My grandfather told the story of Tulupele, the giant caterpillar.

The Wayana and the Apalaï wanted to go to rock Asimiliku, but whenever one of them left he was said to be a dead man, as nobody ever came back. Whenever anyone approached the place, a Macaw would cry “kalalan kalalan to warn the giant Caterpillar who lived there of their arrival. The caterpillar would come down from his rock, plunge into the Asiki River and devour anybody who passed.

“Here I am,” said the Caterpillar as he waited for prey to devour.

And so the Wayana and Apalaï disappeared from this spot.

“The Wayana massacre us,” the Apalaï said. “How can we cross here? Let’s go and see what’s happening!”

The Wayana headed off there too. “Let’s go and find out who is killing us,” they said (perhaps thinking of the Apalaï).

Finally, they saw the giant caterpillar.

It arrives, malalan, malalan! “It is the one massacring us, you see. That’s why we’re disappearing,” they said.

The Wayana and the Apalaï wanted to fight, but eventually decided to kill the beast together.

To kill it we will fast. We must not eat anything hot – only cold things – and we must not cover ourselves in roucou.

They arrived at the Asiki River. The Apalaï decided to cut wood to make a barrier running from the rock down to the river.

“Let’s make a barrier!” They said. They made one on one side of the rock, and the Wayana made another on their side.

“Let’s go!” cried out the Apalaï and the Wayana together. “There’s the spotted creature!” tïtïtïtï tululun

The Macaw, which could well find itself without a master, arrived and sang kalalan, kalalan.

The Tulupele was killed in a shower of arrows and fell into the water.

“Ah, maybe he is finally dead. Perhaps we have killed him,” said the Apalaï.

The Tulupele reappeared at the surface of the water by a muddy well called “big wood pig”. The Apalaï saw it first and cut it into pieces. It is because of this that they know how to make fine basketwork patterns – they found them on Tulupele skin. They were familiar with arouma reed. The Wayana arrived after and, as there wasn’t any more decorated skin, they left without the patterns.

Young Apalaï women know how to weave baskets for storing dry-smoked chilli. They are experts at basket weaving. Unfortunately, young Wayana women do not know how to weave baskets.

This is the story my grandfather told.

The art of weaving patterned basketwork

There is great skill in the art of working with arouma reed in French Guiana, and the various Amerindian peoples are experts. There are many mythical tales about how this originated, such as the story that has just been told. This myth tells how the Apalaï and the Wayana people, who were once enemies, divided the craft of weaving arouma reeds thanks to the patterns on Tulupele’s skin – a monstrous beast who devoured the members of the two groups whenever they had to cross the mouth of the Asiki, a tributary of the Parou (Brazil). The Apalaï and the Wayana killed the monster together, whose skin was decorated with superb patterns. The Apalaï were cunning and removed the decorated part of its skin. The Wayana, who arrived after, did not find any patterns. The Apalaï, who already knew how to weave arouma reed, incorporated the patterns from his skin.

It is worth noting that the end of the tale varies according to the narrator’s ancestry. The version told here comes from a Wayana from Parou who declares that it is the Apalaï who carried off the finest patterns. When told by an Apalaï, however, this tale has the opposite ending – it is the Wayana who took the most beautiful motifs. This role reversal is part of the ritual politeness and subtle social behaviour existing between these two groups, building up links thanks to their common skill.

The origin of the patterns woven in their basketwork is, for these groups, a copy of the patterns found on the skin of the beast. Depending upon the version, this can be a caterpillar, a lizard or an anaconda, and is called ëlukë by some and Tulupele by others.

In French Guiana, the total population of the Apalaï and the Wayana stands at under a thousand individuals, with less than fifty or so Apalaï.