Paez Indigenous Tribe a Cultural Odyssey


The Indigenous tribes of Colombia are those ethnic groups that were present in the territory before the arrival of the Spaniards in the sixteenth century. Although they comprise only 3.5% of the population, they represent about 1.5 million people distributed in about 87 different tribes.

These communities have had a great impact throughout the territory from the Amazon jungle, through the mountains of the Andes to the Caribbean and Pacific lowlands.

Historically the Paez/Nasa were one of the largest, strongest, most traditional, and most resistant to outside influence and exploitation, of all indigenous tribes in Colombia. They developed a reputation amongst the Spanish conquistadors as warriors and were always very vocal and activist during Colombia’s various constitutional permutations and civil wars.

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The Páez/Nasa of southwestern highland Colombia maintains a historical memory of their passage from an independent nation to a tribe subjugated by Spaniards and Colombians.

The Páez/Nasa community speaks their own Páez language and calls themselves Nasa to distinguish themselves from neighboring ethnic groups, including the Guambiano and Guanacas.

Páez heartland of Tierradentro comprises some 1,300 square kilometers, located on the eastern slopes of Cordillera Central. Páez settlements can also be found on the western slopes of the cordillera, and some Páez colonists have recently settled in the Caquetá lowlands to the southeast. Over 80 percent of Tierradentro lies above 2,000m/6,562’ in elevation, with one-third of the territory in the páramo, the high northern Andean swampy plateau that begins at 3,000m/9,843’. This cold, mountainous country is crosscut by deep valleys, most notably those of the Páez, Moras, and Ullucos rivers, confining settlements to the mountain slopes overlooking these waterways.

Páez/Nasa population is estimated to be close to 80,000 people, with 40 percent living in Tierradentro.

According to some estimates, 75 percent of the Páez/Nasa are bilingual in Páez and Spanish while 25 percent are monolingual Páez speakers. But in many communities, more than half the population is composed of Spanish-only speakers. Páez is an unwritten language and native linguists are beginning to develop an alphabet for purposes of bilingual education.

At the time of the 1537 Spanish invasion, the Páez/Nasa were organized into a series of warring chiefdoms coexisting in Tierradentro with other ethnic communities, including Guambiano, Pijao, and Yalcón.

During the first century of the Spanish invasion, the native population of approximately 10,000 was halved through war and disease. The Spanish forced the indigenous into centralized villages so that they would be more easily exploited as a source of labor.

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The Paez/Nasa traditionally worked in agricultural collectives, called mingas, and had a diet that revolved around maíz (corn) and various tuberous crops like potatoes and beans. They remain a principally agricultural society, but this is threatened by climate change, developing dietary patterns, deforestation, and various forms of exploitation of their territory.

The resilience of the Paez/Nasa indigenous community in Colombia has been recognized after they lost over 1,000 people in a flood and earthquake that struck on June 6, 1994.

Living along the banks of the Páez river, they have also been coping successfully with the reactivation of the Nevado de Huila volcano in 2007. The volcano gained international notoriety when it erupted in 1985 and claimed 25,000 lives following the authorities’ failure to take costly preventive measures in the absence of clear signs of imminent danger.

A reconstruction process began that was about more than houses and roads. The Paez/Nasa sees a close connection between the health of the earth and the health of the people. Restoring balance and contact between the Paez/Nasa, their traditions and their beliefs thus became central to this work.

The indigenous villagers of the Páez River lowlands have also resettled people out of the danger zones with support from government agencies following the establishment in 2007 of a territorial prevention plan that enhanced community organization and the relationship with the institutions to face the volcanic phenomenon.

Focusing on this greater understanding of disaster risk through the recovery of ancestral knowledge of the environment and complementing it with scientific knowledge; stronger risk governance with restrictions on land use based on risk analysis carried out by the community.

Indígenas Nasa Páez se forman en el SENA

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The Paez/Nasa are a proud and very activist tribe that is constantly fighting to preserve their land and culture, often in the face of violence. Social and environmental leaders from Paez/Nasa territories are frequently threatened and assassinated, especially since the signing of the peace accords between the FARC guerillas and the Colombian government in 2016. These agreements and the lack of protection and implementation of the accords after signing have left power vacuums within much of the Paez/Nasa territory, where the FARC previously had a strong presence.

Decades of forced religious and cultural conversion have also left the Paez/Nasa at extreme risk of permanently losing their native language, Nasa Yuwe, typical dress, traditional practices, and symbolism.

Climate change, unsustainable agriculture, mining, illicit crop production, and road building threaten their territories, including some of Colombia’s most well-preserved high Andean páramos.

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