Yukpa Indians, Colombia

by Carl R. Lehmann

Carl is a refocused CMML mission worker who serves among the Yukpa in Colombia.

During the Spanish conquest of Colombia, the indigenous peoples were cruelly enslaved. Spaniards pillaged their treasures and forced them to build the great San Felipe fortress on the north coast, where they amassed gold and emeralds, stolen from the tribes. Today this is the main tourist attraction in Cartagena, Colombia.


As a result of the Spanish occupation, Indian tribes fled to the jungles and mountains. Invaders took over fertile hunting areas and mineral-rich lands, and for centuries the local people were driven into hiding.


There are over 90 indigenous people groups in Colombia, including: the Awá or Kwaiker people in the Nariño and Putumayo departments; the Cubeo, in the Vaupés department; the Zenú or Sinú, in the valleys of the Sinú and San Jorge Rivers; and the Yukpa Indians. The Yukpa are part of the Carib Amerindian group, with a population of around 10,000. They inhabit an area spanning both north-east Colombia and Venezuela, living in villages composed mainly of a chief and his extended family: daughters and their husbands, children and grandchildren. They are agriculturalists who hunt in the mountain forests.



For years, the only 'missionary' contact with the Yukpa was through Roman Catholic priests. The Catholic Church has been the official church of Colombia since its inception. Only in the early 20th century did Protestant mission workers begin to enter the country.


During the 1930s, Alexander and Lily Clark (UK) worked among the Yukpa Indians of north-western Venezuela, in the Sierra de Perijá mountain range, until they were expelled through pressure from the Roman Catholic Church. The Clarks moved to Colombia and found people from the same tribe on the western side of the border. They lived among them untilLa Violencia (political and religious violence between 1948 and 1958) forced them out of the country for ten years. When the violence abated, they again made contact with the Yukpa villages in the Rio Casacará, a day's travel from the main road near Codazzi, Magdalena, now in the Department of Cesar. Ernest and Eva Fowler (USA) joined them and helped for many years. In 1963, my wife, Joan, and I were called to work with the Clarks and the Fowlers, and for a time we made good progress with the language and translation work.


In 1966 seven guerrilla fighters, dressed as soldiers, went to the house, looted valuables and then shot and killed Ernest Fowler on their way out. They were looking for Alexander Clark and me, but we were away at the time. Ernest literally gave his life for us.


Some time later, we made a trip to visit the believers. The chief, Papa Marte, had died some months before; he was our main language informant and a genuine believer. As we were hanging our hammocks to sleep in the hut of Papa Marte's son-in-law, Severino, he began to tell us a story. When we realised what he was saying, we stopped him and set up our little tape recorder, and he began again. This is the story he told.



The chief, Papa Marte, was dying and would fade in and out of consciousness. During one of his comatose periods, he saw himself carried by the angels past the clouds and the stars, to the very gate of Heaven, which he described as a great cement door - he had never seen a pearl! He heard the voice of God say to the angels, "Open the door to Papa Marte." He then entered to see his new white house and the crystal clear water. Then he heard the Father say, "Now, Papa Marte, you must go back...and tell your son and family that since you have been washed by the blood of my Son, they are not to bury you according to their demonic practices, for you are coming directly to your heavenly home."


The custom among the Yukpa is to place the dead in a shallow, hollow, temporary grave, cover it with logs, grass and dirt, and raise a grass roof over it. Then, after three months, remove the body and, all day, use it in a dance ritual to the demonic spirits, finally placing it in a burial cave on the hillside.


This is a most terrible burial practice. The body is not fully decomposed and has an awful smell. All the men carry it through the huts and around the village, while becoming increasingly drunk fromchicha (fermented beverage). The night is a time of fighting and sexual orgy. The whole affair is conducted out of fear of demonic spirits.


However, God intervened by giving Papa Marte that vision and command. He regained conciousness and told his sons and son-in-law to relay to the tribe that they must not have a pagan burial for him, since he was going directly to the Father's house. When Papa Marte finally died, Severino took his body directly to the burial cave and the demonic ritual was not performed. Neither has it been performed for the believers of the tribe since! This sovereign vision from God is widely known among the many Yukpa villages and it has impacted the beliefs of many of the Indians. Papa Marte was greatly respected and his testimony has undoubtedly resulted in many believing in Christ for salvation.



After the political and religious violence of the 1950s, the door opened to allow evangelical mission workers into Colombia. Many of them were linguists who went to work with indigenous peoples. Among the organisations involved were the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) and New Tribes Mission, now called Nuevos Horizontes (New Horizons).


These linguists worked among most of the tribal groups until it was impossible for them to continue living in their remote jungle or mountain areas, due to the threat of the revolutionary guerrilla forces. Many have been able to translate portions of the Bible, or the whole New Testament, and even record a voice-over of Luke's Gospel onto theJesusfilm. In fact, the Nuevos Horizontes (New Horizons) translation team, working with the Yukpa Indians, hopes to be able to complete theJesusfilm project in 2015. 


There are some 74 language groups in Colombia. Most have been reached with the gospel by someone, but there are still three small tribes which have no Scriptures. SIL have finished 38 New Testaments and other Old Testament books, as well as literacy materials. Although the organisation has officially closed its work in Colombia, some of their workers still visit to revise their translations and dictionaries.


Other groups have also worked with indigenous Colombian tribes in remote areas, but due to the increasing guerrilla control few have been able to carry on their work in the field. However, the Lord is raising up Colombian workers to join the translation work, as He has among the Yukpa Indians we work with.


For the most part, these indigenous peoples are poor and marginalised by the rest of society. A few have been well educated and are active in national life. Many are church leaders and teachers of their own people. In some groups, there are Bible-based churches and outreach. Many have suffered for their faith, but the Lord has done a mighty work in Colombia, allowing the gospel to reach these tribes before the guerrilla threat became an overwhelming obstacle.


Please pray for believers, who are now left to carry on without the help of mission workers. It is His Church and He has promised, "I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matt. 16:18).


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