Indigenous Tribes of the Amazon – Huitoto Indians

After dreaming of making it to the Amazon basically my entire life, I’ve finally made it.  Here, on the triple border between Brazil, Peru, and Colombia, there’s no coming in or out unless it’s by boat or plane.  Leticia, the Colombian capital of Amazonas, is a popular base for eco-tourism and visiting the indigenous Amazon tribes.  My main motivation in being here is really the boat to Manaus, and since I had two days to kill before embarking, I decided to head out to one of the communities.

huitoto tribe community, colombian amazon

I left Leticia by motorcycle, the main form of transportation, early in the morning and arrived about 15 minutes later.  This place is small, despite the town being the capital of the Colombian Amazonas state.  A seventeen-year-old Huitoto called Manuel, his traditional name signified ‘young grandfather’, who was learning the traditions, was my guide. He was the son of the man in charge of the government of the 400 person community; his grandfather was a shaman he said.  Our first stop was the maloca – the traditional community center  – where they held ceremonies, parties, and so on.

huitoto maloca, amazon indigenous tribe community huitoto maloca interior, amazon indigenous tribe community

Everything was conducted in Spanish and I’m happy to say I was able to understand everything, though disappointed there was absolutely no chance of me having enough battery or space on my camera to record everything.  He explained the significance of the maloca, how it signified the chest of a woman and the four pillars of the structure represented distinct earth elements (water, wind, earth, and fire), that the men and women had distinct/separate locations inside, and that he was one of the designated singers of the tribe.  He was too shy to sing for me when I asked.  There were two large, hollowed out trunks that were used to call the community to meeting.  Apparently the sound could be heard from 10 kms around.

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We were later joined by his grandfather and father (along with some Chileans on a tour) and together they did a demonstration of the preparation of the cacao leaves that the Huitoto consume in powder (not cocaine).  They consume the leaves after they’ve been ground into a green powder called mambé. 

huitoto making fire in maloca, colombia amazon

Cacao leaves have a lot of nutrients and work as a hunger suppressant; I’ve chewed them previously in Bolivia and Peru where they are used to deal with the elevation. I wasn’t at all nervous to try it when they invited us to (the Chileans declined).  It’s the men who make and consume mambé because the cacao leaves represent a woman.  Interesting stuff, but so much information that I really couldn’t remember all of it.  It made me want to stay put for a year and film them telling all their stories.

huitoto indians making coca powder, amazon indigenous people, colombia

When they were through I asked Manuel if I could go see where they prepared the yucca (manioca in Portuguese) and he was more than happy to take me to his house.  Talking to him was probably the most interesting for me because this wasn’t part of what they normally do for visitors.  I wanted to know how he felt about living in such a small community, whether or not he wanted to stay there forever, and those kind of things.  The overriding sentiment for me when hearing indigenous people speak and seeing where they live is sadness.  He said they could stay there for months and months without needing to go anywhere.  All their food is from the jungle and river of course, but he would still like to go see some of the world that he’s seen on the internet (which they have now).

I try to imagine how I would feel in his position, to be so connected to your cultural heritage, to have traditions that have been around for centuries, and to see the rest of the world at your doorsteps.  It’s crazy that somewhere, relatively close, in the heart of the Amazon there are still people who have had no contact with the outside world and have no idea that disaster is heading their way.  Like Manuel, I would also want to explore a bit of the world I think.

huitoto indians eating, amazon indigenous people, colombia

Despite wanting to believe that they can stay here in peace, that they can hold on to their way of life (despite so much of it being male dominated), that the rainforest will somehow survive the developed world’s insatiable appetite for consumption, I don’t.  Maybe that’s what makes me so enamored by them.  They all seemed so happy, inviting me to eat fried plantains, pineapple, and a fish soup.  It was almost like the Kuna indians all over again… if only the rest of the world could learn to be happy being with the people you love and only using what you need to live.  I asked if foreigners ever came to live with the Amazon tribes here for extended periods of time and when they told me ‘yes’ I said that I would see them in a couple years.

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