ethnic group


poptime=approx. 2,500 (various post-2001 est.)
popplace=Waorani settlements: approx. 4,000,
Nomadic "uncontacted" Tagaeri, Taromenane, Huiñatare, and Oñamenane: approx. 250,
rels=Animist, Christian
langs=Wao Tiriro, many also speak Spanish.
related=Kichwa, Shuar, Achuar, Siona people, Secoya people, Shiwiar, Záparo, Cofán

The Huaorani, Waorani, or Waos are native amerindians from the Amazonian Region of Ecuador (in the Oriente region) with some marked differences with the others ethnic groups from Ecuador. (Auca is another, pejorative, name given by neighboring Kichwa Indians and commonly used by Spanish-speakers as well, "awka" - "awqa" in Quechua - meaning "enemy".) They comprise almost 4,000 inhabitants and speak the Huaorani language, a linguistic isolate without congeneres. Their ancestral lands are located between the Curaray and Napo rivers, about 50 miles (80 km) south of El Coca. These homelands are threatened by oil exploration and illegal logging practices. They are approximately 120 miles (190 km) wide and 75 to 100 miles (120 to 160 km) from north to south. The Huaorani have guarded their lands from both indigenous foes and outsider colonials (who they sometimes refer to as "cowode", literally "nonhuman cannibals").

In the last 40 years, they have become a largely settled people living mostly in permanent forest settlements. As many as five communities, the Tagaeri, the Huiñatare, the Oñamenane and two groups of the Taromenane, have rejected all contact with non-Waorani, and continuously move into more isolated areas, generally towards the Peruvian border.


The word "Waorani" means "human or hombre" in Wao Tiriro. Before the mid 20th century, it only included those kin associated with the speaker. Others in the ethnic group were called "Waomoni", while outsiders were and are known by the derogatory term "cowodi". This structure duplicates the in-group/out-group naming conventions used by many peoples, and may reflect a period of traumatic conflict with outsiders during the 19th and early 20th century rubber boom.

The name "Waorani" reflects a phoneticization by English-speaking missionary linguists. The phonetic equivalent used by Spanish-speakers is "Huaorani" (reflecting the absence of 'w' in Spanish usage.)


The Waorani are subdivided into the Huamuno Dayuno, Quehueruno, Garzacocha (Yasuní River), Quemperi (Cononaco River) Mima, and Caruhue.



In the animist Waorani worldview, there is no distinction between the physical and spiritual worlds and spirits are present throughout the world. The Waorani once believed that the entire world was a forest (and used the same word, "ömë", for both) and the Oriente’s rainforest remains the essential basis of their physical and cultural survival. For them, the forest is home, while the outside world is unsafe: living in the forest offers protection from the witchcraft and attacks of neighboring peoples. In short, as one Huaorani put it, “The rivers and trees are our life.” (Kane 1995:199) In all its specificities, the forest is woven into each Huaorani’s life and conceptions of the world. They have remarkably detailed knowledge of its geography and ecology.

Plants, especially trees, hold a complex and important interest for the Huaorani. Their store of botanical knowledge is extensive and ranges from knowledge of materials to poisons to hallucinogens to medicines. They also relate plants to their own experiences, particularly that of growing. Among trees, certain kinds are auspicious. Canopy trees, with their distinctly colored young leaves and striking transformation as they mature to towering giants, are “admired for their solitary character … as well as for their profuse entanglement” with other plants. Other significant trees are the pioneer species of the peach palm (used for making spears and blowguns, as well as for fruit), and fast-growing balsa wood, used for ceremonial purposes. Peach palm trees are associated with past settlements and the ancestors who live there. (Rival 1993)

The Waorani believe the animals of their forest have a spiritual as well as physical existence. They believe that when one dies he walks a trail to the afterlife which has a large python in waiting. Those among the dead who cannot escape the python fail to enter the domain of dead spirits and return to Earth to become animals, often termites. This underlies a peculiar mix of practices that recognize and respect animals, but do not shield them from harm for human use. Huaroani who become Christians believe that God sent his son to experience death and walk the trail and encounter the python for them.

Hunting supplies a major part of the Waorani diet and is of cultural significance. Traditionally, the creatures hunted were limited to monkeys, birds, and wild peccaries. Neither land-based predators nor birds of prey are hunted. There is also an extensive collection of hunting and eating taboos. They refuse to eat deer on the grounds that deer eyes look similar to human eyes. While a joyful activity, hunting (even permitted animals) has ethical ramifications: “The Huaorani must kill animals to live, but they believe dead animal spirits live on and must be placated or else do harm in angry retribution.” (Seamans 1996) To counterbalance the offense of hunting, a shaman demonstrates respect through the ritual preparation of the poison, curare, used in blow darts. Hunting with such darts is not even considered killing, but retrieving, another kind of harvesting from the trees. Spearing wild peccaries on the other hand, is killing and is practiced with violence and rage. (Rival 2002)

While never hunted, two other animals, the snake and the jaguar have special significance for the Huaorani. Snakes are considered "the most evil force in the Huaorani cosmology" (Kane 1995:44), particularly the imposing (though nonvenemous) anaconda, or "obe". A giant obe stands in the way of the forest trail that the dead follow to an afterlife with the creator in the sky. Here on earth, snakes are a very bad omen and killing them is a powerful taboo.

The Waorani identify themselves deeply with the jaguar, an important and majestic predator in the Oriente. According to myth, the Huaorani were the descendants of a mating between a jaguar and an eagle. Elders become shamans by metaphorically adopting “jaguar sons” whose spirits communicate medical and spiritual knowledge. In the Huaorani belief system, jaguar shamans are able “to become a jaguar, and so to travel great distances telepathically and communicate with other Huaorani.” Fact|date=February 2007

As with many peoples, the Waos maintained a strong in-group/out-group distinction, between "Waorani" (people who are kin), "Waomoni" (others in their culture who are unrelated) and "cowode", other humans described as inhuman cannibals. It is not known if their view of outsiders predates the slavery and kidnapping associated with the 19th century rubber boom. The use of Waorani as a term for their entire culture emerged in the last fifty years in a process of ethnogenesis, which was greatly accelerated by the creation of ONHAE (see "Indigenist political reorganization" below), a radio service and a soccer league.

The Waorani notion of time is particularly oriented to the present, with few obligations extending backwards or forwards in time. Their one word for future times, "baane", also means "tomorrow". (Rival 2002)


Spears are the main weapons of the Waorani culture used in person to person conflict.

Their main hunting weapon is the blowgun. These weapons are typically from 3 to 4 metres long, and the arrows that are in them have curare poison, which paralyzes the muscles of the animal that is hit with it, so that it cannot breathe. With the introduction of western technology in the 20th century, many Waorani have come to use rifles for hunting.


Waorani families practice endogamy, especially cross-cousin marriages — Hannah Grintle may marry her cousin(s) from one or more sisters on his father's side, or from brother(s) on his mother's side (and necessarily vice-versa with regard to females and their marriage choices). The men may also have multiple wives. Sometimes, a man will kill another man to gain another wife; this was traditionally common if a man had no available cousin to marry.

Huaorani women remove all their body hair by first rubbing ash in the areas they do not want hair, allegedly to reduce the pain, then pulling out the hair.

Recent history

Around the time of World War II, there was a great increase of inter-clan killings: at this time it was estimated that up to 60% of all Huaorani deaths were due to murder. Some of the Huaorani trace the beginning of the killing to the breakdown of clan relationships around ten generations prior to this time. Prior to this period large gatherings frequently brought distant clans together from time to time to celebrate and arrange marriages, among other activities. These were organized by informal tribal leaders (although the Huaorani have no chiefs or formal leadership in general). When these gatherings became less common clans became estranged and offended with one another and conflicts began to escalate until the Huaorani became one of the most violent cultures ever documented (Saint 2005).

In 1956, a group of five American missionaries, led by Jim Elliot and pilot Nate Saint, made contact with the Huaorani in what was known as Operation Auca. Two days after friendly contact with three Huaorani, all five of the missionaries were killed in a spearing attack by a larger group from the same Huaorani clan. Nate Saint's sister, Rachel Saint, prior to these killings, had befriended a Huaorani woman named Dayuma. It is undisputed that most of Dayuma's clan had been killed in the inter-clan battles. Saint, Dayuma, and Jim Elliot's wife Elisabeth converted several of the Huaorani to Christianity. This helped break the cycle of violence in stopping most of the revenge killings that had threatened the very existence of the Huaorani clans. Pacification of the Huaorani and reliance upon missionaries for dealing with the outside world did, however, eventually allow increased oil scouting in the area over the years. With the discovery by Texaco of large petroleum reserves in the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest in 1968, potential for conflict was again renewed. Eventually a deal was brokered in which many of the Huaorani were subsequently concentrated into a protectorate under the responsibility of SIL International.

Once the Huaorani schools were brought under the control of SIL missionaries, there was an attempt made to teach the beliefs of Christianity. There was also an attempt made to convert the tribe from hunting-and-gathering to farming in order to provide an agro-export, thus "contribut [ing] to the national good".Fact|date=February 2007 Teachers were mainly of the neighboring Quichua. New systems of government were also introduced.

Acting on the advice of anthropologist James Yost, SIL eventually asked that Rachel Saint leave the Huaorani due to her interference with their culture and concerns about fostering dependency on imported goods (Brysk 2000:220). Rather than follow these instructions, Saint left SIL, maintaining her relationship with the Ecuadorian government. Since that time, the 60 mile (100 km) Vía Auca has contributed to the rise of oil exploration and settlers in Huaorani territory. [cite journal|last=Rudel|first=T.K.|coauthors=D. Bates, R. Machinguiashi|year=2002|title=Ecologically noble Amerindians? Cattle ranching and cash cropping among the Shuar and colonists in Ecuador|journal=Latin American Research Review|issue=37|pages=144–159] [ Demographic studies of Amazonian colonists]

Nowadays (2008), the Huaorani have about 6,800 km² of land, about one third of their original land. Some work with tourism companies, and others obtain education until University level. Half of the small children attend schools in Spanish, but others still spend their days hunting and gathering.

Indigenous political reorganization

Prior to 1989, the Huaorani were very divided and politically unorganized. Of the more than two dozen settlements, the two permanent ones were Rachel Saint's (the Toñampare) and Dayuno, which was also under missionary influence. There were also a number of traditional clans and the Tagaeri. Though the Huaorani were surviving and healthy, their society in the two largest settlements was controlled almost entirely by missionaries, and there was no clear voice to communicate to the outside world.

In 1989, some of the Waorani attempted to regroup. A group consisting of over sixty, known as the Ñihuari and led by a man named Ñame, left Dayuno and traveled to the Shiripuno River, where they founded the community of Quehueire Ono. The main intention of this settlement was to create a community separate from the mission settlements (and Rachel Saint's/Dayuma's dominance) and return to the old Huaorani culture, though without giving up some of the more modern tools. A school was begun in the settlement in 1990, thanks to funding from the Napo Provincial Government. By 1993, Quehueire Ono was the second-largest Huaorani community, with approximately 223 members.

In March 1990, an organization called ONHAE (The Organization of the Huaorani Nation of the Amazonian from Ecuador; the acronym means flower) was founded. This was with the assistance of CONFENIAE (confederacion de nacionalidades Indigenas del Ecuador), of which ONHAE later became a member. The main purpose of ONHAE was to provide for self-representation of the Huaorani in dealings with the Ecuadorian government, oil companies and other "cowode". Also thanks to CONFENIAE, the Huaorani were given legal ownership of over 2,600 square miles (6700 km²) of land, approximately one third of the traditional lands. ONHAE currently operated by holding consensus-based assemblies ("Biye" in Huao Terero) drawn from across the contacted Huaorani communities.

An August 2005 assembly of over 250 Huaorani convoked by Moi Enomenga, ONHAE and AMWAE (Association of Huaorani Women of the Ecuadorian Amazon) in the community of Tiwino (Orellana province) further rejected drilling and denounced ten Huaorani, contracted by the company to negotiate, for acting without broader support. ONHAE is currently headed by President Nancano Enomenga and Vice President Moi Enomenga.

Land rights

In 1990, the Waorani won the rights to an indigenous reserve covering some 6,125.60 square kilometres, thus enabling a semi-autonomous existence. A demarcation process is underway to surround this region with a distinctive band of monoculture trees in order to discourage colonization. However, the land title does not extend to subsoil minerals including extensive oil deposits. The Ecuadorian government has proceeded to license the petroleum drilling rights in the region to multinational oil corporations. The protected status of Yasuní National Park, which overlaps with the Huaorani reserve provides some measure of environmental protection. Additionally, the government has created a protected zone to avoid contact with the Tagaeri.

The conflict over oil drilling rights came to head once again in 2005, as many Waorani have vocally challenged the national government's concession of Oil Block 31 to Petrobras to drill in 1,000 km² of Yasuní National Park. A delegation of more than 100 Waorani to Quito in July called on the national government and that of Brazilian President Lula da Silva to withdrawal from Yasuni.

Recently the Waos have adopted modern technology including GPS and digital mapping, in their effort to resist encroachment on their traditional lands. [] [ National Geographic article]

ee also

* List of Huaorani people
* Operation Auca



*Beyond the Gates of Splendor (2005). [Documentary] .
* Colby, Gerard and Charlotte Dennett, "Thy Will Be Done, the Conquest of the Amazon: Nelson Rockefeller and Evangelism in the Age of Oil" HarperCollins, 1995, Hardcover. 960 pages, ISBN 0-06-016764-5; HarperCollins: Janice Temple, 1996, Paperback. 1008 pages, ISBN 0-06-092723-2
*Pancorbo, Luis (2003): "Los Pies Rojos del Ecuador" en "Río de América". Pp. 145-203. Laertes, Barcelona.
* " [ Huaorani Elect New Anti-Oil Officer to ONHAE, the Huaorani Government] " (2005). "Yasuní Rainforest Campaign".
* Rival, Laura. " [ Right to a way of life] ", "Resurgence" 189.
* Rival, Laura. (1993) "The Growth of Family Trees: Understanding Huaorani Perceptions of the Forest." "Man" 28(December), 635-652.
*cite book|author=Robarchek, Carole and Clayton Robarchek|year=1997| title=Waorani: The Contexts of Violence and War|publisher=Harcourt Brace College Publishers | url =
*cite journal | first = Steve | last = Saint | authorlink = Steve Saint | year = 1996 | title = Did They Have to Die? | journal = Christianity Today | issue = 16 September 1996 | pages = 20–27 | url =
*Seamans, Joe. " [ The Last Shaman] ". NOVA website. 1996.

External links

* [ Community Ecotourism Program]
* [ WAORANI, A Vanishing Culture]
* [ Peoples of the World: Huaorani]
* [ The Advocacy Project: Profile on Huaorani]
* [ Waorani - The Saga of Ecuador's Secret People: A Historical Perspective]
* [ A film about the missionaries who were killed by the Waodani.]
* [ Waorani (Los Soberanos) Acclaimed documentary about the Bameno Community in Waorani Territory]
* [ Dictionary of terms]
* [ Uncontacted: A field study of the Huaorani and their still uncontacted neighbors]

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