Demographic and Ethnographic Information

By: Ray Stegeman

The name of the language
The language group is known to outsiders as Akawaio. No one I have met can give a meaning for this term. It is a term used by other groups of Amerindians when referring to the Akawaio.

The Akawaio use the term [kapoŋ] /ka’pon/ in reference to themselves, which seems to mean merely ‘person’ or, more specifically, ‘Amerindian’. (This is opposed to /ene/ – their term for a foreigner or outsider.) As a postpositional phrase, ka’ pon can mean ‘from the sky’, and they have stories about how the Akawaio people came to exist on the Earth, having descended from Ma’kunaimɨ, a demigod who came down from the sky through a hole in the clouds. There is some disagreement, however, as to the veracity of this ‘myth’ / ‘history’. Some of them refuse this story outright, perhaps because of their relatively recent embrace of Christianity, now feeling confident they have descended from Adam and Eve. Some Akawaio use the term Ka’pon interchangeably with Akawayo to refer to themselves.

The 3-letter Ethnologue code for Akawaio is ake. Akawaio is the most common English spelling of the people group name, while akawayo better reflects the syllable structure of the word, as I understand it.

The dominant economic activities of the Akawaio are subsistence farming, fishing, hunting, and more recently, mining for gold and diamonds. What little money can be made from “porkknocking” (the coastland culture’s term for small-scale mining) is spent on essential items they cannot grow: matches, soap, clothes, etc. Alcoholism and prostitution are relatively recently introduced social behaviors that sap some families of what little economic advantages mining might bring. Also, environmental problems inherent with mining have become endemic, including the pollution of river water – the main source of drinking, washing and bathing water. The destruction of fish habitats is also a concern, since fishing is the main source of local protein available to the Akawaio. The Akawaio ecosystem includes fishing, hunting for wild game, and farming of both virgin forest plots and those they return to after fallow times, usually 2 – 10 acres at a time for any one extended family. The family’s land is often split into two or three different plots, started at different times of the year. The crop is harvested little by little to provide for the immediate needs of the family.

Their material culture is in a major flux at present with the changing economic picture mining activities have brought. The Akawaio have a heritage of living very simply, with most of what they need coming straight from the rain forest. In the past, many items from the forest were used or fashioned into something useful to serve their unique, forest way of life. But more recently, clay pots made from locally found clay have been largely replaced by plastic and aluminum containers. Gourd scoops traditionally used as eating utensils have been replaced by plastic and metal tableware. Metal knives and soup spoons are ubiquitous, along with aluminum griddles used to make the traditional cassava bread. They used to cook cassava bread – their solid staple – on large, flat stone griddles. Salt was found by drying a particular river grass and grinding it up, but now, most people buy salt from a nearby village store – if they have some recent income from mining, teaching or one of the other few paying jobs. Fine (small) fish hooks are used with plastic fishing line, and perhaps a third of all families have a gun with which to hunt, largely replacing bows and arrows and blow guns, although these are still made and often used by young boys to practice hunting. The government is very careful to check for firearm licenses, and some Akawaio men have been charged with carrying an unlicensed firearm (often using a gun belonging to a relative or a deceased relative, before being able to transfer ownership).

Housing as practiced by the Akawaio is usually a compound method. A simply-made, thatch roofed cookhouse is surrounded by sleeping houses, the number and size being dependent on the size of the extended family living together. This constitutes their living situation in and around the village, but village living is a relatively recent, adopted way of life for them. Before missionary exposure on a continual basis, the Akawaio were living near their farms and away from rivers and each other in extended family settlements. More recently, the benefits of living near the rivers (for steady water supply and ease of travel) and, in particular, being nearer to schools, churches and clinics, the Akawaio have adapted to more of a communal village life; however, they prefer to spend school holidays away from the village, and their housing “in the bush” is usually much more simple. Often, their farm house consists of a wood frame with plastic tarpaulin tied down to the frame with rope made from bark or vine. This provides shelter for the night, and during the day, they are all out in the field taking care of their crops or hunting or fishing.

The Akawaio generally dislike traveling long distances by foot. This is probably due to their beliefs about many malevolent bush spirits. They much prefer to travel by canoe, along the creeks and rivers in the area. (It is also possible to fish while traveling this way.) Akawaio boats are usually of two indigenous varieties; one is the yʉipi’pɨ, or “woodskin” canoe, and the other is the kanau, or “dugout” canoe. Outside influences have introduced the wood plank boat and outboard motors, the latter of which can be put on the transoms of dugouts as well as the wood plank boats – although not on the woodskin ones. The woodskins are made from the inner bark of the purple heart trees, mɨ’ ye’, so they are often called mɨ’ pi’pɨ as well. After peeling away the outer bark of the tree, the boat maker peels back an inner layer of the fallen tree and removes it from the trunk. After that, he trims the ends down, cuts the sides of the ends away from the center third of the boat, and ties them up with twine through holes. This holds the ends of the boat up and keeps water out. The cuts down the sides need to be filled with clay, cotton or other materials, and often a clay dam is put into the front and rear ends to temporarily allow the boat to take on more cargo or persons without taking on water. The dugout canoes can be quite large and hold 40 or more people all the way down in size to fit 2 to 4 people. In the making of a dugout canoe, the trunk is cut down, burned out and shaved inside and outside to a uniform thickness. The sides are often forced apart with sticks, to give the boat a wider cross-section. Then, seats are installed, and the back end often has a transom installed – the only way an outboard engine can be put on. These dugout canoes can last a very long time – 10 years or longer – as opposed to the more quickly made but more easily lost or borrowed woodskin variety. Woodskins sink when swamped, but the dugouts float and are not as easily lost. Woodskins can be brought back to the surface easily enough, if they are not carried away by under water currents. It is a common habit to swamp one’s own woodskin, so that no one else knows it is there, so it will not “be borrowed” to cross the river and leave the real owner stranded.

The Akawaio have stories about the beginning of humankind and about human – that is, Akawaio – history. Ma’kunaimɨ and his brother, Sikɨ, came down to earth through a hole in the sky. They enjoyed living on the earth and somehow (the woman part of the equation was not mentioned to me) their progeny was begun. The Akawaio also have stories about Akawaio people who turn into animals or stars, etc., possibly evoking a certain type of “brotherhood” with the rest of creation. They also have certain ideas about death and burial, a woman’s first menstruation, sickness and health, etc., that are unique to the Akawaio people and cause them to have a unique way of thinking about their universe.

For the past three or four generations the Akawaio have been in contact with a variety of different Christian denominations. This has led to a number of different changes in their indigenous culture, outlook and worldview. It is difficult for most Akawaio to distinguish between the older stories and the way Christianity is being lived out in their area. Often the stories are mixed together. I have heard certain preachers talk about good and evil in a perpetual battle, which is more similar to the story of Ma’kunaimɨ and his brother and less similar to the Christian teaching of Christ’s eventual, complete victory over Satan and sin.

The Akawaio language is spoken by 5,000 to 6,000 people sparsely populating the Lower and Upper Mazaruni river basins, north and east of Mount Roraima, the dividing point between Guyana, Venezuela and Brazil. Some Akawaio travel between the three countries in search of work or carrying out evangelistic missions, although I am uncertain of the number of Akawaio who consider themselves residents of either Venezuela or Brazil. The opinion of those in the Mazaruni area of Guyana is that relatively few do.

One largely Akawaio village, Chinauyeng, is located on the higher Pakaraima plain, a 4 – 5 hour walk from the highest navigable point on the Upper Mazaruni. It is the only Akawaio village on the savannah. The others are in the rain forest. In this village, the people are a mixture of Akawaio and Macushi (mbc), who are otherwise mostly in Brazil. Philipai village, located along the upper reaches of the Kukui river (a tributary of the Upper Mazaruni), is a mixture of Akawaio and Patamona (pbc) people. The Waramadong/Kai’kan area, in the upper reaches of the Kamarang river, is a mixture of Akawaio and Pemon (Arekuna (aoc), mostly located in Venezuela). The more centrally located villages with mostly all Akawaio residents are Kambaru (the one small village near the mining town of Imbaimadai), Jawalla, Kako and Kamarang, Kamarang being the district seat, with the only post office in the Upper Mazaruni.

The Akawaio are the largest Amerindian group residing in the Upper Mazaruni and Pakaraima plains. The other language groups coexisting with the Akawaio in this area (listed above) are all related, Cariban languages. Other language groups that inhabit the Lower Mazaruni with the Akawaio are the Caribs (car) and the Arawaks (arw). These two groups are said to have lost most of their linguistic and cultural heritage, having co-existed with the Afro- and Indo-Guyanese, along with the various European colonial influences, for extended periods throughout the past few centuries.

The Akawaio interact easily with their fellow Amerindian groups, although, by-and-large, they prefer to keep to themselves. They mix easily on social and friendly terms, especially when relating within the unique Alleluia religious tradition, which was started among the Macushi and readily adopted by the Akawaio. They seem to have a basic, mutual understanding of their languages, but a few Akawaio stand out as being fluent across language boundaries, either by their extensive travel or through intermarriage. The Akawaio have a past reputation for being more war-like than their neighbors. (See bibliography, including Riviére, 2006.) In my observation, no one Amerindian language group in the area is dominant over or marginalized by any other, although the fact remains that they call the other groups by names different from what they call themselves, and some of these terms convey denigrating connotations. This may carry over into some negative interactions to which I have not witnessed.

Amerindians in general are often socially and economically marginalized in the larger, national scene, with Afro- and Indo-Guyanese often mistreating or taking advantage of Amerindians, both along the coast and and in Amerindian communities, where the Afro- and Indo-Guyanese often start small stores or mining operations. They feel free to employ Amerindians for menial labor and then often don’t pay them for long periods of time or otherwise abuse them physically and emotionally. The Akawaio often feel marginalized because of their lack of fluency in English (or, rather, in the Guyanese Creole English (gyn) used by nearly all Afro- and Indo-Guyanese) and their lack of experience in matters related to money and other unfamiliar cultural items.

Genetic affiliation
The Akawaio language belongs to the Carib language family. The languages closest to Akawaio (ake) are the Pemon (aoc) (main Ethnologue entry under Venezuela), the Patamona (pbc), and the Macushi (mbc) (main entry under Brazil). This is confirmed in the data presented in Abbott’s work (1991) and Gildea’s (1998).

Previous research
There is very little linguistic work done on the Akawaio language. Dr. Audrey Butt-Colson (1973, 1998, and in collaboration with H. Deiter Heinen, 1983-84) has done much anthropological research, and some of her work is anthro-linguistic in nature, tying linguistic features to cultural items with interesting conclusions. Gildea (1998) has written much about reconstructing Cariban words and syntax, and he has included some Akawaio data from various sources.

The sociolinguistic situation
Most Akawaio adults residing in Guyana are marginally bi-lingual in English (the national language), although almost all their children are raised learning Akawaio first. The parents believe they teach their children English, and they do, in a pedantic fashion, using simple commands and very limited vocabulary. But they say their children learn Akawaio when they go to school, from their classmates, who are all also being taught only English at home! This reflects an interesting understanding of language and learning. They don’t see themselves as having “learned” their first language – an insight into how completely indivisible they see their ethnic and linguistic identities.

A few of the Akawaio people cross over into Venezuela and, to a lesser extent, Brazil, in search of work. There, they learn some Spanish or Portuguese, but not usually at a fluent level. Very few Akawaio are completely monolingual, since a school education is highly valued, and has been for the past 50 years or so. Many Akawaio are very good English readers, but in conversation, it is obvious that most have trouble understanding and communicating well in English. It is perhaps true that more Akawaio women than men are monolingual, since it is more common for the men to work with outsiders in mining. For a few Akawaio, their English abilities are better than many Afro- or Indo-Guyanese, who are often not well-educated and mostly speak the Guyanese Creole English. This is another reason for the Akawaio feeling marginalized in their dealings with this set of people.
Almost all Akawaio – adults and children – choose to use Akawaio in oral communication settings with their peers. They use English in church services and sermons (where denominational literature in English is prevalent). They also record meeting minutes in English, although most meetings are conducted in Akawaio.

The Akawaio feel that their language is not a real language, but only a dialect. (They are told this by many Afro- and Indo-Guyanese.) They do not often correct each other in their speech, but they talk about how funny or oddly some other Akawaio people speak, when using a particular idiolect. They do not seem proud of their language and culture, but tend to be shy and embarrassed, speaking little about these in the presence of outsiders. When asked to repeat something, they will nearly always restate/rephrase it, instead of repeating word-for-word. I feel this may be in part due to a cultural effect that reflects an embarrassment about their use of their language, perhaps brought about by this common way of talking about another’s speech. The question is often asked to confirm some word or grammatical feature, but when the idea is rephrased, the word or feature is lost and left unconfirmed. The Akawaio adults are often ashamed to attend literacy classes, even though their oral ability in their mother tongue is completely fluent. This may also be due to the fact that many school children do attend the literacy classes, and the adults do not want to be grouped together with them in a pupil/teacher social context. Akawaio people will often switch to English when outsiders are present, even when speaking with “foreigners” who know Akawaio. Multilingual Akawaio speakers almost completely use Akawaio in peer situations, family situations, and in the unique Alleluia tradition, which could be considered using part Akawaio and part Macushi (from which the Alleluia tradition comes). They use English (or the Guyanese Creole English) in schools and churches, especially to read prayers, English Scripture, sing hymns, etc., although preaching is often done in Akawaio (peppered with English phrases for Christian concepts not easily translatable/not yet translated).

Almost all Akawaio children learn Akawaio as their first language. They remain monolingual through to their first year in grade school. There are pressures to learn more English as children grow older and have a chance to gain a secondary education or to work with coastlander miners. There seem to be no pressures to reject their own language, except in relation to interacting with outsiders. The recently retired Anglican Bishop, for example, is Afro-Guyanese, and in his visits to the Anglican churches in the Upper Mazaruni, he insisted on no Amerindian language being spoken at any official function or meeting while he was present, although he knows they use their first language when he is not present. The recently new Anglican Bishop has encouraged Anglican Akawaio to translate portions of the Anglican prayer book, including the Eucharist service. Akawaio are pressured to reject using their first language among coastland miners in the area. In villages with a Seventh-Day Adventist (SDA) presence, Akawaio are encouraged to use more English than in other Akawaio villages, possibly due to the relatively greater amount of denominational resources available to them from the outside, most often from the United States. These pressures are often localized so that, in the my opinion, the Akawaio language is not endangered by them. I believe there are no partially competent speakers, unless they are first from another language group or from a mixed marriage, of which there are relatively few. There are cultural pressures that seem to restrict the amount of Akawaio who marry outside their own culture/language.

There are loan words in regular use by the Akawaio from the following languages, often representing items introduced to their worldview by outside forces:

tepi’ – tablet (referring to pills, or any medicine)
kʉra’ – clock
ensin – engine
ti’sa – teacher
so’si – church
mai’pʉremu – my friend (borrowed as a phrase, to mean ‘friend’)

pero – dog
kone’o – rabbit
sapato – shoe
paka – cow
pʉrata – money (plata is Spanish for ‘silver,’ or ‘money’)

puru’ku – pants

Many English verbs are easily borrowed with the productive Akawaio suffix -ma, as below:

to’    e-          mari  –ma      –’pʉ
N      detrans- V      -denom T               marry            -p
‘They became married.’

Many words are shared with nearby, related languages and possibly other nearby, unrelated ones, including the vocabulary used in the Alleluia church, but this has not yet been a focus of my research.

The Akawaio themselves often talk of fellow Akawaio speakers from different areas and how they speak differently from themselves. This difference often represents the relative use or disuse of certain affixes common within the language. Pronunciation is often mentioned as a difference, where certain regular vowel changes are made. Some vocabulary is different, possibly due to the influence of surrounding languages on the borders of Akawaio territory, as mentioned earlier.


The word ɨsi’kɨ ‘come’ is pronounced ɨi’kɨ in Chinauyeng.

The suffix -pɨtʉ ‘continuous or repetitive action’ is used more in Pipiri’pai
village, and often it is reduplicated, –pɨ’pɨtʉ, which is rare elsewhere.

Pipiri’pai people use the -na’ne’ (describe it here) suffix more often than
Akawaio from other villages.

I have not studied dialect variation. Some differences in vowel pronunciation and syllable deletion have been noted, but no significant or regular variation within the language boundaries or among the people who understand each other has been confirmed. The late Dr. Desrey Fox (2003) has described in her PhD thesis the 3 dialects she believes exist in her home village of Waramadong. I have most often spent time in the village of Usariwara’pai (the indigenous pronunciation of Jawalla, meaning ‘group of jaguars’), along the Upper Mazaruni river at the mouth of the Kukui river. This has served well as a central location among the Akawaio of the Upper Mazaruni and, I feel, has led to collecting Akawaio linguistic data of a more pure nature than, say, collecting data from some of the villages that are closer to or intermingled with other language influences.