Published: October 2004
Sierra Nevada Indians
By Wade Davis
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.

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.

According to myth, the mountains came into existence when the Earth was spun on an enormous spindle, and the nine layers of the universe conceived. Two lengths of thread were crossed to establish the four points that represent each indigenous group and to support the base of the massif, henceforth declared to be the homeland of the Elder Brothers.

This act of creation is never forgotten. The loom, the act of spinning, the notion of a community woven into the fabric of a landscape are for the people of the Sierra Nevada vital and living metaphors that consciously guide and direct their lives. They survive as farmers, and in order to exploit diverse ecological zones, they are constantly on the move, harvesting manioc, corn, sugarcane, and pineapples in the hot lowlands, climbing higher to plant potatoes and onions and to graze cattle and gather thatch. They refer to these periodic wanderings as weavings, with the notion that over time a community lays down a protective cloak upon the Earth.

Over centuries the peoples of the Sierra Nevada have developed a unique science of the mind, one so diametrically in contrast to our own Aristotelian worldview, so divorced from our way of thinking, that it is as difficult for us to grasp as it is for them to comprehend the decisions and values that drive our culture. Thus they have watched in horror as outsiders have violated the Heart of the World, tearing down the forests to establish banana and oil palm plantations and now also plots on which to grow coca for the illicit production of cocaine. Leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries have entered the Sierra Nevada and drawn the Indians into the political turmoil that is modern Colombia.

For the Kogi, Arhuaco, and Wiwa, this danger from below is echoed by a threat from on high. The snows and glaciers of the Sierra Nevada are receding at an alarming rate, transforming the mountain ecology. For us these may seem like quite unrelated developments. But for the Elder Brothers they are inextricably linked as the folly of the Younger Brothers and harbingers of the end of the world.