Dancing: A strategy by Colombia’s indigenous peoples to recover their culture

By Ovidio Castro Medina

La Chorrera, Colombia, Jan 31 (EFE).- Indigenous peoples in Colombia’s Amazonas province who suffered from the barbarity unleashed by the greed surrounding exploitation of the rubber boom and the armed internal conflict that beset the country for decades are reviving their dances to recover their culture and erase the traces of a tragic past during which they were almost exterminated.

At first glance, the dances of the Witoto, Bora, Ocaina and Miraña peoples, who have settled in La Chorrera, a remote village in the thick Amazon jungle on the border with Brazil and Peru, are rather monotonous.

However, when one gets into their real significance the reality is quite different because they encompass the cosmic vision of these peoples stemming from their way of thinking and conceiving the world, along with their relationship with nature and “Mother Earth.”

The director general of the Sinchi Scientific Research Institute of the Amazon, Luz Marina Mantilla, told EFE that her organization and the Azicatch traditional authorities association of La Chorrera have already approved applying to the National Council of Cultural Heritage (CNPC) with an eye toward working to revive the dances.

Mantilla said that the dances are going to become part of the country’s intangible cultural heritage, emphasizing that one of the most valuable things is that the dances and the songs are “a point of encounter among all the communities that, in addition, helps foster what in Colombia we call conflict resolution.”

Those cultural activities are also spaces where people can transmit knowledge to one another, telling and singing the various peoples’ mythic origin tales and teaching about the importance of working together, traditional food preferences and how to behave in society.

The male dancers – with their torsos painted black, adorned with iridescent feathers and with bells on their ankles that sound with every step – remind the people that they are ancient “people of the world” and, therefore, “we’re resisting disappearing,” according to Salvador Vitomas, one of the top officials in Azicatch.

The dances are performed to bring abundance, inaugurate a “maloca” – that is, a meeting center built from logs and palm fronds, the one in La Chorrera being some 10 meters (33 feet) high – handing over community authority, preventing and curing disease, making alliances and resolving conflicts with other peoples, among other things, he said.

“(The dances) are fundamental to the survival of the peoples, they’re fundamental for taking care of life, of humanity and the environment and also for having a relationship with the divine,” which for them is the boa constrictor, one of the largest snakes in South America, he said.

They also include elements having to do with the art expressed in ceramics, weaving and “knowledge” of medicinal plants and planting and hunting cycles.

“Via the dances, we commend ourselves (to our gods), we heal sickness,” he said, adding that the peoples of the region have suffered from an acculturation process “that forced us to follow a culture divorced from our own.”

Another local man, Salvador Remui, said that the peoples of La Chorrera and the vicinity were almost exterminated due to the greed that permeated the epoch of rubber exploitation.

At the beginning of the 20th century, La Chorrera was the headquarters of the Casa Arana, a firm owned by Peruvian businessman Julio Cesar Arana devoted to harvesting rubber and which subjected the local indigenous peoples to cruel treatment, forcing them to work under conditions of slavery.

The story of Casa Arana is told in the novel “El sueño del celta” (The Dream of the Celt) by Peruvian Nobel Prizewinner Mario Vargas Llosa, through the actions of Sir Roger Casement from Ireland and who was in the British diplomatic service.

“The dances are important for us because with that harmony we connect ourselves with nature. In the songs the fishes, the rivers, the trees and the animals are named. Each dance and song is performed on special occasions, like at welcoming ceremonies, prayers, weddings and at harvest and sowing time and to frighten away the evils that could affect us,” he said.

They also make reference to the role of women in their communities, since they “are the ones who manage the small farms that are fundamental for feeding the family, with the tasks of hunting and fishing being performed by the men.”

“As children of the sweet yucca (their staple food), tobacco (from which they prepare “ambil,” a black paste that they eat) and coca (which they chew to relieve hunger), we want to recover our customs and traditions, and so we dance as a way to stay alive,” Remui said.

EFE ocm/bp

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