Indigenous People 

Indigenous Peoples
The Guardians speak out

by Rachel Dempsey

Indigenous peoples everywhere in the world have been under threat for many centuries from the forces of globalisation. Most have been wiped out or absorbed into the global culture. Those that remain are hugely vulnerable. The Kankuamo of Colombia are one such people who are determined to resist.
Many people associate India and the East with the kind of spiritually evolved cultures which can inspire us here in the West to live slower, more sustainable lives. Less known are the beliefs of indigenous of the Sierra Nevada in Northern Colombia, and how this group, with their sophisticated philosophy and spirituality, see themselves as guardians of the world. They live self-sufficient lives on one of the world’s most remote and spectacular mountain ranges, whose snow fields and glaciers lie a mere forty kilometers from the Caribbean. However their world is being destroyed, physically and spiritually and their powerful message to the West is ‘now we can no longer look after the world alone. The Younger Brother is doing too much damage. He must see, and understand, and assume responsibility. Now we will have to work together. Otherwise, the world will die." - Kogi Mama (Spiritual elder). Representatives from one of the groups living in this area, the Kankuamo, came to Ireland last April to talk about their culture and the plight of this people whose spiritual leaders (mamos) are currently being killed by those who wants to break down the culture and take these peoples’ lands.
The Kankuamo are one of four indigenous groups living in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. These groups are descendants of an ancient South American civilization called the Tairona, and are unique amongst Amerindians as they were never truly vanquished by the Spaniards. The Kankuamo did become more assimilated into Colombian or Western civilisation but are now recuperating their cultural identity. To this day the Kogi, Arhuaco, and Wiwa remain true to their ancient laws—the moral, ecological, and spiritual dictates of the primordial creator, a force they identify as the Mother—and are still led and inspired by a ritual priesthood. In an arduous process of initiation that can take up to 18 years and involves extended periods of meditation, young trainee priests are taught the values of their society, among them the notion that their spiritual work alone maintains the cosmic (or as we might say, ecological) balance. These people ‘view the world with the most sensitive and insightful intelligence and have a profound respect and responsibility for life’ . Fundamental in their world is a spirit of living which places people in the centre and believes that caring for the world (‘the mother’) is the same as caring for non-indians, (’the little brothers’, to whom they ascribe no blame) and is ultimately the same as caring for ourselves.

It is amazing that the indigenous of the Tairona can have so much compassion for a ‘civilization’ whose pollution is causing their glaciers to melt and whose peoples are violently encroaching onto their lands.  The Kankuamo and their neighbors, who prophesized about the destructive forces of western civilization, are now being systematically murdered by right-wing paramilitary forces so that their land can be exploited. The Kankuamo alone have suffered over 200 assassinations in recent years and at least one in seven of their group has been forcibly displaced from their ancestral lands by paramilitaries. Why have these groups been targeted? On one hand, the Kankuamo people are trying to organize themselves under a legal reservation with collective land rights. On the other hand, the Colombian government has opened up a tender for the exploitation of limestone and marble on their land and there are plans for the construction of up to four hydro electric dams according to the union of employees of the state mining company Minercol. In Colombia, the paramilitaries are known to collude with the national army, both working to represent the rich and powerful minority. As ONIC (the Colombian National Indigenous Organization) president Luis Revelio Andrade said ‘one way to ensure there is no opposition to construction of the Besotes dam is to physically eliminate the people, and another is to displace, using terror’.

author: Rachel Dempsey

Source: Two members of the Kankuamo group, including their leader Jaime Arias Arias, visited Ireland during Latin America Week, 16th-22nd April 2005. They gave talks about their culture and how it is being threatened. This event was organized by the Latin America Solidarity Centre, and educational, cultural and campaigning solidarity group which aims to link Latin America and Ireland. For more information please see or contact 01 676 0435.
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