Descendants of an ancient South American civilization called the Tayrona and numbering more than 30,000 today, the Kogi, Arhuaco, and Wiwa people 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.
For them, the Sierra Nevada is the heart of the world. It is surrounded by an invisible ‘black-line’ that encompasses the sacred sites of their ancestors and demarcates their territory. 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. 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.
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 the 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.
The Sierra Nevada Indigenous call themselves ‘the older brothers’, and believe that they have a mystical wisdom and understanding which surpasses that of others. They refer to outsiders as ‘the younger brothers.’ The older brothers believe it is their responsibility to maintain the balance of the universe. When there are hurricanes, droughts, or famines around the world it is said that they are the cause of human failure to keep the world in harmony. Balance is achieved by making offerings to the sacred sites to give back to the earth what is taken out of it. But the natural wealth of their land is attracting damaging “development” projects.
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