Indigenous Guard(s): Decolonial Performance, Re-Existence, Cultures of Survival

By Miguel Rojas-Sotelo

This FUSE article from issue 36-4 is available full-text online for your reading pleasure. 

Recently, in Cauca, in the highlands of Southern Colombia, the Nasa people called on the Kiwe Thegnas (the Indigenous Guard) to protect their communities from the aggression of armed state and private forces looking to promote and develop resource extraction megaprojects on their ancestral territories. The Indigenous Guard is an expression of Nasa organizing to defend their rights of autonomy and their social and communitarian control over their territories. Today, armed only with the symbolic bastón de mando (a wooden stick), the Indigenous Guard fights the heavy weaponry of armed actors in the Colombian conflict, in many instances literally clashing as a collective body against them. Between bullets, mortar fire, air bombings and guerrilla and antiguerrilla tactics from the National Army, paramilitaries, guerrillas and organized crime squads, the Guard symbolizes centuries of resistance to the war-machine of modern actors.

The genealogy of decolonial thinking and action is pluriversal, not universal, and situated. As such, each knot on the web of this genealogy is a point of delinking and opening that reintroduces languages, memories, economies and social organizations. A collective voice, body and expression is rising as a chain of events— actions bringing the actual to the table of the global. Their call touches the colonial wound and rephrases the neocolonial moment that is progress in the form of peace treaties, public policies, drug wars, never-ending paramilitary/guerrilla and mafia presence, democracy and a popular culture that enjoys the spectacles of narco-telenovelas, news shows and futbol while others extract massive amounts of natural resources.

Historically, the Nasa and Guambiano peoples of South- ern Colombia were some of the last to be integrated by European colonialism in the region. Names such as La Cacica Gaitana and Juan Tama represent Indigenous resistance and territorial gains of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. [1] Simón Bolívar’s program recognized Indigenous resguardos and would have been conducive to the return of lands usurped. This program, however, was not met, and Cauca landowners harassed the Nasa for land, reducing their territories through institutional corruption and violence.

During the twentieth century, Manuel Quintín Lame (1883–1967), Nasa and Guambiano, became the reincarnation of Tama. He directed the struggle by using official documents and laws as well as occupation; these actions usually began peacefully, but often ended in confrontation and violence. The leader was imprisoned 108 times in his lifespan, persecuted and exiled from Cauca, and died in poverty as a landless exile. [2]

Álvaro Ulcué Chocué (1943 – 1984), was the first Indigenous priest in Colombia, a Nasa, an outspoken advocate for the Indigenous cause, who in many instances suffered discrimination in order to demand the dignity of his people. Ulcué was murdered by paid assassins, “sicarios,” in November 1984, after meeting with military leaders the day before and after members of his family were injured and killed by the police in a peaceful occupation of Indigenous lands in 1982. He created the Proyecto Nasa (Nasa Project), in the framework of Catholic utopianism, which was a process of thinking, asking, deciding and acting. His death has not been resolved.

In the 1970s, the Nasa organized the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC) to recover and defend the land, and to achieve cultural autonomy. At the time, the reclamation took on two faces: community organization and guerrilla tactics. On the one hand was the CRIC; on the other, a guerrilla commando named after Quintín Lame led the MAQL (or “Quintineros”) front. [3] Their struggle, marked by repression, massacres and the assassination of leaders, has recovered 544,000 hectares in Cauca.

The Nasa are strategically located in a corridor that connects the isolated western piedmont plains and Amazon jungle — where illegal crops (coca and poppy) are cultivated—and the Andes and Pacific coast, where illegal drugs are processed and shipped to global markets. In addition, in their ancestral territories old and new mining resources (gold and copper) are in line to be absorbed by local and transnational companies that with new technologies such as open-pit and top removal practices, are the new frontier of development in a state with a lack of regulation.

Today, there are no individual leaders like La Gaitana, Tama, Quintín Lame or Ulcué. The Nasa understand that a vertical organization is easily destroyed, that modernity has created a cult of individuals, and that basing their struggle around a single person is too fragile a foundation. That is why they have called upon the Kiwe Thegnas, which is composed of about seven thousand Nasa, young males and females. They are in a constant process of learning and sharing their history and struggle. This collective body is the most visible image of a community organized by the deep roots of communal, spiritual and political vision. They work voluntarily for two years at a time, and during that time are trained culturally to be the collective voice of their people, spiritually to represent the values of Indigeneity and the protection of Mother Earth, and politically to understand and share their rights and obligations as Indigenous citizens. While the Thegnas is not a military organization, it has recently been involved in the dismantling of military posts in their territory, the expulsion of military and guerrilla forces and the political mobilization across Cauca.

The Khabu or Tama (bastón de mando, “the stick,” in Nasa language) is not only a symbol of power but also carries the spirit of the community, and the ability to govern is transmitted to the wearer. It commands respect towards the commoners. Usually the Khabu is made of black wood from the Chonta Palma and is decorated with braids of wool or coloured ribbons (it formerly also bore a silver handle). To hold a Khabu is a commitment to and with the community; rather than granting power over others, it orients subjectivity toward a higher cause. Today as before, the Khabu symbolizes a connection to nature. The fruit of the chonta palm, chontaduro, is a staple of the Nasa diet, and its power is vested in rituals performed by traditional healers in the lakes, where the sticks are washed in sacred waters and given to the bearers to decorate, as bonding in a relationship. They become the common object that replaces weapons as a symbol of pride. Even small children are vested with them, to start a process of training and responsibility to the community. That is how the long temporalities of Indigenous struggle in Colombia, as well as in the rest of the continent, are actualized.

It is by accessing ancestral knowledge, delinking from a linear history in a clear, transmodern move, and keeping autonomous organization (i.e., the cabildo and the resguardo) that communities such as the Nasa share decolonial strategies. The Guard has been stigmatized by the Colombian broadcast and print media as barbaric, uncivilized and uncooperative in the fight against terrorism in which the country is so invested. They ask why Indigenous people have to be treated with exception, if what they need is to be considered and treated as normal Colombians. Violence is still directed at the Nasa’s most visible leaders and aims to dismantle their organizations. What the local and central governments as well as technocrats and the military do not know about the Nasa is that they have been involved in a process of empowerment in their communities that can teach us more about participatory democracy than any other experience in contemporary Colombia.

[1] La Cacica Gaitana was Yalcón from Huila, who in 1540 led a united Indigenous force to resist the Spanish colonizers. Juan Tama de la Estrella, a Nasa from Cauca, stopped violent confrontation and used colonial law and documents to negotiate autonomous Indigenous territories.

[2] Quintín Lame developed a system of sharing political knowledge called proyecto de vida, which is described in his manuscript El pensamiento del indio que se educó en las selvas colombianas (The thoughts of the Indian educated in the Colombian forests). The text was completed in 1939 but published only posthumously in 1971 as En defensa de mi raza (In Defense of My Race). It immediately became the “red book” of political organization for Indigenous peoples in Colombia.

[3] Some followers of Quintín Lame, after the assassination of Father Ulcué, joined the Ricardo Franco guerrilla group (a former FARC platoon) to form the MAQL. It was demobilized in 1991 thanks to the new Constitution in Colombia, which recognized the fundamental rights of Indigenous peoples. Just four months after the signing of the new Constitution, on 4 July 1991, twenty Nasa people, including children, were massacred by paramilitaries over a case of recovery of lands.


Miguel Rojas-Sotelo is an art historian, visual artist, activist, scholar and curator. He holds a doctorate in visual studies, contemporary art and cultural theory. Rojas-Sotelo worked as the visual arts director of the Ministry of Culture of Colombia (1997–2001) and indepen- dently as an artist, curator and critic ever since. He currently works and teaches at Duke University for the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies. Rojas- Sotelo is the director of the NC Latin American Film and New Media Festival.


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