Colombia | November 30, 2021
The Arhuaco indigenous people, together with the Kogui, the Wiwa and the Kankuamo, make up the four original peoples of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, in the Caribbean Region of Colombia. Prior to the Spanish conquerors’ arrival on the continent in the 16th century, these four communities were part of the Tayrona indigenous group, whose origins date back to at least 200 AD. They inhabited a large part of the territory that today represents the departments of Magdalena, Cesar and La Guajira.
After the pacification campaigns by the Spanish conquerors in the indigenous provinces that made up the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta territory, and due to the poor social and health conditions experienced in the city of Santa Marta during the colonial period, the surviving indigenous people decided to withdraw and seclude themselves in the mountainous area, where they started their ethnic reconstitution. Adopting new patterns of subsistence and settlement based on their relocation to steep areas, the descendants of the Tayrona indigenous culture formed the four communities known today.
Towards the end of the 19th century, after the Republic of Colombia had declared its independence, the State granted control of the education of indigenous people to the Catholic Church, which initially was also empowered to exercise civil, criminal, and judicial authority over the native peoples. This way, under the precepts of “Regeneration” [a process that sought to “regenerate” the indigenous people through the education of children], the Capuchin missionaries started their official tasks in La Guajira peninsula and Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, among other national territories. During their time in Arhuaco territory, the missionaries introduced several institutions such as the school, the church, and the prison. However, the indigenous community opposed many of the measures carried out in the name of ‘civilization’, such as the elimination of their native language and their culture. Arhuaco discontent reached its peak in 1982, when in general meeting, the local people decided to peacefully occupy the facilities of the Capuchin mission in the town of San Sebastián de Rabago, known today as Nabusimake, capital of the Arhuaco. After a complex negotiation process with the ecclesiastical and governmental authorities, the Capuchin mission agreed to withdraw and hand over the facilities to the indigenous community, which returned to its original roots, thus restoring the teaching of their Ikü language in the educational center.
Although the Arhuaco people and their sister communities of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta faced new challenges in the following decades, mainly due to the country’s internal armed conflict during that period, the year 1991 marked an important milestone, not only for these four peoples, but for all indigenous communities in the country. In March that year, Act 21/1991 was passed, which ratified ILO [International Labor Organization] Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, which to this day continues to be the most comprehensive international convention to guarantee indigenous rights. In turn, in July 1991 the new Political Constitution of Colombia was enacted. It was acclaimed for its great legislative contribution to human rights in the country, establishing, among others, the recognition and respect of the culture, language, and territory of the local indigenous groups.
Throughout the Arhuaco’s history, as with many other indigenous communities around the world, its people have suffered several attempts to interfere with their lifestyle and culture. However, their notable resilience has allowed them to keep their defining essence intact – firmly rooted in respect and care for Mother Earth and all living beings alike. In the history of this ancestral indigenous people, we find many lessons that teach us how consensus, peaceful action, respect for others, diplomacy, and the ability to adapt to change are essential for the survival of a society.
To learn more about the Arhuaco people visit https://confetayrona.org