Arhuaco Indians in Colombia

Arhuaco Indians who live in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada mountains, say they have decided to limit any further exposure to outsiders in their traditional lands.

The Arhuacos, who say they oppose the construction of roads and dams in their territory, also face the threat of far-right paramilitary outlaws, who killed two Indians last year.

About Sierra Nevada and the Tairona Civilization

The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is the highest coastal mountain in the world, and the indigenous groups which live on it – the Kogi, the Arhuaco and the Assario – are the descendants of the Tairona civilization which flourished there at the time of the Spanish Invasion.

Two Arhuaco men help a third build his matrimonial house. Arhuaco custom holds that marriage ceremonies should not take place until the couple's home is completed.
Two Arhuaco men help a third build his matrimonial house. Arhuaco custom holds that marriage ceremonies should not take place until the couple’s home is completed.

Gonavindua Tairona is the political organisation founded by the the Mamas (priests) of the three tribes in 1987 in order to represent their interests in the face of increasing Western pressures. The three tribes refer to themselves as ‘The Elder Brothers’, and to Westerners as ‘The Younger Brother’.

Unlike most South American civilizations, the Taironas lived in relative peace with the Spanish for the first seventy years following the Conquest until Spanish demands finally caused a rebellion which was ruthlessly crushed. Tairona survivors fled up into the mountain to reconstitute their society. Pioneering fieldwork this century was done by Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff from the 1940’s to the 1970’s, but the harshness of the terrain makes the area relatively under-researched.

Films, notably by Robert Gardner, David Attenborough and Brian Moser, have been made about the Arhuaco (or Ika), but the Kogi were almost unknown until they agreed to the making of ‘From the Heart of the World – The Elder Brothers’ Warning’, a BBC documentary made by Alan Ereira in 1990. The film contained a strong message of warning concerning the environment.

About the Arhuaco Indians

The Arhuacos, an agrarian tribe whose nation stretches across the thick forests and fertile valleys of these mountains of northern Colombia, managed to preserve their way of life through stubborn resistance and, later, modern-day political savvy.

Today, in all their 28 villages, a tribe of 18,000 people operates schools where the ancestral tongue is taught. They hold religious rituals in forest clearings, giving thanks to the creators of the divine mountains and rivers of the range where they live, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Theirs is a traditional life in which men farm, dressed in long white robes, while women maintain homes of adobe and thatched roofs.

The Arhuacos, while among the strongest, are the most traditional of all Colombian tribes.

Arhuaco Indians of Simonorwa
Arhuaco Indians of Simonorwa on Colombia Map

To reach the Arhuacos means a two-hour walk along winding paths from the non-Indian town of Pueblo Bello to Simonorwa, the foothills of which rise to become the world’s highest coastal mountain. At 19,000 feet, the Sierra is considered among the world’s most biologically diverse mountain ranges – featuring eight separate climates, 35 rivers, 1,800 species of flowering plants and 635 species of birds, many of them found nowhere else.

The spectacularly rugged terrain also affords the Arhuacos a measure of isolation – and the chance to live as their ancestors did.

Arhuaco men work and socialize with a mouthful of coca, which they mix with crunched seashells from a pear-shaped gourd. Greetings with other men mean exchanging handfuls of leaves. The women spend much of their time weaving the men’s woolen conical hats, colorful pouches and robes that most Arhuacos wear. The villages lack electricity, and most homes lack plumbing.

When it comes to religion, the Arhuacos follow the teachings of wise men called mamos and believe in several “mothers and fathers” who created nature. A central tenet holds that the Sierra is the “heart of the world,” which the Arhuacos, wiser than outsiders, must protect. In monthly rituals held simultaneously across the Arhuaco nation, families gather in forests or hillsides under the guidance of mamos. Holding little cotton threads, rocks or tree shavings, which the Arhuacos see as representations of the many facets of nature, the worshipers project their thoughts into the objects as a way of purifying and honoring nature. The items are later meticulously arranged and left to the mamos to give up as offerings.

“We are happy about living life like this,” said Jeremias Torres, 40, an Arhuaco leader. “The point is to live, to live a tranquil life, without being dependent on anyone.”

It is a way of life that, at one time, had been on the decline. The tribe, however, made a resurgence from the early 1980’s, when they ousted Capuchin missionaries who had squelched its language and religion.

Now, a majority of people in the tribe can speak the native language. A dictionary of Arhuaco is being completed. Indian stories, once passed on orally, are in written form. And in all 28 villages, children are taught in Arhuaco – an increase from just two villages in 1990, said Rubiel Salabata, the tribe’s university-trained linguist.

“We are getting our culture back, learning that we should not be ashamed of our way of life,” said Aquilino Ramos, 16, who is slowly learning Arhuaco.

Arhuaco Indians in Columbia (Reuters/Eliana Aponte)
An Arhuaco Indian girl helps prepare a meal in her home in Sabana Crespo, province of Cesar, on September 24, 2004.

Modernity, of course, has touched the Arhuacos.

Baseball caps and running shoes and shiny watches abound. Jeeps ferry Arhuacos from one town to the next, and many live in lowland towns with non-Indians. The young people often prefer the Vallenato music of northern Colombia over traditional pipe and drum melodies. And on nights when the cantinas in non-Indian towns are hopping, some Arhuacos come down from the hills to drink themselves into a stupor.

Isael Niño, 80, a mamo priest and among the tribe’s most respected elders, worries about the intrusions. “Now there are many white people who come to hinder,” Mr. Niño said. “They come in with their roads, their progress, their electricity.”

But it is the conflict that is most distressing, already having touched Arhuaco towns to the west like Yeibin, Singuney and Barranquillita. Rebels, promising adventure, weapons and pay, have recruited youths in those villages.

The Arhuacos, who have learned the art of lobbying and political arm-twisting in their battles to keep non-Indians off their reservation, have sent delegations to Bogotá to meet with ministers, foreign ambassadors and human rights groups.

Indian leaders propose that the government urge the paramilitaries and rebels to declare the Sierra off limits. The proposal may not be realistic, since the government refuses to negotiate with the paramilitaries. Arhuaco leaders, however, say there is no other way.

“We could have, at any moment, a war and they could finish us off, commit genocide,” said an Arhuaco leader in Nabusimake. “But we don’t carry arms. We must comply with the laws, the mamos say. That’s the way we must do it. We are not warlike communities.”