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ETHNONYMS: Silveños, Wampi-misamera


Identification. The Guambiano, a South American Indian group in Colombia, call themselves "Wampimisamera" or "people of Guambia." The mestizos of the area frequently call them "Silveños," referring to the people in the environs of Silvia, a small town in the heart of Guambian territory.

Location. The Guambiano live in the municipalities of Silvia and Jambaló. A few others are to be found in the municipalities of Totoro, Caldono, and Toribio in the department of Cauca in the southwestern part of Colombia on the montainous foothills of the Cordillera Central. The average elevation of the area varies between 2,000 and 3,000 meters, making it an extremely cold and rainy area with a mean temperature of 12° C and an annual precipitation of 13.7 centimeters. The vegetation of the region was formerly richer and more varied; nowadays it is scarce. Overexploitation of the land and the kind of agricultural techniques employed have resulted in the exhaustion of primary vegetation. Cutting down the woodlands of the mountain ranges has caused the disappearance not only of traditional vegetation but also of the animal species that used to live there.

Demography. Demographic information is not very reliable, and often it is contradictory. Schwarz has made a careful survey of population growth in Guambia during the twentieth century and believes that in 1900 the population included 1,500 men and in 1970 consisted of 7,030 people (Schwarz 1973, 240). Government sources speak of 10,180 people in 1980, whereas the Organización Nacional de Indígenas de Colombia, (National Organization of Indigenous Peoples of Colombia, ONIC) reports for 1980 a figure of 18,000 Guambiano. An analysis of existing census data shows a population structure that is eminently "young," with a median age of 22.63 for men and 21.26 for women. Data suggest a heavy burden of dependency on the reproductive sector and a considerable effort by this segment to ensure community survival. Census data analyzed on the basis of age groups show that the number of women decreases with age; thus, females in Guambia have a higher mortality rate and a lower life expectancy than do men.

Linguistic Affiliation. The language of the Guambiano, Wampi-misamera-wam, has been classified within the Guambino-Kokonuco Group of the larger Chibcha Language Family. According to more recent investigations, it is believed to be an isolated language and of dubious classification (Matteson 1972). The majority of the Guambiano speak Spanish, especially the young people. Although they consider Spanish essential to survive in and withstand the hostility of the White world, the Guambiano nonetheless resist losing their own language, which is an essential aspect of their ethnic and cultural identity.

History and Cultural Relations

After the Indians of the valley of Popayán had been conquered by the Spaniards, the natives of Guambia, located in the richest and most fertile territories of the region, were given in encomienda (grant of Indians for tribute) in 1562 to Francisco de Belalcazar, son of the conqueror of Popayán. In 1589 the encomiendas of Ambaló and Usenda, with a Guambiano population, were given to Lorenzo Paz y Maldonado and his wife, Catalina de Belalcazar, granddaughter of the conqueror. Historical documents show that there was exploitation of Guambiano labor from the very beginning of the Conquest and that the entire colonial period was marked by bad relations and conflicts between natives and the hacendados (owners of large landed estates) to whom they were given in encomienda. Belalcazar's heirs, encomenderos (holders of encomiendas) of Guambia, who also owned property in various other parts of the region, continuously removed Indians, assigning them to other exploitative enterprises such as sugar mills and mines. There were constant complaints on the part of the Indians, who maintained that they had to neglect their own fields because the encomenderos left them no time to work their land. Despite these remonstrations, the Indians were taken in chains to Popayán to comply with their obligations.

In 1700 King Philip V granted Indians, represented by the legendary chief Juan Tama, three resguardos (protected territories) and the rights to the land contained in them: Guambia, Pitayó, and Quichaya, the last two with a Páez Indian population. Although the population within the Guambian reserves was numerically small and debilitated, the economic backwardness of the region and the protectionist policies associated with Indian reserves allowed Guambiano to slowly recuperate demographically and, above all, culturally and politically. Even though the reserves of this region of Colombia survived, the development of White haciendas at the expense of reserve lands was destructive and uncontainable from the beginning. The Indians, dispossessed of their land, were reduced to the condition of tenant farmers on the haciendas of Whites, where in exchange for living in a small hut and planting a piece of land, they had the obligation to work on the owner's land for several days a month. It was in protest against this situation of servility, abject poverty, and complete lack of ownership of land, that the Guambiano rose up and still continue their struggle. Displaying great sociocultural flexibility throughout the years, they have adopted new cultigens, new techniques, new tools, and new housing and have accepted the Spanish language and Catholicism. Despite the great number of extraneous elements introduced into their culture and the familiarity with which they move in the White world, they continue to be Guambiano, speaking their ancestral language and reinterpreting events in the light of Guambiano thought.


The Guambiano have a dispersed settlement pattern; their dwellings are located along the trails and in the open spaces that traverse their territory. Their ancient rectangular huts of plaited cane and wood, with straw roofs and small circular rooms for menstruating women, have practically disappeared from the landscape. Nowadays, their dwellings are structurally very homogeneous. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the colonial style Lor U-form house, usually of adobe blocks and tiles, has imposed itself. Bamboo, guadua (a variety of bamboo), and, above all, eucalyptus timber are always found in regional dwellings. Whereas the typical colonial house predominates, the use of space continues to be determined by tradition. The kitchen is the most important place in Guambian dwellings, since it is the social space par excellence. Not only is food stored, prepared, and distributed in it, but it is also where visitors are received and where on cold Andean nights and dawns the family converses by the heat of the hearth, the fire of which is kept permanently burning.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Guambiano are traditionally an agricultural people. The main source of their subsistence comes from working their land, and its development not only transcends daily life and the vital cycle but the existence of the community itself. For the Guambiano, land represents a kind and benevolent reality, the Mother Earth who must be respected, cared for, and looked after. Cultivating the land is the ideal way of accomplishing this. One must help the earth to produce, so it is necessary to feed, maintain, and warm her, to dance, to sing, and, above all, to accompany her. Land and collective labor are two realities closely associated in Guambian thought. Community and land constitute a unity neither part of which can survive independently. The potato is perhaps the basic staple of the Guambian economy. Cultivation technology is rudimentary: plows and rakes are used to break up the soil, and during weeding and harvesting the traditional hoe is used. More than eight kinds of potatoes are cultivated, typically grown in association with cultigens of secondary importance. Thus, potatoes may be grown together with onions and garlic. Maize is cultivated in lower-lying and warmer terrain. It is highly valued culturally, and, prepared in a variety of ways, it is never absent from the Guambiano diet. Two or three varieties of maize are cultivated; whereas potatoes and wheat are grown for the market, maize is essentially cultivated for consumption, and only the domestic group that will later eat it participates in its production.

The following crops are also grown: cabbages, Arracacha (apio ), pumpkins, wheat, barley, and ulluco (a tuber typical of Andean economy and diet that is cultivated in the high and cold areas of the territory). Vegetable gardens or domestic enclosures are never without aromatic and medicinal herbs, which women tend carefully. Cattle are seen as an important investment, and generally every family raises one animal. Sheep, which belong to the women, are also important in the domestic economy; their wool, carefully shorn, washed, and spun, is the prime material that Guambian women transform into clothing.

Division of Labor. The male world is associated with what is public and external to the community, whereas the female world is related to domestic life. Exclusive male activities are those that are done with "the head" and pertain to political, mercantile, and magico-religious life. Women do all those things having to do with "the lower and median part of the body," such as the numerous activities related to the life and reproduction of the domestic group. This strict division of labor between men and women has been losing ground, however, because of transformations that have taken place within the community. As a result of this process, women have widened the radius of their activities, entering the very core of production in farming and animal husbandry and sharing all activities with men.

Land Tenure. Land tenure is within the framework of communal forms of property characteristic of Indian reserves in Colombia. A basic trait is that it is collectively owned, and the Indians have the right of usufruct but not of transferral. Traditionally, the main role of native town councils has been to adjudicate plots of land for each family. Plots revert to the community at the death of the head of the family that worked them and are then newly adjudicated by the council. In new adjudications, the tendency is to favor the previous owner's heirs. Although the legal framework of the reserves has been kept more or less constant throughout their existence (Law 89 of 1890 is still in force), in actual practice regional dynamics have resulted in the penetration of alternate forms of possession such as private property or leasing, evidence of a process of decomposition, or at least transformation.

In order to have the right to own land one must be a member of the reserve, be at least 18 years of age or married, and without enough land to cover family needs. The expansion of White haciendas since colonial times has resuited in distressing and problematic conditions regarding land for indigenous communities in this part of Colombia. Landless natives, unproductive small farmsteads, payment for renting land in the area's haciendassuch problems are familiar to specialists and especially to the Indians, who throughout history have developed multiple survival strategies not only to resolve this difficult situation but to revitalize themselves ethnically. One strategy, overexploitation of plots of land, involves the transformation of traditional technology, a decrease in the time arable land can lie fallow, and a change in crop rotation and the adoption of new agricultural products. Colonization of hot lands requires the purchase of small farms located outside the reserve, one of the more interesting answers to the land shortage. The lands that have been sought are those where principally coffee is raised as a cash product. It is important to note that the majority of Indians who have bought land elsewhere continue to own their small plot of land on the reserve, as well as their homes. They resist abandoning the reserve and their ancestral lands. Another trait worth mentioning is the familiar form of work used for the exploitation of these plots. Sometimes day laborers are employed, including Guambiano who are paid a small salary and given lodging, food, and products grown in "the hot climate" to take back to their families on the reserve.

The widening of the "agricultural frontier" within their own territory is another answer to the scarcity of land. Lands of the high mountain ranges, the Páramo, formerly untouched by agriculture, are being exploited with traditional Guambiano technology. Humidity, excess moisture of the earth, and strong winds that batter the region are ably managed by the Indians, who have a precise knowledge of the topography of the terrain and distinguish between slopes on the high mountain ranges that can or cannot be used for agriculture. The recuperation of land is the most radical and effective innovation that has been developed by indigenous communities of the Cauca and especially by Guambiano town councils. They have recuperated land that once belonged to White-owned haciendas and used it to provide a supply of maize, the cultivation of which is so highly valued culturally and which had begun to become increasingly scarce on the reserve.


Kinship Terminology. Kinship terminology is of the Eskimo type. The institution of compadrazgo (relationship between parents and godparents of a child) is found among the Guambiano and plays an important role within their social structure.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. The Guambiano exhibit a tendency toward community and ethnic endogamy and neighborhood (vereda ) exogamy. Young people choose their mates freely and only rarely are marriages arranged through the intervention of the parents, as was formerly usual. Relations between young people develop spontaneously, with sexual relations permitted after puberty but without the implication of a formal commitment. The advantage of a possible union is discussed with the parents, who, besides considering the economic aspect, also give great importance to the reputation and the prestige in the community of the potential family of in-laws. Although trial unions (amano ) are less in vogue among modern Guambiano because of religious indoctrination and acculturation, they continue to be considered a basic prerequisite for harmonious conjugal relationships. Marriage as an institution is still characterized by a great deal of autocthonous cultural content. The marriage ceremony, however, has evolved within the context of Catholic ritual and is generally performed in Silvia or in other major municipalities, where the bride presents herself, accompanied by relatives and godparents.

Domestic Unit. Domestic units are generally made up of a nuclear family that occupies its own house. Sometimes family groups are made up of more than the members of the nuclear family. Such situations tend to be transitory, however, and are associated with the presence of male children who have formed their families but have not as yet built their own homes. Postmarital residence is virilocal. Only under special circumstances will the young couple reside with the wife's family. Even though neolocal in residence, a newly founded nuclear family forms part of the husband's domestic unit of orientation, in which the authority of the father must be accepted. The husband works with his father and the wife collaborates in domestic work with her sisters-in-law under the tutelage of her mother-in-law.

Inheritance. Although land is community property, usufruct is inheritable. Even if the land passes to the town council as established by law, the tendency is to give these plots to the sons of the deceased. Although, in principle, all natural and adopted children should inherit equally, men inherit more than women, and there is evidence that the oldest son may receive more than his younger brothers.

Sociopolitical Organization

Political Organization. In Guambia, politics is by tradition a male arena. It is considered to be an activity performed by the "upper part of the body" and a "matter for the head." Women, although indispensable for productive processes, are thought of as "having a very small head" and unsuited for political and intellectual roles in community life. The native town council (cabildo ) is the basic institution that structures Guambiano political life and articulates the norms that constitute a true community. Members of the cabildo include the governor, mayors, constables, and secretaries. The Guambiano think of the council as a body, with the governor as its "head," or superior part, from whom one expects that "he think correctly" and "find a way out." The cabildo's functions are varied, but the supervision, care, and use of the territory are its basic concerns and responsibilities. In addition, the cabildo enforces the moral code and public order and has the power to impose fines or sanctions on persons who fail to fulfill their domestic obligations. Community activities of collective interest must also be organized and supervised by the cabildo. In former times, punishment was meted out by locking culprits into stocks or by subjecting them to lashing with a whip. Although these practices have disappeared, some Guambiano believe that at least the stocks should be brought back to guarantee the proper functioning of the community. Since the 1970s there has been evidence of a renewed strengthening of the cabildo. This development has run parallel to intensified social struggles so characteristic of the recent history of indigenous communities of southwestern Colombia; the cabildo once more serves as the key institution to coordinate political action vis-à-vis new realities. Today the Guambiano speak of a "new cabildo" that is strong and able to lead the community in its struggle for recovery and efficient exploitation of lands and, above all, one that is finally capable of enhancing the chances of the community's survival.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Medicine. The Guambiano attribute the origin of illness to supernatural beings. Pishin, a water spirit, is especially feared by menstruating women, since he can impregnate them. Another anthropomorphic spirit is Kalyim, a ghost, that is implicated in the etiologies of many illnesses. This "spirit of the mountains" harms only people who are contaminated. "Contamination" and "purity" are two basic concepts in Guambiano thinkingthey submit houses, tools, clothes, and persons to rituals of purification by religious specialists. The concept of contamination is the key to understanding the role of illness. Although people can be contaminated or become impure through contact with spirits of the dead or other spirits, women are the main sources of contamination. With their menstrual blood or postpartum bleeding, they are contaminated themselves and contaminate everything around them.

Death and Afterlife. After a person dies, a purification ceremony must always be performed. Many people attend these rituals, the object of which is to free the spirit of the deceased and permit it to travel to the other world. The spirits of the dead must not be allowed to remain roaming around the places where the deceased once lived and worked. That is why after a person's death his or her house and fields must be submitted to a purification ceremony. The ceremony is performed by one or several shamans who, while drinking aguardiente (hard liquor), chewing coca, and smoking cigarettes or tobacco, go through the rooms of the house and its surroundings using a long pole of chonta -palm wood to capture malevolent spirits. While one of the shamans captures and purifies the spirit, the other one plays a potentially divinatory role. He has the ability to "feel" and to receive "signals" from the beyond, which indicate whether the ceremony has been successful.


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Botero, Sofia (1980). "Tras los pasos de los taitas guambíanos." Graduate thesis, National University (Bogotá).

Findji, María Teresa (1978). Elementos para el estudio de los resguardos indígenas del Cauca. Bogotá: Departamento Administrativo Nacional de Estadística (DANE).

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XIMENA PACHÓN (Translated by Ruth Gubler)