Everything you need to know about the indigenous Wiwa people

the indigenous Wiwa people

The history of the Wiwa people

The history of the Wiwa people in the lands of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is revealed through tales and myths passed down among the communities. From ancient times to the 16th century, the Sierra Nevada was subject to exploitation under the yoke of the colonial system. During the 18th century, imposed colonial laws marked a rupture in the culture of these indigenous peoples by instituting censuses, tax regimes, and the imposition of foreign customs, such as Catholicism, disregarding the indigenous traditions.

Impacts and Changes in the 20th Century among the Wiwas

Throughout the 20th century, the Wiwas experienced continuous impacts resulting from the colonizing presence in the Sierra. These events generated new interaction dynamics that reshaped traditional knowledge and ways of life among the Wiwa indigenous people. In the current reality of the indigenous communities of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, there is evidence of the appropriation of the lower areas of their ancestral territory by landowners and coastal landowners. This appropriation brought about the implementation of peasant agricultural practices that unfortunately supplanted the ancient and valuable indigenous techniques for cultivating the land.

Language, Education, and Culture

In the 1970s, what is known as the marijuana boom impacted the lower lands of the Sierra Nevada, leading to a migratory flow towards the higher areas of the sierra. During the 1980s, Capuchin missions were maintained in Wiwa territory with the purpose of “civilizing” and assimilating the indigenous population, especially the children. Recently, government cultural policies have facilitated the repopulation of the territory by the Wiwa indigenous people, thus promoting the processes of cultural revitalization of this indigenous community.

The native language of the Wiwas is Damana, which belongs to the Chibcha linguistic family. In addition to the everyday Wiwa language, there are others used in rituals such as Terruna and Kaggaba, exclusively employed in sacred speeches and chants during traditional ceremonies (Trillos, 2005). In recent years, the Wiwa community has established an Education Committee focused on integrating indigenous pedagogical methods into the school context and promoting the use of Damana as a means of communication. As a result of these efforts, some educational institutions currently have a subject dedicated to teaching this language in their curriculum.

Sacred Sites and Worldview

Throughout the territory, sacred spaces are scattered, drawn since Serankua assigned a guardian and an owner to each element in the Sierra Nevada and the world, interconnected by the black line, over which the indigenous people do not exercise dominance (Suárez, 2008). Among them stands out the Gagaka or hill, one of the Mama’s power places, where spiritual rituals are often performed or confessions sought from those who consult him. The Gagaka is characterized by the presence of stone chairs, called atinkuna, used for divination and confession, identified by the Mama through the divinatory practice known as Zhatukua (Ponce, 2006). The worldview of the Wiwa indigenous people is rooted in a deep spiritual bond with supernatural entities that give rise to the legendary stories of the universe.

Representative Figures and Religious Syncretism

indigenous wiwa

Representative figures, such as the Mama and the Saga, embody the spiritual vision and entrenched beliefs of the Wiwa people. These figures symbolize their natural deities: the sun and the moon, respectively, and act as traditional authorities among the community members. In this way, they perform roles that explain the social and natural dynamics of the collective, transmitted through the oral tradition of the Mamas and Sagas.

The introduction of new religious creeds due to proselytism in the Sierra territories has led to a marked syncretism between indigenous spiritual and transcendental traditions and Catholic influences. Social life in these communities is imbued with various spiritual manifestations that shape a system of rituals and festivities rooted in traditional activities. Coca, a plant of great ceremonial and spiritual relevance, is also used in the treatment of serious ailments. Regular ceremonies are linked to climatic changes and other vital cycles.

The Mamos

Within Wiwa communities, the Mamos are figures of authority in both spiritual and political realms. Their influence extends to daily life and significant moments of the communities and individuals, providing advice in assemblies and angag+k+n talks.

The term “Mamo” represents the sun, grandfather, and counselor, while its female counterpart, the “Saga,” symbolizes the moon, grandmother, and counselor. Both have been specially educated to understand the Creator, interpret nature, society, and people, as well as to heal, analyze dreams, and lead ceremonies and rituals.

In addition to their role as spiritual leaders, the Mamos perform medical functions; every sick member of the community receives care from them. Often, for those unfamiliar, Mamos are considered the wisest and most respected individuals in the community.

Costumes or Attire

Male Attire: The Wiwa man wears white pants called “ganzurra,” manufactured in factories, along with a woven shirt known as “shamarra,” crafted by Wiwa women, and a hat.

Attire for Children and Adolescents: Boys and teenagers wear white tunics that reach their knees and carry a small backpack over their shoulders.

Attire for Girls and Adolescents: Similar to boys, girls and teenagers wear tunics, but these are longer, reaching down to the ankles.

Female Attire: Wiwa women use a blanket.

Important Information about the Wiwa Community


The denomination “Wiwa” finds its roots in the word “wi,” which denotes a connection with warmth (a person from warm lands). Additionally, “wi” implies the concept of “engendering” or giving birth. Likewise, the Wiwas are also identified as “Sajas,” meaning natives or indigenous, in contrast to “sintalu,” a term referring to foreigners or non-indigenous people. Within the Wiwa settlements, there are specific demonyms such as “guamacas” (originating from Guamaka), “marocaseros” (from Marokaso), and “arsarios” (originated in El Rosario). The denomination “Malayos” has endured, although its exact origin is not entirely clear.


The Wiwa territory spans from the area of the Cesar department, north of the municipality of Valledupar, to the adjacent region of the La Guajira department. In the first half of the 1980s, the Wiwas settled in Magdalena, specifically in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, under the leadership of Mamo Ramón Gil Barros, who achieved the recovery of their ancestral territory. In this area, they are located between the basins of the Guachaca River, north of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, and the Frío River, on the southwestern face of the mountain range, located in northern Colombia. Presently, their habitat extends at altitudes ranging between 900 and 2500 meters above sea level.

The Wiwas consider that their original territory comprised the areas of Marokaso, El Rosario, and Guamaka, reaching the low and flat lands. However, due to the effects of colonization, they were forced to migrate to higher areas, abandoning El Rosario (later called La Sierrita) and for a long period, also Marokaso. Currently, in Magdalena, they occupy specific areas such as Gotsezhi (“El Encanto”), Kemakumake, Kalabangaga, Wimake, Tolezhi, and Rumangaga.

Agricultural System and Production

The Wiwa community is recognized for its skill in agriculture, focusing on cultivating a wide range of vital foods such as yucca, yam, malanga, plantain, corn, beans, coca, and sugarcane. These carefully tended crops are primarily for family consumption, reserving coffee as one of the products intended for trade.

Additionally, they actively engage in the production of fique, a natural fiber used in making various products, from traditional hammocks to distinctive Suzu backpacks. Men carry the Duadu backpack, made with cotton spun in their homes, while women, although acquiring fabric from the Kogui, sew clothing for their community. On the other hand, the crafting of traditional hats is an art mastered by men.

Hunting and Gathering

The hunting of animals such as iguanas, rabbits, rodents, and birds is an ancestral practice crucial for the Wiwa, supplementing their diet and being an integral part of their culture and livelihood. Also, they gather seashells to extract lime used in traditional rituals associated with ceremonial coca consumption, a vital aspect of their rich cultural tradition.

Wiwa Population

The distribution of the Wiwa population is characterized by a dispersed pattern of rectangular single-family homes found on the slopes and valleys of the Sierra. These settlements are not only living spaces but also ceremonial and ritual centers where meetings are held, and the stories and advice of the mamos are passed down.

According to data from Colombia’s Ministry of Culture in 2010, the Wiwa community consisted of approximately 13,627 individuals, with 6,872 men and 6,755 women. Of these, 12,803 lived in rural areas, while 824 resided in urban zones. Most of the population consists of children, youth, and young adults, representing 79% under the age of 30, while the group of older adults over 60 years old was small, constituting only 2% of the population.

The main Wiwa settlements include Avingüe, Cherúa, Sinkujka, Surimena, Ahuyamal (munduguatjkua), Pozo de Humo, siminke, sabanas de juaquina (Kuasalamena), and Bernaka in Cesar, and Rinconal, Naranjal, Marokaso, and Potrerito in La Guajira. These are located within the Kogui Malay Arhuaco Reservation, collective areas recognized by the State. They have established the Wiwa Yugumaiun Bunkuanarrua Tayrona Organization (OWYBT) at the Cesar level, while in La Guajira, they are represented by the Wiwa Golkushe Tayrona Organization (OWGT), to be represented in society. They coordinate with the authorities of the other three peoples of the Sierra: Kogui, Arhuaco, and Kankuamo to protect the territory within the so-called black line, which delimits the Sierra and the four peoples responsible for its care.

In the Perijá mountain range, in the municipality of Becerril (Cesar), is the Campo Alegre reservation, a legally recognized Wiwa community according to Resolution 21 of May 16, 1995. This reservation has an approximate population of 463 inhabitants.

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