The Yabarana are an Orinoquian indigenous group of Amazonas State, Venezuela. Most live along the banks of the Parucito River in villages with a male leader or in the town of San Juan de Manapiare. But the Parucito River is their stronghold. The Indigenous Census of 1992 reported a total of 319 Yabarana, a figure that may not be accurate as that census was fraught with conceptual and methodological difficulties. The previous census (1982) listed 155 Yabarana. Although linguistic, cultural, and historical specifics place the group within the broader Carib-speaking family, contemporary Yabarana are the product of ethnogenesis that led to the merging of neighbors and refugees. The various ethnonyms used for them echo this story, (for example, Wokiare, Yawarana, and Orechicana).
The Yabarana have intermarried with members of nearby groups such as Piaroa, Panare, Ye’kuana, Hiwi, and a handful of non-Indians. However, Piaroa-Yabarana marriages are the most common. Due to this and the fact that the Piaroa dominate the area demographically, many Yabarana speak or understand Piaroa. But few Yabarana speak their own language even though they can understand it. Their language may not survive unless a concerted effort is made to revitalize and maintain it.
Depopulation played a major role in their transformation. Its impact on Yabarana sociocultural beliefs and practices must be understood in the context of the colonial history of the region, which included, among other events, the introduction of foreign diseases (for example, measles), slave raiding by the ancient Caribs, changes in native leadership structure as a response to the colonial situation, and the transformation of indigenous villages and work patterns as forest crop extractors, missionaries, and government officials penetrated the region. A major transformative event was the rubber boom, which in Venezuela dates from the second half of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th. Due to the demand for labor, members of various native groups—including the Yabarana—were relocated along the Orinoco, Siapa, Casiquiare, and Rio Negro rivers during this period. Consequently, most Yabarana have only a fragmentary knowledge of their former ritual practices and elaborate oral tradition. But out of these fragments, and the fact that most Yabarana have always inhabited the same general area, a collective sense of history and identity emerged. Today this collective history and identity is reinforced by the threat that cattle ranchers, non-Indian immigrants to the area, and prodevelopment policies pose to their lands. Like other Venezuelan Indians, the Yabarana’s political participation has increased not only because of land tenancy disputes, but because Venezuela’s new constitution (1999) grants them unprecedented rights. One of San Juan de Manapiare’s recent mayors, Benjamin Perez, is partly Yabarana and identifies strongly with the group.
Yabarana subsistence practices include slash-and-burn horticulture, with bitter manioc as the staple crop, fishing, hunting, and the gathering of some wild foods such as palm fruits. Men are the primary providers of fish, although women also contribute, generally with smaller species. Men and women will use fishhooks and participate in barbasco (fish poison) fishing trips; however, fishing with bows and arrows or harpoons is considered a male pursuit. The men hunt and collect most of the wild honey by smoking the bees out of their hives. Today most hunting involves the use of shotguns (associated with men) and flashlights or lanterns for nighttime hunting. Formerly men employed the blowgun, spear, the bow and arrow, and a variety of hunting traps for small and large animals. Hunting, particularly of larger game, has decreased as animal populations decline. Both men and women work in the gardens but men fell the trees when a new garden site is cleared and women do most of the weeding and harvesting. Some, mostly the men, work for local nonindigenous Venezuelans (known as criollos) and cattle ranchers on a seasonal or temporary basis. A handful of women have done maid’s work while in San Juan de Manapiare or while employed by a ranch, yet most do not sustain these activities because they have their own families to care for.
Yabarana family structure is fluid and most nuclear family units include one or more near relatives on at least a temporary basis. Extended families were common in the past (the late 1940s or early 50s). Cross-cousin marriage was customary and remains an accepted practice, though it is difficult—given the small population size—for the Yabarana to find mates within their own group. Bride service was traditional, and today some sons-in-law perform modified versions of it. For instance, a son-in-law will work for a local rancher but will visit his in-laws when he is off duty and bring them commercial goods or help them with house repair or garden work or other chores. Although Yabarana parents are more accommodating about this than in the past, they are adamant about the need for couples to support their offspring. Recalcitrant sons-in-laws and daughters-in-law are relentlessly chastised, particularly by mothers-in-law. Today the Yabarana no longer have shamans, although most have some knowledge about medicinal plants and a handful know how to perform love magic and other rituals. Most believe in a universe populated by a variety of spirit beings even when they profess some knowledge of Christianity. Their oral tradition attributes the makeup of the world as we know it to the actions of various characters, in particular to the brothers Mayowaca and Ochi and their adventures. They were exposed to Christianity by Catholic and Evangelic missionaries in the multiethnic town of San Juan de Manapiare. The Catholic Church maintains a mission and school in that town and offers regular masses, yet most Yabarana do not attend church services and only complete basic schooling. When the services of a shaman are needed (for example, a person gets sick because the master of an animal species took revenge for some breach), they seek out shamans from other groups (for example, the Piaroa). Diseases deemed curable with Western medicines are generally treated at the infirmary in San Juan de Manapiare. This flexibility has no doubt contributed to their survival.
- Coppens, W. (1998). Yawarana history (XVI century to 1957). Caracas: Apostolic Vacariate of Puerto Ayacucho.
- Giordani, L. (1997). Imagining who we were, believing who we are: Ethnogenesis among the Yabarana Indians of Venezuela. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI.