The Kogi in the 20th century


The Kogi also had experience of missionary activity. In 1875, the workings of a particular Jesuit missionary, Father Celedón, caused a large number to migrate the western slopes. Celedón himself was an educated man who had learnt the language and who spoke respectfully of the Kogi when he travelled to Europe, but is not remembered well by the Kogi. In the main, however, the harshness of their terrain had allowed the Kogi to ‘preserve, to a quite remarkable degree, their traditional way of life’ (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1976: : 265).

Structure of 20th C. Kogi society

What was a city-based confederation at the time of the Spanish Invasion is now a village-based society of swidden farmers. The Sierra Nevada is characterized by sharp contrasts in altitude, temperature, and rainfall, with corresponding contrasts in plant and animal communities. Much of the land is steep and not amenable to cultivation and agricultural productivity declines with increasing altitude. Economic activities vary according to the environmental zones to which a community has access and slash-and-burn agriculture is the mainstay of the economy. Major food crops include sweet manioc, potatoes, beans, cucurbits, maize, plantains, sugarcane and some fruit trees (bananas and oranges). Secondary crops include onions, sweet potatoes, avocados and pineapples. Raising of domestic animals, including oxen, pigs, sheep, chickens, and turkeys, is a secondary activity, and the animals are but infrequently eaten. Wild food collecting, hunting, and fishing are minor activities.


The Mamas

Kogi society is strictly hierarchical. At the top are the Mamas (derived from ‘mamos’ or sun), the spiritual leaders or priests, whose education is one of the most remarkable aspects of their society . Ideally, future priests are chosen by divination and undergo their training from birth. Full education lasts 18 years and takes place in special caves in the Sierra, during which time the ‘moros’, or trainee priests, are deprived of daylight as far as possible. Training is split into two periods of nine years each with puberty in between, at which point either the ‘moro’ or his teacher, can decide to discontinue the process. It used to be the case that girls would be educated too, but within the last three or four generations, this seems to have lapsed, only some girls given a basic education ‘in the manner of the ancients’.

The Mamas return to society at about age twenty invested with the moral and spiritual attributes to lead and guide society, but with no practical knowledge. Their austere education preserves them for ‘the delicate task of preserving the universe.’ (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1976: 282), and they should avoid physical work because of the dangers of pollution. Practicalities are left to the Comisario, or secular village headman, who works in conjunction with the Mama. Cabos are the assistants of both Mamas and Comisarios and have less authority. Mayores is a term given to reputable older men whose status gives them some authority with their kinsmen and the younger people.



Below these levels are the common people who engage in a number of craft activities, the division of labour following lines of sex rather than specialization.Both sexes share in agricultural production, while weaving, woodworking, making cordage, clothing manufacture, and toolmaking are male activities. Women are responsible for cooking, collecting wild foods, and manufacturing nets and bags (mochilas). The nuclear family is the basic social and economic unit and kinship ties are reckoned bilaterally. Husbands and wives are separated most of the time. The wife and children share a dwelling, while the husband either lives in a separate dwelling nearby or spends most of his time in the village nuhue , the ‘world’ or ‘men’s house which is the largest and architecturally most sophisticated building in any village.

Each family plants in several environmental zones, in order to produce a diversity of crops. Consequently, ‘Kogi villages are not permanently occupied; most Indians live in isolated homesteads dispersed over the mountain slopes, and the villages are hardly more than convenient gathering places where the inhabitants of a valley or of a certain restricted area can come together occasionally to exchange news, discuss community matters, discharge themselves of some minor ritual obligations, or trade with the visiting Creole peasants.’ (ibid: 265).

Coca-chewing is reserved for the men, although the bushes are cared for and picked by the women. The leaves are carried in a special mochila and shared when greeting. Coca-chewing is used in conjunction with lime, made from shells gathered from the coast, carried in a gourd called a poporo.


The Mamas mediate a religion in which the creator, Gaulcovang (from the root gau - to create), is feminine, and Kogi life is infused with the cosmological and spiritual nuances their education has given them. Their authority is underpinned by evidence of a sophisticated intellectual tradition. Aluna is the generative spiritual force in which all things exist and from which all things take their being. The object of the mamas’ training is to develop the latent ability to work consciously in alúna. Kalguasíza, created in alúna by Gaulcovang, are the ‘images of everything that was to exist… essence, image, model’ (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1987: 91-92). Without them, their material counterparts could not exist. Yuluka has the connotation of both being in balance, and the sense of agreement with alúna that is a prerequisite for that balance. The strength of Kogi religion, and the integrity of their Mamas, gives them influence with the Ika and Assario who ’ in everything concerning the religious sphere… recognise quite openly the superiority of the Kogi [as] the possessors of a body of esoteric knowledge which is extremely important to all the tribes of the Sierra Nevada.’ (Reichel-Dolmatoff in Lyon 1974: 290).


The Elder Brothers

They refer to themselves as the ‘Elder Brothers’ and have a ‘great interest in foreign cultures, in the strange ways of other peoples, and… readily ask their divine beings to grant protection to the wayward “younger brothers” of other nations.’ (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1976: 264). He adds that ‘Kogi cosmology ... is a model for survival in that it moulds individual behaviour into a plan of actions or avoidances that are oriented toward the maintenance of a viable equilibrium between Man’s demands and Nature’s resources. In this manner the individual and society at large must both carry the burden of great responsibilities which, in the Kogi view, extend not only to their society but to the whole of mankind.’ (ibid: 267).

This is the sort of society that survived quite successfully into the middle of the 20th century, following the policy of isolation adopted following the Spanish Invasion. From the 1950’s onwards, however, there were to be increasing threats to it, culminating in a reversal of that policy in the 1980’s. It is this period of threat, response, and change which is the subject of the next document.