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The contemporary Wayana people inhabit a border territory between Brazil, Surinam, and French Guiana. They are composed of several ethnic groups as the Upului, the Opagwana, and the Kukuyana. The Wayana people belong to the Carib group, like the Kalinas (Kali’nas).

During the 18th century, the Wayana’s ancestors lived along the Paru and Jari rivers (territory inside current Brazil) and the upper tributaries of the Oyapock River (the present border between French Guiana and Brazil).

For the Wayana people, death can occur following a malicious action from a shaman or a spirit, by poisoning, suicide, or madness. They can also die from a natural cause like the snake bite, from drowning, illness and oldness.

When an elder asks to die, he is promptly stunned with a club and then eaten.

The deceased’s soul can reach heaven only after the body’s burial, otherwise, the soul is sent back to earth. The returned people are those who have described the afterlife to the living.

The body is painted, covered with feathers, and dressed with its most beautiful adornments. On the head is placed a crown of bright-colored feathers. Around the neck are tied his necklaces, his wood comb, and his flutes made in doe tibias. The arms and legs are covered with multiple bracelets.

The spirit responsible for the death is considered dangerous to the community. To prevent the spirit from leaving the body, the deceased is « strangled » with the rope of his bow, his thumbs and feet are tied carefully, the little finger on each hand is cut. They implant a tip of his bow at the exact place where he has been reached by the enchantment. This process serves to send back the enchantment to the assassin.

Shaman dressed with feathers ready to be buried

In case of sudden death, and before the cremation, they can mutilate the body such as amputating part of the limbs, cutting the tongue, extracting the heart and the liver, burning the skin with oil, shooting arrows or a rifle through the body, prick the genitals parts with sharp bones, prick the lips with pins, cover the eyes with a courbaril bark, place a heated cutting stone on the belly, shove wood splinters in the stomach.

Incineration is a common practice. The chief of the village is the master of ceremonies, in charge of overseeing the incineration process. They lay the body on the logs, the head facing the rising sun, and inflame the pyre from the feet to the head.

Those dead from natural causes and the virtuous people can be buried behind or under their dwelling, under the hut of an abandoned village, or directly in the forest.

The shamans are left in a hammock, inside a cage made of resistant wood, to protect them from animals. Afterward, they dig a tomb 2 m deep, oriented east-west, and plant inside that tomb two posts. The funerary hammock is attached to those posts. The man who dug the grave stays away at a distance for three months.

The shaman’s burial is also a way to distinguish him from the others and to protect the group from his actions.
This custom of placing the dead body in a stretched hammock is applied also to the chiefs.

Cremation scene
Wayana Village

In the tomb, next to the deceased, they put a pot, his bow, a broken fishing rod, his briefcase, his precious objects, and his pearls. Food is not allowed inside.

When a mother dies and doesn’t have a sister able to breastfeed her baby, the baby is put in her arms and buried with her.

Various personal items are deposited next to the body for the cremation.
The nearest male relative has to destroy, burn, or throw in the river any other object that belonged to the deceased. Their sight may rekindle a painful memory.

In case the property of the deceased is too valuable to be destroyed, it may be sold outside the group.

They leave the village after the death of two or three adults (and buried under their huts) or after the chief’s death.
As a sign of mourning, they shave their heads, no longer paint their bodies, no longer wear their traditional leggings, and stop participating in any celebration until the end of the mourning.

During this period, those deeply afflicted cease hunting and start eating summarily. The Wayana people practice alimentary restrictions and suspend some activities during the mourning.

Wayana Family

Even several years after the death, the simple evocation of the deceased’s memory may cause tears for the relatives. For that reason, the name of the dead is never pronounced.

The shaman represents an exception because people keep coming to his tomb asking for advice. According to Wayana’s belief, his immortal soul remains attached to his corpse.

The following souls cannot reach heaven:
– the murderers are expected by their victims and then are killed
– those who have abused animals, especially the toads and the dogs, are punished by the Animals’ Protectors. The one who has killed a dog during his life may be devoured by a gigantic dog or drowned by the same dog during a river crossing.
– the big fishermen are swallowed by the Fish Protectors

The shaman’s spirit can reincarnate into someone else. That person becomes, in turn, a shaman.

Sources :

Bernard Grunberg, Les indiens des petites Antilles, Des premiers peuplements aux débuts de la colonisation européenne

Wikipédia, Wayana (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki)

Stephen Rostain, La mort amérindienne en Amazonie 

(https://www.academia.edu)

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