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Colombian Tribes Seek to Return to Lost Roots

The move is spurred in part by government aid given to indigenous groups to preserve their culture. Some question ethics and authenticity.

October 23, 2005|Margarita Martinez | Associated Press Writer

ATANQUEZ, Colombia — Saul Martinez is on his cellphone to a friend, doing his best to speak a dying language. But after a few halting phrases, he gives up and switches to Spanish.

Martinez was trying to speak Kankuamo, the ancient language of his Indian tribe, and do his bit for a broader revival that has as much to do with nostalgia as with taxpayers' pesos.

By returning to their roots, Colombian tribes are receiving hefty government aid to preserve indigenous culture. And for this impoverished farming town in the Kankuamo reservation 420 miles north of the capital, Bogota, every little bit helps.

"The reason for this process is the most pragmatic of all: survival," says Jaime Arias, chief of the 12,000-strong Kankuamo tribe.

The Kankuamos, Koguis, Arhuacos and Wiwas live by the world's tallest coastal mountain range, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

Three of the tribes dwell high in these remote snow-peaked mountains, whereas the Kankuamos have always lived lower down and were so much exposed to outside influences -- Spanish colonials and former slaves from Africa -- that by 1900, anthropologists began referring to them as a mixed-race tribe.

Their Corpus Christi festival in late May reflects this fusion -- Indian grass skirts and chicken feathers, African drums, and dancers being led through the streets by the Catholic priest.

In 1991, a new constitution granted indigenous peoples a degree of autonomy, their own judicial and administrative systems as well as land rights and aid packages to preserve their way of life. The measure prompted the Kankuamos to set about qualifying for the aid by dressing in tribal garb, reviving their language and chewing coca leaves, said to be a tribal custom dating back 5,000 years.

Six years later their efforts were rewarded when they were officially recognized as an ethnic tribe -- one of 94 groups totaling up to 800,000 people, or about 2% of Colombia's population.

In 2003 the Kankuamos got a reservation in Atanquez, and they receive 600 million pesos ($260,500) a year from Bogota.

A permanent police force was deployed in Atanquez after the Kankuamos became caught up in Colombia's four-decade civil war -- more than 100 tribals were killed by suspected right-wing paramilitary groups in 2003-2004. In July, 15 police in Atanquez were killed in a bombing by left-wing rebels.

Nobody speaks the tribe's ancient language fluently, but Martinez, the aspiring Kankuamo-speaker, is compiling a dictionary based on conversations with tribal elders and books from the days of Spanish rule. He says townspeople have "a desire to return to their roots," but acknowledges the main incentive is the government aid.

Tribal leader Arias does his part by chewing the coca leaves used to make cocaine.

"I never used to chew this stuff, but now I do all the time," Arias said as he walked down the cobbled streets of Atanquez.

Some think it has all gone too far.

"I'm not an enemy of the movement but I am against misguided actions and there are many things being made up and not being checked out with tradition," said Rafael Andres Carrillo, a town elder in his 70s.

Arias, wearing blue jeans and a golf shirt, counsels patience.

"You'll see," he promises. "In about 10 years, we'll all be dressed in white tunics, chewing on coca leaves and feeling as Indian as our ancestors."

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