Kankuamo Chronicles: Unraveling Colombia’s Indigenous Mysteries

Kankuamo Chronicles: Unraveling Colombia’s Indigenous Mysteries

The Kankuamo people are one of four indigenous communities of approximately 17,000 people, living in the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta region of northern Colombia. Historically, the Kankuamo people had little contact with outsiders after adopting a survival strategy of isolating themselves from the rest of the world.

The Kankuamo speak Sanja, a dialect of the Chibcha Attank language. At present, only 5 percent of the population can speak the language.

Their laws are born of nature and they hold sacred the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the highest peak closest to the sea. In their native language, this is called Ummunukunu.

Traditionally, of the four indigenous peoples of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the Kankuamo have the least contact with other people and have developed strategies for survival away from the outside world. The Kankuamo people are characterized by a different dress code than the other tribes of the Sierra Nevada. The women wear two layers of cloth and the men wear short trousers and a reed hat.

Their living space borders the Cogui, Wiwa and Arhuaco tribes. From the late 1980s to 2006, more than 300 Kankuamos were killed during the Colombian conflict.

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Like many indigenous peoples, Kankuamos are highly spiritual and pay great reverence to the forces of nature. They are guided by the law of origin, or ley de origen,which they regard as being the traditional ancestral science of wisdom and knowledge that manages all that is material and spiritual.

The adherence to this law is what guarantees the order and permanence of life, of the universe, and of Kankuamos as an indigenous people. The law of origin regulates the relationships between all living beings, from the stones of the earth to humankind itself and tells them that Umunukunu,or Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, is the sacred place given to the tribes.

The orders received from the first fathers stated that from the Sierra Nevada, they will be the guardians of the world with responsibility to guard the permanence of all forms of life so that there will be continuing equilibrium and harmony between nature and humankind.

For 20 years, as a result of the absence of the Colombian state, Kankuamo territory was invaded and occupied by both leftist and right-wing armed groups which established systems of social and judicial control in the 1980s and 1990s, which damaged and undermined traditional indigenous authorities and systems of governance. In addition, as a result of disputes for territorial control intermingled with the trade in narcotics, Kankuamos found themselves frequently caught up amid the crossfire between warring parties.

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With the retreat of the leftist guerillas from Sierra Nevada in 1999, Kankuamos became subject to unfounded accusations of involvement in or collaboration with the guerrilla-motivated insurgency. Such politically and economically motivated accusations were often accompanied by alarming acts of violence with the calculated intention of inciting terror and pushing the indigenous communities off their lawfully recognized lands.

During this illegal occupation by the various paramilitary groups, communities became victims of forced displacement, selective assassinations and all sorts of violence. This resulted in the loss of sacred sites and places of worship, with a significant weakening of traditional indigenous authorities, the breakdown of processes of cultural recuperation and economic self-sufficiency, together with the destruction of the fragile ecosystems of Sierra Nevada.

Just like many other indigenous communities in Colombia, Kankuamos see the preservation of their ancestral territories as being under threat from proposals for large-scale state-led development projects that have the potential of seriously disrupting their traditional ways of life and destroying the spiritual basis of their identity and existence.

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The Kankuamos economic system is based on the individual possession of crops and animals for breeding. The men are in charge during the day of the work in the rozas (fields), located in the environs of the settlements. In the lowlands they grow plantain, banana and some fruit trees; in the highlands, they produce potatoes and onions. For commercial purposes, they raise chickens and pigs, while women weave backpacks and other items for sale.

Nestled in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains, there is a newly expanded Kankuamos reserve that will protect ecologically significant landscapes and reinforce the territorial integrity of the Kankuamo indigenous people.

The Kankuamo people were historically silenced and marginalized and saw their territories fractured during the era of conflict in Colombia. Today, the Kankuamo people seek to revitalize their indigenous identity through the restoration of their culture and the recovery of their territory. Their ties with the other three Indigenous groups of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta have also provided strength over the years. As an example, the Kogui Malayo Arhuaco people are now assisting the Kankuamos to identify sacred and important sites within their recovered territory, which will aid them in the management of their reserve.

Mining, which implies the contamination and erosion of watersheds, threatens the health of more than 30 rivers that flow out of the Sierra; these are the water sources of the departments of Magdalena, César, and La Guajira.

These threats have brought this natural paradise to the brink of no return. With it, would go the traditional lives of its indigenous inhabitants, who are dependent on the health of their land and the sacred sites it contains.

The Sierra hosts the archaeological site of La Ciudad Perdida, the Lost City, known as Teyuna, the cradle of Tayrona civilization. According to tradition, it is the source from which all nature was born, the living heart of the world.

The four guardian cultures of the Sierra have no intention of allowing this natural and cultural legacy to disappear.

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