Tejedores de Vida: Revitalizing Indigenous Identity and Nature-Based Knowledge in a Muisca community, Colombia

Project Contributors: Gabriel Nemogá with Carlos Mamanché

The Muisca people, living at altitudes between 1200 and 3200m above sea level in the valleys of the central region of the Andean mountains in the northeast part of South America (the savannah of Bogotá, Colombia) were so named by the Spanish conquerors. The Muisca people’s existence was disrupted by the arrival of the Spanish invaders, as their territories and resources were pillaged and exploited, their sacred sites looted for gold artwork, and traditional burial grounds desecrated in order to rob the personal gold and emerald possessions of the murdered chiefs. Indigenous Muisca territory was divided up in order to isolate the indigenous people into small land areas. The Spaniards imposed a territorial system of control that allowed them to appropriate large tracts of land called encomiendas. The colonizers and the church confiscated the most agriculturally productive lands and exploited indigenous people as cheap and expendable labour. Men were forced to pay tribute to the Spanish Crown and to provide free labour for the encomenderos, while women were subjected to domestic work in the encomiendas and often endured sexual violence. The indigenous population was devastated by the new diseases brought from Europe, genocidal policies, overexploitation, and the disruption of their social, political and economic organizations and networks. In the ancestral territory of Sesquilé (an indigenous town established by the Spaniards near the sacred lake of Guatavita), the Church confiscated the lands of indigenous peoples from the end of 18th until the mid 19th century. The Muisca people from Sesquilé were gradually pushed into higher elevations and the more marginal mountainous regions. As recently as the mid 1970s, the municipal authorities were appropriating indigenous territories by breaking up the resguardo (indigenous collective lands once recognized by the Spanish).

In 1991, a constitutional reform passed by the government of Colombia, with the direct participation of the indigenous delegates in the National Constituent Assembly and the support of other political parties and coalitions, acknowledged the country’s cultural and ethnic diversity and gave political and legal recognition to indigenous peoples, enshrining indigenous political and social autonomy and territorial rights. This reform notwithstanding, in practice local authorities continue to disregard indigenous rights—for example, by not including the Muisca community or consulting with them in relation to their 2007-2008 territorial planning. At the national level, the Colombian government has abstained on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. However, with the 1991 constitutional guarantees, different communities emerged and openly began their cultural and ethnic recovery and affirmation.

The current social, economic and political organization of Muisca communities is the outcome of their struggle to revitalize and rebuild their culture and identity. Among them, the Indigenous community group “Los Hijos del Maíz” (“The Children of Corn”) in Sesquilé developed and strengthened their social, economic and political processes under the remarkable guidance of the traditional healer and spiritual, political and cultural leader Carlos Mamanché. One of the most important territories with record of Muisca settlement is the nearby Lake Guatavita. The legend of “El Dorado” is sourced to this lake, which has a central place in the history of the Muisca people. It was believed that the lake held immense treasure troves of precious metals. According to legend, the Muisca caciques (chiefs) would, during ceremonies, offer their gold adornments to the spiritual deities who inhabited the lake. Today the hijos del maíz families are living on land that was previously part of the original indigenous resguardo. However, of the twenty-four indigenous families interviewed in 2006, only 46% had their own homes while the rest had to rent places or live with relatives (Fundación Hemera, 2006). In 1998, the community managed to purchase a 600m sq piece of land with their own resources. The community has reintroduced traditional agricultural crops and practices and has begun to revitalize traditional weaving and pottery, the Muisca language and cultural teachings. Under the guidance of Carlos Mamanché, and with the cooperation of people from other Muisca communities of the savannah of Bogotá, a cusmuy, a communal meeting and ceremonial house, was erected. Since then, the cusmuy has become the epicentre of the Muisca community, a place for cultural revival and collective work activities for men, women and youth, as well as a place for ceremony and spiritual cleansing using traditional medicines and plants. The construction and the structure of the cusmuy symbolized the centre pole for the recuperation and affirmation of Muisca spirituality, thought and identity. For the community, it is the ceremonial site to dialogue with the spirits and ancestors.

The “Weavers of Life” (Tejedores de Vida) project  was established in 2001, with initial support from regional governmental institutions and then from some Spanish NGOs such as the Farmers’ Union of Catalonia (Unión de Agricultures de Cataluña) and the Spanish Farmers in Solidarity (Agricultores Solidarios de España). This funding allowed for the development of diverse economic activities and small projects, among them egg farming, conservation and raising of deer, weaving blankets and tablecloths, wool knitting and glass beading. However, the project had deeper spiritual and cultural objectives: to revitalize and affirm cultural identity and ancestral cosmological knowledge and spirituality that would otherwise be at risk of disappearing. The community has sought to restore traditional practices, teachings, knowledge and understandings rooted in the natural world. It has worked on the recognition and conservation of the local flora, fauna, water sources and sacred sites and on recovery of traditional food crops, native seeds, and craft activities, and has developed culturally appropriate education curriculum. It has also sought to recover traditional medicinal plant knowledge and their uses and to promote the establishment of medicinal home gardens. The revival of the use of medicinal plants has had a critical role in the affirmation of cultural identity in the Muisca community of Sesquilé.

Legal recognition of the Muisca community in Sesquilé was officially obtained from the national government in September 2006. This important legal victory was celebrated by the whole community, as it confirmed the validity of this indigenous struggle. The subsequent years, however, have seen significant challenges arise from within and outside the community. Various disagreements arose between some community members and the leaders of the cultural affirmation movement, who sought to take on harder challenges in order to consolidate the Muisca community. Also, local authorities and private landowners became concerned with the increasing strength of Muisca identity, and stalled community activities aiming to recover their sacred sites.

A more serious challenge to the project, however, came with the untimely death of Carlos Mamanché in 2007. The loss of this leader gravely affected not only the project, but also the Muisca cultural revival movement as a whole. Some project activities were suspended for a while as the community recovered from the loss. Ultimately, community members continued on and even participated in local cultural events, thus demonstrating strong community resilience. At the same time, the death of Carlos Mamanché left a leadership gap in the community, as he was one of the main knowledge holders of Muisca thought and cosmovision. He had tried to forge a core of young people to keep the process going after him, but his premature death caused some youth to abandon the movement. Only two members had begun training in traditional medicinal knowledge, while no members had engaged in mentorship around social and political organization. The organizations supporting the community process were forced to change their emphasis, shifting from biocultural activities, to providing legal assistance and technical training to community members who have taken on leadership roles.

The current Directive Council has proposed to improve family food security through home gardens, to revive ancestral practices for sustainable agriculture. This involves community members, especially women who have received technical training from governmental entities. The main limitation for families, however, is the lack of land to cultivate. According to the community census, there are 156 families and only ten are active in this agricultural project (interview with Rafael Mamanché, Council President, 2009). The Council decided to focus the agricultural activities on the collective land bought in 1998. The Council and the community as a whole face economic difficulties, as people do not earn enough income to devote themselves to being full-time community leaders. Some outside organizations and individuals have come to develop projects, such as ecotourism, but without respect for indigenous integrity and dignity. For example, a private sector business venture proposed a “theme park” development, in which the indigenous peoples’ role was to be solely as tourist attractions, dressing up as “authentic” Muisca Indians. ‘We are facing economic difficulties but we are not for sale” said the council President. ‘We cannot let go of what Carlos built with such sacrifice and effort; mainly his teachings about what it means to be Muisca, our identity and dignity. We had a commitment with our children and with the communities that supported our struggle for better life for indigenous peoples in Colombia and the respect of our rights.’

In spite of the setbacks, the community has been able to continue important activities with children. With the assistance of NGOs, private schools and universities, the Muisca have organized visits to the community in exchange for small monetary honoraria. This earned income goes directly and exclusively to support children’s activities. Sometimes visitors provide workshops and/or handicrafts activities instead of cash. Musical training for the youth was halted when the former leader left the community, but new resources have been allocated for musical training for younger children. With economic support from the Spanish Foundation Payesos, the community is building a place for young people to become involved in new projects and initiatives aimed at youth.

The community is also working on a new activity funded by the environmental governmental organization Regional Autonomous Corporation (CAR), which promotes nature walks through traditional territory. The activities include elders’ teachings, emphasis on community life and discussions about management of collective lands. The community in Sesquilé shares its work on medicinal plants, traditional and spiritual revitalization with other surrounding Muisca communities.  The community is self-sufficient in traditional medicine through management of wild medicinal plants, although the adverse circumstances of 2007 limited the potential activities of such projects. Traditional medicinal practices are also being reclaimed, including the healing visions, the sweat lodge (temazcal) and use of sacred plants like tobacco and yagé in ceremonies. Ceremonies are organized for the community people themselves, but also outside people are participating. Members of the community and its current leaders feel that townspeople are changing their perspectives regarding the Muisca revival efforts. Earlier, the sacred ceremonies and the use of traditional plants were viewed suspiciously as forms of drug abuse and addiction.  Now, urban non-indigenous people come to Sesquilé seeking healing, an alternative vision of the world and something to give their lives meaning. Some have enthusiastically participated and worked with the community.  Former members now want to return to work in the movement, and new people want to become members of the community revitalization process.

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