Exploring Colombia’s Indigenous Communities: Camsá / Kamentsá Tribe

Exploring Colombia’s Indigenous Communities: Camsá / Kamentsá Tribe

The Camsá/Kamentsá are an indigenous people of Colombia. They primarily live in the Sibundoy Valley of the Putumayo Department in the south of Colombia. The Sibundoy valley of the Kamentsá shares territory with several other traditionally governing communities of the Inga tribe.

The Kamentsá are a deeply spiritual people and still inhabit their ancestral territory in what is known as Alto Putumayo, along the Western fringe of the Colombian Amazon. Approximately 7,000 members of the Kamentsá tribe still exist.

In the Sibundoy Valley, located at 10,000´/3,048m above sea level, The language spoken by this group is known as Kamsá and is identified as a language isolate, meaning that it is unrelated to any other known language.

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The Kamentsá people have shared the Sibundoy Valley with the Inga people (who speak a Quechuan language) for over 500 years and share many cultural similarities with them, such as the celebration of an important carnival holiday, their use of yagé (a hallucinogenic concoction) and their distinctive blue-and-red wool ponchos.

The number of indigenous languages currently spoken in Colombia has been estimated to be about sixty-five. In Southwest Colombia, a region including segments of the Pacific coast, the Andes mountains, and the rugged transition toward the Amazon basin, ten languages are spoken besides Spanish, the dominating language. The Sibundoy valley, where both Kamsá and Inga are spoken, is also where the Putumayo River, a major affluent of the Amazon begins.

Although children still learn the Kamsá language, it cannot be said that its future is secure. The main threat comes of course from encroaching Spanish, spoken as a native language by more than two-thirds of the population of the valley. Moreover, the Inga language is not restricted to the Sibundoy valley, but is spoken in many different localities spread about the region. The prestige value of Spanish added to the narrow geographical sphere in which the Kamsá language is practiced, is certainly not encouraging for the survival of the language.

About linguistics, it is interesting that the Sibundoy Valley has always been a connecting link between the Andes and the rainforest.

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The Kamentsá hold steadfastly to their traditions, having fought off disease and violence brought by the Spanish Conquistadors in the 16th century, constant religious missions and forced interventions over the ensuing centuries, and continued violence and instability throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.
Above all else, a deep respect for the Pachamama, or Mother Earth and all of her gifts, is of basic fundamental importance to the Kamentsá.

Traditionally the Kamentsá were an agricultural economy based on corn, potatoes, peas, and fruits. Nowadays in addition to these traditional crops, large areas have been cleared for livestock, while tourism is on the increase.
The Kamentsá engage in trade with several other Indian tribes from the lower jungle regions of Putumayo.

The Putumayo Department has long been a zone of conflict and illicit activities in Colombia. Sanctioned mining, deforestation and hydroelectric campaigns, along with many decades of forced religious conversion and suppression of traditional language, beliefs, and agricultural practices, significant cultural and environmental pressure has been placed on the Kamentsá.

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Shamanism is of major importance in their beliefs and resulting symbolism. This is preserved through their celebrations, music, dances, traditional medicine, and artisan work.

Shamans are known as Taitas in the Kamentsa’s native language, Kamsa, while the Taita’s visionary interpretations are projected into imagery that represents the tribe’s unity with, and complete dependence upon, the natural world and their spiritual worldviews.

The most fundamental symbols and beliefs of the Kamentsá are represented through their Chaquira beaded jewelry. The macaw parrot, a symbol of liberty, both in thought and being, is a very important character in Kamentsá mythology.

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Carnival in the Sibundoy Valley is a special event that enables people to experience and affirm their membership in the indigenous communities.

The Kamsá carnival extends over several days, with Tuesday as the principal day of public display. The indigenous gather and process from their homes to the center of Sibundoy. They parade around the plaza, enter the church, dance in the cabildo (tribal council office) and slowly drift back to their indigenous settlements.

For several days thereafter small carnival troops travel from house to house, receiving food and drink from the hosts, playing music and dancing. As carnival comes to a close, people take leave of one another reciting the Wataskama, a prayerful wish to live another year so that they might enjoy carnival one more time.

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