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ETHNONYMS: Arouaques-Kaggaba, Cágaba, Cogi, Cogui, Kágaba, Káuguia, Köggaba, Pebo
Identification. The self-name “Kogi” means “jaguar”—the Kogi trace their origin to mythical jaguar beings. The term “Kágaba” means “people,” whereas “Pebo” means “friend.”
Location. The Kogi live in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, in northern Colombia, inhabiting mainly the northern slopes of the valleys of the Palomino, San Miguel, and Garavito rivers, with a few settlements on the eastern and western slopes. They practice agricultural transhumance on these slopes, which range from about 500 to about 2,500 meters in elevation.
Demography. Exact demographic figures are unavailable; in 1988 the Kogi population was estimated at about 4,000.
Linguistic Affiliation. The Kogi language, together with those of their immediate neighbors, the Ika and Sanha, belongs to a subgroup of the Chibchan Family.
History and Cultural Relations
The Kogi claim to be the descendants of the ancient Tairona Indians who, in prehistoric and early historic times, inhabited parts of the northern and western flanks of the Sierra Nevada and who had created a society that, at the time of the Spanish Conquest, was more advanced than most of the chiefdoms of interior Colombia. Some archaeological and mythological evidence seems to support this claim. In the early sixteenth century the narrow coastal strip lying to the north and northwest of the Sierra Nevada was inhabited by warlike tribes that offered fierce resistance to the Spanish invaders. Even after the founding of the town of Santa Marta in 1526 and the establishment of an uneasy peace, local rebellions occurred frequent. Only during the violent Spanish campaign of 1599-1600 were the Indians finally subdued. Their fields and villages were burned and sacked, chieftains and priests were executed, and those who survived, now decimated by force of arms and spreading diseases, fled into the mountains. During the seventeenth century these scattered remnants of different ethnicities reorganized in the more inaccessible valleys and began to form three or four groups, each with its own, but related, language. During the same century, the name “Tairona” was introduced by Spanish chroniclers as that of the ancient Indians of the Santa Marta region, the archaeological remains of whom are known to this day under this designation. It is to these semimythical and archaeological Tairona that the Kogi refer in their traditions.
Although the Kogi had been exposed to sporadic missionary influences since early Conquest times, the first permanent mission stations were founded only during the eighteenth century. Many Kogi became nominal Catholics but otherwise continued to resist changes in their religious and cosmological beliefs. During the last centuries, however, the Kogi have adopted many old-world food plants together with iron tools, some cattle, domestic fowl, and trousers for men, a selection carefully controlled by the native priesthood. In Colombia, Kogi culture is related to that of the ancient Muica of the Bogotá highlands and to that of the present-day Tunebo Indians. The possibility of ancient Mesoamerican influences in Kogi culture cannot be dismissed.
Kogi villages, consisting of five to more than fifty circular, single-family houses, are not permanently inhabited but are social and ritual centers where people gather only at certain times of the year or for short overnight stays while on the way to their fields. People spend most of their time in scattered homesteads spread over the mountain flanks at different altitudes. A family might own up to five or more houses, each one located in a small field clinging to a slope or nestling in a narrow bottomland area. All houses have one door, are windowless, and have a dirt floor; the diameter of an average house is 3 meters. The walls are traditionally made of plaited, flattened canes or, more recently, of wattle and daub. In the cold highlands the walls of some houses are built up of rough stones. The conical roofs of all houses are thatched with mountain grass.
Subsistence and Commercial Activities. At the time of the Spanish Conquest, some native groups of the Sierra Nevada constructed terraces for agricultural purposes, with retaining walls of boulders and stones, the remains of which can still be seen in many parts of present-day Kogi territory. At that time the staple food was maize, but when, during the following centuries, creole peasants pushed the Indians higher up into the mountains, the Kogi had to readapt; maize cultivation declined and was largely replaced by plantains, squashes, and tree crops. Game has become very scarce; people collect some beetles and river crabs and occasionally hunt birds or small rodents.
Industrial Arts. Kogi material culture is extremely simple. The men weave coarse cotton cloth for the entire family, but spinning may be done by both sexes. The women weave cotton or agave fibers into small carrying bags for personal articles; basket weaving is almost unknown. Household items such as benches, string hammocks, open-net bags, cooking vessels, gourd water jugs, gourd spoons, and wooden mortars are of coarse manufacture.
Trade. Trade relations have been going on for centuries. The Kogi manufacture primitive sugarcane presses and exchange or sell bricks of raw sugar to the Colombian lowland peasants who, in turn, provide the Indians with bush knives, cast-iron vessels, salt, sun-dried fish, steel needles, and similar items. In recent times some Kogi families have been growing coffee for sale in the lowlands. Wage labor is practically unknown.
Division of Labor. Both men and women work in the fields, help in house construction, and spin cotton thread. In other activities, however, a marked division along sex lines is observed. Weaving is a strictly male activity, and so are pottery making and coca planting. Carrying water, cooking, and laundering are female tasks, whereas the men procure firewood, clean the village premises, build bridges, and maintain the mountain trails, the fences, and the roof thatch. Most ritual activities are carried out by men, and women are forbidden to enter the temple or other ceremonial enclosures.
Land Tenure. All cultivated lands are privately owned. Hunting and gathering territories are communal property, but occasionally some wild-growing fruit trees have individual owners. Several years ago the Colombian government established a large Indian territory in the Sierra Nevada and began to buy up many small farms owned by encroaching creole settlers and returning them to the Indians. Lately, the Indians have been laying claim to many archaeological sites, which they consider to be a sacred heritage from Tairona times, and problems are arising between tradition-minded tribal authorities and government agencies in charge of prehistoric monuments.
Kin Groups and Descent. The basic structural principle is parallel descent, by which a son follows his father’s lineage and a daughter follows her mother’s. Some of these lineages lay claim to lordly or priestly status; some claim to be direct descendants of the Tairona, whereas others admit to being of mixed origin or trace their lineages to historical or mythical groups that were not related to the Tairona. Among men, membership in a certain lineage is a matter of pride; women sometimes ignore the names and attributes of their lineages. Intermarriage with Hispanic or Black elements is nonexistent, but rape and concubinage, probably going back to Conquest and colonial times, cannot be ignored in the present genetic constitution of the Kogi.
Kinship Terminology. Traditional terminology seems to follow the Hawaiian system.
Marriage and Family
Marriage. Patriand matrilines are ranked and named; each descent group has a mythical ancestor and place of origin and is associated with a certain “male” or “female” animal species. The traditional ideal was a marriage between the male predator and the female prey. During the last three or four generations, these marriage rules have been largely ignored, although most active priests continue to insist upon them. Polygyny is uncommon but, in view of the frequent scarcity of convenient, young, marriageable women, a young man might marry a woman considerably older than himself and later on marry a young girl; the first wife stays on as a “cook.”
Domestic Unit. Nuclear families are the rule. In Kogi homesteads, husband and wife traditionally occupy separate huts, but in the village the men will pass the night in the temple dancing, chanting, or discussing village affairs.
Inheritance. Fields, houses, and domestic animals are passed from father to son and from mother to daughter. Tairona heirlooms, lime containers, and other ritual objects are male property; bone needles, cooking vessels, or necklaces of Tairona beads are female property.
Socialization. Child training is very strict, much emphasis being put upon obedience, collaboration, food sharing, respect for elders, self-control, and silence. Aggressiveness is severely punished, as is any manifestation of infantile sexuality. Physical or verbal contact with the father is uncommon during infancy.
Social Organization. Hierarchical structures are very important in mythical thought and in the daily appreciation of social and natural phenomena. Esoteric knowledge carries great prestige. Earthly possessions are of no importance, the Kogi value system being antimaterialistic and, at the same time, exalting the moral and ethical qualities of their religious and intellectual elite. The entire sociopolitical orientation is based upon their concepts of occupying the “center” of the world, of being the “elder brothers” of all humankind, and of leading an exemplary life. These cultural truths are constantly being extolled as the leading principles of Kogi society, family life, and individual behavior.
Political Organization. Remnants of the Spanish colonial cabildo (village council) system are combined with the authority of native priests. Civil and religious authority have been closely linked since early colonial times and, possibly, before that. Some priestly lineages claim to be the overlords of certain regions and are respected as such. Most family and village affairs are taken before the local comisario or priest, but some cases are taken before the Colombian authorities in one of the neighboring lowland towns.
Social Control. Kogi society condemns all manifestations of aggressiveness: murder, arson, rape, and vandalism are almost unknown. Petty thefts do occur and drunken fistfights are fairly frequent. The Kogi are a quarrelsome people; they like to indulge in long-winded discussions of personal or community misgivings. A major control system is provided by the native institution of public confession, which covers a wide range of offenses mainly relating to sexual matters or interpersonal hostilities. Punishments consist of beatings, short-term hard-labor tasks, or religious penitence. The main threat for misbehavior is supernatural punishment by illness.
Conflict. Kogi traditions speak of many conflict situations in the past, some of them going back to the Spanish Conquest, whereas others refer to past intertribal warfare. There has been no tribal revolt against established authority since 1600, and the Kogi pride themselves on their peaceable attitudes in the face of outside pressures or occasional interpersonal tensions. Local nativistic movements, mainly in the 1940s, were of little consequence, and, at present, sporadic revivalistic movements have only a few followers. The concepts of opposition and alliance constitute recurrent themes in Kogi cosmology, myth, and philosophy; however, in spite of apparent dualistic classifications and categories, the concept of “balance” is predominant.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. The creation myth describes the process of embryogenesis in a cosmic womb, paralleled by the unfolding of individual consciousness and the first structuring of the universe. The creator-goddess is the Mother, a self-existent and initially self-fecundating Magna Mater. Next to the Mother are her sons, who are the Lords of the Universe; together with their divine sister-spouses, they are in charge of all aspects of nature and of people’s behavior. The Mother also created Sun and Moon, to establish a precise cosmic clockwork order. There also exist a large number of male or female spirit beings, rain and thunder beings, animal spirits, and others. The three basic dimensions of divine creation are: a nine-layered universe, a nine-tiered temple, and a nine-month-phased human womb. Religious activities refer mainly to fertility and to the need to achieve balance between the opposing forces and tendencies in nature and human minds.
Religious Practitioners. Kogi priests must undergo a long and very exacting training period, during which they must develop a strong and dominant personality of high ethical standards together with a broad understanding of political and ecological issues. Priestly activities are centered upon temples that, apart from being sun-watching stations, symbolize the womb of the Mother.
Ceremonies. The annual ritual cycle is marked by the four solstitial and equinoctial ceremonies, dates that coincide with the onset of the rainy or dry season. Masked dances or minor ceremonies are celebrated to honor a host of spirit beings throughout the year. Local priests are in charge of all rituals of the individual’s life cycle. Private ritual actions are very frequent, consisting of offerings to the Mother or to the ancestors, public confessions, dietary or sexual restrictions, solitary pilgrimages to sacred sites, and the learning of dances, songs, and traditions. During some of the major ceremonies, priests wear ancient Tairona ornaments such as carved masks, ritual objects of polished and carved stone or wood, and pectorals or wristlets of gold or tumbaga (tombac).
Arts. Singing and dancing are the principal Kogi artistic expressions and are highly formalized. Rhetoric, the recital of cosmogonic myths accompanied by prescribed stances and gestures, is an important art form. Applied decorative arts are nonexistent except for some colored stripes on clothes or carrying bags, the function of which is lineage identification.
Medicine. Minor Kogi priests, who have a lower, shamanic status as healers, have a good knowledge of herbal medicine. Many diseases, however, are attributed to malevolent spirit beings, vindictive ancestors, or social dysfunctions; in these cases the priests, elders, or family members prescribe adequate offerings or confession.
Death and Afterlife. At death the soul-stuff returns to the Mother’s womb because life is but a brief period between two intrauterine states. Earthly annihilation is followed by the soul’s wandering to the Land of Death, where it is accused, judged, and punished. The soul then proceeds, over one of the many trails assigned to it, to its final destiny.
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Reichel-Dolmatoff, Gerardo (1985). Los Kogi: Una tribu de la Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia. 2nd ed. 2 vols. Bogotá: Procultura.
Reichel-Dolmatoff, Gerardo (1987). “The Great Mother and the Kogi Universe: A Concise Overview.” Journal of Latin American Lore 13:73-113.
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