Cofán Fight for Survival

The Cofán tribe is known as the protectors of the rain forests. For years they have tried to fend off invaders, oil companies and modernization to protect the land that has been theirs for generations, where they’ve lived, raised families and traded without interfering with the outside world.

Sadly, the outside world found them. With no respect for their heritage, culture, tradition or land, and without thought to the magnificent forests, they polluted, plundered and destroyed, forcing the Cofán to seek refuge in deeper parts of the forest and fight for survival in a world they did not understand. Today there are less than a thousand Cofán remaining in Ecuador, and a few are taking the needed steps to ensure that they will be remembered should they disappear completely.

Preserving the Cofán culture and tradition, as well as collecting Cofan artifacts, is vital. This tribe is the oldest indigenous tribe of the rain forest to have survived to this day. Known as warriors and expert craftsman, the Cofán are legendary for their ability to build beautiful canoes, swords, arrows, knives, axes and spears, and their beadwork and sea shell beads are exceptional. Since 1966, when American oil companies started to move in on the Cofán territory, they have been fighting to keep their land – which has been reduced to two small areas and two reserves – and desperately trying to hold onto their culture, language and tradition. Over and above losing their land, they have also had to deal with toxic spills and contaminated water. The stress of this situation forced many to abandon their settlements and adopt a modernized way of life.

In order to document their lives and preserve their traditions, the Cofán have asked the Field Museum to assist them in these goals. They invited Daniel Brinkmeier, a sociologist, and two of his colleagues to their village to collect artifacts and items that might disappear from use and creation in the near future. The Field Museum collected items such as darts, wooden flutes, beadwork, headdresses, garments, spears, blowguns and ceramic pieces. They have been able to document more than a hundred hours of film, while elders took them down the river and to areas in the rain forests that are known to them by traditional names and also recounted the history of the area, which covers over a thousand square miles. Some of the Cofán have also been brought in to draw detailed maps of the area, transcribe and help edit the footage taken. They have aided in the production of documentaries for the younger Cofán to watch and learn the traditional language, stories, culture, legends and crafts before it all dies.

The Field Museum is therefore not only assisting the Cofán in preserving their history in the rain forests of Ecuador, but trying to prevent this ancient tribe from disappearing altogether. It is hoped that by reaching out to schools and educational centers, the interest in the traditional way of life and pride in their past will carry the Cofán through many more centuries.