In northern Colombia, a unique mountain range – the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta soars up above the Caribbean coast and is home to similarly unique cultures.
From the ancient civilization of the Tairona, famed for their knowledge, skill and expertise in working gold, the descendants of this incredible culture are the four indigenous groups native to the Sierra Nevada - The Arhuaco (or Iku*), the Wiwa, the Kogi and the Kankuamo – all unique in language but closely united in their cultural systems and beliefs.
While mochila bags are made and worn throughout Colombia, the ‘Mochila Arhuaca’ is especially revered for its beauty, and for the significance it has played in bringing attention and pride for the exceptionally beautiful landscape and cultures of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.
Life for the Arhuaco’s is inspired and led by their belief and reverence for the Great Mother and their ultimate commitment and responsibility as guardians of the world, whose job it is to maintain balance, peace and fertility of the earth.
Within this deeply spiritual culture, each word and action is imbued with significance and value.
The making of a mochila is not exempt from this value.
Each stage and each moment in which a woman is making a mochila is a moment of connection not only to her ancestry, but also to the ecology of her place and home, and to the sacredness of life.
As the great mother spun the world into being, so the woman spins her thoughts and dreams into her mochila.
The distinctive geometric designs of the traditional Arhuaco mochilas are symbols of their surrounding landscape and their beliefs; the winding caminos or pathways carved out of the Sierra Nevada by generations of people scaling the lands, or the triangles showing the snowy peaks, the complex pattern of ‘the pensamiento de mujer’ or thoughts of a woman expressing their understanding of the feminine.
The cylindrical shape of the mochila is also significant - it represents the feminine aspect of life and the creative force of fertility, the mochila is sometimes referred to as being like the womb.
More recently, traditional designs have merged, and different women, families and communities combine several patterns into one bag or create their own unique designs. The purpose for making their bags has also changed, where traditionally they were made for personal and family use alone, and occasionally as trades between families and communities, as lifestyle has changed and there is a greater dependency on money, mochila bags have become part of their economy and are also made to sell.
The Arhuaca women we work with say although the purpose behind making their bag has changed, the act of making a mochila still holds great value in individuals and communities; maintaining their connection to their culture, adding pride and value to their actions as well as providing them with a form of economic independence.
They continue to teach their daughters and granddaughters the skills of spinning and making a bag and all that this represents.
*Iku is the native name for these language and peoples. We use Arhuaco in this writing as it is the widely recognised Spanish name for this culture and people. The women we work with also refer to themselves as both Arhuaca and Iku.