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  Field Notes From
Sierra Nevada Indians

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From Author/Photographer
Stephen Ferry

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photograph courtesy Stephen Ferry


Sierra Nevada Indians On Assignment Author Sierra Nevada Indians On Assignment Author
Sierra Nevada Indians

Field Notes From Author/Photographer
Stephen Ferry
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    I was privileged to encounter many of the spiritual leaders of the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta. Oftentimes, on arriving at a village after a two- or three-day hike, the local priest, or Mama, would ask me to sit down and meditate before beginning my work. The Mamas are highly trained, having been brought up assuming their spiritual role since birth, and have a tremendous capacity to concentrate. I was instructed to hold a single strand of wild cotton in each hand and to fill the fibers up with all of the thoughts and feelings I could recall about my trip up. I was also told to mentally express my gratitude to everything—the ground I walked on, the air I breathed, the water I drank, and the people who helped me—that contributed to my successful voyage. I found it to be a very clarifying practice, which left me refreshed and on a good footing to start photographing. It was an honor to spend time with such mature, centered people.

    The Sierra Nevada is a very dangerous place because of the armed conflict waged on its slopes between the leftist guerrilla forces and the army and right-wing paramilitary troops. So I was very stressed about putting my indigenous hosts or companions in any kind of danger. I was petrified that if they took me somewhere one of the armed groups didn't think we belonged, they would pay the price. Throughout my assignment I constantly evaluated every step, and many times I decided to call off a carefully planned trip because it was too risky.
    On two separate occasions, paramilitary troops executed drivers I'd hired earlier to take me up the mountain. This happened not because the drivers gave me a ride but because they frequently traveled between warring lines.

    Each time I met the Wiwa leader Mama Ramón Gil and asked him, "How are you?" he always replied, "I'm fine, just like the toad!" The cultures of the Sierra Nevada have an oral history rich in fables, which reminded me of Aesop's Fables, and the toad was a reference to one of them.
    As Ramón told it to me, one day a toad fell from the sky and landed facedown in the mud, disappearing from view. The other animals thought that was it for him, but the toad managed to extricate himself, one leg at a time. When the other animals asked how he felt, the toad jauntily replied, "I'm fine, just fine!" Of course, the moral of this fable is to not let things get you down. And that's how the people of the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta deal with life. They live in adverse conditions, yet they always put on a good face and keep going.


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