Historical Encounters with the Yanomami
Before the European conquerors arrived in the Upper Orinoco in the middle of the eighteenth century, the Yanomami lived mainly in the Sierra Parima region located in southeastern Venezuela near the Brazilian border. As the population rapidly grew, the Yanomami descended little by little reaching the channels of the Orinoco river and then the Ocamo, Mavaca, and Manaviche.
During this expansion, the Yanomami made contact with other indigenous peoples such as the Yekuana, the Maco, and the Arawak. Despite initial tensions with the Arawak, they managed to establish trade relations. Up until the middle of the 20th century, the relationships between the Yanomami and other indigenous peoples, mainly with the Yekuana, were characterized as antagonistic. The first references of the Yanomami (known during that time as Guaharibo or Guaica/Waika) by Spanish conquistadores came from reports provided by the Yekuana, Maco, and Baré people during the end of the eighteenth century. However, there are no historical records that reference interactions between the Yekuana and Yanomami for that time period. According to historiographical and cartographic data, the Yekuana mainly occupied the riverbanks of the Padamo and Cunucunuma rivers while the Yanomami were located more towards the headwaters of the Orinoco, Sierra Parima and Upper Uraricoera.
Codazzi (1960) noted that the causes of the conflicts between the Yanomami and the Yekwana in early 20th century were due in part to the Yanomami expansion into the northwest; and the Yekwana abducting Yanomami people during trade. 19th century explorers Robert Schomburk and Jean Chaffanjon also referred the relationship between the two indigenous groups as hostile. They even attributed their difficulties in reaching the headwaters of the Orinoco River to the Yekwana guides fearing being attacked by the Yanomami.
According to German explorer Koch-Grünberg, the Yekuana established trade relations with Yanomami people scattered throughout the east and southeast along the Upper Orinoco by the beginning of the 20th century. The Yekuana traded steel goods for Yanomami cotton used for making hammocks. They were always afraid, Hoch-Grunber noted, of being attacked by the Yanomami.
Since the Yekuana were expert river navigators, they were often served as guides for the explorers searching for the headwaters of the Orinoco. The Yekuana told these explorers that the Yanomami were dangerous and fierce; painting them as wild, savage, and warlike.
In recent years, the Yanomami and the Yekuana have managed to coexist peacefully in some communities situated on the Padamo and Erebato rivers. Today the Yanomami exchange bows, arrows, cotton, vegetable fibers and bananas for axes, machetes, yucca rails, guayuco fabrics and various equipment used for hunting and fishing. Along the Erebato river the Yekuana “contract” the Sanema (a subgroup of Yanomam) for various labor-intensive tasks in and around the village thus creating a novel relationship in which Yanomami provide labor in economic exchanges.
Today, the Yekuana do not fear the Yanomami like their ancestors did. However, many continue to view the Yanomami as an inferior people often rejecting their customs and norms of Yanomami culture. In the sociopolitical realm, the balance of power and representation between these two indigenous groups, especially in the Upper Orinoco municipality have been increasingly unequal. The Yanomami people, though the majority within Upper Orinoco, have historically been dominated by the Yekuana influence in political affairs. It is important for current research surrounding intercultural relationship to consider the political situation of the Upper Orinoco municipality, the role of indigenous leaders in the public sphere, the territorial zones that they share, the exchange of goods, and hired labor in economic transactions.
This essay was translated and adapted from Los Yanomami (Caracas: Fundación Editorial El Perro y la Rana, 2011). written by Hortensia Caballero-Arias, Ph.D.