"We were never conquered by the Spanish Conquistadors," the Kogi shaman/teacher ("Mamo" in his language) tells us. "Our forefathers fled from their homes on the Caribbean coast. More recently, we were threatened by violence from the narcotraffickers and paramilitaries; so, we migrated to the land of the glaciers. Always higher into these mountains. It was tough, but we learned things about life on this planet that no one else seems to know. Now that we are returning to our ancestral lands, we invite you to join us so we can teach you to love our Great Mother, Earth."
I had made my way to this remote part of Colombia, along with 9 other people, specifically to visit the Kogi. We were all sitting among the mammoth stones of an ancient Kogi sacred site in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the only mainland mountains in the world where snow-capped peaks soar directly from the ocean (in this case the warm Caribbean) to more than 18,000 feet. Much of the area has been designated as a national park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve that is ranked as one of the most irreplaceable regions on the planet.
We had just hiked or ridden horses through splendid rain forests, with spectacular views of the Caribbean, up to the Mamo's traditional village where the peaked thatched-roofed houses are built to reflect the grandeur of the surrounding mountains. The Mamo had led us to this place where the Kogi have practiced their earth-honoring ceremonies for hundreds - perhaps thousands - of years.
"Some of us have visited your cities," the Mamo continued. "We've seen hungry people and pollution. We have watched what you call ‘civilization' devastate the land and cause the glaciers to melt around us. Mamos are trained by spending years inside caves, listening to the Great Mother. She told us that we are the ‘Elder Siblings,' here to teach the ‘Younger Siblings,' to honor, love and protect her." He glanced at each of us. "We are here to teach you, the Younger Siblings." He later explained that our culture is much younger than theirs.
My Ecuadorian friend and professional guide, Daniel Koupermann, and I were invited by the Kogi to lead small groups to learn from them in 2014. "Bring special people," they told us. "Those who understand the problems and are committed to change." Deeply moved by the sincerity of the first group in 2015, they opened their sacred sites to the people we've taken every December since. We limit our groups to no more than 15 participants. "These are places," the Kogi told us, "that have never before been seen by outsiders."
When asked about climate change, the Mamo responded, "It will result in many crises. But, it's important to recognize that climate change is not the real problem. It's like a wound. Something caused it."
"It's a symptom," one of our women said.
He nodded. "Yes. When a child cuts himself with a knife, the wound forms a scab and heals. Does the child blame the scab? Is that the problem?" He looked around.
People shook their heads. There was a chorus of "No's".
"The child learns a lesson," he continued, "to handle the knife with respect. Today, it's the same, on a much bigger level. The Great Mother is healing from the wounds of droughts, fires, and hurricanes that get worse every year. She's telling the Younger Siblings that you must change the way you live. You must honor the Great Mother, show her respect. Love her."
Later, we gathered with him and other Kogis, including children, in another ancient sacred site to perform ceremonies. In these Pagamentos (payments) we did exactly what he described. We made offerings to the soil, the water, and the air. We were transported into altered states, a profound awareness of and respect for our relationship to the earth. Although we did not ingest anything, the experience reminded me of consciousness-raising ones I've had in the Amazon on ayahuasca, and in Central America during Mayan fire ceremonies.
One of our group asked how people in cities can honor nature.
"Recognize," another Mamo answered, "that everything is part of nature. Your buildings are made from wood, steel, and cement that come from the earth. You can do these same pagamentos inside your buildings. Then go outside, find a tree, a little dirt, some water, breathe the air and make an offering - a kernel of corn, a seed, a nut. . . Most of all, feel your gratitude and commit to helping others understand that we humans are part of a sacred whole."
Colombia itself is an exceptional country. Known as the "keystone" to Latin America, it is a nation that interweaves ancient traditions with modern art, literature and music. The colonial walled city where we begin our journeys, Cartagena, one of the most beautiful and historical in the Americas, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is where I, as an Economic Hit Man in the 1970s, began to be convinced that I should leave that profession and devote the rest of my life to changing the destructive world created by profit-maximizing economics. Although the country still suffers from a reputation for the violence it experienced in the past, today it is, as I tell people, "a lot safer than driving on the interstate to the Seattle airport."
While we in the US prepare for the next presidential election, as we hear debates over policies and promises about new programs, the message of the Elder Siblings reaches new levels of importance. This message that issues from the earth herself tells us that survival as we know it on this planet is about more than finding new technologies to replace fossil fuels and building rockets to send us to other parts of the universe. It is about more than recycling and downsizing our homes. Our salvation requires that we embrace awareness of our connection to the greater whole. The Kogi's message, like that of the Maya in Central America (another culture our groups visit every year) is about raising consciousness. Ours. It is about recognizing that we are part of - not apart from - the planet we call home. It is about feeling that connection and honoring it. It is about respecting this gift of life we've been giving on this amazing planet. Every day.
About the Author
John Perkins is the author of The New Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 2016).