotá: Imprenta Nacional, 1953), acknowledging its paternalist assumptions. For an important history of the region that touches on its social and cultural developments and conflicts, see José Polo Acuña, Etnicidad, conflicto social y cultura fronteriza en la Guajira (1700-1850) (Bogotá: Universidad de los Andes, 2005).

[9] Gerardo Ardila, ed., La Guajira: de la memoria al porvenir una visión antropológica (Bogotá: Universidad Nacional de Colombia, 1990).

[10] For more on piaches, see the 1985 interview with piache Zoraida Uriana, among others in the ethnographic collection. Manuel Zapata Olivella Papers, Vanderbilt University Special Collections, Grupo etnográfico, 85-13-C.

[11] For a 1985 discussion with a palabrero in La Guajira, see Manuel Zapata Olivella Papers, Vanderbilt University Special Collections, Grupo etnográfico, 85-14-C.

[12] Weilder Guerra Curvelo, La disputa y la palabra: la ley en la sociedad wayuu (Bogotá: Ministerio de Cultura, 2002).

[13] Manuel Zapata Olivella Papers, Vanderbilt University Special Collections, Grupo etnográfico, 85-16-C.

[14] On Wayuu oral traditions, see Jean-Guy Goulet, El universo social y religioso Guajiro (Maracaibo: UCAB, 1981); Michel Perrin, The Way of the Dead Indians: Guajiro Myths and Symbols (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1987); and Ardila, ed., La Guajira.

[15] Manuel Zapata Olivella Papers, Vanderbilt University Special Collections, Grupo etnográfico, 85-41-C. See the group interview there with anthropologist Clarivel Ochoa, from October 1985 in Barrancas, La Guajira.

[16] Olga Mejía M., Conceptos de la sexualidad wayuu expresados en los mitos, leyendas y tradiciones (Riohacha: Universidad de La Guajira, 2001).

[17] On sexuality and gender, see also Margarita Martínez Osorio, “La sexualidad pensada en términos masculinos: el caso de las mujeres Wayuu en la Guajira colombiana,” Cuadernos Kóre 1, no. 5 (Fall-Winter 2011): 157-88; Mejía M., Conceptos de la sexualidad wayuu expresados en los mitos, leyendas y tradiciones.

[18] Maria-Barbara Watson-Franke, “Seclusion Huts and Social Balance in Guajiro Society,” Anthropos 77, nos. 3-4 (1982): 449-60.

[19] Maya Mazzoldi, “Simbolismo del ritual de paso femenino entre los Wayuu de la alta Guajira,” Maguaré 18 (2004): 241-68.

[20] Among other examples in the collection, see the interview with Rudecindo Ipuana, Manuel Zapata Olivella Papers, Vanderbilt University Special Collections, Grupo etnográfico, 85-10-C.

[21] For interviews with Guajiro women discussing artesanía traditions and practices, see Manuel Zapata Olivella Papers, Vanderbilt University Special Collections, Grupo etnográfico, 85-4-C, 85-5-C, and 85-6-C.

[22] Homer Aschmann, “Indian Pastoralists of the Guajira Peninsula,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 50 (Jan. 1960): 408-18.

[23] Manuel Zapata Olivella Papers, Vanderbilt University Special Collections, Grupo etnográfico, 85-15-C.

[24] Barranquilla, Así es La Guajira, in particular celebrates the region’s prodigious salt reserves and the state’s mining industry that employed thousands of people in the region. Many indigenous people and campesinos had their first encounter with wage labor in the salt mines. On coal see Ildikó Szegedy Maszák, “Corporate Social Responsibility, the Example of the Mining Project Cerrejón and its Relation with the Indigenous Group Wayüu in Colombia,” Vniversitas 117 (July-Dec., 2008): 295-322; Shane Boeder, “At Any Cost: Big Coal Crushes Fragile Communities in Colombia” Journal for the Study of Peace and Conflict (2012-2013): 42-64; and Deborah Pacini Hernández, Resource Development and Indigenous People: The El Cerrejón Coal Project in Guajira, Colombia (Cambridge, MA: Cultural Survival, 1984).

[25] For an important recent study of the 1970s based on oral histories done in coastal Guajira, see Lina Britto, “Hurricane Winds: Vallenato Music and Marijuana Traffic in Colombia’s First Illegal Drugs Boom,” Hispanic American Historical Review 95, no. 1 (2015): 71-102.

[26] For an example, see Manuel Zapata Olivella Papers, Vanderbilt University Special Collections, Grupo etnográfico, 85-11-C, p. 10.

[27] República de Colombia, Constitución política de Colombia (Santa Fe de Bogotá: ECOE Ediciones, 1991).

[28] Scholars have already noted the prominence of women in the “new social movements” sweeping the Americas since the 1970s. For example, see Lynn Stephen, Women and Social Movements in Latin America: Power from Below (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997).

[29] Mauricio Archila and Martha Cecilia García, “Violencia y memoria indígena en Cauca y La Guajira,” Memoria y Sociedad 19, no. 38 (2015): 26-42; Pablo Jaramillo, Etnicidad y victimización: genealogías de la violencia y la indigenidad en el norte de Colombia (Bogotá: Universidad de los Andes, 2014); Jaramillo, “Deuda, desesperación y reparaciones inconclusas en La Guajira, Colombia,” Antipoda 14 (Jan.-June 2012): 41-65; and Karmen Ramírez Boscán, Desde el desierto. Notas sobre paramilitarismo y violencia en territorio Wayúu de la media Guajira (Maicao: Cabildo Wayúu Nóunna de Campamento, 2007).