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Arawak Indian Fact Sheet

Native American Facts For Kids was written for young people learning about the Arawaks for school or home-schooling reports. We encourage students and teachers to visit our main Arawak website for more in-depth information about the tribe, but here are our answers to the questions we are most often asked by children, with Arawak pictures and links we believe are suitable for all ages.

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    Arawak Tribe

How do you pronounce the word "Arawak"? What does it mean?
Arawak is pronounced "air-a-wack." Sometimes you will see it spelled Arawac or Arowak, Arahuaco, or Aruak instead. This is their tribal name for themselves and it comes from the name of their main crop, the manioc or cassava root. Some Arawak people call themselves Lokono instead, which means "the people."

Where do the Arawaks live?
The Arawaks are original people of northern South America and the Caribbean Islands They particularly live in Guyana, French Guiana, and Suriname, the island of Trinidad, and coastal areas of northern Venezuela. Here is a map showing some of the areas where Arawak and Carib people are still living today.

Are the Taino and Guajiro people the same as the Arawaks?
Not exactly. They are kinfolk, speak related languages, and share many cultural similarities. All three of these peoples are commonly referred to as "Arawakan" cultures. But they have also always been politically and ethnically distinct from each other. The situation is similar to French, Spanish, and Italian people in Europe. They are similar but not identical. The Tainos were native people of Puerto Rico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Cuba, and some of their descendants still live in those areas today. The Guajiros, also known as the Wayuu, are native people of Venezuela and Colombia. Most of the cultural information on this page is generally true of all three of these civilizations.

Did Christopher Columbus encounter Taino or Arawak people when he landed in the New World?
They were primarily Taino people. However, Columbus landed in the Bahamas, which are islands that were important to the indigenous trading routes and were home to many different people. So there were also Arawak and even Carib people living in the Bahamas at the time, as well as Tainos.

Did Columbus wipe out the Arawaks?
No! Tragically, European colonists did kill or enslave almost all the indigenous people of the Bahamas. But there were many other Arawak people living in different communities who were not part of that massacre. There are around 10,000 Arawak people still alive today, and more than 500,000 people from related Arawakan cultures such as Guajiro.

What language do the Arawaks speak?
Many of them speak their native Arawak language, also known as Lokono. Many Arawak people are also bilingual in Spanish, English, French, or even Dutch, depending on which country their community is located in. If you'd like to learn a few Arawak words, here is a Lokono picture dictionary you can look at.

How was the Arawak Indian nation organized?
The Arawak nation never had a centralized government. Each Arawak community was ruled by a local leader, known as a cacique or chief. The cacique was usually a son or nephew of the previous ruler, but in some communities the new cacique would be chosen by religious leaders.

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How do Arawak Indian children live, and what did they do in the past?
They do the same things all children do--play with each other, go to school, and help around the house. In the past the Arawaks didn't have formal schools, so Arawak children learned lessons from their grandparents or other elders. Arawak kids enjoyed playing group games, such as a seed pod game similar to marbles and a kickball sport that imitated adult ball games. Arawak children also learned to swim at an early age, unlike most Europeans.

What were Arawak homes like in the past?
Traditional Arawak houses were simple thatch huts. Arawak people live in a very warm climate, so their homes didn't need a lot of insulation. Primarily they provided privacy and shelter from the rain. Arawak huts were round and were constructed by a wooden frame covered with straw, woven mats, and palm fronds. Arawak people slept in woven hammocks suspended from the wooden frame of the hut, rather than beds. Here is a page with pictures of Native American huts and other housing types. In some areas Arawak people still live in huts like these, but most Arawaks live in more modern housing today. Hammocks are still very popular sleeping arrangements in Arawak villages, however!

What was Arawak clothing like? Did they wear feather headdresses and face paint?
The Arawaks didn't wear much clothing. Just like today, the Caribbean weather was always warm. Arawak men usually went naked except for special occasions, when they might wear decorative loincloths and cloaks. Arawak women wore short skirts and strands of shell necklaces. Shirts were not necessary in Arawak culture, and people usually went barefoot. Here are some photographs and links about traditional Indian costumes in general.

The Arawaks didn't wear warrior headdresses like the Sioux. Arawak men and women both wore their hair long, sometimes decorated with colorful parrot feathers. In some Arawak communities, people would wear crowns of flowers for festive occasions. Here is a website with pictures of these Indian hair styles. Arawak people often painted their faces and bodies bright colors, especially for battle or festivals. Today, Arawak clothing style varies from community to community. Some people dress in more traditional styles, while others wear more modern clothes.

What was Arawak transportation like in the days before cars? Did they paddle canoes?
Yes, the Arawaks were well-known for their dugout canoes. In fact, the English word "canoe" comes from the Arawakan word canoa. The largest Arawak canoes could hold fifty people and were used to travel long distances. Here is an article showing different Indian boat types.

What was Arawak food like in the days before supermarkets?
The Arawak Indians were farming people. Their most important crop was a potato-like root called cassava, or manioc. Arawak women ground cassava into meal and baked bread from it. Other Arawak crops included beans, squash, peppers, peanuts, and in some areas, corn. Arawak men were primarily fishermen, catching fish, turtles, and other seafood from the ocean. Hunters also shot birds and small game for their families to eat. Here is a website with more information about Native Americans food.

What were Arawak weapons and tools like in the past?
Arawak hunters used bows and arrows or blowguns. Fishermen used nets and wooden traps. In war, Arawak men usually fired their bows and arrows, although sometimes warriors would fight hand-to-hand duels with heavy wooden clubs. Here is a website with pictures and more information about ancient Indian weapons.

What were Arawak arts and crafts like?
The Arawaks were known for their pottery and woodcarvings. You can see some images of Arawak pottery and other artifacts at at this site.

What is Arawak music like?
Arawak music is very rhythmic, using drums, tamborines and rattles to create a beat for dancing. The Lokono, as well as some other Arawakan groups, also use wooden flutes to provide melodies. Here is a video of contemporary Lokono song and dance, drawing on traditional Arawak styles.

What other Native Americans did the Arawak tribe interact with?
The Arawaks traded frequently with other tribes. They used their canoes to travel along the coast of South America and throughout the Caribbean, carrying trade goods back and forth. Their most common trading partners were other Arawakan tribes, such as the Tainos and the Guajiros. The Arawaks were not very fond of the Caribs, who often attacked their settlements and raided them for slaves. The Arawaks and Caribs fought often, but at other times, they traded peacefully with one another.

What kinds of stories do the Arawak Indians tell?
There are lots of traditional Arawak legends and fairy tales. Storytelling is very important to the Arawak Indian culture. Here is one Arawak legend about a war among the birds. Here's a website where you can read more about Arawak gods and symbols.

What about Arawak religion?
Spirituality and religion were important parts of Arawak life, and many people continue to practice traditional beliefs today. It is respectful to avoid imitating religious rituals for school projects since some Arawak people care about them deeply. You can read and learn about them, however. You can visit this site to learn more about pre-Columbian Caribbean religious traditions, or this site about Native American shamanism in general.

Can you recommend a good book for me to read?
You may enjoy Morning Girl, which is historical fiction about the life of an Arawakan family at the time of Christopher Columbus' arrival. A more complex book on an Arawakan society and customs is The Tainos, which we recommend to older students. A Brief History of the Caribbean is an interesting book on Caribbean history in general, including sections on pre-Columbian history of the Carib and Arawak tribes. You can also browse through our reading list of recommended Native American children's stories in general. Disclaimer: we are an Amazon affiliate and our website earns a commission if you buy a book through one of these links. Most of them can also be found in a public library, though!

How do I cite your website in my bibliography?
You will need to ask your teacher for the format he or she wants you to use. The authors' names are Laura Redish and Orrin Lewis and the title of our site is Native Languages of the Americas. We are a nonprofit educational organization working to preserve and protect Native American languages and culture. You can learn more about our organization here. Our website was first created in 1998 and last updated in 2020.

Thanks for your interest in the Arawak Indian people and their language!

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Learn More About The Arawaks

Arawak Indian Tribe
An overview of the Arawak people, their language and history.

Arawak Language Resources
Arawak language samples, articles, and indexed links.

Arawak Culture and History Directory
Related links about the Arawak people past and present.

Arawak Words
Arawak Indian vocabulary lists.

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