Colombian Tribe Is Threatened by an Encroaching Civil War
| Two Arhuaco men help a
his matrimonial house. Arhuaco
custom holds that marriage should
not take place until the couple's home
| Arhuaco Indians relaxing
at the end of their
monthly meditative ritual on health, which
they perform in each of their communities to
purify the physical universe.
By JUAN FORERO
SIMONORWA, Colombia — Spaniards in clanging armor trudged up the mountain
first, subjugating Indians in the search for gold. Farmers,
clear-cutting forests, came next. Catholic missionaries followed, forbidding the Arhuaco Indians to speak their native tongue or practice their
It amounted to five centuries of encroachment. But the Arhuacos, an
agrarian tribe whose nation stretches across the thick forests and fertile
of these mountains of northern Colombia, managed to preserve their way of life through stubborn resistance and, later, modern-day political savvy.
Today, in 28 villages like this one, a tribe of 18,000 people operates
schools where the ancestral tongue is taught. They hold religious rituals
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.
But now, the Arhuacos are facing a threat their leaders consider most
serious — the arrival of Colombia's brutal civil conflict, a force they
could destroy their tribe.
The concerns are well founded. Across Colombia, leftist rebels are forcibly
recruiting Indians to work as guerrillas and jungle guides, while
paramilitary gunmen mount retaliatory killing rampages. Some Indian populations, already precariously small, have shrunk by half or more. Entire
languages and, in isolated cases, whole tribes that have survived tumult for centuries are now being lost.
Thousands have fled their homelands. Some Indians — their tribes in tatters — beg on urban streets.
"The last two years have been catastrophic," said Augusto Oyuela Caycedo,
a Colombian anthropologist at the Museum of Archaeology and
Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. "These are groups that have their own language, that have their own race. But in some cases, only
50 people in a tribe are talking the language, and what will happen is they will disappear."
The Arhuacos, while among the strongest, most traditional of all Colombian
tribes, have felt powerless as leftists rebels of the Revolutionary Armed
Forces of Colombia have increasingly trod through their villages. Much to the Arhuacos' alarm, the rebels have insisted on buying provisions and
have forcibly recruited young Indians as fighters.
The tribe fears that the guerrillas could soon attract right-wing paramilitary
gunmen — who specialize in massacring those they accuse of
collaborating with rebels. That is what happened to the Arhuacos' neighbors, the Kankuamus, who were killed by the dozens and relocated to
shantytowns by paramilitary gunmen.
"What is coming now are men with guns," said one Arhuaco elder, 43,
who asked that his name not be used. "And that has affected us. We don't
feel like we did before. We were alone, free. We didn't worry. Now, we feel things are not so normal."
Of Colombia's 84 tribes, about 30 are considered to be seriously endangered
because of the conflict and other factors like land invasion, oil
exploration and development, according to the Indigenous Organization of Colombia, a nongovernmental group. Four are in imminent danger of
disappearing altogether: the Bari of Norte de Santander Province; the Sikuani and the Cuibas of Arauca Province; and the Macaguaje of
Advocates for Indians said the threat was most dire in the Chocó-
Antioquia region of the northwest, here in parts of the Sierra Nevada de
Marta where the Arhuacos live, in Arauca Province and in the Amazon region.
In the jungles of the Colombian Amazon, as many as 58 tribes are facing
encroachment from guerrillas, paramilitaries, the army, gold miners, drug
traffickers and gun runners. Unsophisticated in modern- day lobbying and organizing, many of the Indians have simply withdrawn deeper into the
Advocates for the Indian tribes say that among the most endangered groups
are the Nukak hunter-gatherers of Guaviare Province, in southeastern
Colombia, whose population has been cut nearly in half, to 500 today from 900 five years ago, because of illness and conflict. In Córdoba
Province in northern Colombia, leaders of the Embera-Katios were assassinated and hundreds fled to cities as violence escalated.
In Putumayo, dozens of Cofanes fled to Ecuador after American-supported
defoliation of their coca fields and legal crops. Another group from a
conflict-ridden region in the south, the Karijonas, has dropped to 70 members, from 280 in 1993.
"The indigenous communities are considered a military objective by all
the armed groups," said Alberto Achito, a director at the Indigenous
Organization and an Embera-Siapiadara Indian. "Not for belonging to any one side, or having connections, but rather for defending our position."
The Arhuacos of the Sierra Nevada have avoided the fate of many Indian
groups, but they are increasingly feeling the pressures from armed
groups, notably the rebels.
"They want us to do things for them, everything," said one leader, 48,
who like other Arhuacos who talked about the conflict asked that his name
not be used. "And as for the youth, they want every family to give a son for the war. They want the war to mix with this culture, and that cannot
In an effort to articulate their concerns — and highlight the richness
of a culture they want to preserve — Arhuaco leaders invited a reporter
photographer to spend four days on their reservation, observing rituals, learning about ancestral practices and visiting their sacred capital,
Nabusimake. In interviews, the Arhuacos spoke in Spanish.
To reach the Arhuacos means a two-hour walk along winding paths from
the non-Indian town of Pueblo Bello to here in 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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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."