The Thought of our Reborn Mamos
Mamo Bunkua Nabingumwa (Luis Napoleon Torres)
An interview, November the 8th, 1984
What are your origins?
Well, our origins spring from two directions: one is Tairona, and the other
is Chibcha. We regard them as the two family lines of our tribe; from them stem
the several branches. Some other Mamo might explain it better than me, because
I have understood only a little about genealogy.
Where did the Tairona come from?
I think they came from the Santa Marta region, where all Tairona cities are
located, or at least their remnants. Though many people say that indigens come
from India, in the real concept of our tribe, in the Mamos' concept, we have
not been transplanted. Our origins lie here in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.
All the knowledge is thus based on the particular nature of the Sierra, whence
all knowledge of science, the culture and customs, are spread for all the rest
of humankind, and for ourselves, who have our origins here in this very place.
What is the history of your struggles?
Our history has been rather hard; after the Bunachu history, it is known that
since America's discovery by Christopher Colombus, the natives, though always
subdued, have always struggled for their defense. But history here, concerning
the Arhuaco community, began around 1870, when the invaders first came to our
borders. They stopped there, because it was rather difficult to go deeper into
the Sierra. Between 1908 and 1916 things got worse with the esablishment of
the Capuchin Mission Orphanage. As our elders tell us, there was a need at that
time to set up relations, communications with, and to receive the benefits from
Bunachu by way of Santa Marta and Valledupar. But never was the native regarded
as a human being, a citizen, or a "Christian", as they say. Ever since those
days the educators regarded us as savages; as proved by the 89th Decree of 1880.
It was then when the clergy assigned the Capuchin Mission the task of "domesticating"
And whenever the natives tried to solve their problems in the traditional
way, they were not allowed to do so. They never aknowledged any value in the
natives, wether cultural, ideological, political, or social. The native was
not a "social being" to them; he was instead a person who did not have a soul,
had no beliefs, and his practices were devilish. And therefore had to be converted
to Christianity. So they began to introduce images of their Saints. That was
the way it began, and there were many high Mamos who opposed this; they did
not surrender to what the Mission intended... and those people were persecuted.
From 1928 to 1930 the strongest persecution took place. To live in accord with
their own political and religious ideology, the natives had to leave the land
where they lived in Nabusimake Valley. In other words, they had to run away
from that pressure. That is what the elders say.
It was then that they became disgregated, because before this they were ruled
from Nabusimake, the center of government. There was no other village, no partialities
spread over the territory. But due to the pressure exerted, people began to
move to Donachuy, Serankwa, Yeurwa, Windiwameina, Isrwa, Jugaka, Gámake,
Birwa, Simonorwa, Yeivin, Maranchwa, Yéchikin, Búzin, etc. Some
went to de Kogi region: to Mautama, Cherua, San Miguel, and many of them continued
their pilgrimage in the land of the Kogi. Of course, they were not wasting their
time, but they began to establish a relationship with the Kogi, and to teach
them the tradition, and how to defend themselves. They received the teachings
over there, and then they came over here. And the struggle went on, but mainly
making use of traditional science.
With all kind of devices they captured and tortured our people... then they
went away again... and in this way many people had to surrender to the will
of the Mission.
I am 46 years old now, and as far as I can remember, this land was already
colonized. And it was then that our power, all what we call communal autonomy,
crumbled down. And, like a machine, they deployed all their police system and
civil laws. Many had to keep silent, the only way to appease the missionaries.
As the educators realized how difficult it was to convince and control the
adults, they soon developed other methods: they gathered our children and shut
them off in the orphanage; as a sort of arrest, as a sort of kidnapping.
In order that the children were not taken from them, many people had to flee.
This has been the struggle; what one has gathered from the elders. This escape
resulted in our being still authentic Arhuacos, still bearing our typical ornaments,
having our own language and culture, and our lore. All because the natives ran
away from their territories.
They had to go to Palomino, to La Guajira, to the lands of the Kogi, to the
jungle; and this has been a long and painful journey, which since 1962 has directly
involved the Government. One of the points in this involvement was the discussion
of wether there was a law signed by Simon Bolivar granting these territories
to the exclusive posession of the natives. The search for the titles belonging
to the Arhuaco, Kogi, and Arzario communities started then; but in no historical
archives were they to be found. At that point we began to demand from the Government
the creation of a new reservation, for the conclusion was that there existed
no previous reservations in the Caribbean Coast. That was the main factor to
prevent us from claiming ownership of these territories. Just because there
did not exist a tangible document.
That the Mamos kept their titles, was for the Government merely symbolic,
and not a real fact, as it would be, were they included somewhere in the royal
letters patents. Only one title was found in the said patents, and, however,
these lands of la Sierra Nevada were colonized, became the private property
of one familly: the Castro family, which was then the richest familly in Valledupar.
All this has had an influence on our community: since the beginning, natives
were used as laborers. At the same time, the clergy took over the religious
rule; and the so-called traditional political parties —Liberals and Conservatives—
took over political affairs. This situation lasted a long time, from 1920 to1950.
They were the masters of the natives. The Eastern side of the Sierra that comprised
Isrwa, Donachuy, Sey Arwamake, Jugaka, and Gamake, was ruled by the Castros;
and that comprising Yewrwa, Simonorwa, Birwa, and other sites, was ruled by
The traditional community, and specially the Mamos, have of course never forgotten;
they never surrendered in religious matters, for they have kept their religion
in a sort of hidden manner. But, though we suffered much and were abused, in
1964 we started to send direct commissions, headed by the high Mamos, to the
Central Government. And the Capuchins tried to hinder our direct communication
with the Government, for they were the "keepers", the "owners", they were the
"voice" of the Arhuaco community. And they used all possible means of control,
even the military ones, to stop our envoys from getting out. But the latter
did they due, with sacrifice, leaving by night, taking roundabout courses...
In 1963 the first commission of Indian Affairs arrived in the Sierra. It was
subordinate to the Ministry of the Interior, and it was headed by Mr. Marco
Education is the cultural basis for the freedom of the community, for its
peace. Only in the absence of worries and disturbances can the community dedicate
themselves to their work. There must be a respect for the territories; but every
year we have more divisions and less land; and therefore, the Mamos can have
no rest. There is always a worry... where will it all end up?
And in the meantime, racism propagates, the earth is being dishonored.
When was this Arhuaco territory decreed a reservation?
It was recently, on March 14th, 1984. The number of the resolution was 038.
In the cultural aspect, how would you put forth the problem?
The penetration of other religions such as the Evangelic and the Catholic,
which dominated over here for such a long time. The law allows so much to these
Evangelics... it speaks about freedom of conscience, freedom of worship. The
Mamos can not stop them, because they are free. And at this point, authonomy
and the Mamos' authority begin to fade. Every one behaves after his own will:
I do as I want. The Mamo ought to consider this not as a voluntary thing but
as an obligation rooted in the beginning of time; in no way as a law written
by humans, for these laws often violate primeval laws. The Mamo always worries
about this: how are we going to do, if we have no authority at all? We can not
act, or control or prevent our own community from doing things against Nature;
for we would be thus breaking the law.
In what sense are the Mamos the keepers of science?
In practical life. They are not like the priests, they have got to do it in
practical life. Because all religious people preach nice, beautiful sermons:
love one another... But nevertheless, spoil everything. Tradition, on the contrary,
prevents against all this, and to come to an effective salvation plan, the Mamos
are the first who have to comply with it, and, on a secondary level, the rest
of the community has to do it too. That is the way knowledge is transmitted
in practical life: with deeds.
How many Mamos are there in the Arhuaco community?
There are many, but on different levels. Sciences are kept in every one according
to his caste. In one caste there may be up to three; in another one, there could
be five or more. They all work for the defense. They all have their particular
fields of study: some perform general tasks and work for the whole community;
others work for the families.
Science is a matter of learning, and it is not structured like the white men
organizations. Everyone learns what he feels like learning; it's like going
to primary and secondary schools, then to the university, and to post-graduate
studies. So is the Mamo's learning.
Are they also healers?
Sure, the Mamo performs three roles: as a healer, as a priest, and as the
officer who appoints the sheriff, the cabildo, etc.
What is the Arhuaco religion?
In religion there is nothing definite. All that is open to inquiry. For we
are investigating into bilingualism. Here, we also search after the origins
of every expression of the spoken language. Both in Castilian and in "speech"
we look for the origins of everything. We do not say that science is... Others
say that Witina is a family, as well as it may be another family because the
caste is divided into: Serankwa, Bunchy, Gueptwa, Gumwke, Busin, Niamkwa, and
Forytana. Serankwa is divided into nine castes. Of course, the nine are distributed
as powers; we might say that as the pilots of all what exists. And how are Queykwa?
They are the main mothers and fathers of the caste. Of course, the caste is
divided into nine families... and so on. I mean, the confusion of science originates
here too. Somewhere, something has been learned. One learns something from Busin;
others learn something from Serankwa. In this respect, disagreements have occurred
We think that if day after day the community's development arises from its
cultural basis, we may recover, we may discover many things that we have forgotten.
And how is the struggle for cultural recovery?
Getting people busy. If the more capable people speak with the elders who
have had little contact with ordinary people... many who are still attached
to their own criteria... Talking with them, we think we might...
A Visit to the Capuchine Mission
When Mr. Marco Tulio Hernández came to visit the Capuchine mission,
they ignored the fact that he was a functionary of the Ministry of the Interior.
And here the spoiled the whole thing, because they considered them communists
and said they had no right to enter the native territories, the mission's territories
—in this matters they always mention the Vicariate. They presented themselves
as the owners, and by this the Government knew about their contempt towards
natives; about the process they were leading towards the extermination of the
natives. From then on, their abuses became less and less, and people began to
nurture again the hope that the Government would defend their rights, cultural
lore, and all the rest.
Now, in the Mamo's view, it was held that the borders of the reservation were
the Black line. On that basis, we applied for a demarcation of the territory,
for otherwise we could never control the invasion of the settlers... We had
to demarcate the borderline of the reservation. This took, however, a long time
—from 1962 to 1974. In these twelve years, the reservation was constituted,
and now, through our organization, the community has been recovering its autonomy.
Sure, we have had the help of several trade unions, as CICOLAC's... Yes, mostly
this kind of workers organizations have helped us, sometimes even finantially.
We need money for the travels we have to embark upon; because most of the community
were convinced that there were no property anymore, no true authority; that
the autentical religion did not exist anymore. That all that was a thing of
the past, which had been superseeded. But step by step and with the help we
were getting from the Government, it was spreading again. It was then when we
more seriously spoke out our knowledge. In other words, the values that the
Arhuaco, Kogi, and Arzario peoples held. And this is a mighty struggle, for
it is an outward ind inward struggle. And the inner struggle has been very hard;
there still are Arhuacos who are displeased with the removal of the Capuchine
mission. Of course, the community now accepts the organization which was their
enemy in the past. But it is even harder now, since we have got to make it by
ourselves. And for that we need instruction and the elements to work. Now, we
receive some private help, but a conscious help, lest the old capuchine system
be established again. This help must be approved by the whole community, for
in the future it must be the community who decides on land and health matters,
as well as on its social and political organization.
That is what we are promoting nowadays; and our task is that from now on no
one mediates between us and the Government. The community itself will directly
deal with the Government. And here we are: in education and health, things are
being done directly, and not through middlemen, who always try to impose themselves
as the defenders of our community. The community are now able to expound their
problems. In a few words, this is what we are living at present.
What is Mother Earth to the Arhuaco?
To the Arhuaco, the Earth is our mother, or it is were life exists. We could
never share the white's ideology. For them, the earth is to live on, but also
to exploit, to make money and all the rest. To us, Arhuacos, the Earth is like
a mother whom we should cherish and respect. We may take from her, but in the
right way. Forests and mountains should be preserved. They are not just to be
exploited. They must be protected. So, to the Arhuaco, the Earth is the mother
where all philosophical and scientific knowledge lies. And we get it through
her. The Earth is not to make commerce out of it, nor to be emptied out, nor
to develop capitalism over it. She is there for all us to live on, but as long
as we comply with the originally established laws. And this is what the Mamo
interprets. He interprets all religious knowledge with an eye to the future.
This is paramount: the Earth is not just to be exploited.
How has your struggle been against the settlers invasion?
The settlers invasion has always been a very difficul matter. We have fought
it through our organization, and we have also spoken with them. Their incursion
has been checked a bit, but we have not devised other means of control. Other
communities such as the Guambiano in Cauca, and some others in Antioquia, have
had to fight by means of counter-invasions. But it is not the case here in the
Sierra, where altitudes are a main hindrance to invaders. This fact has helped
keep the settlers at a slow pace in their penetration of the Sierra. Their colonization
progresses at the rate of their population growth.
What is the sacred meaning of the áyu (coca leaf)?
This is a Mamo's knowledge. They grow the áyu, they sow it. And it
is not done as with other plants. The Mamo must authorize it, and only the authorized
person may grow it. To the natives, the coca is a sacred plant from which lore
originates. I mean, the development of the community's own lore depends on áyu.
Among us, it is forbidden to commercialize it. It may only be bartered. So if
someone has not any áyu, he must barter it for salt, meat, or brown sugar
lumps (panela). But he may never sell it for cash. It shows how sacred it is
Moreover, áyu must be roasted only in a particular clay pot exclusively
set aside for this purpose. Also the fire used for this is a special one. We
light it by rubbing stones together, and no one but the person appointed by
the Mamo may do it.
Every little leaf is like a telephone number... every number is like a step...
the same happens with this little leaf. It is a means of communication: either
within the Sierra, and with the continents beyond. Therefore, we keep the áyu
with respect. It is also a way to sustain mutual equality —as we barter it,
we are showing equality to each other. People would wonder what the use of all
this is: you have áyu and give me some, and then I give some of mine.
But it is by this that communal and family friendship is maintained.
Is the barter of áyu leaves a sort of greeting?
It is like as to reassert trust. It is like a greeting, but at the same time
it is trust... well, friendship is reaffirmed by this.
How may the Mamo decide when a person may be authorized the use of áyu?
A: It depends on his age. Ayu is also a means of moral control. Well, the
Mamo gives a boy the áyu... for him to use the "poporo" (the gourd in
which the chalk is kept)... to keep him virgin until the coming of age for marriage.
But he may receive the áyu at the age of eight; it depends on his moral
and mental development. There is then no particular age, it depends on the person.
How are the Mamos appointed? And how do you know that a child is destined
to be a mamo?
It depends on his parents' interest also. Every human generation depends on
its own and its parents work. It is marked in the navel. From birth, they know
if a girl is going to be a Mamo's wife; or, if it is a boy, the mark in the
navel will indicate wether he is going to be able to learn and become a Mamo.
The baby is then baptized in accordance to this; and at that moment they realize
what kind of Mamo it is going to become. The caste is taken also into account.
Because the natives are divided into several castes... The sciences also correspond
to particular castes. That is the way Mamos are chosen.
What kind of education is given to the child who will become a Mamo?
When the boy is about six or eight years old, they begin to give him certain
objects. And they reveal to him the spots in the sacred sites. In other words,
they show him the gate to the knowledge written on stones, in the forests, in
some lakes, and also in some mountains, where the stones are, on which all knowledge
is written. The boy is handed over to the care of a high Mamo, and he takes
him as his companion, and begins to teach him the activities to be carried out
in every site. That is the way knowledge begins.
What would be the main problem for the Arhuaco today?
I think the most important... what worries people most is religous belief.
Because we do not feel any love for this matters anymore. And also how to educate
the boys to become Mamos in schools run by the high Mamos in all the kankurwas.
For if the community loses its religious identity the persons will be useless;
they will not have a cultural basis for their own spiritual development. The
children and we all would be like empty bags to be filled with anything, even
with rubbish, because we would not be filled, we would be empty. We think that
if the elders who still possess the real wisdom do not care for the education
of the children, we shall gradually decline. That is our most important worry.
Besides cultural recovery, what would be the second problem for you Arhuaco?
There are three important aspects at present. Firstly, the land question;
and, secondly, education... that education be based on our culture. But in order
that the community may dedicate itself to work without worries... calmly and
in freedom, they must respect our territory... for our territories are shrinking.
Therefore, the Mamos get no rest and quietness. They always have this worry:
where are we going to end up?