political structure

The political structure in the everyday life of the Arhuaco people revolves around a few authority figures, with the Mamo being the most important amongst them.

The Mamo is the head of the hierarchy and his role is to guide the Arhuaco in their decision making; he is mainly the spiritual leader, but is consulted  for every important decision that needs to be taken be this economical, social or political), and gives his blessings to the individuals involved.

The Mamo are considered to be wise beings, they are trained to think profoundly and very slow. This is reflected in the way they talk, making pauses in the middle of their speeches that (for us) seem too long. The most important job of the Mamo is to maintain the balance with the natural and the supernatural world. This has to do with their cosmovision which, according to their law of creation, the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta is the heart of the world and the four groups who live there; the Kogui, the Arhuaco, the Kankuamo and the Wiwa are the first peoples to be created. They (the elder brothers) have received the task to maintain the balance of the world and the Mamos are the ones responsible to carry out this task. The Mamo is therefore very much respected; as a child he is trained to think and meditate. He is not allowed to eat salt nor meats and spends his childhood in his temple, in the highest parts of the Sierra Nevada.

It is maybe the ability to think slowly, that the Mamo want to teach us, as they see it as their mission to educate us (their younger brothers/western society). One of the Mamo’s, Mamo Kuncha, descended from the Sierra Nevada after ten years to talk to his younger brothers. In a conference that took place in Switzerland he said the following:

“You have to learn to think slowly. You hear things but you don’t listen. You see squares, numbers, but you don’t converse nor listen. You don’t see the ones who are around you. When you think slowly before doing things, you see the totality, everything that’s around you. You think hurriedly and things come out wrong.”[1]

Following the Mamo as most important figure in the social life of the Arhuaco, we can point out another figure, traditionally called the Maku, nowadays known as the Commissioner of the Mamo. His function consists of communicating the words of the Mamo to the community or to the outside world. In the assemblies and other meetings where the Mamo assists he has to be present to carry out his function as spokesman.

Another authority in the political life of the Arhuaco is the commissioner. This figure was first introduced in 1890 by the Capuchino missionaries but as of 1972 (when the missionaries were expelled from their lands) they kept this figure of authority, only now the Arhuaco have the authority to choose their own commissioners who were ‘foreseen’ by the Mamos. Their functions vary a lot, they conduct the meetings, resolve both internal and external problems, take care of health and education issues, etc. He is supported by the whole community and can carry out his function for an undetermined amount of time.

Another authority in the political life of the Arhuaco, and also introduced by the Spanish is the Cabildo or council. He is also ‘foreseen’ by the Mamo and is usually someone who has a good reputation within the community. He is the one responsible to give advice or guidance and to carry out justice. Their functions are supported by the Semaneros, voluntaries during a couple of months, who have to support the tasks as pointed out by the council. 

Lastly, there is the figure of the governor, who was created as demanded by the State and is the person in charge of handling everything related to their territory as a collective property. He interacts between the two worlds and is responsible for keeping the Arhuaco informed about all changes related to their territory.

Apart from the heirarchy that organizes their everyday life, they have created certain organizations that will represent them when handling issues such as indigenous education, indigenous health care or territories with the outside world. The most important of these organizations is the CIT (Confederacion Indigena Tayrona) which functions as a central government that represents the Arhuaco. It was created in 1983 with the objective to defend and protect the territory and everything that has to do with the protection of their culture and strengthening of their identity. The central government of the Arhuaco (which is elected during the general assemblies in Nabusimake) conforms the CIT. The central government generally consists of the authorities which were mentioned before.  

The other organizations are divided into the committee for education, the committee for health care (Dusakawi), and the committee for territories. All are connected with the CIT, as all important decision making takes place within the central government.

1 Vélez, M. 2010 “Sabiduría milenaria, Chamanes Sierra Nevada Colombia” (enlace: http://artigoo.com/sabiduria-milenaria-chamanes-sierra-nevada-colombia)