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Sierra Nevada Indians On Assignment

Sierra Nevada Indians On Assignment

Sierra Nevada Indians
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Sierra Nevada Indians @ National Geographic Magazine
Introduction by Wade Davis
Text and photographs by Stephen Ferry

If they protect their sacred mountain home, the Indians of northern Colombia believe they will keep the entire planet in balance. It's getting more and more difficult.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

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 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.

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.
—Wade Davis

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VIDEO Stephen Ferry discusses the beliefs of the Indians of the Sierra Nevada, their relationship to their cosmos, and their concerns for the environment.

AUDIO (recommended for low-speed connections)
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VIDEO Peer into the traditions and daily life of the Indians of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in this self-recorded film, made possible by a grant from National Geographic's Expeditions Council.

What can be done to help indigenous people such as the Wiwa, Kogi, and Arhuaco live without interference from outsiders?

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
The indigenous peoples of Colombia's Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta have resisted contact with outsiders for centuries. Nevertheless, Spanish conquistadores, Christian missionaries, peasant farmers, and now armed fighters in Colombia's civil conflict have penetrated their land, destroying sacred ancestral sites and pushing Indians farther up the mountain.
In 1987—to counteract the encroachment and communicate concerns to the world—the Kogi, Arhuaco, and Wiwa groups formed an organization led by their spiritual leaders, or Mamas, to communicate with outsiders and exercise their indigenous rights enumerated in Colombia's constitution. The organization, called Gonawindúa Tayrona Indigenous Organization of the Mamas, enables them to convey their unique indigenous philosophy on land and environmental matters to the rest of the world.
Gonawindúa Tayrona actively negotiates with non-Indian settlers on the lower slopes of the massif, buying back ancestral Indian land so that the Indians can restore the natural jungle habitat, mending the ecological balance, and re-attracting animals like wild boars and birds. When the jungle grows back, Indians cultivate only small patches of the restored land in accordance with their belief system. With prayer and offerings, the Mamas conduct spiritual work to heal and revitalize these sites.
If you are interested in learning more about the organization and helping the Indians of the Sierra Nevada, contact the Gonawindúa Tayrona
c/o Margarita Villafañe at:
Carrera 19A No. 23-05
Santa Marta, Colombia

The Indians have also created a website,, and can be reached by e-mail:

—Christy Ullrich

Did You Know?

Related Links
Gonawindu Tayrona Organization
On this site view photographs taken by the Kogi, Arhuaco, and Wiwa of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, then learn more about the threats to their environment.

Tayrona Heritage Studies Centre
Explore Kogi history and philosophy on this website created in part by BBC producer Alan Ereira, who made a film with the Kogi in the 1990s.

World Conservation Union
Learn more about the spiritual significance of offerings made by the indigenous peoples of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

Nature Conservancy
Discover what the Nature Conservancy is doing to protect the environment of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

Smithsonian Institution
Find out more about the diversity of the flora and fauna of Colombia.

United Nations Press Briefing on Colombia
Learn more about human rights issues in Colombia.


Ereira, Alan. The Elder Brothers: A Lost South American People and Their Message About the Fate of the Earth. Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.

Reichel-Dolmatoff, G. "The Great Mother and the Kogi Universe: A Concise Overview," Journal of Latin American Lore (1987), 73-113.

Reichel-Dolmatoff, G. "The Kogi Indians and the Environment Impending Disaster," Mountain Research and Development (1982), 289-98.

Reichel-Dolmatoff, G. Indians of Colombia: Experience and Cognition. Villegas Editorias, 1991.


NGS Resources
Villalón,  Carlos. "Cocaine Country." National Geographic (July 2004), 34-55.
Davis, Nicole. "Grabbed in the Gap." National Geographic Adventure (April 2003), 41.
Allen, Leslie. Secret Corners of the World. National Geographic Books, 1982.
"Lure of Lost Gold." National Geographic World (November 1980), 8-14.


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