In Colombian Mountains, Natives See in Winter Honoring the Dead

  • W460
  • W460
  • W460

As children elsewhere celebrate Halloween in fancy costume dress, for the Misak people of southeastern Colombia the coming of November is a solemn occasion to honor the dead.

Of the scores of indigenous groups in Colombia, the Misak are considered to have best conserved their ancestral traditions, which at the coming of winter means making offerings to their ancestors.

"For us, the year 2015 ended on October 31," said Manuel Julio Tomina, 52, a traditional doctor in this community around the town of Silvia, home to 14,500 of the 20,000 Misaks in Colombia.

"The new year started on November 1 and all the spirits of the dead come to visit us. Here people make offerings around the fireplace and all over the house."

The Misaks live at more than 2,500 meters (8,200 feet) altitude in the Andes.

They are also known as Guambianos, after the Guambia territory in southeastern Colombia.

"Guambianos is what the Spanish called us," said Tomina.

"But Misak means 'sons of the water'. The spirits come with the winter, with the rains that refresh and purify."

For them, water represents the endless spiral of being. Just as it evaporates and falls again as rain, so the dead depart. But they do not disappear for good.

Instead, they return each year on All Saints' Day, until the day comes when they are reincarnated as a new family.

On a small altar in one home, family members have left offerings of food for each ancestor they choose to remember.

Meat pasties, fried bananas, fermented corn liquor, fruits and potatoes are placed in the candle light.

The following day, November 2, the Misaks take the offerings to church, to the sound of drums and pipes, to mark the Catholic feast of All Saints.

"Our Guambiano brothers are the ones who organize that. They make offerings of food and products from Mother Earth," said Father Imbachi, the local priest.

"The cultural traditions merge with the liturgical."

In a Catholic country, the Misaks have their own vision of the afterlife.

"Our dead go to a place called 'cansre'. It is not heaven or hell. We don't know where they go," said Floro Tunubala, the local community governor.

"At new year, they come back for food, because a year for us is just a day for them."

Tunabala is standing to hold onto his position this All Saint's Day -- it is also the traditional date for elections in native communities.

If he is not re-elected, he will have to hand his wooden rod of office to a new leader in January.

In a cemetery, Olga Montano spends part of the morning of November 1 cleaning the tomb of her grandparents, Barbara and Jose.

"The deceased are with us. They visit us," she says, before leaving in the drizzle to vote at a community assembly in one of the hamlets around Silvia.

Women in blue woolen capes flock and men in loincloths flock to vote, on foot or in brightly-painted minibuses.

The Misak use mobile phones and have largely given up their traditional sandals for warmer shoes, but peacefully defend their ancient traditions through bilingual schools and universities teaching their native language.

"We take the best of western culture," said Rodrigo Tombe, 35, the town education and health counselor. "And we preserve what is ours."

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