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To Weave and Sing

Art, Symbol, and Narrative in the South American Rainforest

David M. Guss

Publication Year: 1990

To Weave and Sing is the first in-depth analysis of the rich spiritual and artistic traditions of the Carib-speaking Yekuana Indians of Venezuela, who live in the dense rain forest of the upper Orinoco. Within their homeland of Ihuruna, the Yekuana have succeeded in maintaining the integrity and unity of their culture, resisting the devastating effects of acculturation that have befallen so many neighboring groups. Yet their success must be attributed to more than natural barriers of rapids and waterfalls, to more than lack of "contact" with our "modern" world. The ethnographic history recounted here includes not only the Spanish discovery of the Yekuana but detailed indigenous accounts of the entire history of Yekuana contact with Western culture, revealing an adaptive technique of mythopoesis by which the symbols of a new and hostile European ideology have been consistently defused through their incorporation into traditional indigenous structures.

The author's initial point of departure is the Watunna, the Yekuana creation epic, but he finds his principal entrance into this mythic world through basketry, focusing on the eleborate kinetic designs of the round waja baskets and the stories told about them. Guss argues that the problem of understanding Yekuana basketry is the problem of understanding all traditional art forms within a tribal context, and critiques the cultural assumptions inherent in our systems of classification. He demonstrates that the symbols woven into the baskets function not in isolation but collectively, as a powerful system cutting across the entire culture.

To Weave and Sing addresses all Yekuana material culture and the greater reality it both incorporates and masks, discerning a unifying configuration of symbols in chapters on architectural forms, the geography of the body, and the use of herbs, face paints, and chants. A narrow view of slash-and-burn gardens as places of mere subsistence is challenged by Guss's portrait of these exclusively female spaces as systematic inversions of the male world, "the sacred turned on its head." Throughout, a wealth of narrative and ritual materials provides us with the closest approximation we have to a native exegesis of these phenomena. What we are offered here is a new Poetics of Culture, ethnography not as a static given but as a series of shifting fields, wherein culture (and our image of it) is constantly recreated in all of its parts, by all of its members.

Published by: University of California Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 1-7


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiv

As with all long journeys, there have been many people along the way who have lent a helping hand. Marc de Civrieux, who first invited me to Venezuela to translate his version of Watunna, not only shared his many years of research with me but also encouraged and aided me in my initial visit to the Yekuana. ...

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1. Introduction: The Syntax of Culture

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pp. 1-4

I went to the Yekuana for the first time in 1976 as part of a grant from the Organization of American States to translate their creation epic known as the Watunna. While this translation was based on a Spanish version prepared over the course of nearly two decades by the French paleontologist Marc de Civrieux (19706, 1980), ...

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2. The People

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pp. 5-20

If it is true that a name reflects an inner essence, then the many used to refer to the Yekuana offer a profile of the varied character of this highland jungle people. The earliest mention of the Yekuana occurs in the report of the Jesuit priest Manuel Roman, who in 1744 journeyed to the upper Orinoco ...

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3. Culture and Ethos: A Play of Forces

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pp. 21-68

The traditional Yekuana settlement, of which there are approximately thirty dotted throughout the upper Orinoco, is a fiercely independent community, resistant to any pan-tribal authority. Each village is a completely self-contained, autonomous unit, with its own chief and shaman. What unites these communities is their shared linguistic and cultural heritage. ...

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4. "All Things Made"

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pp. 69-91

While the Yekuana, like many tribal peoples, have no fixed category corresponding to the Western concept of "art," they do distinguish between objects manufactured within the guidelines of traditional design and those that simply arrive without any cultural transformation or intent. Tidi'uma, from the verb tidi, "to make," ...

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5. Origin and Design

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pp. 92-125

In writing about the nature of origin myths in tribal societies, Mircea Eliade calls attention to what he refers to as an underlying "paradisiac syndrome" (1960:63). He claims that tribal man periodically reenacts these myths in rituals and festivals in order to return (the "eternal return") to the conditions that existed at the time of the Beginning, ...

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6. The Form of Content

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pp. 126-161

The classic distinction between form and content that has come to dominate so much of the discussion of the modern work of art quickly disintegrates as one approaches the creations of those living within the framework of a traditional tribal society. The simple dichotomy between the arrangement of materials ...

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7. To Weave the World

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pp. 162-170

When a Yekuana weaves or uses a basket, the range of meanings evoked is constellated in much more than the choice of design, the preparation of the materials, or the use to which it is put. The configuration of symbols that are elaborated draw their power from not only their own explication ...

A Gallery of Baskets

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pp. 171-222


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pp. 223-246


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pp. 247-262

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pp. 263-274

E-ISBN-13: 9780520910638
Print-ISBN-13: 9780520071858

Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 1990