ALTERNATE NAMES: Nasa (people)
POPULATION: 68,487 (1980)
RELIGION: Roman Catholicism; evangelical Protestantism
The Páez Indians of Colombia resisted the Spanish conquerors who arrived in the sixteenth century. One of the first Spanish explorers to enter southwestern Colombia, where the Páez live, was Sebastián de Belalcázar. He found many Amerindian peoples there. The Pasto Indians in the Nariño region were peace-loving. In contrast, the Pijao fought many bloody battles with the Spaniards. Eventually, they were completely killed off. The Páez of southwestern Colombia, in the present-day state of Cauca, also resisted the Spanish. They were badly beaten, but their rugged mountain homeland saved them. They were able to avoid being destroyed by the Spanish or assimilated (mixed) into the general population by retreating into the mountains.
The Páez Indians have lived for centuries in southwestern Colombia, in the present-day state of Cauca. They make their home amid the rugged mountain ranges and high plateaus of the Andes Mountains. The eastern portion of this region is called Tierradentro. It is an extended reservation with widely scattered settlements. The main centers are Inzá and Belalcázar.
The Páez language is related to many other Amerindian languages. Most of those languages had died out by the late 1990s, but the Páez still speak their own language.
One of the traditional Páez names still in use is Calambás. It is the family name of a famous Páez hero and chieftain.
The Spaniards found that the Páez had not only male chiefs, but also female chiefs. A famous female chief was Taravira. Today, her name is still in use, along with those of her brothers, Avirama and Esmisa. Names like these are often used alongside Spanish names.
Juan Tama, called the "Son of the Star," is an important figure in Páez folklore. According to legend, when he was a baby, he was found in a gorge one day when the Morning Star was shining. He was nursed by several women and grew up to be very strong. Eventually, he married a female chief named Doña María Mendiguagua. He became the Indians' chief and teacher. He showed them how to guard their land and advised them to avoid white people.
Juan Tama appointed Calambás as his assistant, but Calambás turned out to be rebellious. Juan Tama defeated Calambás, but he later forgave him because Calambás was so brave. When he knew that his death was near, Juan Tama went to the lake on the high, cold plateau of Moras and disappeared into the water.
Members of a Roman Catholic religious order, the Jesuits, were sent by leaders in Spain to convert the Amerindians of southwestern Colombia to Roman Catholicism. Much later, this task was taken up by other missionaries, who arrived in 1905. They learned the Páez language, and they still run missions among the Páez. Modern Páez religious customs and beliefs combine with aspects of Catholicism. The Páez still have their own shamans (holy men).
The Páez celebrate Roman Catholic holidays, including Christmas and Holy Week (the week before Easter, in late March or early April). They also have their own music and include some of their own traditional rites. Although they observe many Roman Catholic rituals, they do not allow the Roman Catholic priest to attend their own traditional celebrations.
When a woman is about to give birth, she stays in a special hut. She gives birth either alone or with the help of a female relative.
From very early childhood, both girls and boys learn adult skills by imitating their parents. Adults form their own households and live in family units at a distance from the homes of other families.
The discovery of funeral urns and elaborate burial caves suggests that in earlier times the Páez were cremated. Important people were given elaborate funerals. Páez burial customs, like other aspects of Páez culture, include both traditional and Christian elements. Before returning home from a burial, both men and women traditionally bathed, fully dressed, in a stream. This was done to wash out the spirit of death.
The Páez are a reserved people. Some occasions require very formal greetings. A boy has to approach his godfather in a respectful manner when greeting him. A visitor or guest is given a formal "gift of affection." This is usually food, such as a chicken or an egg, and also includes some vegetables and coffee beans.
The Páez do not engage in Western-style dating. However, their traditions include one-year trial marriages. This year is called the amaño or adaptation period. During this time, the young man observes the qualities of the young woman, and she also observes him. If either partner turns out to be unsuitable, the trial marriage can be ended.
The Páez live in poor farming communities. They make do with the basic necessities required for survival. Their lifestyle is simple.
Traditional houses are rectangular with thatched roofs and walls of cane and sticks. Newer houses have walls made of adobe blocks or bricks, with roofs of corrugated zinc or cement. Houses are usually divided into two rooms. One is for sleeping and storage. The other is for eating and sitting around the fire to talk and keep warm. The more modern houses have one or two open windows. These are covered with wooden shutters during bad weather and at night.
The father has nearly absolute authority or power in a Páez family. Families often have more than three children. (This is true of all Colombian families.) Small children are given affection and much freedom. However, after the age of six or seven, they are expected to behave more quietly and obediently.
Marriage customs blend both Spanish and Páez cultures. Either the boy or his parents select a prospective bride. The boy and his parents and godparents, or compadres, visit the girl's family at their home to ask for her hand in marriage. If the girl's parents consent, her father is offered a half-bottle of aguardiente (a local drink). Her mother is then offered another half-bottle. The boy and his family then take the girl to their home to begin a year of trial marriage. If all goes well, the couple is usually married in the Catholic Church.
A woman's traditional clothing consists of two pieces. A heavy woolen skirt pleated at the back is held in place by a woven sash. A blouse made from a single rectangular piece of woolen cloth is fastened at one shoulder, but it is more common for women to wear cotton blouses.
Many women buy ready-made clothing. Women may sew their own blouses or skirts if they have a sewing machine powered by a foot pedal or hand crank to use, since electricity is usually not available. Women wear necklaces with eight to ten strands of tiny white beads.
Young girls wear a simple one-piece dress. Young boys wear a long shirt and short pants. Older men and women wear a plastic, straw, or felt hat—even indoors. Younger people are less apt to wear hats, although baseball caps are popular.
A practical garment for the cool weather of the Andes Mountains is the ruana. This is a type of woolen cloak or poncho worn in many parts of the highlands. Ready-made sweaters and jackets are now common as well. Women wear tennis shoes, plastic sandals, or low shoes. Men often wear rubber or plastic boots. Children often go barefoot until they go to school.
The basic diet of the Páez includes potatoes, corn, and other vegetables that grow in the Andes. A traditional, hearty Páez breakfast begins the day; the only other large meal is dinner. A typical breakfast dish, called mute (MOO-the), is a stew of boiled cabbage, corn, potatoes, and squash. During the day, the Páez drink fresh fruit juices or juice that has been fermented to make guarapo. For special occasions, there are rich stews of vegetables, potatoes, and chicken or roasted meats.
Food is cooked either over a wood fire or on a dried mud or brick stove. The food for large gatherings is cooked in heavy, shallow metal pots large enough to hold food for up to one hundred people.
Children attend primary school from the first through third grades, and sometimes through the sixth grade. When farm activities require their help, children often skip school. Young people who hope to go to high school often must live with family friends or relatives in order to be near a school. Some earn high-school diplomas by taking courses broadcast on the radio. The teacher dictates the lessons over the radio. Students travel to a central location in their region when it is time to take examinations. Either way, a high-school education involves expense.
Members of the Páez community want to preserve their native language, so some schools have agreed to teach classes both in Spanish and in the native language.
The Páez play traditional music for all special occasions, including religious celebrations. Their musical instruments include both short and long flutes (chirimías). They also play drums made from hollowed-out tree trunks and animal skins. Some of their music has absorbed elements of Colombian folk tunes, such as the bambuco. Guitars are popular with young men. Dance is another important traditional form of expression for the Páez.
The Páez today live mainly in farming communities. Each Páez farmer must donate work days for collective (group) projects. These include planting, road-building, and bridge-building, and working in the villages. Men and women cultivate plots of land together.
Weaving is done only by women. Husbands must obtain permission to sell any of the goods their wives have made.
Soccer is a very popular sport among young men, and teams compete on Sunday afternoons.
The main traditional sport among the Páez was a type of war game. It was performed as a rite to honor the dead after a community feast. There were two teams, each led by a chief. The teams attacked each other with bows and arrows. Sometimes there were deaths, but they were accepted as part of the ceremonial game.
The Páez sometimes make market day into a special occasion. After the buying and selling have taken place, people enjoy drinking and chatting with their friends.
On feast days, the church is decorated with candles and flowers. Members of the community, carrying offerings of food, form a kind of parade to lead the priest to the church. The priest is greeted with much fanfare, sometimes even with fireworks and rockets. There may also be a chirimía orchestra of flutes and drums. After vespers (an evening service), the celebration continues outside the church. There is music and dancing all night.
Small transistor radios and cassette players, or boom boxes, are carried everywhere for entertainment and as status symbols.
Páez crafts once included pottery, weaving, and basketmaking. Older women continue to weave long, colorful sashes with red wool yarn on a white cotton background. The sashes are decorated with geometric designs and human or animal figures.
The Páez make jewelry, such as beaded necklaces. Metalworking is a traditional craft in southwestern Colombia. Inexpensive earrings are popular among Páez women, as well as barrettes for holding their long hair in place.
Guerrillas (private armies) have waged war for many years in Colombia, and the Páez have sometimes suffered at their hands. In addition, they have been hurt in raids by drug barons and by the actions of some police forces. In December 1991, a group of Páez Indians, including women and children, were massacred as they sat down to their evening meal.
The Páez are active in the council of Indian communities of the Cauca region. The Amerindian groups in Colombia have representation in the national congress. However, the struggle for a decent life with sufficient autonomy (self-rule) continues.
DuBois, Jill. Colombia, Cultures of the World. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1991.
Hanratty, Dennis M., and Sandra W. Meditz, eds. Colombia: A Country Study. Washington, D.C.: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 1990.
Rappaport, Joanne. The Politics of Memory: Native Historical Interpretation in the Colombian Andes. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990.
Embassy of Colombia, Washington, D.C. [Online] Available http://www.colombiaemb.org/ , 1998.
Ruiz-Garcia, Pedro. The Latino Connection.[Online] Available http://www.ascinsa.com/LATINOCONNECTION/colombi.html , 1998.
World Travel Guide. Colombia. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/co/gen.html , 1998.