July ‘99 newsletter

Alan Ereira reports on the Gathering

In December, 1997, two indigenous leaders from the Sierra put a startling proposition to me. They were planning to invite leaders of all the indigenous people of America to gather in the Sierra and draw up a common statement of problems, issues and proposals, to re-affirm their common links. The leaders were Moises Villafaña, a young man from that Arhuaco family studying law in Bogota, and Juan Mamacatan, the son of Mama Bernardo and head of Gonavindua Tairona (GT), the organisation that represents the Mamas to the outside world. The meeting was to be held in Kogi territory, under the auspices of GT, and they wanted me to make a film about it. It would be held in the autumn of 1998.


I began to look for possible interest in such a film, and the Trust was given a donation of £5000 from the Chiron Trust to help to make it happen, but then the Kogi Mamas decided that they had reservations and the project was shelved. There were indications that it might happen in January, but I heard nothing until the very end of 1999, when Moises sent me an urgent invitation to attend. The gathering was to be held on Arhuaco territory, in January. The plan was to have an indigenous-only gathering in the Arhuaco town of Nabusimake, in the south-east of the Sierra, and then two days of open conference in Santa Marta.

I flew to from Bogota to Valledupar, the closest “civilised” town to Nabusimake; on the way I met with a surprising number of people also going there: a seven-person TV crew from the Colombian Ministry of Culture, a North American stills photographer called Dick Bancroft and his assistant Jesse, and two Native Americans who Dick was escorting. Valledupar put on a rather curious, but ambitious, celebration of the event in a public park, including a series of worthy speeches and some extraordinary interpretations of indigenous dances by local non- indigenous enthusiasts. Two Kogi Mamas appeared and watched impassively.

The party that set out next day for Nabusimake included a small group of Guatemalan Maya, a couple of Colombian Indians (one a Uitoto shaman from Amazonia), and an odd bunch of North Americans including Sequioia Trueblood, who looked as white as a white man could, with shoulder-length white hair and all-white clothing. It was immediately obvious that the majority of the other Native Americans were somewhat uncomfortable with Sequioia, a theme that was to be developed further during the conference.

Nabusimake is an old mission town, a neat group of rectangular white thatched buildings and a church, surrounded by a low wall. It is accessible by 4-wheel drive. Nabusimake means “birth-place of the sun”: it was where the Arhuaco began the process of reclaiming the Sierra in the 1980’s, by sending away the missionaries and proclaiming the “Black Line”, the frontier which they established around the mountains (see note). It is in what is now clearly guerrilla territory, and the conference had been squared with the guerrillas by Moises explaining to them that only indigenous people would be there. I think that explained the tension on our first evening, when not only were there the ten whites I have already mentioned, but also a group of very attractive young lady assistants recruited by Moises, another television crew from the Fondaçion Pro Sierra Nevada and a number of North Americans who may have been indigenous but certainly did not look so to Colombian eyes. After a rather tense few hours, we were told that all non-indigenous people had to find accommodation outside Nabusimake, in the farm houses near the road. I was, however, permitted to stay, a guest of the Kogi in the house designated for them, the only round house in the town.

The delegates were set the stiff task of explaining who they were and then drawing up a statement of their “law of origin”, people by people, from which the conference would draw its conclusions. Each group was also encouraged to demonstrate their ceremonies and offerings. Filming of most of this was either forbidden, or only permitted when there was no light.

The most startling contributions, to me, came from a Guatemalan Maya, Appolinario Chile Pixtún, and a Colombian Cauca, Nixon Yutatacué. Nixon was extraordinary because of his simplicity. When called upon to tell his “law of origin” he told a charming and poetic narrative of the creation of the world, enchanting in its fairy-tale qualities and made more so because it was presented as the straightforward truth about the relationship between the sun, moon, earth and water. Then he went on to describe the rape and destruction of his people, again very simply and modestly, in a quiet voice, always looking down as he spoke. It was deeply moving.

Appolinario was not such a simple man; he is the head of the Guatemalan Maya organisation of calendar-keepers, the “Gran Confederación de Consejos de Principales Ajq’ijab de la Comunidad Maya de Guatemala”. He announced that the Maya have always know that the indigenous people of the Sierra are the “elder brothers”, repositories of knowledge and wisdom, and for that reason a Maya child is sent every four years from Guatemala to live and study in the Sierra. He himself had been on that journey 30 years ago, when he was 12 years old, and a child is now being prepared for the next trip, in two years’ time. This was, of course, a major surprise to most people present.

For many people it was clear that the biggest impact was made by Sequioia, who has a natural gift for absorbing and reinterpreting values which he admires. He declined to live in a house, preferring to sleep out on the ground, and the Arhuaco took to him in a big way. He was invited to come and live in Nabusimake as its gate-keeper (the town is normally deserted, like all the indigenous town of the Sierra, but is sufficiently accessible to need someone to turn away tourists). I believe he is there right now.

The Kogi Mamas attended the conference but in silence. They had already prepared their own presentation, which Ramón Gill gave in Santa Marta at the end of the whole event. It is a significant philosophical essay, which deals with the conceptual underpinnings of the cosmos in a very different way from anything that was said.

At the end of the day, I am not sure what positive benefit came from the whole event. It raised the profile of the Sierra Indians a little in Colombia (Juan Meyer, founder of the Fondaçion Pro Sierra Nevada and now Minister for the Environment attended the last day of the conference), and did establish some new links. But the suspicion of the Kogi Mamas that the event also served to make the Sierra a little more open to outsiders remained, and I do not think they will be keen to see it repeated very soon. Juan Mamacatan was replaced a few weeks later as the head of GT, and Arregoces was asked to take on the job. During the conference Arregoces had accused Moises of, in effect, starting up a programme of indigenous tourism to the Sierra.

At the end of the conference I was joined by a photographer from New York, Simon Chaput, who the Trust was sponsoring to take photographs for the text the Kogi have been preparing, The Words of the Mama. Simon set off on a six-week photographic expedition, assisted by Peter Rawitscher, financed by a grant to the Trust from the Luce Foundation. In the aftermath of the gathering and with tensions very lively in many Sierra communities, they had a difficult time: Simon has taken some remarkable pictures (and lost a lot of weight) but needs to go back to complete the project.

It is now proposed to add to and develop the paper which Ramón presented, and incorporate that into The Words of the Mama. He is looking for funds to finance the time away from agriculture, and meetings with the Mamas, which this will require, and the Trust has agreed to search for those funds. The other project we have been asked to help with is to assist in the setting up of a Documentation Centre at the Casa Indigena in Santa Marta. The Casa has been completely re-modelled with our help, and the plan now is to make it a centre for the flow of information in and out of the Sierra. The Documentation Centre will provide the government and others with planning information about the indigenous territories through a single gate-way, and will also serve as a collection point for information published outside about the people of the Sierra and about other indigenous people.

The Trust therefore is being asked to do rather more than we expected, and to achieve it we do need to gather in some funds. We tick along spending almost nothing on our own organisation, but we now need to revive the programme of collecting money for the Sierra.

The world is full of good causes. But the Sierra is unique, and its people are unique. Their voice is different, profound and important. We have the privilege of having been asked to help it gather strength and be heard in the world. All around are good causes struggling to ameliorate catastrophe. But this is about creating a future, about keeping open the possibility of building a new relationship with a form of understanding that almost vanished.

The Kogi speak of Aluna, the living non-material cosmos, as “memory and possibility”. The Trust, in helping them, serves to re-inforce memory and possibility. Alan Ereira

Note. Nabusimake was called San Sebastian de Rábago by the Capuchins when the friars founded a mission there in 1693. The Arhuaco removed them by force, with the help of the army, in 1982 thus establishing the ‘Black Line’.

From Luci Attala

Welcome everyone to this edition of the Tairona newsletter. As a newcomer to the Trust I feel that I need to introduce myself to you all. So, here we go. My name is Luci - I am a mother of three, a postgraduate student doing a PhD, the undergraduate advisor and a teaching assistant here in the Anthropology Department at Lampeter university - and since the last issue of the newsletter I have taken over the position of Trust administrator from Graham.

The last six months have not been a very busy time in the Tairona office. As Graham prepared to leave, and as I settled into the job it became increasingly clear that most of what the Trust had originally set out to do had finally been achieved. The original aim of the Trust was simply to enable the Kogi to repurchase the land that they felt was rightfully theirs and thereby go some way to helping the Kogi to re-establish themselves as a people in the territory that they had previously inhabited. So, what we can say now in 1999, ten years later, is that, through the promulgation of the Kogi message (as heard in the film The Heart of The World), the Trust has managed to raise and re-channel enough money to have enabled the Kogi to reclaim ownership of the land that surrounds them.

In this day and age such a resounding success story is rarely heard of - let alone achieved - and so it would be foolish not to heartily acknowledge this extraordinary adventure as the magnificent accomplishment that it is. I believe that the reason for a large part of the success of this venture undoubtedly , lies with the unusually calm and authoritative manner that the Kogi display in their dealings with us ‘younger brother’. However, another reason for success, and something which could be seen as a distinctive characteristic of the Trust’s identity, can be attributed to the decision to avoid international advertising campaigns and attracting large corporate sponsorship. By doing this the Trust has avoided what could generously be called ‘typical business support’ - the kind of support which always demands recognition for the donor rather than the recipient and has relied heavily on the individual - a choice which was clearly the right one. For this Graham’s mighty effort and vision must be acknowledged. But, finally, it must also be noted that without you (yes, you!) and your support both in attitude and financially none of this could ever have happened - and because of this I feel that we should all be praising ourselves fully for having been part of this fantastic and extremely worthwhile achievement. In times when profit and technological advances are often honoured beyond most things, it is important to advertise and remember the effective simplicity of glorious humanitarian connections such as this one. I say this not only because it has so definitely worked, but also because it may be seen as an inspiration and as encouragement to all those others who are striving so hard to achieve results on other equally good and important projects. So we must remember: constructive change is possible and it does happen.

Anyway, enough of all this congratulatory gushing and back to the main point - the work is done! Stunned silence? Yes, as you can imagine there was quite a long silence in the office too when, needless to say, this realisation threw us into a minor existential crisis as it seemed quite clear that the Trust had now become redundant (albeit gracefully). Or so we thought - until Alan was called back to visit the Kogi at the beginning of this year. It was with his return that we received the news that, contrary to what we had thought, there is still more work to be done.

As you will have probably already read, Alan brought back with him information concerning the Kogi’s latest needs. One could say that the main project that needs to be focused on is the creation of the documentation centre. This centre will have two main purposes. Firstly it will act simply as a store for the Kogi of a collection of information of the other indigenous peoples of South America and secondly, it will act as a database of information about the Sierra itself. The information collected at the documentation centre will be maintained and controlled by the Kogi themselves and others will only have access to the information with the agreement of the Kogi. This set up will enable them to ensure a position of informed strength when presented with planning and development proposals from either government agencies or large corporations which regularly occur. (It is important to remember that the Sierra is seen by many as just another business opportunity and to some extent the Kogi appear to be engaged in an ongoing struggle to minimise this kind of impact.) Because of this the documentation centre may be understood as an important and necessary development for the maintenance of the area and as such I hope that we will be able to finance it.

The production of a book was also mentioned by Alan. Again this project will need funding but this time it will simply be to allow Ramon and his family to subsist whilst he is occupied in the creation of the text. And before you ask, the book will probably not be ready until next year at the earliest - we will keep you informed. (Look on our web site for more information).

And so finally, without stating the obvious, it must be clear by now that the Trust needs a substantial injection of funds to be able to help achieve the Kogi’s aims. At present the Tairona office runs on a very thin shoestring with most of the work achieved through voluntary effort. This is fine, and this is how it will continue but inevitably, as with any organisation, there are costs (postage, printing telephone etc) to meet too. Clearly then, adding these new projects to the Trust’s schedule will also demand a considerable financial input - something right now the Trust is unable to do. So, funding again becomes imperative and I feel sure that, bearing in mind the response of previous years, it will come. Thank you for your interest and continued support. Luci

From Graham Falvey

As Luci has mentioned, I am on my way to Australia as part of a research degree which will build on the experience of working with Gonavindua Tairona. This will allow me to play a role for the Trust over there - I have found much interest in the Kogi during past visits and it will be particularly exciting to show the film to Aboriginal audiences as well as European.

Since Luci took over the administration, most of my time has been spent reworking the web site. There is ambiguity in this: on the one hand, such a project quite properly fulfils a role useful to the Mamas - the dissemination of knowledge about them and their environmental concerns; on the other, it cannot help but threaten their privacy by publicising the area. This is something I have not quite resolved, especially since searching the web has thrown up some bizarre references to the Sierra Nevada including a group of adventure mountaineers who skied the Peaks area. They presented their experience on the web which must surely encourage others to invade what is, for the Kogi, the part of the Sierra which is the traditional domain of the dead. Equally disturbing is the presence of some commercial sites, all based in America, which advertise Tairona relics - poporos, gold pieces, wooden masks - for sale. Some of these are copies of traditional work - others are not, and one wonders about their provenance.

On the other hand, there are also some gems, and I would like to recommend the ‘Universo Arhuaco’ site in particular (http://www.epm.net.co/VIIfestivalpoesia/html/Arhuacos/contents.html). This is the text of a complete book in which the Arhuaco Mamas talk of their political situation, their response to it, and the spiritual basis for that response. The Arhuaco, or Ika, have always been more politically engaged than the Kogi because their part of the mountain, the southern slopes, have been more accessible for longer.

A personal favourite is this quote from Mama Avinteira: ‘I want to make a strong appeal for reflection… it seems there is a wide opening for the philosophical and religious streams of thought we have in our bosoms… Religious differences are pointless here, for we do not have such a concept as religion. The God concept is, to us, unity; it is the total living together, the maximum total identity we might have as human beings. If we achieve that maximum of togetherness, we achieve a deep respect for all things we may observe. In that way, nothing would do us harm, for nothing in this life is evil, all is good… I would ask some of you to go and take a close look at the way we live.’

A new book , with a section devoted to the Kogi, has been published by American anthropologist David Wilson of the Southern Methodist University. Indigenous South Americans of the Past and Present : An Ecological Perspective (Westview 1999) is one for academics, but the sections on the Kogi and the Taironas are good, with useful line illustrations. It also gives an account of Alvaro Soto’s official archaeological excavation of the ‘Lost City’. (Tairona, I have learnt recently, means ‘forge’ in the original Chibcha language. Proficiency in its use for goldwork is why the Spanish applied it to the civilization they found in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta).

I would like to underscore the points made by both Alan and Luci concerning funding for Gonavindua Tairona. The three projects we are cooperating on at the moment are all to do with the dissemination of indigenous knowledge to the West, and the control of that dissemination to the Mamas’ preferences rather than ours. This control of representation is recognised as key by all indigenous groups, but it is expensive to gather the technology it requires - as I have found recently when looking to upgrade the Trust’s computer system. This latter matter is necessary to ally our efforts with those of Gonavindua Tairona, but I am investigating separate sources of funding for it.

Finally, the Trust is always looking to cut its (minimal) administrative costs still further. To this end, it would benefit us to email the text of the newsletter to those who can receive it this way. If you find this acceptable, could you contact us to confirm? The newsletter will always be put on the web site also. Thank you. Graham Falvey

‘The core of everything is Sé. Sé has no beginning, it has always existed. It is the sum of things. Sé is complex. Sé organises everything so as to create harmony. It is the spiritual world that transforms material being. Sé is always in charge, demanding obedience. Sé can destroy this world and make another, because Sé contains much that has not yet materialised. That is why the Mamas make this demand today for confession and spiritual offering. The spiritual world must be sustained by working in spirit: otherwise nothing could exist.’

Adapted from a text prepared by Ramon Gil. read the full text