Both Sides of the River: Life in Transition for the Siona of the Putumayo

DSC_0679 By Alex Goff The vast Putumayo River divides the modern nations of Ecuador and Colombia. The river also defines a geographic region of the Amazon: El Putumayo. The Siona people have inhabited both sides of the river since before either of these two countries existed. They continue to move freely between the two sides, visiting family living in the community of Huisuya (pronounced Wi-su-ya) on the Ecuadorian side, and Buenavista on the Colombian side. The communities of the Ecuadorian Putumayo are so isolated that it is easier to get to larger settlements in Colombia to buy goods than it is to get to similarly sized towns in Ecuador. The journey from the nearest city in Ecuador, Lago Agrio, can take anywhere from five to ten hours, depending on weather conditions, by a combination of bus, truck, and canoe. The road is lined with oil wells and gas flaring towers that burn day and night. The communities of the Putumayo are some of the last bastions of Siona ancestral culture left in the world. Almost all of the few remaining Siona shamans, or taitas, live in this region. “In the Siona communities along the Aguarico River there are no more taitas,” explains Hugo Payaguaje, from the community of Aboquehuira. “No one upholds the practice of drinking yagé (ayahuasca), there are no healers, the youth don’t know about the culture and the abuelos no longer practice it. It has disappeared.”
“No one upholds the practice of drinking yagé (ayahuasca), there are no healers, the youth don’t know about the culture and the abuelos no longer practice it. It has disappeared.
DSC_0675 Four taitas in particular are renowned among the Siona for their skill as healers: Taita Pablo, Taita Ermógenes, Taita Luis, and his brother Taita Humberto. Taita Humberto, the oldest of the four, lives in Huisuya along with his brother Luis, while the other two live in Buenavista. Many Siona, as well as other indigenous peoples, non-indigenous cólonos, and even foreigners travel to these communities to visit the taitas for treatment. “I have treated everything from bad luck and erectile dysfunction to cancer,” Ermógenes proudly exclaims. “One women was given six months to live by Western doctors. I cured her in one night. She is still alive and it has been over five years.” There is a long history of outsider penetration into the Putumayo, which has had a profound and often devastating impact on the indigenous peoples. Spanish explorers and missionaries first arrived in the region and made contact with the Siona in the 1500s, resulting in initial forced conversion to Christianity and disease that wiped out a majority of the indigenous population. The rubber boom ravaged the Putumayo from the late 19th Century up until the 1930s. Indigenous peoples, including the Siona, were forced into a brutal regime of slavery, torture, and mass murder. The indescribable atrocities resulted in thousands of deaths. Colombia’s president Santos and a Peruvian congressman, Isla Rojas, recently apologized to the indigenous peoples of the Putumayo for this terrible chapter in the region’s history.

Indigenous Amazonians were used as slaves during the rubber boom in the Putumayo. Image from the personal accounts of W.E. Hardenburg (intellectual commons)

In the early 1960s the American evangelical missionary group Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) arrived in the Putumayo and the Aguarico river basins, where it began a campaign to convert the remaining Siona (and the neighboring Secoya), convincing many that their traditional culture, in particular the practice of drinking yagé, was diabolic. SIL missionaries learned the Siona language and following their modus operandi, translated the bible into Pai’coca. As was common when the SIL had sunk its talons of control into an indigenous nation, the Siona were forced to move into a few large, centralized settlements. The SIL had a contract with the Ecuadorian Ministry of Education to provide schooling for the indigenous peoples of the Amazon. This became one of the primary vehicles for Western religious indoctrination and cultural repression of indigenous peoples. The SIL was expelled from Ecuador in the 1980s, but their legacy lives on among the indigenous nations.



A Catholic shrine stands next to a traditional Siona adornment in Taita Humberto's home.

It is a dark, moonless night in Huisuya. A single flickering candle casts long shadows that dance a frenzied waltz across the walls of a wooden house. The flame’s light illuminates Taita Humberto’s face like a beacon. His long ears and wide nose shine bright, juxtaposed with the darkness that surrounds them. As he chants, the taita rhythmically shakes a fan made of leaves that point in the four cardinal directions. The combination of song, leaves, and the sweet smoke of burning copal wood wards off evil spirits— the first step in a proper curación, or yagé healing ceremony. Taita Humberto emphatically chants in Pai’coca, summoning ancient mantras from deep within his being. Here in this house in the forest along the edge of the Putumayo River, a group of Siona, along with several non-indigenous Colombian campesinos, has gathered to drink yagé. It is a center for healing, for meeting: a place of resistance in a rapidly changing region. Or perhaps it is a place of cultural hybridity, where Siona ancestral culture blends with the outside world. After all, a flexible twig bends in the wind but does not break. The river flows between two lands. Later that night, as the copal burns, Humberto, Pablo, and Ermógenes lie in their hammocks and talk. “The youth are losing a sense of values,” says Humberto, addressing the others more as an orator than in dialogue. They murmur in agreement. “It is up to the parents. They must teach their children the language of our people. They must teach them our customs, to wear tunics and feathered crowns. They must teach them to sing. The children must learn these things to carry on our story. If they do not, the Siona will disappear.”
The children must learn these things to carry on our story. If they do not, the Siona will disappear.

A painting that pays homage to Siona ancestral culture next to a photograph of Taita Humberto, in Humberto's home.

As the sun of a new day spreads along the riverbank, Humberto recites a healing chant while pouring scented agua de florida over one of his patients.  Occasionally, a Spanish word or two slips in to his chant— “Father, son, and the holy ghost”— evidence of foreign influence in Siona culture. “I am forgetting some of our words,” he admitted to Hugo the previous day. DSC_0685 It is Saturday morning: market day in the nearby town of Palmera. Taita Humberto wants to get there early before all the best meat is sold. The sun is already glaring down on the sweaty backs of the market-goers when he arrives. Colónos from Colombia and Ecuador mill about, hawking products, sipping from bright yellow cans of Colombian beer, sharing local gossip. Humberto climbs out of his canoe and on to the main street, the only street. He immediately adapts to the scene. Moving from stall to stall, he amiably, sometimes boisterously, greets friends and acquaintances. When addressing Colombians, his Spanish takes on a Colombian lilt. There is little resemblance now to the taita he was the night before with his feathered crown and burning copal. Before long he vanishes into the crowd and is gone from sight.

The mighty Putumayo River: Ecuador to the left. Colombia to the right.