Indigenous People in Argentina

Pamela Burke


There 16 to 20 indigenous groups in Argentina which dwell primarily in the North of the country, bordering Bolivia and Paraguay. The larger groups are the Collas (35,000), the Chiriguanos (15,000), the Tobas (15,000), the Mapuches (40,000), the Guaranies (10,500) of Misiones, and the Wichi (25,000).

Further South, about 36,000 Mapuches live in the province of Nequen and Tehuelches, bordering on Chile. There are also varying estimates of Quechua and Quichua speakers in Argentina depending upon seasonal employment. In the Tierra del Fuego, there are also some Selk'namgon people.

Quechua is the most widely spoken indigenous language in the northwestern provinces. While there are about 5,000 permanent residents who are Quechua speakers in the province of Jujuy, there have been estimates of about 800,000 Quechua speakers from Bolivia coming to Argentina for employment, including 200,000 temporary laborers, 100,000 looking for work, and 500,000 living in Buenos Aires. Chiringuan, Choroti, Mataco, Mocovi, and Toba are spoken in the Gran Chaco.

In Mesopotamia, Guarani is the main language for indigenous people. Mapudungun  is spoken in Patagonia, while Yamana, Ona, and Selk'namgon are spoken in Tierra del Fuego.

The indigenous people are extremely isolated in rural areas of the country and are some of the poorest sectors of society. Their primary employment is agricultural or seasonal labor. Some tribes (mainly in the pampa region) are hunter-gatherer, nomadic peoples. In the Chaco region, the cotton and sugar plantations and the timber industry employ seasonal labor. The rivers of Pilcomayo and Bermejo from April until June also provide seasonal labor for indigenous peoples. However, the Salta province recently banned commercial fishing and thus, has damaged the seasonal economy of the indigenous people living in this region.

Indigenous people in rural areas receive very little education and are generally not proficient in Spanish. Those who have migrated to urban areas have more of a command of Spanish, but live in shantytowns on the outskirts of the cities (two known shantytowns are Residencia and Barranqueras). Both groups receive little or no medical treatment and have been reported to suffer from malnutrition, cholera, syphilis, gonorrhea, tuberculosis, and infant mortality rates as high as 50%.

Many of the groups in the Misiones province have not experienced any missionary influence, but when asked, they will say they are Christians to avoid any missionary presence. Shamans are a very important part of indigenous religion throughout the country and traditional ceremonies and mysticism are practiced. There have been attempts to Christianize these populations and some missions for indigenous people exist, but their religious practices are a combination of traditional mystic ceremonies and Christian traditions.

Many of the indigenous groups were killed during the colonization of Argentina in the 16th Century, and genocide continued until the 19th Century. Those groups that did survive the mass killings isolated themselves or remained on reserves designated by the government. Indigenous people did not begin to mobilize until the 1970s, when many of them migrated to urban areas for better lives and employment. Until this time period, Indians were not legally recognized citizens of the state.

In 1970, the Coordinating Commission of Indigenous Institutions (CCIIRA) formed. This Commission began in Buenos Aires with the intention of organizing indigenous groups and defining their demands.

In 1972, the First Indigenous Parliament was held, which listed grievances and demands of the indigenous people and dedicated a chapter to the Mapuche Indians, who demand autonomy in order to unify with their brethren in Chile.

In 1973, another Indigenous Parliament was held and set programs for education in indigenous regions. After this point, many indigenous regions formed organizations, such as the Indigenous Federation of Chaco in 1973,  the Indigenous Federation of Tucuman, and the Indigenous Federation of Neuquina (representing Mapuche Indians).

By March 1973, the CCIIRA ceased to exist and the government formed the Indigenous Association of Argentina (AIRA). This organization had three objectives: 1) to respect the indigenous person and his/her culture, 2) to define indigenous lands, and 3) to appoint an indigenous representative of all of the communities. The end of 1973 witnessed a growth in indigenous organizations in the provinces of Salta, Formosa, and Santa Fe. However, in 1974, the government of Isabel Peron repressed many popular organizations. By 1975, many indigenous organizations stopped functioning and cooperative communities were made illegal.

Not until 1983, did indigenous peoples receive legal status within the country. In 1984, the "Indigenous Policy and Support to the Aboriginal Communities" law was passed to restore traditional indigenous lands and territories and to provide bilingual education in indigenous communities. This law was and is still criticized for not having representation from indigenous peoples on advisory committees for these programs. Argentina currently recognizes indigenous lands, culture, and community development through its National Plan of Indigenist Policy. However, the funding and support for this institution have been reported to be very low.

The indigenous groups have varying demands. The Colla people have demanded to be able to name their children in Quichua, which is not a recognized language of the state. The Toba, Mataco, and Mocovi Indians demand better wages and working conditions in the cotton and timber industries which employs the vast majority of them in the Chaco region. The Mbya Guarani people have two reserves in the Misiones province, which are being invaded by settlers. The Mapuche Indians demand autonomy in order to unite with the Mapuche of Chile. The Tehuelche also have a small reservation, which they are demanding be preserved.

The military regime of the 1970s and the war of the Malvinas/Falkland Islands contributed to a decline in the indigenous movement. Since the transition to democracy in the mid-1980s, indigenous people have begun to mobilize, though not on a national level. Various groups have petitioned the government with their demands. The Mapuche Indians seem to be the most organized group within the country. They are demanding autonomy in order to unify with kindred people in Chile.


Risk Assessment
The indigenous people of Argentina are highly discriminated against despite constitutional recognition of their political, social, economic, and cultural rights. Lands that were demarcated as reservations are being developed by commercial or private interests and courts have delayed the land disputes which the Indians have filed. Moreover, indigenous people suffer from chronic disease, lack of health and education facilities, and high unemployment.

Indigenous people have organized on regional levels, as in the case of the Wichi Indians, to gain land rights. National organization among these groups does not seem likely in the future due to regional and tribal differences of interest. Open resistence also does not seem likely, except possibly resistance to land invasion by non-indigenous people. Continued mobilization and organization on regional and tribal levels seems likely to persist with little response from the government for further autonomy or land grants.


**Other sources utilized were from Reuters and Inter-Press News Service.