Wayuu Culture: Origin, Location, Characteristics, Organization, Customs

The Wayúu culture is that of the indigenous people of the same name that live in the northern area of ​​Colombia and Venezuela, specifically in the departments of La Guajira. They are one of the ethnic groups that have lived in that region for the longest time.

Although the origin of this culture is not known for sure, historians estimate that they could reach the area around 150 BC. C. from the Antilles and the Amazon region. When the Spanish conquerors arrived in the region, the Wayúu adopted grazing as a way of life, in addition to starting to practice trade.

His coexistence with the Spanish was plagued with clashes for territorial control. Although, as in the rest of the continent, the Catholic missions tried to make them abandon their beliefs and traditions, the Wayúu culture kept a good part of them.

Today, the Wayúu have a complex social structure. There are about 30 clans, each with its own territory and totem. It is a matrilineal society and within families it is the maternal uncle who is responsible for raising children and solving problems. Among their current activities, the textile industry stands out and they are especially known for their backpacks.

Origin and history

The Wayúu culture was one of those integrated within the Arawak peoples, who undertook a great migration through the Amazon and towards the Antilles. The most probable hypothesis is that they reached that last area around 150 BC. C.

The archaeological finds studied by Gerardo Ardila Calderón have led this expert to affirm that there were two migrations of this type from the Orinoco River. Likewise, there was a third that departed from the Lesser Antilles.

The ceramics found on the banks of the Ranchería River, near the Cerrejón, show how these towns settled in La Guajira and reached their maximum density between the 1st and 7th centuries AD. C.

Spanish Chronicles

Apart from the data provided by the archaeological finds, the history of the Wayúu is little known. Some Spanish chroniclers claimed that their society was based on clans and that there was a high degree of mobility. They were, according to these writings, a hunting and fishing people.

When the conquerors arrived in the region, the Wayúu changed their way of life and adopted grazing. Likewise, the mobility that characterized them began to disappear. Little by little, they were using trade to obtain goods.

These chronicles have been confirmed in part by archeology. In addition, some historical documents have led experts such as Weildler Guerra Curvelo, a Wayúu anthropologist, to affirm that there were several confrontations between his people and the Spanish.

According to this expert, the Wayúus looted several Spanish farms to obtain cows, goats, horses or donkeys.

Resistance to the Spanish

The Wayúu never came to be totally subdued by the Spanish. For a long time, there was an almost permanent state of war.

During the 18th century, this town staged several rebellions. The one of 1718 led Governor Soto de Herrera to call them ” barbarians , horse thieves, worthy of death, without God, without law and without a king.”

According to the chronicles, the Wayúu were the only indigenous people in present-day Colombia to learn to handle firearms and ride horses.

One of the most important rebellions occurred in May 1769, when the Spanish captured several Wayúus to work on a fortification in Cartagena. The reaction of the natives was to set fire to the town of El Rincón, burning the church and the two Spaniards who had taken refuge in it.

The Spanish sent a retaliatory expedition, but the Wayúus ended up killing its chief and eight of his men.

The news about what happened reached other areas of La Guajira, prompting more indigenous people to join the revolt. At their peak, the rebels numbered 20,000, many with firearms.

Struggles for territorial control

The clashes for control of the territory were frequent. The arrival of the Spaniards meant that the Wayúu lost their lands used for cultivation and their hunting areas. This caused that they had to dedicate themselves to grazing goats and cattle.

After independence, several Catholic missions were installed in the region, but the Wayúu preserved a good part of their traditions.

Despite the fact that their territory belongs to two different countries, the Wayúu maintained extensive extra-legal autonomy. Only in recent years have the two states recognized their rights.


Members of the Wayúu culture live in La Guajira, a peninsula located on both sides of the border between Colombia and Venezuela. Located on the Caribbean coast, this territory has two main rivers that soften a rather hostile environment: the El Limón River and the Ranchería River.

The Colombian part currently belongs to the department of La Guajira, while the Venezuelan part is included in the state of Zulias.

According to the census, the Wayúu have a population of 600,000 people, of which 45% reside in Colombia and 11% in Venezuela.

Double nationality

Being their traditional territory, the Wayúu do not recognize the border between Colombia and Venezuela. In this way, they cross from one country to the other without distinction.

In recent years, the two countries have recognized this particularity of the Wayúu and do not prevent this free movement. Legally, the members of this town have dual nationality.

General characteristics of the Wayuú


The Wayúu language, called Wayuunaiki, is part of the Arawak family of languages, present in several Caribbean countries. Within La Guajira you can find several dialects that present small differences between them.

However, this language has been losing speakers over the years. Most of the young people speak Spanish and only 1% of those who know Wayuunaiki can read and write in that language.

To try to preserve the language, some initiatives have been launched in the region. An example is the first Wayuunaiki-Spanish illustrated dictionary published by the Kamusuchiwou Ethnoeducational Center of Colombia. Likewise, in 2011, the Wayúu Tayá Foundation and Microsoft created a dictionary of technical terms in Wayúu.


Christian missionaries were the first to offer education to the Wayúu. However, the literacy rate has historically been very low, something that is changing in recent times.

The necromancers

An important figure within the Wayúu culture is that of the necromancer or healer. The beliefs of this people affirm that the healer is in contact with Wanülü, an auxiliary spirit who offers information about diseases.

Most of the necromancers are women and they enter this position after being trained by another healer. The payment of these lessons takes place with cattle. After completing the training, the Wayúu celebrate a public ceremony to initiate the new necromancer.

living place

The traditional settlements of this culture are made up of five or six houses that formed a ranchería, each of which is named after an animal, a plant or a geographical place.

The typical dwelling is called piichi or miichi. It is a small house divided into two rooms with hammocks. In these rooms, in addition to sleeping, the personal belongings of its inhabitants are stored. The structure is rectangular or semicircular.

In the vicinity of the main house there is a common area called luma. There the daily and commercial tasks are carried out, in addition to serving visitors.

These traditional dwellings used to be built with yotojoro (a bush), mud, dry reeds, and hay. At present, the Wayúus prefer more modern techniques and materials, such as cement.


The mothers of this town teach their daughters to weave from a very young age. Thanks to this, the tradition has been kept alive among the Wayúu. For this, knitting is a way of showing wisdom and creativity. When the girls come of age, they learn to make the well-known Wayúu backpacks.

There is a myth that explains the birth of this tradition: Wale’kerü , a spider, taught women to weave creative pictures on their bags. Each of these designs is unique to a weaver and tells a story with their patterns and colors. To make just one of these backpacks, Wayúu women can use up to a full month.

The sale of these bags has become an important source of income for the Wayúu.

Public health

At present, the Wayúu resort to both Western and traditional medicine. According to their ancestral beliefs, there are two types of diseases: the less serious or ayuulee and the malignant or wanülüü . The latter, including cancer or heart disease, cause what they describe as “a definitive departure from the soul.”

In the Wayúu communities, affected by the scarce health infrastructure in the area, various figures related to healing coexist, most of the time women. As an example, the use of medicinal plants is reserved for the Alüjülii (Yerbateras), while medical knowledge is in the hands of the Ouutsü (Piache-Médica).


Wayúu gastronomy is related to the foods that they produce and market themselves. The mutton is one of its most common sources of meat. With its viscera, for example, friche is prepared, while with its cured and salted meat, sisina is prepared.

Social and political organization

Wayúu society is organized into clans. Today, there is still a traditional authority and they have maintained their own system of justice.

It is a matrilineal society, with women as the center of its structure. In the family womb, the mother and maternal uncle are the main figures. Children are brought up by the mother’s brother.

Political organization

Each of the clans into which the Wayúu are divided has a figure in charge of directing their day-to-day activities. Normally, this authority rests with an old man, since this town thinks that the age grants a high degree of wisdom and experience.

The Wayúus also appoint a mediator (pütchipü) who must be in charge of intervening when there is some type of offense between families. Their role is to apply their knowledge of the laws of the clans to find an agreement to solve the problem.

Social organization

As has been pointed out, the social organization of the Wayúu is matrilineal and quite complex. In families, it is the maternal uncles who must solve domestic problems, in addition to taking charge of educating their sister’s children.

Close relatives on the father’s side, the oupayu , are considered allies from whom collaboration is expected in joint work.

Customs and traditions

Despite the arrival of the Spaniards and then being divided between two countries, the Wayúu have managed to preserve a good part of their traditions. These fulfill an important cultural role, such as when women bathe the deceased before being buried.


The birth of children occurs at home, with the assistance of the mother’s closest female relative. Although today the most normal thing is that they are baptized by the Catholic rite, this town also performs a traditional ceremony in which the baby is given a Wayúu name.

The child belongs to his mother’s clan and the Wayúu name is usually used only among maternal relatives.

When they reach puberty, girls have to go through various special rituals. These begin at age 12 or when they begin to menstruate. At those times, they are forced to spend a period of seclusion, shaving their heads and resting in a hammock near the house called a hammock.

Later, the young women are accommodated in the house of their maternal aunt. These are in charge of preparing them for marriage and teach them to weave, among other aspects.

This whole process is seen as a kind of rebirth and the girls are given a new name.


One of the most important rituals within the Wayúu culture is related to the aforementioned phase of puberty of girls. When they have finished their education they are presented in society to find a suitable husband.

The young woman has to maintain a plant-based diet, called jawapi. Likewise, you must bathe very often. During that time they learn to cook, knit, be a good wife, and receive information about birth control and pregnancy.

This entire stage ends with the chichamaya, a great dance that represents Wayúu fertility. During the party, which takes place at sunset, a boy takes off his hat and waves it while, dancing in circles, he challenges a girl to catch him. The girl, also dancing, has to manage to step on her feet so that the young man falls.

Music and dance

For the Wayúu culture, music has an importance almost equivalent to its livestock activities. Both aspects were also related, since the shepherds of this town sang to their animals. Similarly, music was present at their celebrations and even at funerals.

The traditional dance of the Wayúu is the yonna and its purpose is to honor the guests. Another traditional dance is the majayura , a ritual during which the woman dances towards the man she is going to marry.

Among the traditional instruments of the Wayúus, the sawawa (a kind of flute), the kashi and a kind of flute called taliraai stand out .

Wayúu Culture Festival

The most important cultural celebration in the entire Colombian department of La Guajira is the Wayúu Culture Festival. The venue for this annual celebration is the town of Uribia, the largest Wayúu settlement in the country.

During the weekend in which the festival is celebrated, this town shows its rich culture through its music, customs, rituals and crafts. The celebration took place for the first time in 1984.


Marriages in the Wayúu culture usually occur between people of different uterine lineage. Custom forces the man to pay a dowry to the bride’s family. On the other hand, it is common for the Wayúus to practice polygamy.


Although literacy campaigns have been carried out among the Wayúus to increase the number of people who know how to write and read, this town continues to maintain a great tradition of oral communication. For this, the value of the word is very great and respecting it is essential so that harmony between the clans is maintained.

Furthermore, his knowledge in many areas, from astronomy to nature, is based on oral tradition.


The Wayúus had to face a not very favorable ecosystem in the territory they occupied in La Guajira. In the area they inhabited, the climate was desert, so agriculture was not a viable option for them. For this reason, the main economic activities were dry grazing, fishing and trade.

Over time, crafts have gained importance as a source of income for this town. It is an activity developed mainly by women and the products are sold in the markets.


Despite the difficulties that the climate and soil presented for agriculture, the Wayúus were able to cultivate some products.

Among the foods they were able to obtain were, and still do, beans, corn, and watermelons. The cultivation was carried out during the rainy season, on land close to the settlements.

This people did not know techniques such as rotation or fallow, but they did know the practice of burning some plants whose ashes increase the fertility of the land.


The climatic conditions referred to caused the Wayúus to opt for grazing and cattle ranching as the main economic activities.

It is known that grazing grew in importance during the 16th and 17th centuries. The animals that were considered the most valuable were those of the bovine breed, although the lack of water limited their presence.

Currently, each of the clans has their own herds which they mark with a different symbol. Donkey, mule and horse herding has declined considerably in recent years due to several epidemics.

Traditionally, cattle were also used to seal marriage agreements or to compensate for misdemeanors or crimes.

Salt extraction

The Wayúus began to extract salt in the Manaure marina since before the Spanish conquerors arrived in the area.

The Spanish, first, and Colombia, later, began to exploit these salt flats and the Wayúus were only able to do so as wage earners, although a few maintained small artisanal farms.

The situation changed in 2005, when the saline exploitation returned to the hands of the Wayúus. However, a later ruling stripped them of that right again.


The action of the Spanish missionaries made the members of this town convert to Catholicism. However, as in other aspects of their culture, they maintained some of their traditional religious practices.

The religious life of the Wayúus mixes their traditional beliefs and Catholicism led by the Spanish.

Each Wayúu clan has its own animal totem, which represents the traits and virtues with which the group identifies. Clan members sometimes get this symbol tattooed on their arm.

An area located at the end of the peninsula, called Cabo de la Vela (Jepira for this town) is considered a sacred place, since they believe that their deceased still roam there.

Creation myth

The Wayúu culture describes its origin with a poetic myth: “We were born from the Northeast Wind and the Goddess of Rains”.

On the other hand, for them winter is the most appreciated season, since it brings the rains to the earth. According to their myths, winter and the Goddess of Rains are brothers.


The most important god in Wayúu mythology is Maleiwa. This would be the creator of everything, including the Wayúus themselves, as well as the founder of their society.

Also, their beliefs include some spiritual beings, like Pulowi and Juyá. It is about a marriage that is associated with fertility and life. Pulowi is the female figure and is related to the dry seasons and the wind. Her husband, for his part, is a nomad who is associated with hunting.

Finally, Wanülu is considered to be the ultimate evil spirit, the cause of disease and death.


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  2. Minculture. Wayúu. People of sand, sun and wind. Recovered from mincultura.gov.co
  3. ONIC. Wayúu. Obtained from onic.org.co
  4. Lulo Planet. About wayúu culture. Obtained from luloplanet.com
  5. Notimeric. This is how the Wayúu indigenous tribe lives in the heart of La Guajira, between Colombia and Venezuela. Retrieved from notimerica.com
  6. Ministry of the Interior of Colombia. Wayúu people. Recovered from mininterior.gov.co
  7. Colorful. Wayuu Tribe – The Wayuu people, their culture and traditions. Retrieved from colorful4u.com
  8. Wooldridge, Anny. A Brief History of Colombia’s Wayuu Tribe. Retrieved from theculturetrip.com

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