Wichí are an indigenous people of South America. They are a large
group of tribes ranging about the headwaters of the
Bermejo River and
the Pilcomayo River, in
Argentina and Bolivia.
1 Notes on designation
5 Current threats
9 External links
Notes on designation
This ethnic group was named by the English settlers and is still
widely known as Mataco. The etymology of the term is obscure but in
several sources, it is cited that the
Wichí find the term derogatory.
Among the group exists a folk etymology for this term, which relates
it to the Spanish verb matar, to kill. Thus their preferred name,
their own word for themselves, is Wichí, pronounced [wiˈci], and
Wichí Lhamtés [wiˈci ɬamˈtes].
There is a pronunciation variant in some areas of Bolivia, [wikˠiʡ],
where the self-denomination of the group is Weenhayek wichi,
translated by Alvarsson (1988) as "the different people" (pl.
Weenhayey). Weenhayey informers of Alvarsson state that the old name
was Olhamelh ([oɬameɬ]), meaning simply us. The subgroups within
Wichí have been identified and received different names in
literature: Nocten or Octenay in Bolivia, Véjos or (perhaps more
properly) Wejwus or Wehwos for the Western subgroup(s), and Güisnay
for the Eastern subgroups of Argentina. The latter corresponds to
Tewoq-lhelej, "the river people".
At present, a number of
Wichí groups can be found in
Bolivia, distributed as follows:
18 groups in the north-west of Chaco, about 180 km north-west of
the town of Castelli.
Many communities in Formosa, departments of Bermejo (15 communities),
Matacos (10 communities), Patiño (7 communities) and Ramón Lista (33
Other communities are located in Salta, departments of San Martín (21
communities), Rivadavia (57 communities, some of them with just a few
individuals), Orán, Metán (2 communities) and Anta (3 communities),
being the latter three more isolated; and in Jujuy, departments of
Santa Bárbara, San Pedro and Ledesma.
Bolivia: Gran Chaco province, Tarija Department, on the Pilcomayo
River, 14 communities living in the area from (and including) the town
of Villa Montes up to D'Orbigny, in the Argentine border.
Wichi are the most widely spoken languages of the Matacoan language
family, and include three languages:
Wichí Lhamtés Vejoz
Wichí Lhamtés Güisnay
Wichí Lhamtés Nocten.
The total number of speakers can only be estimated; no reliable
figures exist. Comparing several sources, the most probable number is
from 40 to 50,000 individuals. The Argentine National Institute of
Statistics and Censuses (INDEC) gives a figure of 36,135 for Argentina
only. In Rosario, the third biggest city of Argentina, there's a
community of about 10,000 wichi people, all of them fluent in whichi,
and some native speakers. There are even a couple of bilingual primary
For Bolivia, Alvarsson estimated between 1,700 and 2,000 speakers in
1988; a census reported 1,912, and Diez Astete & Riester (1996)
estimated between 2,300 and 2,600 Weenhayek in sixteen communities.
According to Najlis (1968) and Gordon (2005), three main dialects can
be distinguished in the
Wichí group: southwestern or Vejós
(Wehwós), northeastern or Güisnay (Weenhayek) and northwestern or
Nocten (Oktenay). Tovar (1981) and other authors claim the existence
of only two dialects (northeastern and southwestern), while Braunstein
(1992-3) identifies eleven ethnical subgroups.
Wichí language is predominantly suffixing and polysynthetic;
verbal words have between 2 and 15 morphemes. Alienable and
inalienable possession is distinguished. The phonological inventory is
large, with simple, glottalized and aspirated stops and sonorants. The
number of vowels varies with dialect (five or six).
Much of the information available about the history of the Wichí
comes from Jesuit and
Franciscan missionaries of the 17th and 18th
centuries. The first mission came in 1690, but it was unsuccessful. In
Franciscan Mission of Zenta found a better reception.
However, with the decline of the Spanish power these missions also
fell into decay.
Wichí territory does seem to have changed since the 18th century,
when the first precise information on their existence and location
were known. Their neighbors in the
Pilcomayo River area were the Toba,
and their lands on the
Bermejo River extended from the current town of
Embarcación, Salta, to a region north of current town of Castelli in
the Chaco Province.
According to Father Alejandro Corrado, a
Franciscan of Tarija, the
Wichí were nomadic; their houses were light structures scattered in
the jungle. Corrado claims the
Wichí lived chiefly upon fish and
algarroba, that is, the fruit of the local algarrobo tree (usually
Prosopis alba or South American mesquite), as well as
honey-locust, but "they ate anything that was not poisonous, even rats
and grasshoppers". From the algarroba they were said to prepare an
intoxicating liquor (this is probably aloja, produced by fermentation
of the sugar-loaded patay paste inside the fruit). The ripening of the
algarroba was celebrated by a ceremony.
Also in Corrado's words, among the
Wichí "everything is in common".
He claimed that there was a division of tasks, the men occupying
themselves with fishing or occasional hunting with bow or club, and
the women doing practically all the other work.
As for religious belief, Corrado wrote that the
Wichí medicine men
fight off disease "with singing and rattle", that the
in a good spirit and a bad spirit, and that the soul of the deceased
is reincarnated in an animal.
Pentecostal Church of
Sweden started working within the Wichí
community in the early parts of the last century which resulted in
that a vast majority of the Weenhayek's are Christians. The fact that
the terms of possessions and ownership does not exist within the
community has made this conversion quite easy. Everyone owns
everything (and nothing) together just as the
Bible talks about was
the case with the first churches as well. There are other facts that
has helped the contextualisation of the gospel, like the Weenhayek
being fishermen (in the
Pilcomayo River ) just as some of the deciples
of the bible. These facts has made it possible for the Weenhayek to
maintain their unique cultural identity and traditions in spite of
also embracing faith in Christianity.
Wichí have traditionally lived from hunting, fishing and basic
agriculture. Since the beginning of the 20th century, significant
portions of their traditional land have been taken over by outsiders,
and what was once a grassland became desertified by deforestation,
introduction of cattle and, more recently, by the introduction of
alien crops (soybean). A study made in 1998 by a graduate student from
Clark University, Worcester, MA based on satellite photo surveys
showed that between 1984 and 1996 20% of the forest has been lost.
Wichí were affected by the recession that lasted from 1999 to
2002, but their relative economic self-sufficiency, their physical
isolation and the lack of recognition on the part of the authorities
largely diminished the impact of the crisis, which was circumscribed
on inflation in the price of certain goods they cannot produce (such
as sugar and red meat, replaceable by wild honey and fish) and on
problems with the supply of medicines and healthcare.
For many years, the
Wichí have been struggling to get legal titles to
the land they traditionally own, constantly seized and fenced by
non-indigenous cattlers and farmers. Their main claims are centered in
two large public land areas in eastern Salta, known as Lote 55 (about
2,800 km²) and Lote 14. The
Wichí rights to that land have been
recognised by law, but no practical enforcement actions have been
taken by the Salta provincial government.
At the beginning of 2004, the government of Salta decided to lift the
protected status of the General Pizarro Natural Reserve, an area of
250 km² in the Anta Department inhabited by about 100 Wichí,
and sell part of the land to two private companies, Everest SA and
Initium Aferro SA, to be deforested and planted with soybean. After
months of complaints, legal struggle, and a campaign sponsored by
Greenpeace, on 29 September 2005 (after an exposure in a popular TV
show) a group of Argentine artists, actors, musicians, models,
environmental groups and
Wichí representatives arranged a hearing
with Chief of Cabinet Alberto Fernández, Director of the National
Parks Administration Héctor Espina and President Néstor Kirchner
himself. The national government promised to discuss the matter with
Salta governor Juan Carlos Romero.
On 14 October 2005 the National Parks Administration and the
government of Salta signed an agreement to create a new national
protected area in General Pizarro. Of the approximately 213 km²
comprised by the new reserve, the
Wichí will have the right of use of
22 km², and they will own 8 km².
El Chaco, where
Wichí also live, is the largest subtropical dry
broadleaf forest of the earth. Currently, the
Wichí and other
indigenous groups are in danger of losing their land and livelihood to
agrobusinesses. Soy and cotton farmers want to cut the trees in order
to expand cultivation. The Chaco forest is being cut down six times
faster than the Amazon jungle. The greatest profiteers are logging
companies. Additionally, soy cultivation has accelerated
deforestation. In a lot of cases this also means, that the indigenous
communities lose their land to agrobusinesses and suffer under the
intense use of fertilizers and pesticides, that poisons the water they
depend on. Since 2008, many indigenous people are organised in the
“Movimiento Nacional Campesino Indígena” (National Movement of
Indigenous Peasants) and fight for the legal right to their land.
Wichí, as other hunter-gatherer peoples, were semi-nomadic. Even
today and despite transculturation, there is a fairly large number of
montaraces (nomadic) communities or clans. Each
Wichí village has its
own territory, but usually a few communities share the use of the
overlapping areas. Each community consists of one or more clans. Wichi
society is matrilocal, i.e., people belong to their mothers' clans;
upon marriage, men move to their wives' villages. Individuals and
families of some of the neighboring peoples like the Iyojwaja
(Chorote), Nivaklé, Qomlek (Toba) and Tapy'y (Tapieté) often live
amongst the Wichí, sometimes marrying into their society.
They build small mud houses with roofs made of leaves and branches,
well adapted to the high temperatures of summer that can reach
50 °C (120 °F). During the dry season (winter) they depend
on fishing in the Bermejo and Pilcomayo rivers, and cultivate corn,
pumpkins, beans and watermelons during summer. Throughout the year the
Wichí hunt deers (Cervidae) like "guasuncho" (Mazama goauzoubira) and
"corzuela roja" (Mazama americana), armadillos (Dasypus, Tolypeutes
and Euphractus genii), rabbits ("tapetí", Sylvilagus brasiliensis),
several types of iguana and peccaries (Tayassu albirostris, Tayassu
tajacu); search for wild honey and gather fruits. For centuries they
have used the strong fibers of chaguar (Bromelia serra, Bromelia
hieronymi) for weaving nets, purses and other textile objects; some
communities base a substantial part of their economy in selling
The most popular game among the
Wichí is a team sport called `yaj
ha`lä, which resembles lacrosse. Games usually last from dawn to dusk
without interruption, and are agreed between clans. The magical
significance of the game is lost, but it is still a subject of heavy
gambling: rival clans bet animals, clothes, seeds and horses on the
outcome of the game.
^ "Censo Nacional de Población, Hogares y Viviendas 2010: Resultados
definitivos: Serie B No 2: Tomo 1" (PDF) (in Spanish). INDEC.
p. 281. Archived from the original (PDF) on 8 December 2015.
Retrieved 5 December 2015.
^ Miller, Elmer S. (2001-03-30). Peoples of the Gran Chaco. Praeger
Publishers. p. 184. ISBN 0-89789-802-8.
^ Conquest by chainsaw
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Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (ed.), (2005). Ethnologue: Languages of the
World, Fifteenth edition. Dallas, Tex.: SIL International. Online
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Lhamtés Güisnay, Noctén and Vejoz
Najlis, Elena L., (1968) "Dialectos del mataco". Anales de la
Universidad del Salvador, 4: 232-241. Buenos Aires.
Occhipinti, Laurie, (2003). "Claiming a Place. Land and Identity in
two Communities of Northwestern Argentina". Journal of Latin American
Anthropology, Vol. 8 No. 3, pp. 155–174.
Terraza, Jimena, (2001). "Towards a language planning of the
endangered languages in Argentina: the case of
Wichí in the Southwest
of the Province of Salta". Symposium Linguistic Perspectives on
Endangered Languages, Helsinki University, Aug.29 to Sep.1, 2001.
Tovar, Antonio, (1981). Relatos y diálogos de los matacos seguidos de
una gramática de su lengua. Madrid: Ediciones Cultura Hispánica del
Instituto de Cooperación Iberoamericana.
This article incorporates text from a publication now in the
public domain: Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Mataco Indians".
Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Wichí.
Wichi language (research, documentation and education in Argentina)
Wichi Vocabulary List (from the World Loanword Database)
Comparative Wichi Swadesh vocabulary list (from Wiktionary's Swadesh
Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Mataco Indians". Catholic
Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
INDEC National Institute of Statistics and Censuses of Argentina.
Chacolinks - Support for the Wichi people of
Argentina (reports on the
conservation of the language, culture, lands, etc. of the Wichí)
To Argentina's Wichi, economic collapse means little, from Latin
American Studies; taken from The Washington Times, August 13, 2002.
Survival 2002, a report on current threats to the Wichí's rights.
The Art of Being Wichi, a Norwegian film that is currently being made
on the Wichi Indians by Corax Videoproduksjon as.
Greenpeace. 22 August 2005. Burning of forest lands in Salta (picture
About the General Pizarro Natural Reserve:
Fundación Ambiente y Recursos Naturales. Programa Control Ciudadano
del Medio Ambiente. Caso: Desafectación de Reserva Provincial General
Pizarro (provincia de Salta).
Greenpeace. July 2005. Razones por las que no debe destruirse la
Reserva de Pizarro (Salta).
Biodiversidad en América Latina. Argentina: la Reserva de Pizarro a
punto de desaparecer. 26 September 2005.
Página/12 newspaper, 30 September 2005. El reclamo wichí llegó a la
Página/12 newspaper, 15 October 2005. La reconquista de Pizarro.
 Scholarly paper: Hufty, M. (2008). Pizarro Protected Area: A
political ecology perspective on land use, soybeans and Argentina’s
nature conservation policy.