The Misak, indigenous peoples of Colombia

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We continue our series of posts on Colombia’s indigenous peoples. For this post, we’re off to the department of Cauca to meet the Misak indigenous community, most of whose population lives in the Silvia territory near Popayan.

There are more than 80 different ethnic groups in Colombia, and the idea here is not to present each and every one of them, but rather to tell you about the ones we know and with whom we’ve had some contact.

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Disclaimer: we apologize in advance for any grammatical or syntactic errors, as our native language is not English (we're a Colombian-French couple), so we hope you'll forgive us and still enjoy the information we share with you! Please note that all the information on our blog is based on our own experience, and is checked and updated regularly.

Misak cosmogony

Indigenous people of Colombia

The Misak, indigenous peoples of Colombia

Cosmogony represents the mythologies that tell of the birth of the world and of mankind. It is also a certain vision of the world (cosmovisión in Spanish). Like all the indigenous peoples of Colombia and elsewhere, the Misak have their own cosmogony , and the challenge is to preserve its knowledge and transmission in order to keep it alive.

“Piurek, los hijos del agua

The Misak-Misak come from the mountains and lagoons, which is why they consider themselves the “Piurek”, los hijos del agua, the children of water. The Namtrik language flows like a torrent, and the Misaks have always existed, in time and space, walking alongside nature.

Like day and night, man and woman, water and Misaks complement each other.

High up in the mountains, between the páramo and the mist, live the spirits of nature: Pishimisak, the female spirit who rests in laguna Ñimbi, and Kalim, the male spirit, who rests in laguna de Piendamo.

In ancient times, cold, violent winds froze the heart of the lagoons. Then the sun came and warmed the mantle of ice that covered the lagoons. The ice turned to water and the lagoons filled to overflowing, causing a great collapse.

It was during this natural catastrophe that the two lagoons Piendamo and Ñimbi came to know each other. The two lagoons united in an eternal spiral dance. The aro-iris, the rainbow, then came to fertilize them, and on this fertile soil began to germinate the seed of the Misaks.

This union of the two lagoons fertilized by the rainbow gave birth to a girl and a boy, “enchumbados” (wrapped in chumbe). Pishimisak and Kalim, the spirits of nature, saved the two children.

The first budding fire awakened love, cooked food, provided shelter and warmth. The two children saved by the spirits formed the first Misak couple. Since then, the water children have danced in an eternal spiral, with the past before them and the future behind them. They travel the paths without ever ceasing to be Misak.

Space and time

In the Misak worldview, time is not linear. It is not conceived with a beginning and an end, but as a continuous becoming, winding and unwinding in an infinite spiral. This permanent vision of life enables us to return to the center and origin of each person, a center that is none other than the community, the house, the home.

The Miskak have a point of reference in their conception of time, from which they develop their space to encompass the territory and the world. This place is the Nakchak (the kitchen, around the fire). This is where family members interact, where traditions are taught and where you learn to be a Misak.

Around this reference point, ever-widening spatial spirals unfold, which the Miskak differentiate and distinguish in their life cycle.

The principle of duality

Misak cosmogony is based on the principle of duality: sun and moon, masculine and feminine, hot and cold… For them, all elements of nature, food and everything around them is classified according to these principles, and it’s precisely by respecting the balance between these dualities that harmony in the land is maintained.

The music

Music plays a central role in the Misak life cycle, accompanying all the major moments of life and the rituals that accompany them.

Music is a fundamental part of spirituality, providing a kind of “company” from before birth to after death and spiritual return.

Misak cultural tour in Silvia

A tour of Silvia in the company of a young Misak guide – that’s the idea behind Viviana’s first community tourism initiative in Silvia!

Traditional Misak dress

Indigenous people of Colombia

Traditional dress is one of the strongest elements of Misak culture. It features the colors of the Misak flag, which a Tatia once dreamed of and which changed the way the Misaks dressed.

Men and women wear virtually the same outfit: the women wear two shawls, one blue and one red/fuchsia, and a black skirt, while the men wear a black ruana and a blue skirt. Both will be wearing a hat, which is traditionally a flat straw hat. a small work of art.

Some of the details differ, of course, but it’s the significance of this traditional garb that’s most interesting.

  • The color red represents the blood spilled during colonization and the struggles of the Misak people for the survival of their territory and traditions.
  • Blue represents water. As we saw earlier, the Misak are the children of water.
  • Black is the symbol of “mother earth”, the “pachamama”, and thus of the Misak territory.
  • The color white symbolizes the tranquility and harmony of the territory in which the Misak live.

The Misaks see themselves as transient beings, while the land is unchanging. We must therefore live in harmony with nature and our surroundings. Everything is alive, not only beings, but also the earth, objects, houses, etc., so everything must be in harmony with nature.

There’s a Misak phrase that says “reclaim the earth, to reclaim everything”, which means we must protect it, nourish it and pamper it.

Tampal Kuari, the Misak flat hat

Indigenous people of Colombia

The Misak, indigenous peoples of Colombia

Tampal Kuari is the traditional Misak hat. Contrary to what you might think when you arrive in Silvia and see all those black bowler hats. In fact, the bowler hat is a fashion that arrived in the 1960s from Bolivia (which was itself imported to Bolivia in the 19th century by the English…)

Although it was never totally abandoned, it was with the cultural reappropriation movement of the late 20th century that new generations began wearing the Tampal Kuari again.

Today, while the old-timers continue to wear the bowler hat out of habit, the new generations (including Viviana) are trying to reclaim the Misak cultural identity.

This hat is hand-woven from Tetera (palm) leaves to form the different “tiers” of the hat.

The Tampal Kuari represents the cycle of life, as the Misaks believe, in an eternal spiral. The top and center of the hat represent the mother’s womb and birth into the Misak community, spiraling upwards to reach the spiritual world.

  • The first circle of the spiral represents the child, who grows up to become an integral part of the community and participate in community “mingas”.
  • The second circle represents the environment, the territory, the surrounding mountains and other communities close to the Misak people.
  • The third circle represents the “outside” world, foreigners, white men. The Misaks are aware that they coexist in a larger world.
  • Hidden beneath each circle are symbols that only the Misaks can see and understand. These include the sacred sites where harmonization rituals are performed in order to live in balance with nature.

But all that unites these different circles is the “Pachamama”, the earth, without which it would not be possible to live.

The Misak flat hat uses three colors:

  • red represents blood
  • green represents nature
  • blue represents water

The Minga

Indigenous people of Colombia

The Misak, indigenous peoples of Colombia

The Minga plays a very important role in the Misak community. The Minga is simply community work: getting together, working together, helping each other. A Minga is when all or part of the community gets together to help someone who needs a hand building a house, sowing onions, harvesting corn..

Everyone has a role, and it’s organized organically, with no one having to say what the other has to do – everyone knows his or her place.

During the big mingas, we heat up a big pot to feed everyone. Mingas can gather up to several hundred people.

But mingas are not just manual. They are also known as “Minga de pensamiento”, or ” thinking mingas“. This takes place around the fire, which is central to Misak life, where the talking circle is rotated to reflect and share ideas on Misak culture, solve internal problems and so on. There are also family mingas, where the whole family comes together to share.

Misak rituals and customs

Indigenous people of Colombia

The Misak, indigenous peoples of Colombia

There are specific rituals for the major stages of life: birth, transition to adolescence, marriage, burial, etc.

Transition to adolescence

At the onset of menstruation, Misak girls must follow certain rules to “mark” their passage into adulthood. The girls are locked up for four days in a room called “Michiya”.

During these four days, the young teenager must perform certain manual tasks under the protection of her mother. She will be given a special diet, bathed in medicinal herbs and made to wear a new outfit. She will also be accompanied by elders who will provide her with knowledge and teach her how to live in harmony with society and nature.

At the end of the four days, a family minga is convened and the shaman comes to perform a spiritual cleansing. The teenager has to dance to ritual music for this important moment. The aim is to cleanse the body and mind and prepare for adulthood.

Wedding

At weddings, music and dance again play an important and central role in the ceremony. Family and guests gather around, and when the music starts, a candle is lit and the bride has to dance for four hours without stopping. The bride must not stop, and the candle must not be extinguished, otherwise misfortune will strike.

Funerals

When a Misak dies, the family holds a minga with the community to pay tribute to the deceased. The “guests” place objects, food or money in the coffin, things that will help him on his journey to the “Kansro”, the world of the dead.

The vigil lasts for three days, and the community stays, surrounding the family, and bringing food, wood and money to help the family.

Decolonization

Misak, indigenous people of Colombia

The Misak, indigenous peoples of Colombia

With the Conquista, colonization, evangelization and armed conflict, the Misak people and culture were on the verge of extinction. Despite battles and struggles, all forms of colonization up to the present day have sought to reduce the Misaks to nothing in every sense of the word: dispossession of territory, prohibition of the practice of their traditions, their way of thinking, their way of seeing the world, and little by little the culture has been lost.

Cultural reappropriation

It was in the 1970s that a movement of cultural reappropriation began to develop. With the 1991 law recognizing new rights for Colombia’s indigenous peoples, this movement was able to grow and allow the process of “re-existance” to take hold. The various struggles led to the recovery of a great deal of territory, authority and autonomy.

“Recupar la tierra para recuperarlo todo” also means recovering cosmovision, recovering identity, recovering education, territoriality..

Education is one of the ways in which the Misak people have reclaimed their identity.

Education

As mentioned above, it is in the home, around the kitchen fire (the Nakchak), that children learn to be Misak. This place is central to Misak education.

It’s here, listening to adults talk about life, problems in the community, problems in the world, Misak history, that children build themselves up. And while school is of course an important place of learning, it is first and foremost through the Nakchak that the identity of a Misak is formed.

At the same time, a whole Misak education system has been set up to re-teach children their language, culture and traditions. Children can follow a complete educational path from primary school to university.

Today, 95% of the Misak people speak their mother tongue, and virtually all children who leave to complete their studies abroad end up returning to Guambia territory.

Indigenous guide to Misak culture in Silvia

Indigenous people of Colombia

Viviana is a young Misak native who decided to offer a true cultural immersion in Silvia, in her native village.

Tour Misak (#16)

To directly contact Viviana and live this experience, you can use the form below. You won’t pay more, but it will let him know you’re coming from us.

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Authors

Angélica & Samuel

We are Angélica and Samuel, a French-Colombian couple, professional photographers and web editors specializing in travel to Colombia. We created this blog to change the image of the country, help you prepare your trip and inspire you to discover Colombia in a different way!

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2 thoughts on “The Misak, indigenous peoples of Colombia”

  1. very nice article on this indigenous people and the rest of the content of your newsletter with very practical information, if D. wants one day we will visit these beautiful areas thanks to all these good tips that you put online a big thank you and good luck
    a little refrain for the road: “no hay mal que dure cien años ni cuerpo que lo resista”.

    Reply