Voices from the Sacred Mountains
The Arhuaco indigenous peoples of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia, are known for their century-long track record of environmental protection, but their cultural survival and conservation of this sacred mountain’s ecosystems are at risk.
Message from The Heart Of The World! (Corazón Del Mundo) Shortfilm
- From the Heart of the World: The Elder Brothers’ Warning – Kogi Message to Humanity:
In the second documentary, the Kogis have re-emerged, realising that the importance of their warning had not been grasped. As well as warning Younger Brother they have decided to share their secret sciences in the belief that sharing these sciences will share their burden of changing the world for the bette
Aluna means “conscience “. Enter the last theocratic chiefdom in America, hidden for centuries on a mountain in Colombia. The Kogi have made this amazing documentary to help us understand how to avoid the destruction of the world that they are trying to protect, and of ourselves.
If you watch this video and feel inspired by the Kogi and their message, please know that they have NO interest in people coming to visit them and their sacred lands. This includes visiting La Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City), which for the Kogi was never “lost”. Rather, it was purposefully hidden, because it is an incredibly sacred site that even many Kogi are not sanctioned to visit… and certainly not tourists.
The Kogi have gone to GREAT lengths, for the past 500+ years to keep their sacred lands free from the energy and unconscious spiritual issues of outsiders. This is something the average “Westerner” might have a hard time understanding. But all we need to understand is that the Kogi DON’T want people visiting their lands, and whether we understand the spiritual reasons for this, or not, is unimportant. Being in their territories uninvited is like walking into a complete stranger’s house, uninvited, and walking through the rooms of that house as if it were your own. It is rude and inappropriate. Please take this to HEART and KNOW what it means to violate their wish to NOT have outsiders in their sacred lands.
If you feel—and KNOW within your heart—that you have a genuine calling (not just idle curiosity) to support the Kogi in some way, my only recommendation is that you take a serious and sincere interest in recovering your attention from the great many distractions—most especially “spiritual” distractions—and doing what it takes to come into greater consciousness of who you are as Spirit, where you are from as Spirit, and precisely why you are here, as Spirit. This is hard and, at times, painstaking work. Most importantly, know that the message of the Kogi is a practical one. That we day-by-day apply ourselves to the deep work of resolving our issues, misconceptions, projections, negative tendencies, etc. And that we do EVERYTHING within our power to stop living a lie (the Modern world) which is quite obviously destructive and out of alignment with LIFE. In simple terms, they are making it clear that the Western world must drastically change its ways, less we go through drastic changes. If you’re reading this, that likely includes you. The Kogi are not simply something interesting for our entertainment or idle curiosity. They do NOT wish to be idolised, for that only marginalises the deep importance of their message, which is, in reality, the Mother’s message.
- The ancients guardians of the earth
“The Younger Brother is damaging the world. He is on the path to destruction. He must understand and change his ways, or the world will die,” Luis Guillermo Izquierdo lamented as he walked beside me, his cheeks swollen with a wad of coca leaves that he slowly masticated.
Ritual flute music drifted through the forest from some unseen source as Izquierdo – a mamo, or enlightened spiritual leader, of Colombia’s Arhuaco indigenous people – led me to the sacred natural pool Pozo de Yaya for a ritual cleansing. He removed his sandals, lowered himself onto a rock and sat cross-legged beside a fast-running stream. Izquierdo bade me remove my shoes and step into the water. Then he handed me a piece of thread representing the umbilical cord tethering me to Mother Earth, and in a warbling falsetto told me to pour my thoughts into the thread.
The Younger Brother is damaging the world – he must understand and change his ways, or the world will die
Hair as thick and whorled as a flokati rug flooded over Izquierdo’s shoulders from beneath a woven white conical hat, worn in reverence to the snow-capped peaks of the sacred Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains. He was dressed in thick, snow-white trousers and a matching serape (shawl) of maguey fibre, tied by a belt at the waist. He reminded me of a Star Wars Jedi – a wise member of the noble protective order capable by mental training of tapping into the metaphysical ‘Force’ in search of peaceful and righteous solutions. The metaphor seemed appropriate.
“We want the Younger Brothers to know more about our culture. In that way we can stop him destroying the world,” said Izquierdo, referring to the modern world beyond the mountains.
The Arhuaco are (with the neighbouring Kogi and Wiwa, or Malayo) one of three peoples whose ancestors were connected to the ancient and advanced Tairona civilisation. Brutally subjugated by Spanish conquistadors in the 16th Century, the survivors retreated into the pyramidal Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta that explode upwards from the Caribbean coast of Colombia. Their homeland – the world’s highest coastal mountain range – comprises every distinct climatic ecosystem in Colombia, from coastal wetlands and equatorial rainforest to alpine tundra and glacial peaks. Declared by Unesco in 1979 as a Biosphere Reserve of Man and Humanity, the mountain range was named as the most irreplaceable ecosystem on Earth by Science journal in 2013.
The three communities, who still total about 90,000, according to non-profit organisation Cultural Survival) call themselves the ‘Elder Brothers’ and are ruled by mamos, who maintain an ancient cosmovision (a conscious, cognitive interpretation of the world) based on a worship and custodianship of Mother Nature.
The mamos believe themselves uniquely possessed of a mystical wisdom. Izquierdo, like fellow mamos, spent his entire youth in intense spiritual training. Chosen by divination and sequestered for 18 years from birth to adulthood within dark confines near the summit of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, they’re inculturated in their societal values until they master a cosmic consciousness that they believe permits them to commune with the planet directly. “They learn to work as hidden-spirit midwives to all life, keeping it in balance,” explained Alan Ereira, a documentary filmmaker and founder of the Tairona Heritage Trust.
“The thoughts of our ancestors are embedded in every rock and other element in which humans have contact,” said Izquierdo, who holds to Arhuaco belief that we exist in a conscious universe where all material things have life and awareness. It’s unfathomable to them that ‘modern man’ does not believe the Earth consciously experiences the harm we inflict on it.
“They cannot understand why it is that we do what we do to the Earth,” said Wade Davis, an anthropologist and former National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence who spent many years studying and living among the Arhuaco.
Surrounded by almost impassable jungle (and in recent decades caught in the crossfire between the Colombian Army, Farc guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries), this ‘lost’ indigenous people lived for five centuries in almost complete isolation and obscurity, steadfastly guarding their territory against outside intrusion. Despite this isolation, their consciousness and cosmovision charges them with the responsibility of maintaining the harmony of nature and the universe on behalf of all mankind.
The thoughts of our ancestors are embedded in every rock and other element in which humans have contact
Three decades ago, the indigenous people of the Sierra realised that the sacred Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta snow caps – for them, the literal heart of the world – were melting. The páramos (high-altitude savanna) were drying up. Amphibians and butterflies were disappearing. In 1987, concerned that climate change was impacting the cosmos, they established the Organización Indígena Gonawindúa Tayrona to represent the mamos at a governmental level.
The Kogi were the most traditional and withdrawn group, and according to Ereira, they were fearful that their work of taking care of the world would be disrupted and damaged by contact. But in 1990, their mamos decided that, without drastic change, all would be lost, so they persuaded their people that they had to go public, and they invited Ereira to film From the Heart of the World: The Elder Brothers’ Warning.
But their aching exhortation of ecological disharmony and potential disaster fell on deaf ears. Two decades later, they called Ereira back to make a sequel: Aluna. “They had to do better, driven by fear of what they see will happen next,” Ereira said.
As the world accelerates towards calamity, the Sierra peoples’ self-awareness as wards for the Earth’s ecological welfare has taken on a sense of urgency.
While in Bogotá researching a National Geographic guidebook to Colombia, I was introduced to Arhuaco political representative (and future Senate candidate) Danilo Villafañe Torres. Known as ‘El Canciller’ (the Chancellor) and ‘Gran Hermano’ (Big Brother), Villafañe inherited the mantle of tribal leader at age 23 from his father, Adalberto, who was killed in 1996 by drug traffickers for opposing illegal coca plantations on Arhuaco land. Villafañe invited me to visit the ‘heart of the world’ in the care of Izquierdo.
“Brother Christopher is here to share our message with the Younger Brothers,” Izquierdo said to the border guard. He dipped his hand into a beautifully hand-woven zijew (shoulder bag) and withdrew a handful of coca leaves. The guard did the same. They exchanged leaves as a symbol of sharing and goodwill.
We were attempting to enter the Resguardo Arhuaco. Occupying a vast tract of land on the southern slopes of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the community’s autonomous territory was granted legal recognition by the Colombian government in 1983. (The Kogi occupy their own resguardo on the northern slopes; the Wiwa, to the south-east.)
The sullen guard scrutinised me with disdain.
Izquierdo – known by the honorific Mamo Menjavi – spoke again, more authoritatively. I heard the words ‘National Geographic’. At that, the custodian smiled, and the massive gates swung open, creaking on their rusting hinges.
The ravine-slashed, boulder-strewn drive up the mountain from the village of Pueblo Bello would have challenged a goat. Few vehicles ever make this journey into the heart of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. I felt honoured. Permission for bunachis (outsiders) to visit Nabusimake, the ‘capital’ of the Arhuaco resguardo, is rarely given. To be allowed entry to Nabusimake’s sacred walled inner sanctum is almost unheard of. ‘The entrance of non-indigenous is prohibited’ reads a sign above the thatch-topped entrance gate. For the lucky few who make it inside, photography is forbidden.
But the mamos held council the evening of my arrival and granted me permission to enter. The next day, I clambered up a narrow ladder beside the gate to photograph the hallowed hamlet, nestled in a small pine-scented plateau cusped by a mountain meniscus.
Huddled together against a rough mud-and-stone wall, three teenage girls giggled nervously, unsure whether to pose or flee. Younger children scattered. Women withdrew at my approach. The men – aloof, expressionless and haughtily proud – avoided eye contact, impervious to my presence as I walked a cobblestone thread between worlds. They eased past, mysterious as ghosts. Several wore cowboy hats and other sartorial accoutrements that set off their white Arhuaco attire.
Izquierdo smiled serenely. By contrast, he seemed pleased by my presence.
Indefatigable and inspired, the self-assured mamo is at the forefront of a third wave of Arhuaco initiatives that represent a huge leap beyond the unheeded warnings from their mountain refuge. Izquierdo champions opening up the resguardo for ethno-tourism and autonomous economic empowerment, such as the sale of Arhuaco crafts to the Younger Brothers.
Since 1995, various Arhuaco communities have organised themselves into cooperatives to produce and sell export-quality organic coffee. But as climate change pushes coffee production to cooler, higher mountain slopes, they’re now working to supplement coffee earnings with those from selling cacao. And as spiritual leader for Puerto Bello (the gateway village at the base of the mountains), Izquierdo has promoted the cultivation of sugarcane locally to produce panela (unrefined, organic raw brown sugar) for export.
“The idea is also to let the world know more about our culture,” Izquierdo said. “We want to carry the message that it is not simply to cultivate, but to cultivate with conscience,” he added, referring to organic farming, without harmful pesticides and other inputs, in harmony with Mother Nature.
By integrating into the cash economy, the Arhuaco are gaining cultural recognition while deriving income to buy back, parcel by parcel, ancestral territory owned by Younger Brothers, Izquierdo explained. The ultimate goal is for the Arhuaco to control more than 190,000 hectares (almost half a million acres), reconstituting ancestral territories like a rombacabeza (jigsaw puzzle), piece by piece.
I watched, fascinated, as Izquierdo moistened a wooden stick with saliva and dipped it into a poporo (a gourd filled with lime from powdered seashells), a carry-over from pre-Columbian civilisation. Izquierdo extracted some lime, wiped it on a wad of coca leaves to enhance the coca’s stimulating effect, and stuffed the wad in his mouth.
The thick limescale, the hard residue that builds by incremental degree with each wipe around the rim of the gourd, is a living library of every thought underlying every stroke of the stick. For the Arhuaco, an individual’s every thought or dream is literally recorded by the metaphorical action of poporeando (dipping into the poporo). “We write our thoughts with it. It’s a record of a man’s entire life,” Izquierdo said.
Equally, every knot in their intricately crafted zijews and clothing represents a thought or memory. I watched men perched on low wooden stools weaving cloth on ancient looms, deep in concentration as their deft fingers wove together the material world with that of spirit.
The idea is also to let the world know more about our culture
Every aspect of Arhuaco life is permeated with the symbolism of weaving. “Their central metaphor is a loom,” Davis said. The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is the very spindle from which the all-knowing Mother’s thread unwinds, turning possibility into reality, dreams and memory. The power of embedded thought is the very weft to the warp of their cosmovision.
Suddenly the meaning of the maguey thread that Izquierdo had handed me became clear. My experience with the Arhuaco was indelibly printed in that metaphorical umbilical cord. A cord uniting the past and present, the spiritual and material worlds, and my understanding – my thoughts, dreams and memory – of the Arhuaco’s cosmovision to be shared with the world.
- ‘Don’t Say They Didn’t Tell Us’
MESSAGE FROM THE BIG BROTHERS (03/27/2020)
We, the Mamos from the Heart of the World, that is also the Heart of the Universe, from our Sacred House. the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia, greet all our younger brothers and sisters of all the races of the world, the great brotherhood, all masters, the lightworkers, all of those who are on the path to change consciousness, to those who are awakening to a new consciousness and also to all those who are still asleep. We invite you to reflect on what is obvious, what everyone is talking about, the message that crowns us all as a single unit, in a single pain, in a single suffering, as a single humanity that suffers, cries that it is broken and that has to rise empowered, different, freed from incomprehensible egos, from values that did not help, and from powers that left us weak and tired of carrying them and that did not help when we needed them most. The Mother spoke, life shouted it in our faces, nature revealed it, the unintentional fires screamed it as a Truth.
But we did not hear them, because we were busy with grandiose work for ourselves, because they did not touch us directly, because we were busy building a better tomorrow without knowing for whom or for what. Today, we cannot say that we were caught off guard, that we were not warned, that it was a surprise. Don’t say they didn’t tell us. We, the Mamos who have learned for hundreds of generations and lineages to take time to develop communication with the higher and lower dimensions, who lived for 18 years of our present life learning to silence our minds, to desensitize our biological bodies and our senses, to extinguish our egos, to put our minds to sleep so that they do not judge, do not sentence, do not condemn. In those years and until the end of our existence we continue to learn to be Mamos, by sharpening the senses of the higher being and training ourselves to perceive, with the senses of the soul and the heart, the whisper of the divinity carried by the wind, the breeze, the waters, the clouds, the mountains, the animals, the forests, the very small like the bacteria, the visible and invisible beings, as the guardians of our Sacred Sites. We have learned that they speak with the innocent laughter of children, in the old wisdom of the one who is already leaving, with the color of the clouds, in the melting of the Chundwas (snow peaks), in the birds that stopped flying, in the volcanoes that woke up perplexed and began to roar until they made Mother Earth tremble.
We the Mamos read it, understood it, witnessed it when the slow and accurate walk of the father sun changed, hugging Mother Earth until she was burned, and when the lunar cycles no longer aligned to direct life, the planting time and the harvest. Younger brothers and sisters, the things that may seem insignificant to you have an enormous meaning for us, the Mamos. In every natural event, in every manifestation the Mamos see a messenger and a message, a guardian, a teacher, a counselor, who offer us the opportunity to hear, to dialogue with them, with Mother Nature and with Mother Earth.Thus, we learn the power to lead without insisting that others follow us. We call those viruses, bacteria, those who do good things for us or who plague us, or alter our time and space, our Elder Brothers. Today, one single tiny entity is producing a huge disturbance forcing all of us to make a stop on our sacred pathway of life.
For us, the Mamos, when Mother Earth had her first dawn everything was manifested from the spirit, in Ánugwe. Then, everything was manifested in Ti’na. Ánugwe is the immaterial force of existence, the intangible and greater “Law Force” that governs and controls everything that exists in nature and in the cosmos. Ti’na is the force in the material way, visible and manifested from Ánugwe. Thus, all kingdoms, animals, plants, waters, rocks, and everything that exists are manifested in Ti’na. They came first, ahead of us, in Ánugwe,where they manifested as the supreme force of life, of creation, and thus they had tocontinue in Ti’na. We were the last to arrive in Ánugwe and Ti’na. We arrived yesterday, and although we have not yet been able to understand what we came for, or why we were the last, nor what would be our sacred mission, or why did we come to be with the elder brothers, we became their executioners and as cannibals we began to consume and destroy many of them. We have altered the order established by the Most Sacred Law of the Universe, the Law of Origin, which is the Law of Order, of life and of respect for the inner being We have not learned to put ourselves at the height of Mother Earth, nor of Nature. As capricious children blinded by the power of reason, we begin to change everything, destroying, annihilating everything in our path.
We were so powerful that in a blink of an eye we overheated the planet, thawed the poles, causing many brothers of flora and fauna to disappear. We polluted the breeze and the air. Very few have acted with a consciousness of transformation wanting to change the system. That chaos is what today governs us. Until now, we were playing with fire. We put ourselves off balance. And then, a virus, the smallest of the elementals, the most insignificant creature before the eyes of the younger brothers forced us to stop the pursuit of the race, without knowing after what we were running. That virus became a great teacher, an authentic messenger.
From our communication sites with the portals from the different dimensions, we, the Mamos, perceive that this teacher is fed by fear, vibrates with it and is empowered by the fear that he perceives in all of us who feel terrified of losing what we have, what we built or planned to build. As humanity we have been crowned with the vibration of fear. From the Sacred sites the Guardians send us courage and we Mamos add to this courage a good dose of solidarity, unconditional love and self-confidence in ourselves to spread it to others as an effective shield against fear.
We, the Mamos, speak with Mother Earth, we speak with life and with beings from all kingdoms. From our sacred offices we ask for forgiveness, first for ourselves, our neighbors, the breeze, the water, the animals and the plants. We heal them, we balance them, because by healing and balancing our Elder Brothers, we heal and balance ourselves, because everything is integrated into the whole by interacting with each other and with ourselves. Only when we achieve the new balance will the New Humanity be empowered by solidarity, giving way to the New Earth, promoted, honored, respected and loved. Then, not only will pure air be possible, not only will healthy animals be possible, will plants be possible, but each element, each being will be fulfilling its mission, without being destroyed, violated, by what is called development, civilization, modernity and which we, the Mamos, call unconsciousness.
Our Sacred Mother Earth will be protected when we as humanity make the resolution to do things respecting and revering all life. For us, the Mamos, this is an invitation to change and transform ourselves without aggression, with love and kindness. It is something that you talk about the transformation or mutations that modern viruses are doing. The Mamos see this as an approaching reality that we can reach with the greatest humility that will assist us with the absolute truth of being able to apologize to ourselves and to all brothers and our elder brothers, to have a change in attitude, a transformation of consciousness and habits of thinking before this sacred planet, before this sacred mother and before our sacred elder brothers.
We have demonstrated how powerful we are to change, to transform. Let’s use the same power to mutate our consciousness adding a strong dosage of love, compassion, respect and reverence for life without rejecting with pride or arrogance the elder brothers of nature, because they were here ahead of us. Mother Earth, the Guardians of our Sacred Sites, the Mamos of the Chundwas are calling all of us, mobilizing Mamos and younger brothers and sisters to work together bringing that change in humanity and in the world. May power, light and love be with all of us to make that transformation during this time of change.
Mamo Dwawiku Izquierdo, Mamo Arhuaco from the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia
Compiled and translated by Amanda Bernal-Carlo, President, The Great Balance
More info here:
- For actual info look at The Tairona Heritage Trust
- Living the Law of Origin: The Cosmological, Ontological, Epistemological, and Ecological Framework of the Kogi
- Gold and Power in Ancient Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia
- Aluna: A Message to Little Brother
by charles eisentein https://charleseisenstein.org/essays/aluna-a-message-to-little-brother/
A black line, a network of hidden connections, links all the sacred places on earth. If that line should be broken, calamities will ensue, and this beautiful world shall perish. Destroying a forest here, draining a swamp there might have dire consequences across the globe. The Kogi shamans cannot perform their work of maintaining the balance of nature much longer in the face of our depredations.
How are we to interpret this warning coming from the Kogi people of the Sierra Madre in Colombia, delivered through their latest film, Aluna?
Contemporary Western viewers may respond to the film with resistance and skepticism. The old guard will undoubtedly reproduce the violence of well-worn colonial discourses, dismissing the Kogi’s message as primitive magico-religious thinking. For the ethnically sensitive, such a crude dismissal is passé. Today we have more sophisticated ways to deafen ourselves to what the Kogi are telling us.
The first we might call “ontological imperialism.” It would be to say, “Yes, the Kogi are onto something after all. The black line is a metaphor for ecological interconnectedness. Their talk of the voice of water is code for the hydrological cycle. They are keen observers of nature and have articulated scientific truths in their own cultural language.” That sounds fair enough, doesn’t it? It gives them credit for being astute observers of nature. However, this view takes for granted that basal reality is that of scientific materialism, thereby disallowing the conceptual categories and causal understandings of the Kogi. It says that fundamentally, we understand the nature of reality better than they do.
If their message were merely, “We must take better care of nature,” then the above understanding would be sufficient. But the Kogi are inviting us into a much deeper change than that. Do we understand the nature of reality better than they do? It once seemed so, but today the fruits of our supposed understanding—social and ecological crisis—gnaw at our surety.
A second and related way that Western viewers may resist the Kogi’s message is through what Edward Said called “Orientalism”—the distortion (romanticizing, demonizing, exaggerating, reducing) of another culture to conform it to a comfortable and self-serving narrative. An Orientalist response to Aluna would seek to turn the Kogi into a kind of cultural or spiritual fetish object, subsuming them into our own cultural mythology, perhaps by making them into an academic subject and stuffing their beliefs and way of life into various ethnographic categories. In that way we make them safe, we make them ours. It is just another kind of imperialism.
We might do the same by inserting their messages into a comfortable silo called “indigenous wisdom,” elevating the Kogi to superhuman status and, in the process, dehumanizing them as well. It is not true respect to worship an image—the reverse image of our own shadow—that we project onto another culture. Real respect seeks to understand someone on their own terms.
I am happy to say that Aluna avoids both traps (of imperialism and Orientalism). What makes this film remarkable is that fundamentally it is not a documentary. I have always been a little uncomfortable with documentaries about other cultures, even those that avoid the overtly patronizing tone of “look at those happy natives,” because they of necessity objectify their subjects, turning them into the material of a (video) “document.” By documenting others, we incorporate them into our world, into a safe educational or entertainment or inspirational frame, and into the “society of the spectacle.” But this film is not a documentary.
Who is the filmmaker here? Ordinarily one would say it was Alan Ereira, a former BBC producer who produced it. But that’s not what he says, and that’s not what the Kogi say either. According to them, the Kogi noticed the accelerating degradation of the planet and contacted the outside world to deliver a message that we must stop the destruction. They did so first in the early 1990s with the BBC documentary From the Heart of the World, after which they again withdrew from contact.
Obviously, we didn’t heed their message. “We must not have spoken it clearly enough,” they concluded, and so they sought out Ereira again to make a sequel. Fittingly, this is not a masterly production in conventional terms. Ereira appears to be in a little over his head, guileless, uncertain, and humble. These qualities are palpable throughout and contribute to one’s confidence that the Kogi and their message have not been conveniently packaged for commercialization or ecospiritual objectification. It is a raw and honest film.
The cynical observer, practiced with the tools of post-colonial analysis, might think that the assertion that “the Kogi have requested this film be made in order to convey their message” is a mere cinematic trope, or a way to preempt charges of exoticism, Orientalism, and cultural appropriation. However, that analysis is itself a kind of colonialism, based as it is on the patronizing assumption that the Kogi must be the helpless pawns of the filmmaker. It discounts the Kogi’s own explicit assertion that they have called the filmmaker back in order to transmit an important message to “little brother” (the industrialized world).
Dare we take the Kogi at face value? Dare we hold them in full agency as authors not only of this film, but of a message sent to us on their initiative? To do so reverses the power relations implicit in even the most post-colonially sensitive ethnography, in which the distinction between the ethnographic subject and the ethnographer is usually preserved in some form (and institutionalized when, with all due disclaimers, it appears in academic publications). Anthropologists don’t normally grant ethnographic populations agency as the originators of messages to academia.
The Kogi are not interested in being studied. They have not allowed anthropologists to live among them. They have not let their civilization become an object within ours. They, in fact, have been studying us—and with increasing alarm. “We have warned little brother,” they tell us, “and little brother has not listened.”
The Gift of Humility
In one telling scene, the Kogi mama (shaman) Shibulata visits an astronomical observatory in England. The astronomer is struck by the fact that Shibulata evinces no desire to learn from Western science, no curiosity about the telescope. He shows him photographs of galaxies invisible to the naked eye. The mama is not impressed. He is here to teach us, not to learn from us. Perhaps he recognizes the telescope as another manifestation of the same desire to conquer nature that has destroyed the forests and rivers and mangrove swamps near his home. He also displays an uncanny power, picking out from a large photograph the single star in it among multitudinous galaxies and other objects. Naming it, he says, “That star is not visible to our eyes.”
In this film, the colonial gaze is turned back on the colonizers—sternly, imploringly, and with very great love. The Kogi tell us, “You mutilate the world because you don’t remember the Great Mother. If you don’t stop, the world will die.” Please believe us, they say. You must stop doing this. “Do you think we say these words for the sake of talking? We are speaking the truth.”
Why hasn’t “little brother” listened? It has been over twenty years since the Kogi first spoke their message to the modern world. I think perhaps we have not listened because we have not yet inhabited the humility that this film embodies. We continue to try to somehow box, contain, and reduce the Kogi and their message so that it can rest comfortably in our existing Story of the World. The Kogi themselves say that thought is the scaffolding of matter; that without thought, nothing could exist. The official Aluna website describes the Kogi’s view thusly: “We are not just plundering the world, we are dumbing it down, destroying both the physical structure and the thought underpinning existence.” The conceptual reduction of the Kogi, and indigenous groups generally, to academic subjects, museum specimens, New Age fetish-objects, exploitable labor, or tourist spectacles is part of this dumbing down.
Thankfully, the requisite humility to truly hear the Kogi is fast upon us, born of—what else?—humiliation. As our dominant cultural mythology falls apart, we face repeated humiliation in the failure of our cherished systems of technology, politics, law, medicine, education, and more. Only with increasingly strenuous and willful ignorance can we deny that the grand project of “civilization” has failed. We see now that what we do to nature we do to ourselves; that its conquest brings our death. The utopian mirage of the technologist and the social engineer recedes ever further into the distance.
The breakdown of our categories and narratives, the breakdown of our Story of the World, gives us the gift of humility. That is the only thing that can open us to receive the teachings of the Kogi and other indigenous people—to truly receive them, and not merely insert them into some comfortable silo called “indigenous wisdom,” as if they were a museum piece or a spiritual acquisition.
I am not suggesting that we adopt, part and parcel, the entire Kogi cosmology. We need not imitate their shamanic practices or learn to listen to bubbles in the water. What we must do is embrace the core understanding that motivates the attempt to listen to water in the first place: the understanding that nature is alive and intelligent, bearing certain qualities of a self that Western thought has arrogated to human beings alone. We must make it no longer an Other; we must grant to nature the same agency that this film humbly grants to the Kogi. Then we will find our own ways of listening.
What Does Nature Want?
The modern mind does not easily comprehend the idea of the intelligence of nature except through anthropomorphizing or deifying it—another attempt at conquest. That would impose upon nature the same neocolonial attitude that this film does not impose upon the Kogi, and it is contrary to their message. Living much closer to nature than we in industrialized society, the Kogi can be under no illusion that nature is always nice, fair, and pleasant. From a dualistic mindset, the putative “intelligence of nature” looks like a capricious, evil intelligence. If you or I were in charge, we’d do better, wouldn’t we? We wouldn’t arrange for 999 tadpoles out of a thousand never to achieve froghood. We wouldn’t write so much suffering and death into nature. We would improve on nature. Such is the conceit of civilization as we know it.
To the extent we participate in modern society, “you and I” have been in charge. Look at what has happened to the world. Maybe it is time for younger brother—to see through different eyes.
Granting subjectivity and agency to nature and everything in it does not mean to grant human subjectivity andhuman agency, making them into storybook versions of us. It means asking, “What does the land want? What does the river want? What does the planet want?”—questions that seem crazy from the perspective of nature-as-thing.
The Kogi are not talking about a non-material, supernatural spirit to infuse consciousness into otherwise dead matter. For the Kogi, matter is not a container for thought; matter is thought made manifest, the thought of the Mother. Their beliefs are not actually supernatural, not in the sense of abstracting spirit (and all that goes with it like sacredness, consciousness, etc.) out from matter. To do so denies the inherent beingness of nature just as much as standard scientific materialism does.
Materialism, however, isn’t what it used to be. Science is evolving, recognizing that nature is composed of interdependent systems within systems within systems, just as a human body is; that soil mycorrhizal networks are as complex as brain tissue; that water can carry information and structure; that the earth and even the sun maintain homeostatic balance just as a body does. We are learning that order, complexity, and organization are fundamental properties of matter, mediated through physical processes that we recognize—and perhaps by others we do not. The excluded spirit is coming back to matter, not from without but from within.
So the question, “What does nature want?” does not depend for its coherency on anything supernatural, an external intelligence. The “wanting” is an organic process, an entelechy born of relationship, a movement toward an unfolding wholeness.
A Non-Utilitarian Argument Against Ecocide
In that understanding, we can no longer cut down forests and drain swamps, dam rivers and fragment ecosystems with roads, dig pit mines and drill gas wells with impunity. The Kogi say, to do so damages the whole body of nature, just as if you cut off a person’s limb or removed an organ. The well-being of all depends on the well-being of each. We cannot cut down one forest here and plant another there, assuring ourselves through the calculus of net carbon dioxide that we have done no damage. How do we know that we have not removed an organ? How do we know we have not destroyed what the Kogi call an esuana—a key node on the black thread scaffolding the natural world? How do we know we have not destroyed a sacred tree, what the Kogi call “the father of the species,” upon which the whole species depends?
Until we can know it, we’d best refrain from committing further ecocide on any scale. Each intact estuary, river, forest, and wetlands that remains to us, we must treat as sacred, while restoring whatever we can. The Kogi say we are close to the dying of the world.
As the film makes clear, science is beginning to recognize what the Kogi have always known. An invisible web of causality does indeed connect every place on Earth. Building a road that cuts off the natural water flow at a key site might initiate a cascade of changes—more evaporation, salinization, vegetation die-off, flooding, drought—that have far-reaching effects. We must understand that as exemplfying a general principle of interconnectedness; furthermore, we must see the aliveness and intelligence of the world. As the Kogi say in the film, “If you knew she could feel, you would stop.”
Otherwise, we are left only with the logic of instrumental utilitarianism as reason to protect nature—save the rainforest because of its value to us. But that mindset is part of the problem. We need more love, not more self-interest. We know it is wrong to exploit another person for our own gain, because another person is a full subject with her own feelings, desires, pain, and joy. If we knew that nature too were a full subject, we would stop ravaging her as well.
Aluna brings this knowing a little closer. Only by hardening our hearts can we view the film’s images of filled-in swamps and bare, scarred mountains, and disbelieve that something is feeling very great pain. Only by the colonialistic dismissal of an entire culture’s cosmology and ways of knowing, can we uphold our own dying mythology of nature as an insensate source of materials and repository of wastes. The sober indignation of the Kogi defies easy dismissal. It is not hard to believe that they—the largest intact civilization that has remained separate from global industrialized society—are indeed “Elder Brother.” It is not hard to believe their warning. To act on it, though, might require the same courage, patience, and wisdom the film reveals in the Kogi.