The Guayupe Indigenous People of Colombia: Resilience, Culture and a Path Forward

The Guayupe indigenous people, also known as Guahibo, are a distinct and culturally profound group that has had a significant presence in Colombia.

They are primarily located in the Orinoco River basin, which spans the border region between Colombia and Venezuela. Within Colombia, they inhabit the eastern plains, particularly in the departments of Meta and Vichada. This region is covered by vast savannas and tropical forests and the Guayupe people have developed a way of life closely connected to these ecosystems.

At the time of the Spanish conquest, more than 250,000 Guayupe lived in much of Meta. The Guayupe‘s territory stretched over an area of ​​22,000 sq. km/8,500 sq. miles, from the adjacent Guajibos region in the east and north to the Muisca region in the west.

The Guayupe lived mainly around the Ariali River.

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The history of the Guayupe people extends back centuries, long before the arrival of Spanish Conquistadors in the Americas. They are one of the oldest indigenous groups in the region. The Guayupe have a fascinating history, but not that much is known about them.

Their ancestors inhabited the vast plains of the Orinoco River basin, relying on hunting, fishing and gathering for their subsistence. They had developed intricate social and cultural practices, closely tied to the natural world.
In pre-Columbian times they constructed palisades (wooden fences) around their villages, which comprised houses around a central square with a ceremonial building in the middle.

As a result of these imposing defense works, including palisades, thorn bushes and well-camouflaged pitfalls, the invading Spanish soldiers nicknamed these well-fortified villages “Little Salses”, referring to the Catalan Fort de Salses, an innovative type of fortress at this time.

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The arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors brought significant changes to the Guayupe way of life. The Spanish were attracted to the Guayupe‘s gold and other riches, especially as the Guayupe people stripped naked and were adorned with only gold, feathers and shells.

The Guayupe suffered greatly under Spanish rule. Their population was decimated by disease and forced labor. The Guayupe were also forced to abandon their traditional culture and way of life.

After Colombia gained independence from Spain in 1819, the Guayupe began to rebuild their lives. However, they continued to face discrimination and persecution from the Colombian government and society. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Guayupe were displaced from their traditional lands by loggers and miners.

In more recent years, the Guayupe have made progress in asserting their rights and reclaiming their cultural heritage. They have established their own government and educational system. They are also working to preserve their language and culture.

The Guayupe population today is relatively small compared to some other indigenous groups in Colombia and is estimated to be around 10,000 people. However, this number is difficult to verify, as the Guayupe are very private people and they live in remote areas. They continue to practice their traditions and maintain their cultural identity.

The Guayupe people have their own indigenous language, known as Guayupe or Guahibo. It is part of the Guahiban linguistic family. Their language is central to their cultural identity and serves as a means of transmitting their traditional knowledge and heritage. While Spanish is widely spoken in the region, the Guayupe language remains an important aspect of their cultural identity and efforts have been made to preserve and revitalize it.

The Guayupe have an in-depth and complex system of religious beliefs. They believe in a supreme creator god named Chibchachum. They also worship several other spirits, including those of their ancestors. As in the Muisca religion, the main deities were the couple Sun and Moon.

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The Guayupe believe that they have a special responsibility to care for the Earth. They believe that the Earth is a living being and that humans must live in harmony with nature.

They practice several religious ceremonies, including:

  • The Yurupari ceremony:  male initiation that is held every 8-10 years. This lasts for several months and it is designed to prepare young men for adulthood.
  • The Owa ritual:  a female instigation that is held every 4-5 years. The ceremony lasts for several weeks and it is designed to prepare young women for their adulthood.
  • The Curanderismo observance:  a healing rite that is performed by shamans. The ceremony is used to treat a variety of illnesses and diseases.

Shamans, known as payés in Guayupe culture, play a crucial role in guiding these ceremonies and maintaining the spiritual well-being of the community.

The Guayupe society was organized around the Cacique, a community chief. The Cacique was considered an important figure who lived according to strict traditions in ceremonial activities.
When a Guayupe Cacique died, the body was cremated and his heirs had to drink the ashes mixed into a chicha (fermented beverage). The ceremonial elements used by the Guayupe people were coca and tobacco.

The Guayupe hold a deep reverence for the plants and animals of their region, many of which have profound spiritual significance.

The Guayupe are a traditional people who live a simple life. The centuries-old economy of the Guayupe is based on hunting, fishing and gathering. They are skilled hunters and fishermen, relying on the abundant supply of wildlife in the region for sustenance. The savannas and forests provide a diverse range of edible plants and medicinal herbs.

In recent times, some Guayupe communities have diversified their economic activities to include modern agriculture and artisanal production. These efforts provide economic stability while preserving their cultural heritage.

Despite all the challenges faced over the years, the Guayupe people have maintained their cultural practices and continued to hold a deep connection to their ancestral lands and traditions.

The Guayupe face various opportunities and challenges as they look toward the future. The region they inhabit is experiencing changes due to urbanization and resource exploitation. Ensuring the protection of their ancestral lands and the preservation of their cultural heritage is of paramount importance.

Language revitalization efforts and cultural preservation initiatives are essential for securing the unique identity of the Guayupe people. These efforts promote the transmission of traditional knowledge, rituals and ceremonies to younger generations.

Additionally, the Guayupe are navigating the challenges of engaging with the modern world while preserving their traditions. Initiatives that promote sustainable resource management, cultural preservation and economic sustainability are essential to ensure the continuity of their culture.

The Colombian government has taken steps to support and empower indigenous communities, including the Guayupe people. There are legal provisions and policies in place to protect indigenous rights, land and culture. Additionally, the government has recognized the value of indigenous knowledge and practices in environmental conservation and sustainable development.

The Guayupe Indigenous people of the Orinoco River basin in Colombia are a culturally rich and resilient community with a history that extends back for centuries. The challenges and opportunities they face in the modern world, including environmental conservation, cultural preservation and sustainable development, are integral to their continued journey of upholding their traditions. Efforts to secure land rights, protect their cultural heritage and support their sustainable future are vital for the well-being and cultural preservation of the Guayupe people.

In 1996, fifteen ceramic vases related to the Guayupe culture were discovered. While in 2011, after the excavation of a Guayupe burial site, the Guayupe Museum was opened in Fuente de Oro, displaying bones, burial urns, artifacts, plates and other items. 2009 saw the inaugural annual Reina de Guayupe beauty pageant among the Guayupe tribe in Puerto Santander.

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