National Geographic : 1983 Jan
Pata, Cognat spoke of his people with both affection and concern. "Basically we are immigrants," he said with a faint smile. "The Wayanas once lived in northern Brazil and numbered about 3,000. In the 18th century another group called the Wayapis drove the Wayanas out, and they migrated here to Guiana. Only a few Wayanas still remain in Brazil. "By 1950," Cognat continued, "diseases such as measles and tuberculosis had re duced the Wayanas here to fewer than 500. It looked as if they might simply disappear. In 1961 the French government established a medical program for the Wayanas and later restricted visits by tourists to reduce the risk of epidemics. "Today we number about 770. Medical conditions have improved, but we face other serious problems, such as alcoholism and the breakdown of traditional life under in creasing influence from outside, mainly on our young people." When I mentioned the warnings I had re ceived in Cayenne about the Wayanas, Co gnat merely shrugged. "I have heard such things," he said. "They are ridiculous ru mors, spread by ignorant people. But even SKM 10010 - 0oMILES 100 Atlantic Ocean French Gra o uiana (FRANCE) NATIONALGEOGRAPHICCARTOGRAPHICDIVISION those who visit the Wayanas rarely stay long enough to learn the truth about us. Several years ago two foreign reporters came for what was to be an extended visit. They did not last a month. I hope you will do better." When we arrived at Antecume Pata, a number of villagers came down to the wa ter's edge to meet us. Like their men, the Wayana women go naked above the waist, wearing only the weyu, an apron that leaves the buttocks exposed, or the kamisa, a short wraparound tied at the hip. Young Wayana women often wear both, and some have re cently taken to adding Western-style under pants beneath their kamisas, obtained through mail-order houses or from local Boni merchants. As for Wayana children, until about the age of six most of them wear nothing at all. Antecume Pata is a typical Wayana settle ment. The village occupies a small clearing beside the Itany River, laboriously claimed from the forest by primitive means-hand saw, ax, and brush fire. Cognat explained that although the Wayanas are an agricul tural people as well as hunters and fisher men, the soil is so poor that they have no permanent fields. Instead, they grow their Conflict with a rival people pushed the Wayanas from theirancestral home in the Tumuc-Humac region two centuries ago. Now most of their descendants clusteralong the Maroni and Itany Rivers. Attempting to solidify claims to disputed territoryoccupied by the Wayanas (map), officials of French Guiana and Suriname compete for the Indians' allegianceby showering them with attention and gifts. Once totalingin the thousands, the Wayanas here dwindled to fewer than 500 after contractingtuberculosis, measles, pneumonia, and other diseases from outsiders. Today, with dispensariesin three villages, their numbers are slowly rising.In Antecume Patathe village shaman is treatedfor a cut (right)by Andre Cognat, a Frenchmanadopted by the Wayanas after his canoe capsized in 1961. Cognatstayed on and now acts as medical adviser, unofficial spokesman, and advocate for his people.