Degrow Design

Approach to the Sierra Nevada indigenous knowledge and its possible application in design

Alejandra Arévalo

Currently, we live in a consumption society, in which the consumer is defined by her or his possession rather than by the fact of being a human. The more stuff you have got, the most you have accomplished in your life. Along the lines of this same logic is the position of designers, who are the responsible for the creation and production of objects. Traditionally a good design is conceived as mass design, an object that can draw the attention of big groups. These objects are planned to last for some months and if you are lucky, perhaps a year or longer. This is how we get into a vicious circle, in which the consumer has a false necessity to change or upgrade her or his belongings.
Furthermore, this constant production, buying and discarding of material objects, generates a huge social and environmental impact, which generally is not taken into account. Therefore, as a first step, it is important to ask ourselves: What is the responsibility and position of designers and creators in our current society? And how can actions and transformations be taken and done? Likewise, we all need to think about the alternative systems that are already implemented. One possible example of the above, would be the native communities from La Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. You may wonder why these specific communities, and the answer lies in their ancestral knowledge, their relationship with nature and their high level of consciousness regarding the meaning of living on this planet.
La Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is a mountain massif in the middle of a coastal plain in northern Colombia. Its total area is approximately 1700 kilometers and it reaches 5775 meters above sea level. (Morales, 2015) Four indigenous groups live in la Sierra: Kogui, Arhuacos, Kankuamos and Wiwas. They have been inhabiting this area for around 1000 years (Rubio, 1998) and developed their own cosmology, cosmogony and social structure. They claim themselves as the protectors of the Pachamama and La Sierra as the center and hearth of the Earth. [1] These communities are based on the Origin Law, which guarantees the coexistence and harmony with nature and the universe. They understand the world as a chain of actions and reactions. Everything is linked to everything. That means that every object or good being consumed right now has its charge on nature and will show its consequences in the future. They are aiming towards a form of development and controlled and wise change, which allows and defines their real interests, taking into account the well-being of other living beings. (Morales, 2015)
The last idea described above implies the rethinking of the designer and creator posture, as well as the posture of the general members of society. What would happen if the designer would also take protective action with her or his design work and aims to create a more sustainable and holistic environment?
In order to delve more into this topic, an anthropology analysis will be done, as well as a short historical review and finally landing on the big question, could this system be reproduced outside La Sierra?
The meaning of territory is an important term needed to better understand the aboriginal vision in La Sierra. For them, the territory goes beyond a specific area and it encompasses the culture and spirituality. Their territory is also the facilitator that maintains the balance in the world; every mountain, every river, every rock communicates the nature’s state and the social conditions. The indigenous people have the capability to read what the elements are trying to say. (Morales, 2015) It may sound unlikely because their world vision is different from Western society. However, they have such a strong connection with the environment that they understand the Earth as our home, the place that gives life to humans. As they explain, the human race would not be able to survive without the natural resources; on the other hand, the Earth will survive without us. (Kurina, 1996)
They recognize this planet as our mother and the mother for future generations. They affirm that the seeking and maintenance of the Earth’s wellbeing should not only be an individual search, but rather a collective concern. It is in this way that every single element they use and object produced is created with the mindset of protection and balance. These thoughts and beliefs find their foundations on the Origin Law. This law is related to the good coexistence of all living beings in La Sierra. Here the soil gets a new value, “the value of wisdom and it is this wisdom that makes possible the transfer of knowledge.” (Morales, 2015)
They make a call for awareness of the meaning of being alive. Being alive makes reference to the spiritual and physical space, in which the culture is created; it makes allusion to the integrity of social and spiritual relations that constitute the foundations of the permanence of these communities. Perhaps, it is this consciousness that leads to these four, among other thousands of indigenous communities, to survive during the Spanish colonization.
After Christopher Columbus arrived in Abya Yala, not only the colonization of cultures and communities was started, but it also began the homogenization and organization of knowledge, memory and the imaginary. This will be then known as colonial capitalism, leading to the disparagement of the native knowledge, making believing that their way of thinking was not enough developed to take part in the modern world system. As Aníbal Quijano explains in his study “Powers Coloniality, Eurocentrism and Latin America”[2], one of the fundamental axes of power pattern is the social classification of the world population on the idea of race, a mental construction that expresses the basic experience of colonial domination and that since then permeates the most important dimensions of world power, including its specific rationality, Eurocentrism. (Quijano, 2014, p. 5)
For 260 years indigenous communities in all America had been defending their lives and beliefs. Millions of natives were killed and several communities were erased and diminished. As they explain, the “little brother” brought not only the diseases (measles, bubonic plague, typhus, etc.) but also the loss of identity, religiosity and respect for nature. “Simultaneously it appears the colonization of knowledge, making invisible its diversity.” (Crespo & Vila Viñas, 2015) As it is also explained by Carlos Jara, “the knowledge from the dominant group is considered as universal and scientifically, making others believe that there is only one correct way of thinking.” [3] (Jara, 2014)
This is another reason why these four communities in La Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta have a special meaning. They have been able to keep the knowledge alive in the midst of our global capitalist society. What if our way of thinking and producing is so alienated that we cannot see beyond? Perhaps we will have to decolonize our thought patterns in order to know “better.” “It must be a radical change in human thinking, behavior and acting because until now the only thing we have brought is the self-destruction of the Mother Earth.” (Kurina, 1996) Thus the indigenous seek an alternative to build a post-capitalist, post-colonial and intercultural society. “From the native communities of America ‘el bueno conocer’ is understood as an opened, common, shared and reproducible knowledge.” (Crespo & Vila Viñas, 2015) The principal aim is to create an option for the alienated knowledge that controls a wide range of fields including the creating areas.
In this order of ideas, the designer and creators should rethink their posture. We should not longer be generators of commercial material and instead begin to understand these objects as holistic elements that have specific aims; also plan their manufacturing, production, distribution and consumption cycle as aligned processes with the seeking of the welfare of all entities.
This idea is applied in the aborigine architecture of the Arhuaco’s community. Their homes are built around their cosmogony, worldview and cosmology. These are the three levels that rule their general life. The cosmogony regulates vital, social and spiritual activities. This has led to the understanding of the planet Earth as a life-giver to all beings. The worldview involves the physical world in a natural and cultural context. Finally, the cosmology contains the concepts of order, numbers, logic and space. This knowledge and its applications are the results of the seeking of survival and transcendence side by side with nature and fellows. (Molinares, Trujillo Varilla, & Tun, 2017)
For them the object and its shape help to supply the true necessities of human life. (Molinares, Trujillo Varilla, & Tun, 2017) Their homes need to be constructed as sacred places related to their spirituality and native knowledge. They have their own mathematical methods that allow them to assemble their homes with really solid structures. They conceive this mathematics and geometric systems outside the Western norms. According to Ubiratàn D’Ambrósio, this is ethnomathematics. He explains the etymology of this word as follows: ethno as the natural and cultural context, mathema as the action of teaching, show and understand and thics as the technics and styles. (D’Ambrósio, 2013)
The traditional home is square due to this shape represents perfection and each corner makes allusion to one of the four cardinal points and the four natural elements. The act of building is a community event, during which they share their knowledge from generation to generation. The construction materials come from nature, as bahareque and dry plant leaves. They built their houses having the Origin law always in mind, the respect for nature and their true needs. As it was explained previously, this more holistic system is applied in general and it also reaches the economy politics of Arhuaco’s group. Their production ways (agriculture mostly) are based on respecting nature, they don’t accept the imposition of projects or structures that are untenable or inappropriate. They seek self-sustainability and a dignified life.
The question now is if this social, cultural, economic and production system could be implemented or applied in design nowadays. The most accurate answer is no, for obvious reasons; their spiritual beliefs and social situation are different and in this Western society we don’t have that strong relationship with nature and that wide comprehension of the universe. However, we can adapt elements and introduce them in our practices. We also can break with models that don’t suit the real necessities and priorities of the world.
Their way of living is a model of sustainability that could be translated into the use of durable and ecofriendly materials. Likewise, design should mean more than an economical worth and rather have a strong sense of welfare, not only from nature, but it should also possess a positive social cause. They show us that commoning is a strength, that sharing knowledge is essential to learn and improve. Maybe being in a mold has reduced our horizons and therefore we have been missing alternative systems that could teach us something.
What is important to highlight is that the native communities in La Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta as well as throughout Latin America have survived for hundreds of years to difficult historical events; first the colonization, then the threat of modernization and currently in a post-modern society. They have kept their culture and traditions alive thanks to how they relate to the world, to their holistic understanding of things and how they respect and seek for the maintenance of the balance. They prove us that living outside a capitalistic, neoliberal and selfish society is possible. Perhaps it sounds utopic, being able to apply their system or at least some of the elements to design, communications and other creative areas, but actually rethinking and questioning our role and how our work reflects and influence the world is the first step. It is necessary that we all become aware that the dominant system has generated a scheme of thought that prevents us from seeing integrally, valuing the difference and working in solidarity. It is almost automatic to think and plan to ignore a large part of the reality of those who are different and those who have no voice in society. Those dominated without voice also include women, social groups considered inferior and also nature itself. (Torres, 2012)

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  1. The notion of Pachamama, a Kichwa term, presents a living being of the female gender: pacha = totality, cosmos, time-space and realization. Mama = mother. From this approach, Pachamama would be the feminine time-space of the whole. Pachamama is understood as the articulation of three basic communities: the community of nature, the human community and the community of spirits. The linkage of these three communities implies spiritual, cultural, economic, political and ethical notions. (Crespo & Vila Viñas, 2015) ↩︎

  2. The name as the American continent was known before the European colonization in the 15th century. (Crespo & Vila Viñas, 2015) ↩︎

  3. The name used by native communities to refer to no indigenous people. (Morales, 2015) ↩︎