(ISO code: yui)



Elizabeth Valencia Pérez

Universidad del Valle – Cali – Colombia


Photo 1 Luz Mery, Yurutí woman with her Tuyuca daughter  María Juliana on the left and her Yurutí niece Paola on the right. 




Yurutí is an indigenous group in the Vaupés region in Colombia, with a population of under 600 people. Their language, Yurutí, makes part of the East Tucanoan linguistic family, and is one of the approximately 18 languages spoken in the region, which are in great danger of disappearing due, in part, to the reduced number of active speakers and the many dangers they face.  For example the rubber boom 60 years ago interfered with their cultural practices, taking the lands away and using indigenous people as workers leaving their families abandoned. Another old danger has been the internal armed conflict that has taken many lives of indigenous people. An additional important issue is the limited accessibility to these lands, which makes the access for people difficult for health care during epidemics and diseases.


An important and controversial situation in this area has to do with education. Children study first and second grades in their community, and then they have to move to a boarding school in Bocas del Yi, a one-day transportation destination in canoe with the help of an engine. At this school kids are taught the curriculum designed by the government, and this education is of course in Spanish. At an early age, students are immersed in the language and culture of Spanish native speakers, and only have vacation time to learn about their own cultural practices.



Text Box: Photo 2 Village Bocas del Yi.





In the case of Yurutí people, they have been working towards the preservation of their culture through different initiatives; the most important one is the creation of an association called Asociación de Autoridades Tradicionales Yurutíes del Vaupés (ASATRAYUVA).  Despite this, the number of active speakers of the language is rapidly reducing, and the   Spanish language takes over the daily practices of Yurutí people threatens the vitality of the language. One example of this is found in the village of Consuelo del Paca, where they keep many of their traditions alive and they also recognize the importance of the language in the transmission and preservation of cultural practices—as the means through which they can represent and give meaning to their life experiences. Preserving the language is one step towards the safeguarding of their cultural inheritance.  However, in some families, kids talk in Spanish not only to visitants but also to their parents or during their games. 


This situation has been a motivation for me to continue with the documentation and description of the language, and it has also encouraged me to go further to helping Yurutí with their purpose of preserving their cultural heritage.





Contact with Yurutí people


Researcher Katherine Bolaños (Max Planck Institute) presented the proposal of studying an indigenous language in the Vaupés area of Colombia. She did the arrangements for other students and I to go there. The first contact with Yurutí people was done in July 2011. The village leader of Consuelo del Paca agreed to let us work with them in the description of their language.


During the first fieldwork, I could only collect some important data, which consists of visual and audio recordings of lists of words and sentences. The transcription and analysis of this data allowed me to present a preliminary description of some aspects of this language, word classes and DOM, during the Primer Encuentro de Investigadores en Lenguas Indigenas in Universidad del Valle, November 2011.

Text Box: Photo 3 Library project in Consuelo

Afterward, during my second fieldwork in July 2012, I had found out about a project being approved at the beginning of 2012 by the Ministry of Culture to develop manuals about cultural knowledge and practices in Consuelo del Paca, the Yurutí community where I work. These manuals include explanations on the creation of musical instruments, kitchen appliances, traditional costumes, and the preparation of typical gastronomy.  I could observe the positive attitude speakers had about this project and I asked them about what they considered helpful to strengthen their cultural practices. This is how the idea for this proposal was born.







             Oral tradition

A Yurutí speaker in Consuelo del Paca  and I discussed about the importance of keeping record of their history due to the fast changes they undergo in their quotidian practices. For instance, when the kids go to the boarding school in Bocas del Yi, it is more difficult for their families to teach children the way the elders did. Many young adults grew-up not knowing much about their origins. The Yurutí speaker reckoned that his father taught him some of these stories but he has forgotten most of them and there is a lot more information he does not posses, thus he cannot teach his own children.


Some Yurutí people in Consuelo and San Luis del Paca developed a project in the past; it was the translation of some western children’s stories and the adaption of these to their context.  This experience taught people in Consuelo that to write their own stories could be a good way of preserving some part of their cultural heritage.

Text Box: Photo 3 Mr. Rodríguez recording Basoca buribirigue story

With this information, I interviewed some members of the community and asked them about the story of their origin, the cultural practices related to the maloca, the dancing, the cooking, and so on. This information was the basis for the project Preserving Yuruti Cultural Inheritance: Compilation Of Stories Of The Origin Of Yuruti People.



Project goals


The main objective of this project was to collect stories of the origin of Yurutí people in Yurutí language and create a version of these in Spanish.  A second objective was to create a storybook for the teachers at the boarding school, and in Consuelo del Paca, so they could use the storybook in their classes.


In order to achieve the main objective of this proposal, it was necessary to travel to the community of Consuelo del Paca and work with the eldest and most knowledgeable people to record the stories they knew about the birth of Yurutí people, the creation of chagra (manioc fields), and other important explanations to their cultural practices.






I traveled to the Vaupés the 23rd of December 2012.  I had previously contacted the captain of the community to go with him to Consuelo on the 24th, but he did not appeared until the 27th.  I talked to other Yurutí people in Mitú, but everybody was getting ready to celebrate the 24th of December, as it is tradition in the country.  Finally, the trip to the community started on the 28th.  The engine the captain was using in the canoe was very small, because the big one was stolen the week before I arrived (reason why he did not pick me up on time!)  It was getting dark and we were half way there, hence we had to stay in Santa Rosalía, another Yurutí community. I tried to convince Mr. Rodríguez to tell me a story, but he did not. The next day, we continued the trip very early in the morning. It was 10:45 a.m. when we arrived to the ‘varador’. They hid the engine and gas in the forest, and we took the bags and started to walk through the jungle.  One hour and a half later, we arrived to the community. The leader went to his house, and I was told to organize my things in the school. It was December 29th.




After preparing lunch and washing the mud off my clothes, I went to look for the captain and we talked about the purpose of my visit. He informed the community and they were very excited with my proposal. However, that day I could only record two stories, none of them about their origin.  Next day, people were busy making chicha and food for the celebration on the 31st. Again the captain told me a third story, this time about the origin of human groups. On December 31st everyone seemed so happy, celebrating the end of the year and the beginning of a new one. This party lasted two days.



On January first, I talked to the captain during the party and asked him to go back to Mitú next day because I had an Text Box: Photo 5 Giving chicha to drink in the malocaearly flight on the 6th.  People in Consuelo would be sick-of-chicha, and therefore unwilling to record some stories, and I needed two days to go back to Mitú.  That night there was a strong storm; the way out of the community and through the forest was very difficult, I fell several times on small creeks and my boots got damped and heavy.  In the river, there were trees blocking the way and the small engine stopped working three times. Nevertheless, the trip only took one day.


In January 3rd, the captain and I worked from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. on the transcription and translation of one story. The following two days was the same story. We could finish the transcription and rudimentary translation of four stories, one a tale for kids, another a myth of beasts in the forest, a third one about the origin of human groups, and the last one about an indigenous man with powers called Sunio᷈᷈᷈ro᷈᷈.  Although these stories did not seem to be the authentic stories of the origin of Yurutí people, the captain chose them because they are popular among children, and they teach a moral about proper behavior and possible dangers in the jungle.


Thinking through the selection of stories that the captain did, he told me the first day that the story of their origin had many stories intertwined, and it would take him a lot of time to be prepared to tell it.  Each story I have heard from them has within the explanation of the appearing of different species of animals, sounds, waterfalls, and so on.


It was a very difficult trip for different reasons: I did not know that they celebrated those holidays; I thought them to be western catholic celebrations only. It was supposed to be dry season in the region, but it rained most of the time. The power of the engine also made the trip in canoe slower, and it broke-down during our trip several times. The eldest Yurutí people were busy preparing the food for the party, and they did not have time to work with me.




Compilation of stories

Safe at home, I had to read and re-read the stories several times trying to make sure that I had understood the core and details in each one. I consulted two writers, two artists and a sound engineer to have qualified opinions on how to work with the texts, the drawings and the audio recordings of the stories.


I wrote the Yurutí version of the story as the speaker told it, and I rewrote the stories for the Spanish version. I also drew the images to illustrate the book. The audio is in wav format to be used with a memory stick for the teachers at school.





Time schedule and Budget

I present here what I had planned (first) and what actually happened (second), for a better picture of this work:



Time schedule




1-4 weeks

2 weeks


Travel to the community.

Recording of stories


1-3 weeks

Transcription of stories

Translation into Spanish

1-2 weeks

5 weeks

Edition of texts and audios

3 weeks

3 weeks

Compilation design


3 weeks

1 week

GBS Reports //Approval from GBS

1 week

2 weeks


Total: 16 weeks

Total: 13 weeks



The grant for this project was € 1.464, this money was used for flight tickets, gas, speakers’ compensation and material production.



Field Trip

Tickets Round-Trip Cali-Bogotá-Mitú

€ 357


Transportation Mitú-Consuelo-Mitú

€ 357


Speakers’ Compensation

€ 357


Subtotal: € 1.071


Material Production

Compilation design

€ 250

Printing and distribution

€ 143

Subtotal: € 393

TOTAL: € 1.464


This project was made with the captain of the community; so an important amount of money was given to him in cash. The rest was invested in school supplies, clothing and food for his family and the community, as an exchange for their collaboration as I have been doing since I started working with them.


Other remarks


This project represents a huge contribution to the attempt of Yurutí people to preserve their cultural heritage. They can continue to transmit their knowledge to their children by listening to the audios or reading the book, and this material can be used at their school to be included in their curriculum. It is also very important for linguistic studies and as cultural patrimony of Colombian people.


The second part of this project will have the story of the Yurutí clans, and how they related to each other in the past up to now. It will also include the story of the ‘anaconda-canoe’ and the birth of indigenous groups in the Amazonian basin.


I believe this work to be a great contribution to the documentation and conservation of Yurutí culture and language. Through this process I have learnt valuable things about their culture, and they have also felt encouraged to keep working in their own proposals for revitalization of cultural practices and oral tradition.