A young indigenous Embera Chamí woman with a long raven hair and black eyes slid the key into the lock and slowly opened the door to her small shop on the edge of the main road. A pleasant world uncovered in front of my eyes; many vivid necklaces, earrings, bracelets and belts hung from walls and their playful colors stood out in gloomy dark room.
“We do all these products here in Resguardo, sometimes our daughters and young girls help us and learn this craft to keep our tradition alive,” explained the woman, while proudly showing me some of her best pieces; a long woman’s belt that took her almost one month to be produced by hand.
The sleepy atmosphere of the pleasant afternoon wrapped our conversation, and the friendly woman clarified : “I take every single bead and put it on resistant black thread; using a thin needle I sew these products, you have to be very patient, bead holes are very small,” she added. I looked around amazed thinking of many hours dedicated to this traditional handicraft.
Embera Chamí people are one of the many indigenous tribes in Colombia; they lived here before arrival of first Europeans and during their long history they have suffered various conflicts. From Spanish conquest connected with brutal submission to Christian religion and aimed suppression of their own faith, to soil loss and armed group violence that Colombia is still struggling with. Resguardo Cristiania (resguardo is geographically defined portion of territory belonging to indigenous population), where part of Embera Chamí people live, is located between towns Andes and El Jardin, approximately 3 hours south of vibrant Medellín city.
Today Resguardo is a well organized indigenous community with infrastructure which covers at least the essential health and education needs; they have primary school and general practitioner. Fredy, a local and member of community assembly, is our guide through resguardo explaining many aspects of community life. We learnt that whole society runs on their indigenous rights and laws, their own local police resolves most of the law violations and Colombian law intervenes only in severe cases such as a murder. Resguardo is like another universe; with traditional belief in spirits and mother earth, a sub-society that cohabits with main Colombian cultural stream. I found it very handy to have Fredy by my side; I did not feel like a complete stranger and his presence allowed me to have a closer look at the daily lifestyle of the Resguardo.
This Resguardo is officially called Cristiania, in Chamí language KARMATARUA; RUA means earth and KARMATA is the name for plant they call PRINGAMOSA (stinging nettle in English) that grew wildly and numerously on their territory. Recently, there are more efforts to use the traditional name KARMATARUA for the Resguardo in order to revive native language and recover constantly suppressed indigenous culture.
“Over and above we’ve got own radio station in Chamí language. You know, we are Embera indigenous tribe and Chamí is our language“ guy working in Shami Stereo radio station based in Resguardo explained me proudly on our quick station visit.
The Embera Chamí community does not live in isolation from the rest of the Colombian population; it is not unusual to see mixed marriages between them and other groups of the population. Young people continue further education, and many of them are already studying in the nearby Universidad de Antioquia. This remains in contrast, as along the roadside you can still encounter men and woman carrying baskets full of wood or bananas or spot freshly washed coffee beans in front of the brick made houses. Embera people grow food for their own consumption; they generate income by producing coffee on the remote farms in the area. They are also engaged in production of traditional beads handcrafts that are usually bought by tourists returning from the famous must–see town El Jardín.
A few months later after my first resguardo visit I returned with my Colombian friend ,Emilio, who has very good relations with Chamí people. Cristina Gonzales, a single Embera Chamí mother, sat in front of her house on a sunny patio passionately working on an unfinished bead bracelet. As she saw us approaching toward her, she stopped and told her daughter to bring two more chairs for arriving guests. She was prepared for our visit, as We had been told that local women were afraid that incoming people might steal their beads patterns therefore we outlined the reasons of our visit in advance. Emilio and I, are both handicraft lovers and are strongly convinced that in today’s globalized world there is a desperate need to protect traditional culture in all its aspects. This includes designs and the intellectual property expressed in beads, necklaces or earrings that contain specific features of indigenous society. We also hope that these beautiful and bright colorful products might generate more interest in indigenous struggle for their rights, not just those in Colombia and Resguardo Cristiania, but also in other countries of Latin America. The idea of our initiative is very simple: we decided to promote Embera Chamí handcrafts via my own blog guaranteeing that local artist will get full price for a sold product.
Cristina listened to us carefully sipping hot coffee produced on the fertile plantation nearby and seemed to agree with it. Then light rain started to fall on tin roof refreshing hot summer air. As we kept talking she recognized that promoting Embera Chamí jewelry is good idea and can really help the community. It might bring foreign recognition, or even interest in the ethnic tourism the resguardo is recently working on. Cristina stood up and entered her modest house; after a while she appeared in front doors again and brought black cloth bag full of recent made jewelry. She spread them individually on wooden table and invited us to start taking pictures of the products we would like to present online. She plunged herself into world of colorful beads leaving us behind.
When we returned back to nearby town Andes, we began working on the idea; it is not just about supporting handicrafts, it is about local indigenous people that we meet every day and have become inseparable part of modern society carrying the traditions from so long ago.
Since that visit, there are many times I have caught a glimpse of Cristina sitting in the shadow at the very same place we sat together. It seems that Embera Chamí women’s hands will never stop designing, nor will Cristina’s.
Today, we have launched Embera Chami support jewelry project on my blog (www.pimentona.wordpress.com). In the near future we would like to widen beads jewelry offer and start cooperating with other women from Resguardo.
Please check out our website and help us grow our venture so we can continue to help the Embera Chami people preserve their culture and generate income.