Featherwork is an art very often associated with indigenous Brazil, since many peoples from the central Amazon rainforest produce exceptional artworks with feathers. But few know that one of the most complex feather headdresses in South America is made by the Wayana and Apalai peoples of French Guiana, who are also present in northern Brazil and parts of Suriname. The olok headdress, also known as orok, is the centerpiece of the ëputop, a ritual designed to strengthen the mind and body over several months.
The ëputop (maraké in French colonial sources) is a ceremony that has a critical social and religious role in the region of the Tumuc-Humac mountains (see map). Several indigenous communities come together for this occasion, during which they carry out numerous exchanges and gather at a host village where the event will take place. The ëputop is a major event for the participants (tepiem) and for the life of the wayana-apalai society in general, and as such it has not gone unnoticed by European colonizers. The first known textual description of this ritual dates back to 1878 by Jules Crevaux, a French explorer.
Henri Coudreau, follower of Crevaux, explains that the ëputop marks the transition to adulthood for young boys but also young girls, and that it can be repeated at any point during the life of an individual who would be willing to undertake it.1 The ëputop would have the vocation to strengthen the adolescent, to demonstrate their skill and their resistance to pain but, above all, to integrate them to the community.
The ritual takes place over several months, in different stages; the final trial is that of the application of stinging ants or wasps onto the skin of the participants, which they must endure without fail. The day before this last challenge the participants perform the kalawu dance, for which the young initiates create an olok headdress. To do so, they attach numerous feather crowns, long red macaw feathers, insect pendants, and other elements to a woven cylindrical base. While the cylindrical base of the olok is made every year from scratch by the participants, the feathers are passed on to them by their father and forefathers, who carefully preserved them for generations within olok ene chests.
Describing the olok as a feather headdress would be overly simplistic. First, the olok is not complete with its accompanying fringes made of bark, dyed brown in their lower part using oxidizing mud. The resulting bands are fastened around the bottom of the basketry base of the headdress, so that they hang from it and thus cover the dancers’ bodies. The olok headdress also comes with a walipta back-plate, which is made of flat base of basketry or woven cotton covered with a mosaic of feathers, and often finished with feather pendants and scarab shells. Finally, the «kit» used for the ëputop ritual includes a kunana, a zoomorphic mat representing a spirit onto which the insects will be inserted.
The ëputop is less practiced nowadays due to time constraints, but also because the application of ants or wasps on the body of the participants is considered a controversial act for non-indigenous people. For that reason, the inscription of the ritual on UNESCO’s Intangible Heritage List continues to be debated.
Many museums display olok as a centerpiece in their exhibition galleries, where the headdress stands out because of its -quite literal- wingspan, vibrant colors, and multiple textures. The bark cape of the olok is often not preserved, while the dorsal plates and the kunana mats are exhibited separately in other windows. As a result, the olok is presented to visitors as a standalone aesthetic masterpiece, rather than a part of much larger ritual paraphernalia. Of course, an olok can be admired as is, but it is also important to put it back in its original context in order to highlight the richness of the ëputop that gives it all its meaning – whether one considers the use of ants a torture or a proof of courage. In consequence, the olok headdress of the Wayana-Apalai is much more than a simple feather ornament: it is a cultural symbol and an exceptional legacy, handed down from generation to generation.
1 Coudreau, Henri. Chez nos Indiens. Quatre années dans la Guyane française, Hachette et Cie, Paris, 1893.