Accepted Paper:

Rebuilding the Umana Yana: Houses and indigeneity at a Guyanese National Monument  


Elliott Oakley (University of California, Santa Cruz)

Paper short abstract:

This paper explores the changing materiality of Waiwai houses in Guyana through the reconstruction of a Waiwai roundhouse in the capital city. I argue that wages from building a 'traditional' structure enabled different, and desired, materialities for contemporary Waiwai village houses.

Paper long abstract:

This paper explores the changing materiality of Waiwai houses in the context of Guyanese national imaginations and representations of indigeneity, focusing on the Umana Yana National Monument in the capital of Georgetown. In February and March of 2016, a group of 35 men from southern Guyana travelled reconstruct the Umana Yana, a conical thatched-roof roundhouse first built by Waiwai people in 1972. Based on the architecture of the umana, which was used as a communal house when missionaries first visited in the 1940s and remains a central building in Waiwai village life, the government contract to rebuild the structure after it was destroyed by fire in 2014 was awarded to two Waiwai villages. With their wages and government transportation, many Waiwai men purchased building materials for different types of houses: corrugated tin sheeting, nails and bolts, petrol and chainsaws to cut wood planks. Based on ethnographic research at the Umana Yana reconstruction and with Waiwai people in southern Guyana as well as archival research on the 1972 construction, I ask how the Waiwai concept of the house and its materiality connect to coastal Guyanese expectations of the country's indigenous people and incorporations of indigeneity into national identity. I argue that, in addition to being a powerful symbolic mediator of Waiwai social relations to the Guyanese state, Waiwai people approached the Umana Yana reconstruction as a wage labour opportunity to enable the multiple materialities of indigeneity that they desire.

Panel P028
Mutable Materialities of Indigenous Ways of Life