When the priests, or Mamas, speak, they immediately reveal that their reference points are not of our world. They refer to the Spanish conquest as if it were a recent event. They talk openly of the force of creation, or Se, the spiritual core of all existence, and aluna, human thought, soul, and imagination. What is important, what has ultimate value, is not what is measured and seen but what exists in the many realms of meanings and connections that lie beneath the tangible realities of the world, linking all things. The nine-layered universe of their cosmology, the nine-tiered temple where they gather, the nine months a child spends in its mother's womb are all expressions of creation, and each reflects and informs the other. A hill can also be a house, the mountains a model of the cosmos. The white hats worn by Arhuaco men also symbolize the snowfields of the sacred peaks. The hairs on a person's body echo the forest trees that cover the mountain flanks. Every element of nature is imbued with higher significance, so that even the most modest of creatures can be seen as a teacher, and every feature of the world mirrors the whole.
In this cosmic scheme people are central, for it is most clearly through the human heart and imagination that ultimate understanding may become manifest. For the people of the Sierra Nevada, the nature of their beliefs imbues them with a special responsibility. They call themselves the Elder Brothers, true guardians of the planet, and they consider their mountain to be the Heart of the World. We outsiders who threaten the Earth through our ignorance of the sacred law are thought of as the Younger Brothers.
In many ways the 8,000-square-mile (20,720 square kilometers) homeland of the Kogi, Arhuaco, and Wiwa is indeed a microcosm of the world and thus its symbolic heart. Drained by more than 30 river basins, the massif of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta rises abruptly from sea to summit ice at 18,947 feet (5,775 meters)—the highest coastal mountain formation on the planet. As an island unto itself, the massif and its surroundings encompass a stunning diversity of ecosystems. There are mangrove swamps, tropical rain forests and open woodlands, dry scrublands and deserts—and soaring above all in the clouds and blowing rain, the alpine tundra and snowy peaks where the priests go to carry out sacred rituals and ceremonies. They see their spiritual work as directed toward achieving balance and harmony among all facets of creation. This, the Indians maintain, is exactly as the Mother intended.