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Identification. The Páez live in southwestern highland Colombia and speak the Páez language. They call themselves "Nasa" to distinguish themselves from neighboring ethnic groups, including the Guambiano, the Guanacas, and the townspeople of mixed Spanish and indigenous or African descent.

Location. The Páez heartland of Tierradentro in Colombia is comprised of some 1,300 square kilometers, located on the eastern slopes of Cordillera Central, at 2°30 N and 76° W. Páez settlements can also be found on the western slopes of the cordillera, and some Páez colonists have recently settled in the Caquetá lowlands to the southeast. Over 80 percent of Tierradentro lies above 2,000 meters in elevation, with one-third of the territory in the páramo, the high northern Andean swampy plateau that begins at 3,000 meters. This cold, mountainous country is crosscut by deep valleys, most notably those of the Páez, Moras, and Ullucos rivers, confining settlements to the mountain slopes overlooking these waterways. In Tierradentro, the rainy season extends from May to November, with the heaviest rains in May to June and October to November; on the western slopes of the Cordillera seasons are reversed.

Demography. The 1972 census calculates a Páez population of only 35,724 persons, with 40 percent living in Tierradentro. Nevertheless, most experts estimate that there are between 60,000 and 80,000 Páez. An excessively high rate of infant mortality on the western slopes of the Cordillera has resulted in a negative rate of population growth in some communities.

Linguistic Affiliation. There is no agreement among scholars on the affiliation of the Páez language. Although it has been traditionally associated with the Chibchan Family, some linguists hesitate to classify Páez as a Chibchan language; it has been suggested that it is a linguistic isolate, together with neighboring Guambiano. According to some estimates, 75 percent of the Páez are bilingual in Páez and in Spanish, and 25 percent are monolingual Páez speakers. But in many communities more than half the population is composed of monolingual Spanish speakers. Páez is an unwritten language, and native linguists are beginning to develop an alphabet for purposes of bilingual education.

History and Cultural Relations

At the time of the 1537 Spanish invasion, the Páez were organized in a series of warring chiefdoms coexisting in Tierradentro with other ethnic communities, including the Guambiano, the Pijao, and the Yalcón, and linked with them through relations of warfare, trade, and marriage. During the first century of the Conquest, the aboriginal population of approximately 10,000 was halved through war and disease. The Spanish forced the Indians into centralized villages so that they would be more easily exploitable as a source of labor and tribute. Communities began to migrate to the western slopes of the cordillera, founding new towns. In the early eighteenth century native leaders validated their political authority and the territories under their dominion through the creation of reservations, or resguardos, legitimized through titles granted by the Spanish Crown. During the nineteenth century the communal landholdings of the resguardo were challenged by non-Indian landowners, by gatherers of quinine bark, by the ravages of civil war, and by national legislation that sought to privatize landownership throughout the country. At the turn of the century the Páez joined a political movement led by sharecropper Manuel Quintín Lame, who fought to reclaim lost lands and to free Indian sharecroppers from paying rent for the plots they tilled. Non-Páez sharecroppers evicted from their lands in neighboring regions colonized Tierradentro in the 1930s, arousing heightened militancy among the land-poor Páez. During the 1950s, Tierradentro was beset by violence and civil war, and some communities were forced to disperse.


The Páez live in twenty-one settlements with populations ranging from 100 to 4,500 inhabitants. Although most communities are marked by towns, the majority of the population follows a dispersed mode of settlement, building adobe or wattle-and-daub houses with tile or thatch roofs, located near their fields on the mountain slopes. Some towns are composed of only ten to twenty sporadically inhabited houses, a school, a church, and a few tiny stores, whereas others are regional urban centers with large non-Indian populations and a governmental infrastructure. All of these towns are built in the traditional Spanish style, with a central plaza and, if there is more than one street, in a grid pattern. Most settlements are linked by unpaved highways constructed in the 1970s and 1980s; individual households are connected to towns by bridle- and footpaths.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Páez are peasant farmers; they raise potatoes, coffee, or hemp (depending on the altitude at which they live) for sale and grow plantains, manioc, maize, or Andean tubers for domestic consumption. There is also some coca grown in the lower reaches of Tierradentro, consumed by the ever-shrinking number of older people who still chew it. Crops are generally cultivated with hand tools available on the regional market; commercial technology is used for processing hemp and coffee for sale to intermediaries. Crops raised for domestic consumption are generally grown on small plots, using slash-and-burn techniques; coffee, coca, and hemp are more permanent crops. In the nineteenth century quinine bark and laurel wax were gathered in many communities; most of the quinine forests were severely depleted at this time. Domestic animals include pigs, cattle, turkeys, and chickens.

Trade and Labor. In most settlements a number of small stores stock commercial goods, but the population sells most of its produce and purchases goods at regional markets. Individual households are also connected by barter relationships with other communities, as well as with the neighboring Guambiano. Some of these relationships provide households with products grown in other ecological zones, as in the exchange of coca for potatoes. In other instances, exchange relationships link households on the two slopes of the cordillera, thus ensuring a steady supply of maize even in times of shortage between harvests. The Páez economy is also characterized by multiple modes of labor exchange that connect households in a web of reciprocal obligations; festive labor exchanges also characterize communal work projects. In some communities a considerable proportion of the population has migrated either temporarily or on a more long-term basis to nearby cities, as well as to coffee plantations to work as wage laborers.

Land Tenure. Seventy percent of the land in the Páez region is resguardo territory, meaning that it is communal land granted in usufruct to community members and administered by an elected council, or cabildo. The vast majority of the Páez are resguardo members, although between 15 and 20 percent are landless; land-claim activities have done much to integrate the land-poor into the community economy, especially on the western slopes of the cordillera.


Kin Groups and Descent. The most basic social and economic unit of Páez society is the nuclear family. Families are related to one another through networks of exchange of labor and agricultural products, community political processes, and ritual. Members of each community have a limited number of surnames. Although some scholars have suggested that in the pre-Columbian era descent was patrilineal, among the contemporary Páez descent is bilateral, and this also appears to have been the case in colonial times. Exchange partners are recruited out of each individual's personal kindred.

Kinship Terminology. Although Páez kinship terminology displays many of the characteristics of the Dravidian systems found in the Colombian northwestern Amazon, there is no indication that it was ever accompanied by bilateral cross-cousin marriage.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. The Páez marry, for the most part, within their own communities or with individuals from neighboring resguardos; marriages seldom take place between Páez from distant communities. There are almost no instances of marriage with the neighboring Guambiano or with local non-Indians, and it is said that Juan Tama, the Páez culture hero and an eighteenth-century chief, ordered his people to marry only within their ethnic community. Marriages are performed by Roman Catholic priests based in the urban centers of each municipality. Residence is virineolocal: after a short period of residence with the husband's parents, a couple will build its own house, generally in the husband's community.

Domestic Unit. The domestic unit is usually composed of a nuclear family that shares a house and works the land communally. The average domestic unit has 5.5 members, although with an infant mortality rate of 36 percent in some communities, many more children are born to a family than survive to adulthood.

Inheritance. Inheritance of resguardo land is regulated by Colombian law. Use-rights are legitimized and passed from one individual to another through the mediation of the cabildo. The cabildo is also authorized to mediate disputes over the inheritance of movable property.

Socialization. Infants and children are raised by the members of the nuclear family. Children accompany parents in all activities. Into the 1930s women were confined at childbirth and first menstruation to a small hut and isolated there for a specified period of time, whereas young men were initiated at sacred lakes. Primary schools have been built in most communities, frequently under the supervision of the church, and most children are now receiving at least two to three years of formal education.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social and Political Organization. Páez sociopolitical Organization is similar to that of other native highland populations in Colombia because it conforms to the dictates of national Indian legislation. The Páez live in resguardos, the boundaries and historical legitimacy of which are founded on eighteenth-century titles granted to native communities by the Spanish Crown. The cabildo, elected annually, serves as an intermediary between the Colombian government and the native community, administering usufruct rights to communal lands. Eighteenth-century cabildos enjoyed considerably more authority than do their modern counterparts. Cabildo authorities receive no remuneration for their services, and all men are expected to serve at least once in their lifetime. Cabildo members carry staffs of office to identify themselves as community authorities, a Spanish symbol ubiquitous throughout the Andes. Parallel to the cabildo is the capitán, or captain, whose office is hereditary; the capitán organizes communal work projects to maintain bridle paths, churches, cemeteries, and other community holdings.

The Páez resguardo differs from its counterpart in other native communities in its ideological underpinnings. It is based on an oral history that centers around culture heroes and heroines and the chiefs (caciques), who are said to be of supernatural origin and to have saved the Páez from indigenous and European invaders, founded the resguardos in which the Páez live, and then disappeared into highland lakes. The mythic narratives that recount the exploits of the caciques are elaborations upon the Spanish resguardo titles, the contents of which provide a framework for recasting Conquest-era mythology.

Social Control. The cabildo mediates disputes over land. Other areas of social control have been usurped by the non-Páez political authorities appointed by the Colombian government, although until the late twentieth century cabildos still used stocks and whipping to punish minor offenses. Colombian police, mayors, judges, and the army clash frequently with cabildos in struggles over the means of social control.

Conflict. Memories of valiant Páez warriors have led members of the dominant Colombian society to enlist Páez participation in the conflicts of the broader society. The Páez fought in the civil wars that raged throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries. Tierradentro has also been a stage for political organizing by the Indians themselves, who recently formed pan-Indian ethnic rights organizations to reclaim land and political autonomy. Because of the success of their agenda, the Páez have become targets in the political violence that characterizes contemporary Colombia.

Religion and Expressive Culture

The majority of the Páez were converted to Roman Catholicism by the eighteenth century, and a church stands in each Páez town. A significant number of people have been converted to evangelical Protestantism.

Religious Beliefs. Although the Páez have been Catholic for at least three centuries, the landscape of Tierradentro is populated with a variety of supernatural beings. Seventeenth-century Spanish chroniclers noted the importance among the Páez of highland lakes, sometimes the abode of Kpish, the Thunder. Colonial sources also mention hilltop oracles into which the sun rose and set. Pre-Columbian ceramics display images of snakes and serpents. Many of these ancient symbols are articulated today in the political arena. The mythic caciques are the children of the star, a wedding of the pre-Columbian symbol of divine heavenly bodies with the legal titles that legitimize post-Conquest communal landholdings. Those caciques not fished from the waters in which they float are transformed into serpents that eat villagers. The caciques defend their people with slings given to them by Kpish. They disappear into highland lakes from whence they have returned to defend the Páez against interlopers, just as Kpish sometimes does. In addition to these politically inspired beings, there are numerous water and mountain spirits that inhabit the landscape, inflicting harm on unwary passersby. Pre-Columbian burial sites are considered to be the abode of the pijao, dangerous spirits of the ancestors.

Religious Practitioners and Medicine. Just as myths of caciques and Kpish are political expressions of the belief system, shamans operationalize this wedding of myth and politics in everyday life. Called to their profession by the caciques, shamans perform divination and cure diseases caused by supernatural beings, assist the cabildo in ceremonially cleansing its staffs of office each year, and act as intermediaries between the supernatural and the human worlds. They are, moreover, active participants in the ethnic-rights movements through which land claims and cultural revitalization are coordinated.

Ceremonies. Each Páez community celebrates a number of Catholic saints' days, as well as Christmas, Easter, and Corpus Christi; festival sponsors go to great expense to organize communal festivities. Each January cabildos used to withdraw to highland lakes to commune with their caciques and bless their staffs of office; in the late twentieth century this custom is being reintroduced by the ethnicrights movement. Important ceremonies take place on such occasions as the completion of the construction of a house, when mythic history is reenacted by households.

Death and Afterlife. The Páez bury their dead in shaft-tombs, after having given them a Catholic wake. Shamans are charged with ceremonially cleansing the house of the impurities that come with death.


Findji, María Teresa, and José María Rojas (1985). Territorio, economía y sociedad páez. Cali: Universidad del Valle.

Hernández de Alba, Gregorio (1946). "The Highland Tribes of Southern Colombia." In Handbook of South American Indians, edited by Julian Steward. Vol. 2, The Andean Civilizations, 915-960. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 143. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Ortiz, Sutti (1973). Uncertainties in Peasant Farming: A Colombian Case. London: Athlone Press.

Rappaport, Joanne (1990). The Politics of Memory: Native Historical Interpretation in the Colombian Andes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sevilla Casas, Elías (1986). La pobreza de los excluidos: Economía y sobrevivencia en un resguardo indígena del Cauca-Colombia. Quito: Ediciones ABYA-YALA.


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ALTERNATE NAMES: Nasa (people)

LOCATION: Colombia

POPULATION: 68,487 (1980)


RELIGION: Roman Catholicism; evangelical Protestantism


The Páez Indians of Colombia resisted the Spanish conquerors who arrived in the sixteenth century. One of the first Spanish explorers to enter southwestern Colombia, where the Páez live, was Sebastián de Belalcázar. He found many Amerindian peoples there. The Pasto Indians in the Nariño region were peace-loving. In contrast, the Pijao fought many bloody battles with the Spaniards. Eventually, they were completely killed off. The Páez of southwestern Colombia, in the present-day state of Cauca, also resisted the Spanish. They were badly beaten, but their rugged mountain homeland saved them. They were able to avoid being destroyed by the Spanish or assimilated (mixed) into the general population by retreating into the mountains.


The Páez Indians have lived for centuries in southwestern Colombia, in the present-day state of Cauca. They make their home amid the rugged mountain ranges and high plateaus of the Andes Mountains. The eastern portion of this region is called Tierradentro. It is an extended reservation with widely scattered settlements. The main centers are Inzá and Belalcázar.


The Páez language is related to many other Amerindian languages. Most of those languages had died out by the late 1990s, but the Páez still speak their own language.

One of the traditional Páez names still in use is Calambás. It is the family name of a famous Páez hero and chieftain.

The Spaniards found that the Páez had not only male chiefs, but also female chiefs. A famous female chief was Taravira. Today, her name is still in use, along with those of her brothers, Avirama and Esmisa. Names like these are often used alongside Spanish names.


Juan Tama, called the "Son of the Star," is an important figure in Páez folklore. According to legend, when he was a baby, he was found in a gorge one day when the Morning Star was shining. He was nursed by several women and grew up to be very strong. Eventually, he married a female chief named Doña María Mendiguagua. He became the Indians' chief and teacher. He showed them how to guard their land and advised them to avoid white people.

Juan Tama appointed Calambás as his assistant, but Calambás turned out to be rebellious. Juan Tama defeated Calambás, but he later forgave him because Calambás was so brave. When he knew that his death was near, Juan Tama went to the lake on the high, cold plateau of Moras and disappeared into the water.


Members of a Roman Catholic religious order, the Jesuits, were sent by leaders in Spain to convert the Amerindians of southwestern Colombia to Roman Catholicism. Much later, this task was taken up by other missionaries, who arrived in 1905. They learned the Páez language, and they still run missions among the Páez. Modern Páez religious customs and beliefs combine with aspects of Catholicism. The Páez still have their own shamans (holy men).


The Páez celebrate Roman Catholic holidays, including Christmas and Holy Week (the week before Easter, in late March or early April). They also have their own music and include some of their own traditional rites. Although they observe many Roman Catholic rituals, they do not allow the Roman Catholic priest to attend their own traditional celebrations.


When a woman is about to give birth, she stays in a special hut. She gives birth either alone or with the help of a female relative.

From very early childhood, both girls and boys learn adult skills by imitating their parents. Adults form their own households and live in family units at a distance from the homes of other families.

The discovery of funeral urns and elaborate burial caves suggests that in earlier times the Páez were cremated. Important people were given elaborate funerals. Páez burial customs, like other aspects of Páez culture, include both traditional and Christian elements. Before returning home from a burial, both men and women traditionally bathed, fully dressed, in a stream. This was done to wash out the spirit of death.


The Páez are a reserved people. Some occasions require very formal greetings. A boy has to approach his godfather in a respectful manner when greeting him. A visitor or guest is given a formal "gift of affection." This is usually food, such as a chicken or an egg, and also includes some vegetables and coffee beans.

The Páez do not engage in Western-style dating. However, their traditions include one-year trial marriages. This year is called the amaño or adaptation period. During this time, the young man observes the qualities of the young woman, and she also observes him. If either partner turns out to be unsuitable, the trial marriage can be ended.


The Páez live in poor farming communities. They make do with the basic necessities required for survival. Their lifestyle is simple.

Traditional houses are rectangular with thatched roofs and walls of cane and sticks. Newer houses have walls made of adobe blocks or bricks, with roofs of corrugated zinc or cement. Houses are usually divided into two rooms. One is for sleeping and storage. The other is for eating and sitting around the fire to talk and keep warm. The more modern houses have one or two open windows. These are covered with wooden shutters during bad weather and at night.


The father has nearly absolute authority or power in a Páez family. Families often have more than three children. (This is true of all Colombian families.) Small children are given affection and much freedom. However, after the age of six or seven, they are expected to behave more quietly and obediently.

Marriage customs blend both Spanish and Páez cultures. Either the boy or his parents select a prospective bride. The boy and his parents and godparents, or compadres, visit the girl's family at their home to ask for her hand in marriage. If the girl's parents consent, her father is offered a half-bottle of aguardiente (a local drink). Her mother is then offered another half-bottle. The boy and his family then take the girl to their home to begin a year of trial marriage. If all goes well, the couple is usually married in the Catholic Church.


A woman's traditional clothing consists of two pieces. A heavy woolen skirt pleated at the back is held in place by a woven sash. A blouse made from a single rectangular piece of woolen cloth is fastened at one shoulder, but it is more common for women to wear cotton blouses.

Many women buy ready-made clothing. Women may sew their own blouses or skirts if they have a sewing machine powered by a foot pedal or hand crank to use, since electricity is usually not available. Women wear necklaces with eight to ten strands of tiny white beads.

Young girls wear a simple one-piece dress. Young boys wear a long shirt and short pants. Older men and women wear a plastic, straw, or felt hateven indoors. Younger people are less apt to wear hats, although baseball caps are popular.

A practical garment for the cool weather of the Andes Mountains is the ruana. This is a type of woolen cloak or poncho worn in many parts of the highlands. Ready-made sweaters and jackets are now common as well. Women wear tennis shoes, plastic sandals, or low shoes. Men often wear rubber or plastic boots. Children often go barefoot until they go to school.


The basic diet of the Páez includes potatoes, corn, and other vegetables that grow in the Andes. A traditional, hearty Páez breakfast begins the day; the only other large meal is dinner. A typical breakfast dish, called mute (MOO-the), is a stew of boiled cabbage, corn, potatoes, and squash. During the day, the Páez drink fresh fruit juices or juice that has been fermented to make guarapo. For special occasions, there are rich stews of vegetables, potatoes, and chicken or roasted meats.

Food is cooked either over a wood fire or on a dried mud or brick stove. The food for large gatherings is cooked in heavy, shallow metal pots large enough to hold food for up to one hundred people.


Children attend primary school from the first through third grades, and sometimes through the sixth grade. When farm activities require their help, children often skip school. Young people who hope to go to high school often must live with family friends or relatives in order to be near a school. Some earn high-school diplomas by taking courses broadcast on the radio. The teacher dictates the lessons over the radio. Students travel to a central location in their region when it is time to take examinations. Either way, a high-school education involves expense.

Members of the Páez community want to preserve their native language, so some schools have agreed to teach classes both in Spanish and in the native language.


The Páez play traditional music for all special occasions, including religious celebrations. Their musical instruments include both short and long flutes (chirimías). They also play drums made from hollowed-out tree trunks and animal skins. Some of their music has absorbed elements of Colombian folk tunes, such as the bambuco. Guitars are popular with young men. Dance is another important traditional form of expression for the Páez.


The Páez today live mainly in farming communities. Each Páez farmer must donate work days for collective (group) projects. These include planting, road-building, and bridge-building, and working in the villages. Men and women cultivate plots of land together.

Weaving is done only by women. Husbands must obtain permission to sell any of the goods their wives have made.


Soccer is a very popular sport among young men, and teams compete on Sunday afternoons.

The main traditional sport among the Páez was a type of war game. It was performed as a rite to honor the dead after a community feast. There were two teams, each led by a chief. The teams attacked each other with bows and arrows. Sometimes there were deaths, but they were accepted as part of the ceremonial game.


The Páez sometimes make market day into a special occasion. After the buying and selling have taken place, people enjoy drinking and chatting with their friends.

On feast days, the church is decorated with candles and flowers. Members of the community, carrying offerings of food, form a kind of parade to lead the priest to the church. The priest is greeted with much fanfare, sometimes even with fireworks and rockets. There may also be a chirimía orchestra of flutes and drums. After vespers (an evening service), the celebration continues outside the church. There is music and dancing all night.

Small transistor radios and cassette players, or boom boxes, are carried everywhere for entertainment and as status symbols.


Páez crafts once included pottery, weaving, and basketmaking. Older women continue to weave long, colorful sashes with red wool yarn on a white cotton background. The sashes are decorated with geometric designs and human or animal figures.

The Páez make jewelry, such as beaded necklaces. Metalworking is a traditional craft in southwestern Colombia. Inexpensive earrings are popular among Páez women, as well as barrettes for holding their long hair in place.


Guerrillas (private armies) have waged war for many years in Colombia, and the Páez have sometimes suffered at their hands. In addition, they have been hurt in raids by drug barons and by the actions of some police forces. In December 1991, a group of Páez Indians, including women and children, were massacred as they sat down to their evening meal.

The Páez are active in the council of Indian communities of the Cauca region. The Amerindian groups in Colombia have representation in the national congress. However, the struggle for a decent life with sufficient autonomy (self-rule) continues.


DuBois, Jill. Colombia, Cultures of the World. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1991.

Hanratty, Dennis M., and Sandra W. Meditz, eds. Colombia: A Country Study. Washington, D.C.: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 1990.

Rappaport, Joanne. The Politics of Memory: Native Historical Interpretation in the Colombian Andes. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990.


Embassy of Colombia, Washington, D.C. [Online] Available, 1998.

Ruiz-Garcia, Pedro. The Latino Connection.[Online] Available, 1998.

World Travel Guide. Colombia. [Online] Available, 1998.

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