8 Jun

Brazilian indian architecture: a social-spatial approach to the Wajãpi tribe in Amapá

The history of Brazil is extremely rich in facts that contributed to the country’s formation, according to the most diversified parameters, namely: political, economic and social parameters that prevailed and many still prevail, evidencing their origins, such as the indigenous peoples that already occupied the Brazilian lands, recently discovered by the Portuguese around year 1500. It is then important to address the architectural aspect jointly with the social and cultural aspects that already belonged to those groups, specifically in the State of Amapá, the Wajãpi tribe.

According to historians, the first relationship of proximity between the Portuguese and the Indians was marked by distrust between them, and such situation was a result of the strong difference of the original cultures and environments of Europeans and Indians.

The Indians were divided and classified by tribes, according to linguistic parameters. Therefore, Indian languages were parallel with the groups. About 200 Indian ethnicities and 170 languages are estimated to have existed. However, most of those Indians do not dwell as they had lived before the arrival of the Portuguese. The relation with the Europeans implied the loss of most of the cultural identity of many tribes. It should be pointed out that in the period when the Portuguese arrived in Brazil the Indian population was enslaved and suffered with the domination imposed by the Eurocentric culture of the Portuguese.

Those Indian peoples had several traditions; they made a living and many of them still do it from activities such as: cultivating crops of the land, as well as hunting animals, using raw materials for the production of objects, such as canoes, arches, arrows, hammocks and utensils. They also make their own clothing; they make body paintings using urucum and build their own homes that, as a matter of fact, are part of the vernacular architecture. It is also worth noting that those peoples imposed and still have a particular building concept, a truly Indian architecture.

See below a section of the Letter sent by Pero Vaz de Caminha, official writer of the expedition of Pedro Álvares Cabral:

“…it was actually one league and a half to a settlement, where there would be nine or ten homes, which people said were so long that each one could contain this flagship. And they were made of wood, and of flanks of wood boards, and covered with straw, of reasonable height; and all of them with only one space, without any partition, they had many props inside; and from one prop to another a hammock was hung with cables in each prop, high, where they slept. And from below, to get warm, they made their fires. And every home had two small doors, one on an end and the other one on the other end. And they said in each home thirty or forty people were sheltered, and that is how they found them…” (free translation) (CAMINHA, Pero Vaz apud. CORTESÃO, Jayme)

This letter gives us an idea of the architecture adopted by Brazilian Indians, described in detail by Pero Vaz, who had the first contact with such a peculiar type of dwelling, to D. Manuel.

This article discusses the theme of Wajãpi architecture in the State of Amapá, as well as its impacts on space organization, in regard to scopes that converge from an interrelation between dwelling and set of homes (village) directly interfering with the socialization and perpetuation of those peoples.

Ethnic group Wajãpi has a population of about 800 Indians in the State of Amapá in Brazil and 1,100 Indians residing in a territory belonging to the French Guiana, on the high course of the Oiapoque River. The architecture studies addressed in this article refer to the Wajãpi villages located in the State of Amapá, specifically those located by the banks of the Jari and Araguari rivers.

1- Wajãpi lands (Source: www.institutoiepe.org.br)

Wajãpi villages are spatially originated from little crops (koo, in the Wajãpi language) that serve as an embryonic nucleus, considering that those villages are developed around their crops. This is therefore a landmark in Wajãpi’s social organization. Each family generally owns two crops at distinct stages, and one of them is opened during the year. In a period of two to five years the plantations have their productivity of bitter cassava/manioc (a vegetable used mainly to make meals and drinks for the Indians) reduced and the crop is abandoned; the Wajãpi leave their trails on the location, because during the occupation of that space they plant a diversity of fruit trees. That period of time is not casual; it is totally thought in strategic terms, because simultaneously with the impoverishment of the soil for cassava/manioc plantation, the deterioration of home roofs, made from ubim straw (a type of local palm tree, from which the leaves are extracted to cover the Indian constructions) a relevant factor for the Wajãpi takes place, because from then on the village has to find another location to live in and give continuity to their social relations.

2- Illustrations and photos of Wajãpi villages (Source: www.institutoiepe.org.br)

The villages have spatial elements that are called yards, mainly designed for meetings among the village inhabitants. A village usually has one or more yards that are interconnected through paths that transfer the connections to the creeks (igarapés) and the forest. Each village may be inhabited by two families with a small number of homes surrounding a single yard, or up to ten families may live around several yards in the same village, provided the families are related through marriage and cooperative arrangements, regarding the distribution of tasks for survival and maintenance of the village, that is, the number of yards combined with the aforementioned factors determines the number of families living near the yards.

The importance of those elements of Indian social organization is paramount, the functions of the yard go beyond the family quantification, the cultivation of medicinal and eatable plants and plants that are used for producing artifacts such as necklaces, paneiros (a type of woven basket with barbs extracted from palm trees) are some of the activities performed in that space, and where most of the Indian relations take place, including kitchen activities, the garden and the places where meals and celebrations occur.

In regard to measurable dimensions, the yard does not have a precise geometrical shape; its format varies according to family needs; for example, a yard may be very narrow, if we consider that it unites two constructions, or may have larger dimensions, if it works as an element to connect a set of homes.

The Wajãpi dwelling results from a number of variables; the homes have intrinsic connections with nature and with the Indian native culture. The Wajãpi home, called oka by them, is especially “designed” for the mobile situation of the villages, also taking into consideration the ecosystem and the local bio-climate. Built by the Indians themselves, their future owners, Wajãpi homes are possible to build under a good and sustainable architecture without the help of any architects, considering that the precepts adopted in the erection of the building comply with good architectural practices and fall under the concept of vernacular architecture. Another interesting factor is the technique used that, although very old, meets their needs and therefore perpetuates the millennial culture of those peoples.

3-Illustration made by Wajãpi Indians (Source: www.institutoiepe.org.br)

Three types of homes prevail in a Wajãpi village and are classified according to the longer durability of the building and the time of stay, namely: the Jura, Yvy’o and tapaina or tapiri home. The Jura home is characterized by having a floor that is overlapped a meter and a half from the soil, the Yvy’o home is a one-story building, whereas the tapaina or tapiri home refers to a type of home with temporary occupation.

“Wajãpi homes have many points in common in their building construction aspects; however, as they are built by their owners, with the help of sons-in-law and sometimes brothers, they have their own peculiarities. The proportions of their building parts are varied. For example, the roof of a home may end or not almost flat with the elevated floor, in the case of a jura home or, in the case of a yvy’o home, it may be flat with the dirt ground. Roofs always have two slopes, but sometimes one of their ends is round, forming a semicircle, called jãwi revikwara (‘back of tortoise’). That round structure may be coupled both to the jura and the yvy’o home roof structure and is preferred by the family mainly when there is sufficient raw material (ubim straw).” (GALLOIS, Catherine, 2004)

Architecture functionality for the Wajãpi is fundamental for the perpetuation of their cultural traditions. The construction refers to values ranging from the protection of the young woman when she becomes a girl-woman to the protection of the first child of a Wajãpi couple. To them such protection belongs to a set of rules that enable the survival of Indians, such as not having contact with sun light, not being wet by the rain, not stepping on the ground, among others. In that regard, the form and function of architecture end by shaping the customs and cultural traditions of those peoples.

4-Illustration made by Wajãpi Indians (Source: www.institutoiepe.org.br)

Finally, we must acknowledge the legacy left by the Indian tribes as a cultural heritage for the formation of Brazil, and mainly, recognize the housing strategies created by them, in this case, particularly the Wajãpi tribe, that shows the capacity coming in an empirical manner for the constructive aspect that is transferred from generation to generation, evidencing and reinforcing even more the social relations between the home and the culture of Indian populations.


CORTESÃO, Jayme. A Carta de Pero Vaz de Caminha. Rio de Janeiro: Livros de Portugal, 1943.

BRASIL, Ministério da Educação. A presença Indígena na formação do Brasil. Séries: Vias dos Saberes nº 2. Brasília, 2006.

ANTÔNIO, Guilherme; BENATTI, Karoline; BOLSON, Vivian e FERREIRA, Rovy. Arquitetura Indígena (Apresentado em Graduação). Departamento de Arquitetura e urbanismo: UFSC.

GALLOIS, Dominique; GRUPIONI Denise. Povos Indígenas no Amapá e Norte do Pará: quem são, onde estão, quantos são, como vivem e o que pensam? IEPÉ, 2003.

JANE REKO MOKASIA: Organização Social Wajãpi. APINA, IEPÉ, Museu do Índio e IPHAN, 2009.






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