Update - January 4, 2011:
Today I am heading to La Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta to begin learning from my friends the Mamos - the Elders - of the Kogui, Arhuacos, Cankuamo, and Wiwa. I will be posting updates on my adventure as often as possible, but there will be extended periods of time when I will not be on the computer or the internet. Photos and wisdom will be shared with all of you soon…...from July, 2011:
This fall I will be accepting an invitation to journey to the Heart of the World – the high Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta of Colombia. This past May, I was honored to greet and escort the Mamos (the Elders) of the descendants of the Tairona of northern Colombia – the peoples of the Kogui, Arhuacos, Wiwa and Cankuamo. The Mamos had left the seclusion of their mountain home to participate in an historic gathering of Native American Elders from throughout the Americas at Menla Mountain in upstate New York.
The peoples of the Sierra Nevada fled the onslaught of the Spanish conquistadors at the time of Columbus and settled into seclusion in the Sierra Nevada, where their ways have remained largely unchanged for five hundred years. The Mamos are intensely spiritual and fully in touch with what they regard as our Earth Mother. They consider their purpose in life to be the care and nurturing of the planet, and they regard themselves as the Heart of the World.
They came to New York with a message for the peoples of the world – that their world, your world and my world, is in serious jeopardy. And the cause is not climate change or the over-use of fossil fuels. No, the problem - and the solution to the problem - is a spiritual one.
The Mamos refer to themselves as the Elder Brother, and to us in the so-called civilized West as the Younger Brother, and they have come to call us to participate in a global shift in consciousness. It is time, they say, for us to shift from blindly taking our marching orders from economic and political authority, and return to the natural order of spiritual authority. They are calling us to fundamentally change our relationship with our Earth Mother, to reclaim the spiritual relationship with Her that we were born with, but which we have un-learned. And we need to return to our spiritual roots NOW – before we destroy our Earth Mother forever, and ourselves with her.
The Mamos have invited me to be one of the very few outsiders ever allowed to become a part of their cultural family, and to learn at an experiential level their wisdom and their profound understanding of – and love for – our Earth Mother. And further, they have asked me to help them communicate their urgent spiritual message to the world. They have asked me to be a voice for the Heart of the World.
In the months to come, I will be using this forum to share with you my preparation for my journey, and then periodic reports from La Sierra. I will be largely “un-plugged” and living embedded alongside my new friends, exactly as they live, and will only have sporadic opportunities to return to the base of the mountain and update my journal here. And after my adventure of several months, I will be writing what I hope will be an important and engaging book that chronicles my journey, and mytho-poetically presents the poignant and important spiritual message of the Mamos – the spiritual message from the spiritual Heart of the World.
I invite you to follow my journey through the journal that will be this site in the coming months.
Below are a couple of videos and an excerpt from a book by another new friend, Wade Davis, Explorer-in-Residence with the National Geographic Society. Together the video clips and the writings provide something of an introduction to the amazing peoples of La Sierra.
Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World
by Wade Davis
One of the intense pleasures of travel is the opportunity to live amongst peoples who have not forgotten the old ways, who still feel their past in the wind, touch it in stones polished by rain, taste it in the bitter leaves of plants. Just to know that, in the Amazon, the Jaguar shaman still journey beyond the Milky Way, that the myths of the Inuit elders still resonate with meaning, that the Buddhists in Tibet still pursue the breath of the Dharma is to remember the central revelation of anthropology: the idea that the social world in which we live does not exist in some absolute sense, but rather is simply one model of reality, the consequence of one set of intellectual and spiritual choices that our particular cultural lineage made, however successfully, many generations ago.
But whether we travel with the nomadic Penan in the forests of Borneo, a Vodoun acolyte in Haiti, a curandero in the high Andes of Peru, a Tamashek caravanseri in the red sands of the Saraha, or a yak herder on the slopes of Chomolungma, all these peoples teach us that there are other options, other possibilities, other ways of thinking and interacting with the earth. This is an idea that can only fill us with hope.
Together the myriad cultures make up an intellectual and spiritual web of life that envelopes the planet and is every bit as important to the well-being of the planet as is the biological web of life that we know as the biosphere. You might think of this social web of life as an “ethnosphere,” a term perhaps best defined as the sum total of all thoughts and intuitions, myths and beliefs, ideas and inspirations brought into being by the human imagination since the dawn of consciousness. The ethnosphere is humanity’s greatest legacy. It is the product of our dreams, the embodiment of our hopes, the symbol of all we are and all that we, as a wildly inquisitive and astonishingly adaptive species, have created.
And just as the biosphere, the biological matrix of life, is being severely eroded by the destruction of habitat and animal species, so too is the ethnosphere, only at a far greater rate. Of the 7,000 languages spoken today, fully half are not being taught to children. Effectively, unless something changes, they will disappear within our lifetimes. What this really means is that within a generation or two, we will be witnessing the loss of fully half of humanity’s social, cultural and intellectual legacy. This is the hidden backdrop of our age.
…there is one place in South America where the pre-Columbian voice remains direct and pure, unfettered by any filter save the slow turning of the world. In a bloodstained continent, the Indians of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta were never fully vanquished by the Spaniards. Descendants of an ancient civilization called the Tairona and numbering perhaps 30,000 today, the Kogi, Arhuacos and Wiwa long ago escaped death and pestilence to settle in a mountain paradise that soars 6,000 metres above the Caribbean coastal plain of Columbia. There, over the course of 500 years, they were inspired by an utterly new dream of the earth, a revelation that affirmed the existence of eternal laws that balanced the baroque potential of the human and spirit with all the forces of nature. The three peoples, separated by language but closely related by myth and memory, share a common adaptation and the same fundamental religions convictions. To this day they remain true to their ancient laws – the moral, ecological and spiritual dictates of the Serankua and the Great Mother – and are still led and inspired by a ritual priesthood of mamos. They believe and acknowledge explicitly that they are the guardians of the world, that their rituals maintain the balance and fertility of life. They are fully aware that their common ancestors, the Tairona, in 1591 waged fierce but futile war against the invaders. In their mountain redoubt, lost to history for at least three centuries, they chose deliberately to transform their civilization into a devotional culture of peace.
When the mamos (or priests) speak, they instantly reveal that their reference points are not of our world. They refer to Columbus as if his arrival were a recent event. They talk of the Great Mother as if she were alive – and for them she is, resonant and manifest in every instant in their concept of aluna, a word that translates as water, earth, matter, generative spirit, life force. What is important, what has ultimate value, what gives life purpose is not what is measured and seen but what exists in the realm of aluna, the abstract dimension of meaning. The nine-layered universe, the nine-tiered temple, the nine months a child spends in its mother’s womb are all reflections of the divine creation, and each informs the others. Thus a liana is also a snake, the mountains a model of the cosmos. The conical hats worn by the Arhuaco men represent the snowfields of the sacred peaks. The hairs on a person’s body echo the forest trees that cover the mountain flanks. Every element of nature is imbued with higher significance, such that even the most modest of creatures can be seen as a teacher, and the smallest grain of sand is a mirror of the universe.
In this cosmic scheme people are vital, for it is only through the human heart and imagination that the Great Mother may become manifest. For the Indians of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, people are not the problem but the solution. They call themselves the Elder Brothers and consider themselves to be the “heart of the world.” We outsiders who threaten the earth through our ignorance of the sacred law are dismissed as the Younger Brothers.
In many ways the homeland of the Kogi, Arhuacos and Wiwa is indeed a microcosm of the world and thus metaphorically its symbolic heart. The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is the highest coastal mountain formation on earth. Geographically unconnected to the Andes, which form the Columbian frontier with Venezuela to the east, it floats on its own tectonic plate, triangular in outline, 150 kilometres to each side, attached to the South American continent but separated from it by rift valleys on all sides. Drained by thirty-five major watersheds, with a total area of more than 20,000 square kilometres, the massif rises within 50 kilometres from the sea to summit ice. Within its undulating folds and deep valleys may be found representatives of virtually every major ecosystem on the planet. There are coral reefs and mangrove swamps on the coast, tropical rainforests on the western flanks, deserts in the north, dry scrublands to the east, and soaring above all in the clouds and blowing rain, the alpine tundra and the snowfields where the priests go to make prayers and offerings. Close to the equator, with twelve hours of daylight and twelve of darkness, with six months of rain and six months without, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is a world of balance and harmony – exactly, the Indians maintain, as the Great Mother intended it to be.
According to myth, the mountains were dreamed into existence when the Great Mother spun her thoughts and conceived the nine layers of the universe. To stabilize the world, she thrust her spindle into its axis and lifted up the massif. Then, uncoiling a length of cotton thread, she delineated the horizons of the civilized world, tracing a circle around the base of the Sierra Nevada, which she declared to be the homeland of her children.
This primordial act of creation is never forgotten. The loom, the act of spinning, the notion of a community woven into the fabric of a landscape, are for the people of the Sierra vital and living metaphors that consciously guide and direct their lives. They survive as farmers, and in order to exploit diverse agricultural zones, they are constantly on the move, harvesting manioc, maize, coffee, sugar and pineapples in the hot lowlands, planting potatoes and onions in the cold mist of the cloud forests, climbing higher still to graze cattle and gather thatch. They refer to these wanderings as threads, with the notion that over time a community lays down a protective cloak upon the earth. When they establish a garden, the women sow the southern half by planting in rows parallel to the sides of the plot. The men, responsible for the northern half, establish rows perpendicular to those laid down by the women, such that the two halves if folded one upon the other would produce a fabric. The garden is a piece of cloth. When the people pray they clasp in their hands small bundles of white cotton, symbols of the Great Mother who taught them to spin. The circular movement of hands in prayer recalls the moment when the Great Mother spun the universe into being. Her commandment was to protect everything she had woven. This was her law.
Those charged with the duty of leading all human beings in the ways of Serankua are the mamos, and their religious training is intense. The young acolytes are taken from their families at a young age, and then sequestered in a shadowy world of darkness, inside the kanˊkurua, the men’s temple, or in the immediate environs, for eighteen years – two periods of nine years that explicitly recall the nine months of gestation in a mother’s womb. Throughout their initiation, the acolytes are in the womb of the Great Mother, and for all those years the world exists only as an abstraction. They are enculturated into the realm of the sacred as they learn that their rituals and prayers alone maintain the cosmic and ecological balance of the world. After his arduous transformation, the young man is taken on a pilgrimage from the sea to the ice, from the cloud forests up through the rock and tussock grass to the páramo, the gateway to the heart of the world. For the first time in his life he sees the world not as an abstraction but as it actually exists in all its stunning beauty. The message is clear: It is his to protect.
From the coast he carries cotton, shells, and the pods of tropical plants to make pagamientos, or payments, at high sacred lakes where the wind is the breath of the Great Mother, and spirit guardians dwell, those with the responsibility of enforcing her laws. The offerings preserve life in all its manifestations. The pure thoughts of the pilgrim are as of seeds. From the páramo, he gathers to take back to the sea herbs and leaves of espeletia, a plant known in Spanish as “the friar,” because seen from a distance it can be mistaken for the silhouette of a man, a wandering monk lost in the swirling clouds and mist. Pilgrimage, movement through the landscape, is for the Elder Brothers a constant gesture of affirmation that binds together humans and nature in a single web of reciprocity.
Since Columbus, the people of the Sierra have watched in horror as outsiders violate the Great Mother, tearing down the forests, which they perceive to be the skin and fabric of her body, to establish plantations of foreign crops – bananas and sugar cane, marijuana, and now coca for the illicit production of cocaine. Drawn by the profits of the coca trade, and pursued by the military, leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries have entered the Sierra and engulfed the Indians. To the Elders, this danger from below is echoed by a threat from on high. The snowfields and glaciers of the Sierra are receding at an alarming rate, transforming the mountain ecology. For us these may seem like quite unrelated developments. But for the Elders they are inextricably linked to each other and to the folly of the Younger Brother, harbingers of the end of the world.
When I was last in the Sierra I traveled overland with the Arhuacos, a journey that began in their main centre of Nambusimake with a ritual purification, and then led to the sacred lakes and back to the sea. With me was Danilo Villafaña, son of Adalberto, and old friend of mine who was murdered by the paramilitaries. Danilo is today a political leader of the Arhuaco, but I remember him as an infant when I carried him on my back up and down the slopes of the then peaceful Sierra Nevada. Violence has been the backdrop of Danilo’s life, and scores of Kogis, Wiwas, and Arhuacos have been killed by the FARC (the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Columbia), slaughtered by the paramilitaries, or caught in the crossfire by the army. Still the Indians cling to peace. As Danilo told me as we sat by a stream in Nabusimake, “The spiritual world, the world of mamos, and the world of guns do not go together.”
When I returned from my pilgrimage I spoke with Ramon Gill, a highly respected Wiwa mamo. “The ancestors say,” he told me, “that one day the Younger Brother will wake up. But only when the violence of nature is on top of him. That’s when he will wake up. What are we going to do? Well, we are not going to fight. We just want to make people understand. We are here speaking calmly so that hopefully the world will listen.”
On January 9, 2004, at the height of the violence unleashed by the international consumption of cocaine, and after a two-year period that saw the death of several hundred men and women in the Sierra, including many mamos, the Kogi, Wiwa, and Arhuaco issued a joint declaration: “Who will pay the universal mother for the air we breathe, the water that flows, the light of the sun? Everything that exists has a spirit that is sacred and must be respected. Our law is the law of origins, the law of life. We invite all the Younger Brothers to be guardians of life. We affirm our promise to the Mother, and issue a call for solidarity and unity for all peoples and all nations.”
It is humbling to think that even as I write these words the mamos of the Elder Brothers, living just two hours by air from Miami Beach, are praying for our well-being and that of the entire earth.
One’s inclination upon hearing such an account is to dismiss it as being hopelessly naïve or so impossibly beautiful as to be untrue. This, sadly, has too often been our response to cultures we encounter but do not understand, whose profound complexities are so dazzling as to overwhelm.
* * * * *
[These stories] set out to ask “why ancient wisdom matters in the modern world.” The phrase is somewhat flawed, implying if it does that the many remarkable people we have encountered are somehow vestigial, archaic voices stranded in time, having at best a vague advisory role to play in contemporary life. In truth, all the cultures I have referenced in these lectures – the Tibetans and the San, the Arhuacos, Wiwas and Kogi, the Kiowa, Barasana, Makuna, Penan, Rendille, Tahltan, Gitxsan, Wetˊsuwetˊen, Haida, Inuit, and all the peoples of Polynesia – are very much alive and fighting not only for their cultural survival but also to take part in a global dialogue that will define the future of life on earth. There are currently 1,500 languages gathered around the campfire of the Internet and the number is increasing by the week. Why should their voices be heard? There are scores of reasons, many of which I have alluded to at least implicitly in these lectures. But to sum it up, two words will do. Climate change. There is no serious scientist alive who questions the severity and implications of this crisis, or the factors, decisions and priorities that caused it to occur. It has come about because of the consequences of a particular world view. We have for three centuries now, as Thom Hartmann has written, consumed the ancient sunlight of the world. Our economic models are projections and arrows when they should be circles. To define perpetual growth on a finite planet as the sole measure of economic well-being is to engage in a form of slow collective suicide. To deny or exclude from the calculus of governance and economy the costs of violating the biological support systems of life is the logic of delusion.
These voices matter because they can still be heard to remind us that there are indeed alternatives, other ways of orienting human beings in social, spiritual, and ecological space. This is not to suggest naively that we abandon everything and attempt to mimic the ways of non-industrial societies, or that any culture be asked to forfeit its right to benefit from the genius of technology. It is rather to draw inspiration and comfort from the fact that the path we have taken is not the only one available, that our destiny therefore is not indelibly written in a set of choices that demonstrably and scientifically have been proven not to be wise. By their very existence the diverse cultures of the world bear witness to the folly of those who say that we cannot change, as we all know we must, the fundamental manner in which we inhabit this planet.
~ from The Wayfinders – Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, by Wade Davis.
Wade Davis is an award-winning anthropologist, ethnobotanist, filmmaker and photographer. He currently holds the post of Explorer-in-Residence with the National Geographic Society. He is the bestselling author of The Serpent and the Rainbow, Light at the Top of the World, and One River.