Emerging from the thick night of the jungle, I arrive at a clearing. Through the rain, I can make out the silhouettes of a row of men perched along a low bench under the thatched roof of a maloca. Smoke swirls between them, their eyes and nose piercings catching the glow of a fire’s coals.

After hours motoring down the Orteguaza River and hiking through the jungle in complete darkness, we arrived to the indigenous reserve of Aguas Negras, hidden deep within the Amazonian region of Caquetá, Colombia.

The community of Aguas Negras finds itself in a crucial juncture, taking initiative to reclaim their culture and collective identity after centuries of neglect.

Searching for a deeper identity

Part of this process has been to renegotiate what they call themselves. Once known as part of the Koreguaje ethnicity, the community of Aguas Negras recently changed their name to Pãirepã in order to differentiate the group and their unique history.

The Pãirepã are just one of numerous indigenous groups throughout Colombia who have begun to focus on strengthening and revitalizing their culture in the aftermath of the colonization of the Colombian Amazon.

The past 150 years represent a catastrophic period for Colombia’s original Amazonian communities. The rubber boom of 1879-1912 was the first major blow dealt to indigenous groups since initial contact with Europeans, resulting in more than 100,000 deaths and the destruction of countless communities through enslavement, torture and forced displacement.

Barely 15 years passed before the political and economic climate of the 1930s-1960s began to bring unprecedented waves of migrants from the interior of the country.

The success of “Larandia” — a Caqueteñan hacienda that would become one of the largest cattle estates in Latin America — was key to the design of the era’s colonization policies, which provided incentives and privileges to new settlers who invested in cattle ranching.

As massive swaths of forest were converted into pasture, many of the remaining indigenous communities were forced from their lands yet again.

Recovering from the past

In following decades, the virtual absence of the Colombian state led to development of Caquetá as the epicenter of both the armed conflict and the coca boom. The presence of leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries, narcotraffickers and the Colombian military left the predominantly rural population powerless under the constant threats of violence, forced displacement, extortion and aerial fumigations.

The past decade of relative calm has offered the indigenous ethnicities of Caquetá an opportunity to begin to take the initiative to guide and reassert control over their own cultural development in the wake of the massive changes to which they have been subjected over the past century and a half.

Today, groups such as the Pãirepã are working to pick up the pieces of the past in order to stabilize their future. For this reason, I stood in the darkness of a small, smoke-filled hut in the middle of the jungle.

Though it was already well past 10 p.m., the night was just beginning. After a long deliberation, the Pãirepã elders had decided that in order for the culture of their community to be recognized, valued and respected by others, they must entertain visitors who would come to learn about and document it.

Taking on the future

Arleyden, one of the few bilingual elders, had reached out to us in the capital of Caquetá with an invitation. He suggested we visit the community, where we would be educated on some of the pillars of Pãirepã culture in hopes that their will to firmly stake out their autonomy would be recognized by others.

Men, women, adolescents and young children sat among us as the elders covered topics ranging from how to count to five in Pãirepã, to their distinct cosmovision and interpretation of God.

Teenagers took turns writing Pãirepã words and phrases in my notebook, laughing as I struggled to pronounce this complex language. Hours later, the elders excused themselves to a hidden maloca where a shaman was administering yagé, also known as Ayahuasca, or “the spirit vine.”

Yagé, along with tobacco and the coca leaf, are an integral part of Pãirepã culture.

“Yagé is a sacred book for us. We take it so we can enter into contact with the higher spirit, to purify our pueblo, to purify ourselves, the soul. It invites the spirit of reflection,” Cacique Simón Figueroa remarks.

The ceremony lasts throughout the night. Though only the elders ingested yagé, no one slept, not even the smallest children. Those present stayed awake to learn from the songs and murmurings of the sabios, wise men.

While the fog lifted from the treetops, the elders began to remove their ceremonial adornments, slowly returning from their astral journeys.

Later that morning, we hiked through the forest to Mama Bwe Reojaché, an ethno-education institution where subjects such as indigenous cosmovision and traditional arts are taught alongside math and science to a primarily indigenous student body.

As we snaked through the jungle towards their school, kids and teenagers glowed with pride as they took turns showing off, teaching me words in Pãirepã and how to identify different trees. Though classes were not in session, the school was buzzing with activity.

Speaking out together

It was a special occasion — indigenous communities from all over the department of Caquetá had come together at Mama Bwe Reojaché to talk about public policies affecting their communities.

Over 500 individuals from distinct indigenous ethnicities across Caquetá including the Misak, Inga, Nasa, Pãirepã, Emberá Chami, Pijao, Koreguaje and Murui-Muinane (formerly known as the Huitoto) attended the event.

The meeting resulted in the drafting of a long-overdue document that outlines the department’s indigenous public policy, providing for the creation of a permanent council that will represent the indigenous communities of Caquetá.

For the first time, the government of Caquetá will officially recognize the rights of indigenous peoples to participate in all aspects of the policy decision-making process, particularly in avenues of regional development.

The gathering was a remarkable demonstration of both the political engagement and cultural diversity of the indigenous communities of Caquetá.

Highly committed to the maintenance of their cultural integrity together with the ecosystems they depend on, Caquetá’s indigenous groups are poised to steer policies in directions that will meet their needs and sustain their cultures into the future.