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Wayuu Tribe © Mario Carvajal / Flickr
Wayuu Tribe © Mario Carvajal / Flickr
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A Brief History of Colombia’s Wayuu Tribe

Picture of Anny Wooldridge
Updated: 2 May 2017

Located deep in the La Guajira desert, close to the Colombian and Venezuelan border, is a traditional, historical, indigenous community who are known as the people of the sun, sand and wind – the Wayuu tribe. Arriving in La Guajira from the Amazon rainforest and Antilles in 150A.D. to escape the hostile environments and find a new home, the Wayuu people have battled – the Spanish, the Government and, currently, mother nature – to keep their traditions alive.

The Wayuu tribe occupy 4,170 square miles (10,800 square kilometers) within the desert covering a large area in both Colombia and Venezuela. In 1997 there were around 144,000 individuals from the tribe residing in the Colombian region, and in 2001 there were 294,000 located in the Venezuelan region.

The Wayuu tribe has a number of ancient traditions and rituals they keep alive, living in small, isolated communities, of which there are around 10 in the La Guajira department of Colombia and Venezuela. In the past living in these small communities was to prevent the mixing of goats, cows and crops. They live predominately in huts called rancherías made from cactus or palm-leaf-thatched roofs, yotojoro (mud, hay or dried cane) walls with basic furniture which includes hammocks for sleeping and a small fire pit for cooking.

Each community has a communal area called a luma or enramada, which is usually an open area with pillars to hold up a flat, thatched roof. These areas are used for social gatherings, events, visitors and business meetings. The Wayuu tribe is unique in the fact that the women of the household own the houses and run the families, while the fathers work with the animals and land. Each community has an informal leader who makes the decisions; usually these leaders are well connected individuals who are direct descendants of previous leaders. Often these individuals know both Spanish and the Wayuu’s language, Wayuunaiki (part of the Maipuran or Arawakan language). Their culture combines legends, myths, stories, traditions and customs.

This tribe has inhabited the harsh environments of the La Guajira desert for centuries, living with the land and passing on traditions for generations. They have survived many battles with a number of groups, and fought off many Spanish invasions throughout the 18th century. In 1718 Governor Soto de Herrera said the Wayuu tribe were, “Barbarians, horse thieves, worthy of death, without God, law or a king.” The tribe strengthened due to its gain in knowledge from Dutch and British invaders who taught them to fight, use firearms, and ride horses. The Spanish captured a small number of the tribe and forced them to help build the walled city of Cartagena to protect it from invasion.

During the Independence battle of Colombia and Venezuela, the Wayuu tribe fought for their right to stay in the department. Due to its desert and harsh environment, they won. The Wayuu tribe is now free from the borders of Colombia and Venezuela, occupying their own little peninsula on the Caribbean sea.

The Wayuu people have faced discrimination and exclusion from both the Colombian and Venezuelan governments, each taking away their rights, and raw materials from their land. In turn each community has their own government and is free from both Colombia’s and Venezuela’s laws.

In the past the communities have survived on farming, creating crafts and, in the coastal communities, pearl diving for aquaculture. Commercialization has threatened their pearl diving, and the selling and creation of fraudulent pearls is threatening their wealth. Global warming, El Niño and climate change have affected the tribe’s ability to create sustainable farming, with droughts threatening crops and animals dying of dehydration as a result. The tribe is having to buy more to cover their basic needs, which currently outweigh their means. The tribe heavily relied on the subsidized groceries by the Venezuelan government to survive and buy rice, sugar and coffee. But due to recent events this has become impossible, causing malnutrition throughout communities who don’t have the means to buy products from Colombia.

Malnutrition isn’t the only problem the communities now have. In the past, men used to work with the land through agriculture and farming, which is now not possible. These men are highly uneducated and many only know the tribe’s native language. This has caused a number of problems including their resorting to pretty crimes, roadblockings, charging tourists candy taxes, children cutting school and men turning to alcohol. Some people believe that the Wayuu tribe is a deadweight of modern society due to these situations.

Today the tribe is in search of sustainability; the Uribia tribe is striving to use tourism to improve their living conditions, by allowing visitors to their community and offering an insight into their traditions, cultures and brightly colored festivals. Bringing visitors to the tribes also offers the opportunity for individuals to sell textiles and ceramics, including the Wayuu’s famous Mochila bags, hammocks, and blankets made by the women of the tribe who are expert weavers and skilled at creating crafts.

The indigenous Wayuu tribe have been fighting for their rights for centuries, and now their way of life is becoming threatened through no fault of their own, with mother nature destroying their habitat.