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At the time of the Spaniards' arrival to the Americas in 1492, Arawak and Carib cultures constituted the two most important indigenous groups in Venezuela. The Arawaks established their lives along the Atlantic coast and the Amazon River shores, while the Caribs migrated to the northeast coast of the country around Lake Maracaibo and the shoreline of the Orinoco. Other native groups included the Sálivas, Guamos, Maipures, and Otomacos, who lived in the Llanos or Orinoco plains, and the Motilones, Guajiros, Bubures, Zaparas, Allies, Ambaes, Toas and Kirikires, who occupied the western territory. The Spanish conquistadors found these indigenous groups lacked a centralized political structure and large urban centers such as those of the Incas or Aztecs; rather they were composed of small and unrelated tribal groups, each representing different cultures. Although some researchers have downplayed the relevance of these indigenous communities, their contribution to the country's heritage has been rich and important.
History of Native Peoples in Venezuela
By 1498 when the Spanish arrived, Venezuela's indigenous tribes were experts in hunting with traps, arrows, darts and blowpipes. They cultivated numerous plant species such as maize, manioc, pumpkin, pineapple and papaya, and cleared fields for agriculture by felling trees and burning vegetation. They also used methods of irrigation, terracing and fertilization to increase crop yields. Natives developed pottery-making skills and created cooking utensils that can be traced back to 3500 - 3200 b.c.e., according to Sanoja and Vargas. Some of the indigenous communities developed permanent villages, roads and transportation, and built round or rectangular collective houses where the entire community ï‚¾a couple of hundred individualsï‚¾ could live. Today, Ye'kwana, Panare, Piaroa and Pemón communities located in the Venezuelan Amazon continue to construct these types of houses.
During the early Spanish colonial period, many of Venezuela's indigenous groups vanished without a trace, due to defeat in combat, capture as slaves or assimilation into Spanish culture by Franciscan and Capuchin missionaries. Indigenous groups left behind very little written information about their history and heritage; surviving accounts have mostly been written by Spanish conquerors. However, through historical and archaeological research scientists have studied patterns of subsistence, politics, settlement and cultural practices that have continued from the colonial period into the present day. Indigenous traditions, food, religion and language have helped to shape Venezuelan identity. For instance, the culinary tradition of Venezuelan households includes indigenous dishes such as arepas, hallacas, casabe and cachapas, all of which are staples of family menus.
In terms of demographics, figures from 1992 reported 38 distinct indigenous groups. But the 2001 Venezuelan Census recognized only 35 different native groups, mainly concentrated in the south and west areas of the nation, which included 532,783 indigenous inhabitants representing around two percent of the entire country's population. These figures vary due to factors such as the cultural assimilation of certain groups and the lack of accessibility to remote communities, which are generally ignored by the official records. Only a few of these communities have maintained their traditional forms of housing, religion, myths, legends or arts, and significantly most of the native languages have been supplanted by Spanish. According to researchers, only 30 of 100 indigenous languages that existed in the sixteenth century are spoken today.
Among the largest indigenous groups, the Wayuu, Warao, Pemon, Añu, Jivi, Piaroa, Kariña and Yanomami have attempted to preserve their language and cultural traditions. The Wayuu --or Guajiro-- the largest indigenous group, represents 57 percent of Venezuela's entire indigenous population with approximately 179,318 inhabitants. They live in the dry lands and coastal areas of the Guajira Peninsula, a territory that covers part of Venezuela and Colombia, and Guajiros generally move freely between both countries. Although the Guajiros have been highly exposed to western culture, they continue to speak their own language and have preserved their rituals, ceremonial dances, myths and traditional medicine; one such ritual is called the yonna, consisting of a ceremonial dance which celebrates rites of passage and special occasions. The Guajiros are also known for their folk art and crafts. Nowadays part of the indigenous population has migrated to cities where they live in small communities and work in the informal economy. Men usually work in the construction sector and women as domestic servants; however a few Guajiros occupy strategic positions of power. Noeli Pocaterra, for example, a native Wayuu leader of Venezuela's permanent commission for the protection of indigenous peoples, became Vice President of Venezuela's Congress in 1999.
Historically Venezuelan indigenous communities have been severely threatened by western cultures. They have frequently been driven from their lands, which have been exploited and sometimes destroyed. In 1947, in order to study the human condition of indigenous communities, Venezuela's government created the Indigenous Commission, and in 1959 this commission became the official authority responsible for developing an indigenous policy. However it was not until the end of the twentieth century that the indigenous communities became formally and legally organized. In 1989 twenty regional indigenous organizations created the National Indigenous Council of Venezuela (CONIVE) in order to protect their lands and demand respect for their cultures. Venezuela's new constitution, approved in 1999, formally guaranteed the indigenous population's right to exist and the right to preserve their languages, cultures, and territories. Indigenous peoples also gained the right to hold three representative seats in the National Assembly. In addition, the state committed to assisting the indigenous communities to demarcate their lands and to promote indigenous culture and languages through a bilingual education program. In 2002 the Indigenous Commission was responsible for the development of the Indigenous Law approved in the National Constitution in 1999. These actions represented significant progress in the preservation and development of Venezuelan indigenous communities.
Since taking office in 1999, President Hugo Chavez has received considerable support from Venezuela's indigenous communities. Through the 1999 constitution, shepherded to passage by his political allies, Chavez paved the way for the preservation of indigenous habitats and gave native groups representation in the legislature. And in 2003 the government announced the creation of a social program called Guaicaipuro Mission to promote development among Venezuela's indigenous groups. The project ï‚¾named for the Venezuelan Indian chief who fought the Spaniardsï‚¾ includes demarcation of aboriginal lands, community development through low interest credit to indigenous people, and defense of indigenous' rights against exploitation by business interests. This social program represents a reaffirmation of constitutional rights for Venezuela's indigenous population.
However, despite these measures and social programs, the current reality is that most indigenous peoples continue to live in below-average social and economic conditions and they remain underrepresented politically. Nonetheless, indigenous groups and leaders continue to work for their rights and the development of viable social programs. Although their hopes and dreams have not yet been fully realized, their struggle for economic, social and political power continues.
Ana L. Servigna