• Environment and Geography

    Communities identifying themselves as Colla are located in the zones of Potrerillos, Inca de Oro, Quebrada de Paipote, San Miguel and San Andrés, and by the Jorquera River, which correspond to the municipalities of Chañaral, Copiapó and Tierra Amarilla, in Atacama Region. The remaining Colla herders and farmers occupy the ravine bottoms and high altitude grazing grounds of these zones, but nowadays most Collas reside in cities, having left behind their traditional herding, farming, mining, and gathering activities. Today, the descendants of that ancient pastoral people work as salaried employees, students, and homemakers.

    The Colla’s grazing grounds are situated in the foothills and mountains of the Andes, which has a marginal desert climate characterized by aridity and scant precipitation in the lowland areas where the winter pastures are located. The highlands or summer pastures has a cold mountain desert climate with occasional precipitation in winter and summer. In the ravine bottomlands vegetation is scant, and grows in small clumps alongside wetlands populated by bushes such as cachiyuyo, brea and a few tree species such as algarrobo. At 3000–3500 m above sea level we find the tolar ecological tier, with more varied bushy formations, while from 3600–4300 m above sea level the pajonal tier takes over, characterized by extensive grasslands well suited for pasturing livestock. Hydrographically, the region includes the Jorquera River and its tributaries and the La Sal River, in addition to the freshwater springs and wetlands that emerge from the ravine bottoms and mountainsides.

  • Economy

    The Colla’s traditional economy is based on herding and, to a lesser degree, agriculture. In former times, the Collas had a more diversified economy that included firewood extraction for coal production and trans-Andean economic exchange. Herding primarily focused on goats although also included mules, horses and llamas to a lesser degree. Herders migrated seasonally with their livestock in search pasture and water, moving from winter to summer grazing grounds in the foothills. Today, herding is still practiced by some Collas in Potrerillos and Quebrada de Paipote, while those near the Jorquera River engage in limited alfalfa farming and goat herding, maintaining their (minor) importance in the local economy. Today, most Collas live in urban zones where they work as salaried employees or homemakers. Colla craftspeople produced abundant textiles and leather goods in decades past, and manufactured clothing such as large ponchos, blankets and hats (called coipas), riding tack such as woolen saddlebags and leather tack for horses and mules. Very few Collas continue to practice these traditional crafts today.

  • Art

    Textile crafts (weaving and knitting) are one of the few artistic activities practiced by Colla women in Río Jorquera and Potrerillos. The women share their skills in community workshops and market their products in small businesses. Herding is another traditional craft, and the ancient knowledge of the territory—its flora and fauna, its geography and climate—has diminished as traditional herders have passed away.

  • Beliefs and Funerary Practices

    Many of the festivities celebrated in Colla communities have been “reinvented” by recovering ancient Andean knowledge and practices and/or adopting celebrations promoted by State institutions, such as the Day of Indigenous Peoples and Indigenous New Year. Traditional Colla spiritual practices include the apacheta ceremony—the ritual construction of a stone cairn by pedestrian travelers and cattle drivers—in Río Jorquera, and anniversary celebrations held in individual communities, which commonly include horsemanship competitions and traditional Criollo dances. Until the 1970s, the Collas of Potrerillos celebrated the feast days of their patron saints as well as rites dedicated to the Pachamama (Sacred Mother Earth). They also held the celebration of los convidados and rituals involving livestock such as the vilancha and enfloramiento, but these are no longer celebrated, as the herds have shrunk and herding is on a small scale than before, and especially, because many Colla families have converted to Protestant religions and renounced their more traditional indigenous and hybrid Catholic-indigenous rituals and ceremonies.

    As most Collas now live in cities, they are buried in typical, modern-day cemeteries. In former days, however, herders were sometimes buried at the place they passed away, usually in some remote corner of the foothills region. Traditional Colla funerary rites include the sacrificing of animals owned by the herder, including livestock and/or dogs, which were buried along with the deceased.

  • Settlement Pattern

    Colla settlements are disperse, and the dwellings remain unoccupied for much of the year, except for in the locality of Agua Dulce, in Potrerillos, which has a small population of year-round inhabitants. In former times, the Collas maintained seasonal herding settlements at freshwater springs in the highlands of San Juan and Castilla, in the Doña Inés ravine and in the Pedernales salt flat, but these were gradually abandoned between the 1950s and 1970s. Seasonal settlements were also kept beside summer pastures in the highlands. Only along the banks of the Jorquera River is there a year-round population. In the Paipote Ravine this disperse pattern is also in evidence in a series of dwellings between La Puerta and Vega de Tapia.

    These seasonal shelters, called majadas, are found in both winter and summer grazing grounds and are constructed of a variety of materials including mud, stone and tin, and covered with a light roof of plant fiber, plastic or canvas. In urban settings, the Collas live in typical city homes.

  • History

    The indigenous people of Copiapó and Chañaral provinces were given the name of Collas in the 19th century, but the term was also used generally to refer to other indigenous inhabitants of the Atacama Puna region and the highland valleys of Northwest Argentina. The Atacama Puna belonged to Bolivia until 1900, when the territory was traded with the Republic of Argentina for Tarija. Since then, the term “Colla” has been used to refer to the indigenous herding peoples living on the Altiplano in the present-day Argentinean provinces of Jujuy, Salta and Catamarca. These herders were from different ethnic groups—Atacameños from the eastern or western Andes, Aymaras who had migrated from their traditional territories, and possibly even Quechuas who had come from further north—that had mixed with the local indigenous population of these trans-Andean valleys. (It is important to note that the Colla people of Chile have no historic relation to the so-called Colla Señorío of the Aymaras, which was based on the shores of Lake Titicaca in pre-Hispanic times).
    In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, some of those Colla families living in the Atacama Puna and the Circumpuna valleys of Argentina (many of them from Fiambalá and Antofagasta de la Sierra) migrated to the Chilean foothills. Installed their new home, these Collas merged with families that had lived in the old “Indian town” of San Fernando de Copiapó and some traditional herders that had come from the Norte Chico region of Chile.

    In the past, the Collas complemented their traditional subsistence economy by supplying goods such as meat, fuelwood and textiles to mining settlements, nitrate “offices” and other settlements. They also supplemented their herding way of life by hunting guanacos, vicuñas and chinchillas, gathering firewood, making wood coal, and practicing small-scale mining and mule driving. After the 1970s, the mountain-dwelling Colla population decreased steadily as more and more Collas migrated to nearby urban centers. And so when the first Colla indigenous communities were officially constituted in the early 1990s, most of their members already were living in towns and cities, working as salaried employees. Nowadays, only a few Colla families still practice herding in the mountains, mainly with goats.

  • Language

    As the Collas are a multiethnic people, they had no single indigenous language but spoke a blend of Aymara, Kunza and even the Kakán of the Diaguita groups inhabiting the Calchaquíes valleys in Argentina; but their mode of speaking was lost over the years. Today, the Collas who inhabit the mountains of Copiapó and Chañaral speak Spanish, although their speech is interspersed with Quecha terms that are kept alive by the elders and by repetition in traditional ceremonies and songs.

  • Social Organization

    Traditional Colla society is organized on the basis of family and friendship ties among people living in the same locality. With the official constitution of indigenous communities under Indigenous Law Nº 19.253, these social groups became legal representative bodies that made decisions by assembly. The Collas do not presently have traditional authorities, but do have ceremonial figures who preside over local rituals.

    The Colla population is relatively small, with just 3,198 individuals self-identifying as such in the 2002 Census in Chile, and the number of members of official Colla communities is even smaller.