Feb 1, 2023
Content Warning: Colonialism, Racism, Violence
Amid the undulating shaman’s song and the gently falling rain pattering on the roof of the ceremonial roundhouse, I fell back on the blankets spread over the floor and wrapped myself in the folds of my poncho—blue, white, black, and red in the traditional Kamëntsá pattern.
“Paint, yagecito, cure, heal, bless, protect, yagecito,” intoned the shaman as I closed my eyes. Soon came the visions, then the purging, then the shaman’s gentle words as he leaned over me and cleansed my body of malevolent spirits. My habitual doubts and anxieties dissolved. Into that space of healing entered an unfamiliar feeling: a sense of place and belonging. I knew then that I had found a lifelong connection to the Sibundoy Valley and the relationships I had forged there. I felt myself engaged in a project truly meaningful, not only academically and professionally but also in deeply human terms. I had come to the Sibundoy Valley to live among the Kamëntsá for the sake of my anthropology honors thesis, but I left it as more than just a detached researcher. Spending two months among the Kamëntsá was a rite of passage that taught me much about the movement from despair to hope.
Like all Indigenous peoples in what we now call the Americas, the Kamëntsá, one of two Indigenous groups to inhabit the Sibundoy Valley of southwest Colombia since time immemorial, were and continue to be victims of territorial, cultural, and sociopolitical dispossession. The Sibundoy Valley, a lush and verdant basin situated between the Andean highlands to the west and the Amazonian lowlands to the east, was first “opened” to colonization and settlement at the turn of the 20th century, when Capuchin missionaries built roads into the valley with Indigenous forced labor under the auspices of the Colombian state. The following seventy years of quasi-feudal Capuchin rule saw the Kamëntsá stripped of much of their ancestral territory, language, and cultural identity. Even since the Capuchins left in 1970, the valley has undergone continued settlement and land theft at the hands of non-Indigenous colonizers from the rest of Colombia, while casual racism and discrimination is still an everyday occurrence today. And yet, despite the challenges—and, it bears repeating, like all Indigenous peoples of the Americas—through creative and strategic resistance and adaptation, the Kamëntsá have survived the traumas of colonialism and guaranteed their continued existence as a vital, vibrant, and autonomous people. Much still, however, remains to be done.
The Kamëntsá intuitively understand, based on a cultural knowledge system built up through the experience of millennia spent inhabiting their special corner of the ecologically superdiverse Andes-Amazon piedmont, that actions have consequences. For thousands of years they and other Indigenous populations inhabited the relational fabric of their territories respectfully and sustainably. Only in the past several centuries, especially since the advent of industrial capitalism and its all-consuming need for the natural abundance of their ecosystems—what industrialists and technocrats term “natural resources”—has nature’s delicate equilibrium been thrown out of balance. The old Capuchin road along which missionaries and settlers once entered the Sibundoy Valley to strip the Kamëntsá of their culture and dispossess them of their land has long since been overtaken by the jungle—nature always reclaims its own—but new roads, like the one locally known as the “Trampoline of Death” due to its towering death toll, continue to allow settlers, developers, and agents of the state to infiltrate and develop settler-colonial and extractive projects on the territory that the Kamëntsá are fighting to reclaim.
Kamëntsá activists and land defenders have made some important gains, but the struggle continues. As in all Indigenous communities in Colombia and beyond, fighting for environmental rights and social justice is a risky prospect; Colombia was the most dangerous country in the world for environmental activists in 2021, and several among the Kamëntsá have been assassinated in recent years, likely by hitmen hired by the various extractive business interests (both legal and illegal) present in the Sibundoy Valley. Constructing autonomy and securing the future of their culture and community is, like the insidious colonial projects that the Kamëntsá are resisting, a continuous and iterative process.
So when the shamans tell me that “water is life,” referring to the páramos, alpine wetland ecosystems that provide the bulk of Colombia’s drinking water but which are rapidly degrading under climate change, or speak of the communal hearth as “grandfather fire,” I listen up. Because despite centuries of colonization and decades of territorial and cultural pillaging, these notions rich with meaning are as resilient and resonant among the Kamëntsá as ever. They embed them in the tsömbiach, the pictographic woven belts that can be read like books and which are wrapped around infants to impart to them the wisdom of their mothers and grandmothers. They put these notions into embodied practice in their daily work in the jajañ, the gardens full of edible, magical, and medicinal plants which are repositories of traditional knowledge but which are under threat from the monoculture system brought by settlers. They keep these notions, like all the collective knowledge and values of Kamëntsá cosmology, alive in their language—whose future is threatened by Spanish hegemony. Armed with the wisdom of their ancestors and the strength and resolve of their youth, the Kamëntsá confront contemporary challenges with hope.
If you are interested in supporting the Kamëntsá community and buying an authentic bead bracelet straight from the hands of the artisans I work with, write me at firstname.lastname@example.org