In this unsettled age of ours, when so many are searching for their ethnic, cultural or religious roots, the man who has a Dutch passport in the name of Anton Santiago Jordaan and a Colombian cédula in that of Santiago Ceriyatofe Ceryama is the prototype but also the exception, because his are not a fabrication of resentnik wishful thinking. In fact, his quest is so authentic and intriguing, it deserves to be made into a movie one day.
Born in Bogotá in 1986 to a Huitoto mother who was abandoned by his father, Santiago was adopted by a Dutch couple when he was three months old, and grew up in a small town in Holland as a typical Dutch kid whose only inkling of his background was his parents’ vague remark that “you came with the airplane when you were little.”
That changed when, at the age of ten, his adoptive mother’s dying wish was that he would reconnect with his biological mother, but discovering he was Huitoto meant nothing to him, and the feeling persisted when he actually met her ten years later after what he describes as a “very weird” flight to Colombia with a group of other adoptees who had the same purpose and more so, because they had to use a translator.
However, as soon as the plane landed, Colombia felt like home. “My first impression was how open people were – hospitable, nice and more tolerant with each other than in Holland, where, if you drive the way they do here, you’d have a fistfight. Colombians are more subtle, they try not to hurt your feelings.” He was so impressed by his short stay that he started using his Huitoto name when he got back to Holland.
But his identity was still unclear to him in the following years as he drifted from studying to be a social worker to jobs at a call center and restaurant, then found his métier as a mixed martial artist, he thought, until the undefeated amateur lost his first professional fight. “It depressed me a lot for a couple of years, but it activated something and I started investigating my roots on the internet and drank yajé (ayahuasca) with a Peruvian shaman in Holland. In the first ceremony, I felt the strong love of my adoptive mother. In the second, that I had to visit my mother’s community and learn about her culture and yajé.”
To finance it, he became a steeplejack on offshore oil rigs in the North Sea. “Inspection and maintenance, it’s rough: climbing 60 or a 100 meters on the tower, working in hard positions to inspect the blades of the electricity windmills or clean coal-burning ovens on the inside. But I only realized how dangerous it was when a steel cable snapped and nearly decapitated me. Yet, the really tough part is psychological. Rigs are like a cell, there’s nowhere to go. That’s why they pay you so well.”
In 2016, he finally made it to his mother’s home in the settlement of La Chorrera in the Amazon. “I didn’t know anything about indigenous life, it doesn’t exist in Europe, except for movies about Cowboys and Indians, so it was interesting to live in this house made of boards with a galvanized tin roof and outdoor toilet and the jungle all around, and see how people walk barefoot and fish or pick fruit off a tree. I admired the way they live with very little and have a strong connection with Nature. Every animal they eat has a place in their cosmo-vision. Still, for some of the people there, I was only a tourist, so it was very important for me to get baptized into their clan, the Amena, which means the “tree of life.” The ceremony was in my uncle’s maloca. They painted my torso and face with a black dye while everyone was chewing coca powder and licking tobacco paste. Then, my mother gave me my indigenous name, Amenatofe, after a cacique: it means the piece of wood the maguare* is made of.
I should explain that before the atrocities of the rubber boom reduced the Huitoto population from 60,000 to 7,000, they only had one name. It was only after they returned to their territory that they adopted surnames, because of the missionaries. Mine is Ceriyatofe, after the only member of our clan who came back to La Chorrera.
My uncle ran the ceremony and about 12 people from my family turned up. Since they were happy, it no longer mattered that others in the community treated me like an extranjero.”
That exploratory visit stretched from the two weeks he planned to four, due to the chronic vagaries of air transport in the Amazon, but while it left him desperately bored at times, it did teach him two related lessons: first, that in contrast with the Inganos or Kofanes, for example, the Huitotos’ use of yajé has always been very occasional and is now dying out and/or barred to outsiders, and second that his dream of studying their plant medicines would depend on his family finding a willing shaman in an outlying district or another part of the Amazon where their clan lives.
But the culture shock of his return made him even more determined. “Everything in Holland looked very restricted, like the way the trees are planted in neat rows, because there is only so much space for live beings. It struck me that Western society is about consuming. I want to know why the Huitotos live with Nature, instead of off it. I want to show people that when we destroy Nature we are exterminating our future. With every tree we cut down, the planet heats up more.”
But to do that, he had to go back to the rigs and his business of organizing mixed martial arts events. With the money saved, he returned to Colombia in November with a flexible plan to become the apprentice of a Huitoto shaman. “One possibility is a cacerío near la Chorrera where there is a guy who does yajé who knew my grandmother. Another is this small island in a side river of the Caquetá where my aunt lives. Her husband not only knows about yajé but another psychedelic plant, ooh-koo-hé* which Dennis McKenna looked for but they didn’t give him the genuine resin because it is so dangerous you can die if you don’t follow a strict dieta* beforehand. It’s still little known in the West. I’ll also check out Leticia.”
Incidentally, those words are his own, for like most of the Dutch, Santiago is a linguist, long fluent in English and now with a good command of Spanish. As for Huitoto, “as much as possible,” he admits. “I want to learn about the old Huitoto culture in general: their cosmology, medicinal plants, relation with the jungle and animals, what happened in the past, why they still have this connection with Nature.”
While the martial arts expert and rig jockey show in his tough build and fitness, Santiago doesn’t look particularly indigenous or Dutch for that matter. Instead, his sleek black hair, deep dark eyes and strong features suggest someone from the southern Mediterranean.
In any case, his mission transcends origins “I’m taking a video camera, so I can film the experience from the perspective of an adopted child with roots in both worlds.” On a brief visit to Bogotá at Christmas, he showed me the first fruits: some spectacular aerial footage of a big maloca taken by what was probably the first drone ever used in that part of the jungle.
“When I finish my apprenticeship and go back to Holland, I’ll play it by ear. What I do know is that I want to share the Huitoto culture with Dutch people. What bothers me about Holland is that everything is altered. By contrast, the Huitotos live in harmony with Nature. I want to show them how beautiful their culture is. Above all, I am proud of my roots.”
*The Amazonian bush telegraph, a drum made of a hollow tree trunk which, when struck, can be heard for miles around and sends messages to neighboring tribes. It is also used as a percussion instrument in ceremonial dances.
*Also known as ambil de monte, one of several species of Virola ingested in the form of small pellets made from the resin.
*Abstaining from sex and heavy or spicy foods prior to ingesting certain psychoactive plant substances.