Visiting the autonomous Emberá chamí indigenous tribe in Cristianía
is not what you would expect. Four children are playing in a playground
next to the entrance of the village. Other kids are sweeping the floor
of the local Catholic church. A young man passes by wearing Colombia’s
national football shirt and talking on a cellphone. Christianía is more
modern, more Colombianized than other Emberá tribes. The Emberá chamí are not wearing their traditional dresses nor paint on their faces.
Emberá chamí display fierce pride in their heritage, although they do
not live traditionally on a daily basis anymore. Carlos Niaza Gonzales,
a leader of Cristianía, explains that they “are not Indians nor
Indigenous, but Natives” of Colombia.
The village spreads over a
mountain in northeast Antioquia. A small muddy path leads from one
house to the other winding through the evergreen jungle. Walking
through Cristianía you can see the different ranks of the community’s
inhabitants. While Carlos lives in a stable brick house with a tiny
garage in his “backyard,” Carmen Rosa Tascon, one of the oldest members
of Cristianía, lives in a wood hut high up on the mountain. Carmen’s
hut doesn’t even have a proper floor but she has a huge hi-fi system
next to her bed. The old lady’s house could not be more contradictory.
here is lonely sometimes,” Carmen says and explains that her family
moved to the city. “But we old people of Cristianía stick together.”
3000 Emberá chamís live in the community. Most make a living as
farmers. The men grow coffee, potatoes, carrots and yuca while the
women craft indigenous accessories like earrings and wristbands which
they sell in the surrounding villages and cities. The Emberá chamí are
Cristianía even has its own law, its own
justice and its own police: the “alguaciles.” Due to the protection of
the indigenous law, the Colombian national justice system only applies
to the Emberá chamí in serious crimes like aggravated theft or murder.
In all other crimes, the community decides the penalty.
village appears quiet and peaceful. Everybody seems to be happy to do
their day-to-day work. But it has not always been like this. Kiro, an
official of the indigenous department in Medellin, explains: “Eight
years ago, it was dangerous for Kapunias [non-indigenous people] to
visit Cristianía. There were murders and crimes on a regular basis.
And the community had a lot of problems with alcoholism,” he said.
Now, alcohol and drugs are banned and with financial aid from the authorities things have changed.
community uses the money for education, culture and preservation of the
environment. Every child attends school where they learn the Emberá
chamí language and Spanish. Recently, the first non-indigenous teacher
arrived in the village. After years of trouble, violence and suspicion,
Cristianía evolved into a “role model” of indigenous tribes in
Colombia. As Kiro said – safe, peaceful and Colombianized. For better
or for worse.