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Tigre’s Last Journey

Guaviare, territorio ancestral Nükak

By Miguel García

Although his spirit had already flown to join the spirits of the jungle, his silent body had to be transferred by air from San José del Guaviare to Tomachipán, in the Colombian Amazon, for ceremonial planting in the ancestral territory, according to the customs of the Nükak People.

But the journey of Nuyupna Jiwda (Tigre) Yau, Pugnidedus (traditional doctor) and Traditional Authority, as the Beweni (Elder), of the Mauro Munu Council of the Nükak people, who died on March 22, 2021, to the depths of the Guaviare jungle in Colombia to fulfill the inescapable destiny of mortals, was just about to begin.

Both the life and death of “Tigre” are of epic proportions: legend has it that he defeated a tiger in a hand to hand battle thus he obtained its strength and the name. the 63 years that he walked among us tell the story of the Nükak people from the dawn of contact with the majority population to the struggles to consolidate their organizational process to have dialogue with the Government and the neighboring communities, through uprooting, forced displacement, forced sedentary lifestyle, sexual violence against their women, the violence of the armed conflict, drug trafficking, the devastation of the jungle and a  flu that killed 40% of its population when the Nükak had the most significant encounter with Westerners in 1988 and 1993.

“Tigre” was the living memory of the Nükak, his knowledge of the ways of the jungle, of the beings that inhabit it, of the medicinal plants and of its life cycles were unique, among the functions of the Pugnidedus are to contact the Tacueye (spirits) of the strong jungle and maintain the balance between the three levels of the Nükak world which according to researchers such as Cabrera, Franky and Mahecha are: “hea, the level above; jee, the intermediate level and bak, the level below ”; Pugnidedus’s function is also to transmit their knowledge to the new generations. Tigre’s passing is a loss for the youth of his people, but his legacy and strength remain.

The essence of the Nükak is to walk, they are one of the last nomadic peoples in initial contact in Colombia. For Tigre it was not just about walking, but about knowing where to go and for what purpose; For the Nükak, walking is the way, it is their method; to flow with the jungle, to let it flow, to maintain balance and to walk lightly is his philosophy of life; The Nükak travel the territory cyclically and seasonally, to flow through the ancestral paths of the jungle, sow, hunt and start their life cycle anew. Exuberant, extreme, fragile, relentless, everlasting. That is how the jungle is, that is how the Nükak are.

Three days before his passing, Tigre arrived in distress at the San José del Guaviare hospital where he remained hospitalized until his death. Tigre had seen how his people had chosen their new authorities and began a new cycle of recognition and dialogue with the Government. Neither he, nor the other Nükak ancestral doctors could do anything for his health, because they knew why he was ill, but neither could Western doctors at the Hospital. The Nükak people, in danger of physical and cultural extinction, do not have health coverage and after years of abandonment the Government seeks to massively affiliate them to a Health Promoting Entity without a process of Prior, Free and Informed Consultation and without taking into account their needs or ancestral knowledge. Tigre had been suffering from a disease without a definite diagnosis for years that little by little consumed him.

The civil authorities of the department of Guaviare dismissed the body of Nuyupna Jiwda “Tigre” Yau among honors by the National Police on the runway of the San José del Guaviare airport two days after his death. The coffin traveled in a single-engine cessna plane to Tomachipán where the Nükak were waiting for him, to remain guarding his body until the arrival of his children and closest relatives to do the ceremonial planting back to earth.

The Nükak community of Cheka Müh is one of the most remote settlements from the Nükak, this area is a corridor in which the FARC dissidents operate and where the communities have had to endure the siege of armed groups with actions such as forced recruitment of children and forced displacement from their territory. This community, of the MipaMuno territorial group, is the one that maintains territorial relations with the north and south of the Inírida River, hence its relevance within the Nükak social structure and that is why they chose this place for the ceremonial planting of the body of Nuyupna “Tigre” .

For Tigre’s relatives the journey would be different. From San José del Guaviare they had to travel three hours on a road trail to Puerto Flores, from there, after getting the minimum amount of transportation, 15 people and two cans of gasoline for the road, clung as best they could to the only SUV available and whose driver was willing to take them through an uncovered trail, in a three-hour journey into the jungle, under normal conditions, and more than four hours by a road burst by the incessant rain of recent days. They arrived in Las Bocas around midnight only to take a boat for four more hours to Tomachipán, almost breaking into the morning.

Together, as a people, they carried Tigre’s body for ceremonial planting in a sacred place in their ancestral territory, the Nükak men took turns carrying the coffin for three hours on foot through the jungle. There the earthly journey of Tigre had ended as he continued his journey into the spiritual world and the Nükak began a new cycle in the jungle.