Piaroa Indians

The Piaroa Indians are an indigenous Indian tribe that lives in the Amazon rainforest near the Orinoco River in Venezuela.  Their mode of transportation is by the bongo, a form of dugout canoe with which they navigate the tributaries of the Amazon. They are considered one of the most peaceful societies in the world, with very little violence in the communities.  In fact, the Piaroa believe that any man who kills another man will himself die a terrible death (including outsiders,) making murder unknown and nonexistent to them. By eliminating ownership and control over others’ labor rather than civil law and punishment, the Piaroa have maintained the peace.

The Piaroa Indians are a talented group of people that make many crafts such as baskets, woven loin clothes, carved benches, pottery, masks, and crowns. These items are primarily used to provide income for the village, but are also used in celebrations and ceremonies. Many of the traditions and artistic skills are vanishing because of the blending of modern cultures.

In one of their more important ceremonies, the Cleansing Ceremony, they use masks and costumes and completely conceal their identities. They take turns calling out deeds that they have committed throughout the year, whether good or bad, and they are either forgiven or dismissed.

This peaceful and almost idyllic society rarely sees any acts of violence and continues on in their peace, regardless of the chaos around them. They prefer to work with one another and are taught to embrace group success instead of missions that will send them on the path to self-gratitude. Through this, they are able to live cohesively and work together as a group instead of fighting against one another in competition.

Janet’s Vacation of Transformation

In a place with beautiful white sand beaches and perfect weather all year round, Janet Browning finds it hard to relax, despite being on vacation in paradise. The year is 1996. The place is Venezuela.  This is her first trip to South America, and she is sharing it with close friends and family.  They are all enjoying normal vacation events such as swimming and eating exotic foods.   And of coarse, shopping.

Visiting all the different villages was very educational for the group, but also a little unsettling.  The vendors were very enthusiastic about their crafts, especially one Piaroa man in the Market.  He was showing Janet the details of his wooden snake carvings with the realistic tongue, and she definitely admired his dedication and hard work.

But, there were just too many crafts and craftsmen to choose from, and she ended up getting another snake from another vendor.  When she passed the first man, the look on his face touched her.  So much, in fact, that it changed her life.She saw more than just disappointment. She saw his children sitting at their table with no food.  She saw how this one sale meant more for him than anyone really comprehended. And right then, she made a promise to her daughters that they would be back to buy everything. Six months later, she returned, as promised. This was the beginning of Janet’s inspirational journey to lend her hands around the world.

Piaroa Children

From a very young age, children are taught to be respectful and use self-discipline. Though they are never punished in a physical way, they are treated with silence until their behaviour is corrected. From the ages of 8-15, children attend school, where they are taught to speak Spanish and learn history.

Hunting and Blowguns

This blow gun is fully functional and measures 34 inches long. It is covered with a woven palm leaf. The quiver is also made of woven palm leaves. The ends of the darts are finished with natural cotton or fiber from the kapok tree.


piaroa blow gun

Piaroa hunting with blowgun – 2006


Piaroa hunting with blowgun

Piaroa roasting tarantula to eat – 2006

Piaroa Shaman

The basics behind the Piaroa peacefulness are their religious beliefs. They believe the ancient gods were violent, greedy, and arrogant. The shaman controls that violence by chanting and blowing words into a water and honey mixture every night, which the tribe consumes the next morning. This process keeps them safe for another day. While most adults are shamans to a degree, most villages have only one or two that can heal sickness and offer spiritual protection.

Tradition for the Piarao involves mummifying the dead and placing the body and its belongings in a cave. However, about 80 percent of the Piaroa have become Christian since the 1950s, and today most bodies are buried underground. Even though many have converted, all deaths are still blamed on mær, or evil spirits. Until the mær are destroyed by sacred rituals, the ghosts of the dead are believed to walk the earth then they can return to the spirit world.

Any kind of sickness or disease is also though to be given by mœr for disobeying the values of the society. The shamans sing to their spirit helpers who overpower the evil spirits and heal the patient. Other herbal remedies are also used such as aloe. However, in recent years, Western medicine has become more and more popular.

Two kinds of shaman exist in the Piaroa culture: the meñura, who is the master of song, and the ñ ærærua, master of hallucinogens. The seeds from the tree Anadanthera peregrina produce a hallucinogenic effect when consumed, and the Piaroa shaman use this seed to sing all night in order to please the spirits of good will.

The shaman teaches the children self-discipline and respect from an early age. The children are never punished physically, but usually by silence to restrain any unwanted behavior. Children eight to 15 attend school regularly and are taught to speak Spanish and all about the Venezuelan culture. Anything that promotes the individual, such as talents, ambitions, and courage is discouraged. However, individual decisions are accepted and never negatively criticized.

Ricardo Caballero – 2006

 

 

Piaroa shamen

 

Cleansing Ceremony and Masks

This ceremonial figure below depicts a participant in a yearly “cleansing” ceremony in which the participants are completely covered with masks and costumes in order to hide their identity. During the ceremony, all things of importance done by members of the tribe, good and bad, from small kindnesses to infidelity, are called out for all to hear. The tribe listens quietly and considers all deeds to be either honored or cleansed. The Piaroa make their costumes, masks, and figures with natural fibers, reeds, bark, and vegetable dyes found in the rain forest. The faces of the masks are formed with beeswax, then painted using dyes. The base of the masks or helmets are a basket form which is then covered with a pliable bark-like substance which in turn is covered with the beeswax. The costumes and ceremonial figures depict the various mythological creatures taking part in the ceremony. The figure is eight inches tall.


ceremonial figure

The Piaroa Indian tribe is very traditional in its celebrations and dancing. The masks and figures below are made for the Warime dance which is a yearly cleansing ceremony as well as an initiation ceremony for young men. Participants cover themselves totally in bark or fiber costumes with masks that represent animal or mythological spirits. The masks are intricately made with a basket form which is then covered in beeswax molded to the characters they wish. Details are painted in clay and a fiber or bark fringe is added. Small masks are worn on the hands like puppets. Mask making is done only by men. A special hut is built in which the men make the masks in the weeks preceding the ceremony. The process is guarded from the women of the tribe. Only a few Piaroa are still mask makers.

 

Spirit of the Woods mask monkey mask piaroa mask
“Spirit of the Woods” mask measures 30″ from the top to the bottom of the fiber. The face measures 4 1/2″ x 4″. “Monkey” mask measures 30″ from the top to the bottom of the fiber. The face measures 5 1/2″ x 5″. “Monkey” mask measures 18″ from the top to the bottom of the fiber. The face measures 3 inches in diameter.

 

Spirit of the Woods mask Capuchin Monkey mask
“Spirit of the Woods” mask measures 26″ from the top to the bottom of the fiber. The face measures 5 1/2″ x 5″. “Capuchin Monkey” mask measures 27″ from the top to the bottom of the fiber. The face measures 7″ x 9″.

 

Warime Figurines

These figures are made of palm bark cloth with heads made using the same techniques as used for the masks. They represent the dancers in the Warime ceremony.

Warime ceremony Monkey dancer figure Warime ceremony Spirit of the Woods dancer figure
Warime ceremony “Monkey” dancer figure. 9″ tall. Warime ceremony “Spirit of the Woods” dancer figure. 9″ tall.

Musical Instruments: Morocoto and Calabash Rattles

The Piaroa also make a variety of musical instruments. They make rattles especially for the Huirame ceremony as well as other rituals and ceremonies throughout the year. This basket rattle is called morocoto. Morocoto means big fish. When it is shaken it sounds like a fish thrashing inside a fish trap basket. The morocoto is made only for the Huirame ceremony and is used that one time of year by the dancers in the ceremony. It is a basket shape with seed pods inside.


This basket rattle is called morocoto.
9″ x 8″

These sacred Piaroa shamans rattles are made of calabash that has been engraved with designs while still green. They are trimmed with large feathers of the black currassow and colorful feathers of parrots and other tropical birds. They are filled with seeds and magical crystals called wanali stones.

sacred Piaroa shamans rattles sacred Piaroa shamans rattles
16″ tall 16 1/2″ tall
etched Piaroa rattles etched Piaroa rattles
10″ to 12″ etched Piaroa rattles 17″ tall

Balsa Sculptures

The Piaroa collect the light-weight Balsa wood native to the rain forest to carve their sculptures. All sculptures are hand-carved and hand-decorated with natural dyes from plants also gathered in the rain forests. Birds, animals and figures from their mythology play an integral part in their art.

Balsa wood turtles
Balsa wood turtles average 6″ long.

Featured Artist

Jose Rodriguez is a Curripaco (Koo-ree-pac-oh) Indian living in the village of Agua Blanca in the Amazon Basin. The Curripacos are a branch of the Piaroa Indians. He is a very talented artist who carves small jungle birds that can be strung together. He carves them from light-weight balsa wood. Jose was so excited that we had bought all his birds and would buy more that he promptly named our area guide, Julio, his infant son’s godfather!

Seed and Bead Necklaces

The Piaroa are very artistic and make many traditional crafts including necklaces made of seeds and beads, often with bones or teeth of rainforest animals as well.

Seeds, beads, and a caiman tooth Seeds, beads, and a caiman tooth. 15 1/2″ in length.
Seeds, snake vertebrae, and anteater claw. Seeds, snake vertebrae, and anteater claw. 19″ in length.
Seeds, snake vertebrae, and tapir tusk. Seeds, snake vertebrae, and tapir tusk. 19″ in length.

Additional Information

The Yutaje Camp in the Amazonas State of Venezuela
Piaroa language
Piaroa Da Venezuela
Los Piaroa
Mosquitas polinizadoras (Diptera: Ceratopogonidae) del cacao colectadas en comunidades Piaroa en Amazonas, Venezuela.
Language Museum – Piaroa
Piaroa ( Kuakua, Guagua, Quaqua ) Spoken on the south bank of Orinoco River.
Venezuela/Planeta.com – A growing problem in Amazonas has been the explosive growth of “ecotourism” ventures.

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