The intricately patterned woven baskets of the Ye’kwana of Venezuela carry the rich designs of myths and traditions within their hourglass forms.
The Ye’kwana, with a population of about 5000, live in small, remote communities along several river basins of Venezuela and Brazil, including the Caura River, a tributary of the Orinoco. Known as “the people of the river,” these waterways sustain all aspects of their lives.
Ye’kwana men weave several types of baskets. Best known is the decorated, flat ceremonial waja basket with its complex designs and icons that are rooted in folklore and traditional culture. They are rarely made today, but the teachings continue through the efforts of one elder, who continues to weave and thereby keep the tradition alive.
The burden baskets or wuwa are woven by women. The wuwa is carried on the back with a strap over the woman’s forehead. Its hourglass shape conforms to the body and helps to distribute the weight. Made from the aerial roots of the hemi-epiphyte (Heteropsis sp), called minñato by the Ye’kwana, it’s used to carry yuca, firewood, and other heavy loads. Over forty years ago, missionaries encouraged the women to modify this basket for trade and to generate income. Over the years, the innovation of the traditional wuwa was refined to a more delicate basket colored with natural local dyes and decorated with mythical figures similar to the waja designs.
Kanwasumi Basket Cooperative
The basket-making cooperative of Kanwasumi of Boca de Ninchare started small but grew to about 65 weavers from other communities along the river system. Presently, there are several communities and more than one cooperative contributing baskets for sale. Aurora Rodriguez de Caura, the founder of Kanwasumi and a respected leader in her community, continues to coordinate shipping and payment from and to remote communities.
The current project developed between Earth Bound (see below) and the Ye’kwana has two parts: To assist the women to achieve their goals of developing a small business, and to develop a resource management strategy that allows the women to continue to sustainably harvest the Heteropsis, a plant with a greater than 60 year life cycle, but one that will re-grow if harvested properly. .
The Heteropsis species are some of the most important economic fibers of the Orinoco and Amazon basins. It is by the indigenous communities for rope, burden and storage baskets, as well as lashing for their traditional palm roofs. More recently, it has been harvested in large amounts for rattan-like trim for the furniture industry and has become threatened from over exploitation. Today sustainable harvest quotas in the Caura are limited to an annual production of the trade basket to 200 per year.
A Collaboration with Earth Bound
Earth Bound, a non-for-profit 501(c)3 charitable organization, was introduced to the Ye’kwana by Health Share in 2001 while on a health mission. Laurie Wilkins, the founder of Earth Bound and a biologist by training, became intrigued with the resource knowledge that indigenous cultures possess, and the infinite way in which they use those resources to create objects of strength and beauty. This, and the fact that there was no access to markets that would pay the women more than a few dollars for their baskets, motivated Earth Bound to begin this project with Ye’kwana.
With the support of friends and board members with experience in business, importing, marketing and resource management, Earth Bound began a series of participatory workshops to help the women gain business skill and generate more income from the baskets they make. This project continues today, but under much more strenuous circumstances–the borders of Venezuela are closed to Americans and the grave economic circumstances have made communication and travel within the country difficult and dangerous.
Earth Bounds’ mission is to partner with cooperatives and collectives facilitating projects that help build business capacity, generate income, and sustainably harvest or manage the resources used to build micro-enterprise projects. They have done this through community-wide participatory workshops and frequent visits to the communities. In its outreach efforts, Earth Bound creates exhibits, museum demonstrations, and community events to educate the public on the importance of environmental and social issues surrounding many of these remote indigenous communities.
Over the years, they have worked with other South American artisans using the natural fibers of their environment to create beautiful artisanal work. A project Wilkins became interested in after she was gifted with an amazing bag made of bromeliad fibers is the Cheque Oitedie Cooperative from the Ayoreo community of Bolivia (Learn more about them here). Thanks to the support of Earth Bound, Aid to Artisans and the International Folk Art Alliance, both of these projects have gained traction. They have provided resources and markets to reach customers who appreciate and support these unique products. ClothRoads is honored to carry both the Cheque Oitedie Coop bags as well as the Ye’kwana baskets.
Thanks to Laurie Wilkins and Earth Bound for information and images for this blog. If you want to learn more about their work and donate read here. If you enjoyed reading this blog and want to know more about textile artisan sustainability, subscribe to our list, shop in our store, and share this on.