Published: October 2004

Sierra Nevada Indians

By Wade Davis
Photographs by Stephen Ferry
Arhuaco music flows from an unlikely source—a well-used accordion. A popular instrument in the non-Indian settlements at the base of the mountain, the accordion entered the indigenous communities, photographer Stephen Ferry was told, from German settlers. The lack of electricity and paved roads, together with the protective outlook of Indian priests, have kept most modern influences off the mountain.

In a bloodstained continent, the Indians of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta were never truly vanquished by the Spaniards. Descendants of an ancient South American civilization called the Tayrona and numbering perhaps 45,000 today, the Kogi, Arhuaco, and Wiwa peoples fled death and pestilence four centuries ago, seeking refuge in a mountain paradise, whose peaks soar more than 18,000 feet (5,486.4 meters) above the Caribbean coast of Colombia. In the wake of the conquest they developed an utterly new dream of the Earth, a revelation that balanced the baroque potential of the human mind and spirit with all the forces of nature.

Separated by language but closely related by myth and memory, they share a common way of life and the same fundamental religious convictions. (A fourth group, the Kankuamo, also found protection in the Sierra Nevada, but they have now become more assimilated into Colombian society.) 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, young acolytes 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.

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