High in the Sierra Nevada mountains in Colombia live the Kogi people, an isolated, indigenous tribe that have preserved their customs and lifestyle for the past five hundred years. They’ve come out of isolation in the past few years to share their knowledge of and worries about climate change, and to try to protect their series of sacred sites along the coastline of Colombia which they refer to as “el Corazon del mundo,” or the heart of the world. I met with the governor of the Kogi people, Jose de los Santos Sauna, and one of the spiritual leaders, or mamas of the tribe, to hear their thoughts and insights about two major ideas. First, what is happening to the world today and why is it happening, and second, what can we do about it? Their ideas were both simple and revolutionary.
When I interviewed the Kogi, we met around a small round table in the courtyard. Both Jose de los Santos and the mama were dressed in white, almost robe-like outfits, which we were told they had made themselves. This particular mama was well known for his gift for making clothes. Additionally, the mama held a small, hollowed out, bowl-like nut, which he used to hold coca leaves for chewing. When chewed, coca leaves act as a stimulant, and are also nutritious and help to ward off diseases. They both wore hats which came to a point at the top of their head—these symbolize the mountains where they make their home. Despite having spent at least a month in the United States, travelling around and giving talks about their mission, neither Jose de los Santos Sauna nor the mama had bought any manufactured items or western clothes. They had refused to accept any gifts of western items from anyone who had offered, and had not wanted to buy anything that they’d seen. They had looked at our consumer culture and decided that they didn’t want to be a part of it.
During the interview, I would ask a question in English, which would then be translated into Spanish so that Jose de los Santos could understand. He in turn would translate the question into the native Kogi language, so that the mama, whose ideas hold together the tribe, could understand and answer the question. Mamas spend their first nine to eighteen years living in total darkness without exposure to daylight. However, when they are deemed ready, they are taken during the night up to the top of the highest mountain in the Sierra Nevada, so that they can watch the dawn break over the sea, coast, and mountains. It’s surely a sight that is incredible and unforgettable, especially as someone’s first experience of daylight. The mamas then are in charge of the spiritual side of tribe life, while the governor is in charge of the material side. Through a union between these two, the tribe remains happy.
The Kogi people have a unique way of viewing the world. To them, everything in the world is interconnected, just as all parts of a body are interconnected. If one part of the body gets sick, the body will not function as well. Similarly, if a part of the body is lost, like an arm or a leg or even a finger, it will impact the rest of the body. They believe that the way that current society is acting, waging war, consuming more than we need to survive, and taking resources like oil and natural gas out of the earth is like a sickness. “You’re taking the blood and the bones from our mother,” said Liliana Madrigal, when asked to explain the Kogi viewpoint on what our society does. They believe that sooner or later, the effects of what we are doing to “our mother” will make her angry. Western civilization, or the “younger brother,” needs to stop the abuse of the earth before it goes too far.
However, the tribe does not make dire and apocalyptic predictions for the future. The Kogi believe that we can and will change, and that anyone, no matter what their background, can learn to live in harmony with nature and with themselves. “If the desire is in your heart, then you can change,” said Governor Jose de los Santos Sauna. In fact, the future success of the change in ideology and way of living that the Kogi are trying to help create depends on people who have not grown up in isolated tribes to recognize and change our ways.
For the Kogi, the most pressing matter is reclaiming their sacred sites along the coastline of Colombia. They’ve been involved in several legal battles and have managed to obtain one, securing it against the threat of being drilled or turned into an amusement park. Through the sale of their ecologically harvested coffee, they’ve been able to raise enough money to buy back that one site. It’s up to the rest of us to spread their message to the rest of the world.
By Kate Iida