Bill Edwards

Remedying Inferiority

Institutional Engagement with Argentine Indios after the Conquest of the Desert

  • Faculty Advisor

    Paul Ramirez

  • Faculty Advisor

    Lydia Barnett

Published On

May 2017

Originally Published

NURJ 2016-17


From 1879-1884, the Conquest of the Desert persecuted indigenous tribes on the southern outskirts of Argentina. While the government characterized these groups as “savages” before embarking on a war against them, in the aftermath of violence, surviving members of Mapuche, Tehuelche and other tribes were granted citizenship. This project pursues institutional engagement with these subjects in the Pampa, Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego that occurred concurrently with the rule of the conservative hardliners known as the Régimen, who governed Argentina from 1880 to 1916. The written accounts of the influential actors within these institutions—in official records, scientific journals and clerical memoirs—gave insight into their shared belief in the inferiority of indigenous citizens. This thesis tracks organized response to the perceived “Indigenous Problem,” as seen in legislation that granted land to indios, the contested argument for reservations by a German anthropologist at a 1910 conference, and Salesian missions as civilizing centers in Tierra del Fuego. Ultimately, this elite interaction with indigenous subjects belongs in a historical discussion of Argentine nation-building, at a time when institutions reacted to a rapidly transforming populace.

Introduction: the Strange Convergence of Argentina and Indio after the Conquest

By the end of 1884, conservative hardliners in Argentina’s Régimen nearly convinced the public that they had solved its “Indian Problem.” The year marked the end of the Conquest of the Desert (1879-1884), a war that viciously persecuted Mapuche, Tehuelche and Pampa subjects on the outskirts of Argentina. These officials had never really imagined a place for these tribes in Argentina. Rather, they followed the lead of President Julio Argentino Roca and his insistence on the need to “extinguish” hostile native groups to the south when proposing policy to address them.[9,10] If it can be said that the Conquest ultimately achieved its goal of quelling indigenous resistance to Argentine expansion, extending Argentina’s sovereignty to the Río Negro, a related political project of immigration, colonization, and civilization proved far more difficult. From 1880-1916, the Régimen worked to attract European settlers to the land won in the Conquest, believing that their industry could convert the nation into the “breadbasket of the world.” But Argentina’s land grab had inadvertently triggered unanticipated complications at the margin of the national project. Despite the Régimen’s bombastic rhetoric, the Conquest had not, in fact, holistically eliminated native tribes in the Pampa and Patagonia region but merely subdued them. On the physical peripheries of Argentina, indigenous survivors of the Conquest were now subjects of the nation that persecuted them. In the decades that followed, what was to become of these indios?

9. Olascoaga, Manuel J. Estudio topográfico de la Pampa y Río Negro. Buenos Aires: Impresores Ostwald y Marinez, 1880.
10. Roca, Julio Argentino. October, 1875, in Manuel J. Olascoaga, Estudio topográfico de la Pampa y Río Negro (Buenos Aires: Impresores Ostwald y Marinez, 1880), https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/008427579.

Twentieth century histories of the Régimen either ignored the concurrent existence of Mapuche, Tehuelche, and Fuegino citizens or emphasized the brutality of their persecution in the Conquest. Among the most prominent histories of Argentina at the turn of the nineteenth century is recounted in Jose Luis Romero’s Brief History of Argentina, written in 1965. The book briefly alludes to the presence of warring indigenous subjects, but only when describing their final defeat by Roca in 1880. Roca’s offensive, as characterized by Romero, meant the extension of Argentine sovereignty to the Río Negro. The introduction of new territory permitted the growth of the sheep industry, triggering a period of great economic hope in Argentina, which seemed primed to become a leading export economy internationally. The economic momentum introduced by the Conquest attracted a huge wave of European immigrants to Argentina, which, as Romero noted, comprised a significant portion of the population in the 1895 census. These new citizens, arriving from Italy and Spain among other nations, occupied the territory won in the Conquest as farmers and landowners.[11] Romero’s tale represented traditional historical versions of the Conquest, portrayed as the trigger of economic optimism in Argentina, ruled by the Régimen.

11. Romero, José Luis. Breve historia de la Argentina. Buenos Aires: Fondo de cultura económica, 1965.

The first histories to reorient the narrative of the Régimen to its persecution of Indians alleged their exclusion from Argentine nationhood. In the 1982 Indians, Army and Border, the historian David Viñas unraveled the hostile intellectual atmosphere which led to the persecution during the Conquest. As he explained, the Régimen understood the displacement of indigenous communities to be a necessary means for modernizing the nation. Official support for the Conquest grew in part due to racial ideologies tinged by Social Darwinism, which justified state persecution of the seemingly less-adept Indian races.[14] In recent decades, historians have characterized the persecution of native communities in more extreme terms. The historian Osvaldo Bayer leads a movement to emphasize the violent characteristics of the Conquest, as he does in the 2010 History of Argentine Cruelty. In the book, he labels Roca a “racist” with genocidal intentions.[1] The narrative put forth by Viñas and Bayer ultimately explained the institutional exclusion of indigenous people from Argentine nationhood which the Régimen oversaw. While valuable for their highlighting of the brutality of the Conquest, these histories ultimately underemphasize institutional engagement with Mapuche, Tehuelche and Fuegino citizens in the decades after the Conquest.

14. Viñas, David. Indios, ejército y frontera. México: Siglo veintiuno editores, 1982.

1. Bayer, Osvaldo. La historia de la crueldad argentina. Buenos Aires: Ediciones del Centro Cultural de la Cooperación Floreal Gorini, 2010.

To state actors, the convergence of Indian and Argentine identities was uncomfortable as Argentina extended its borders to the Río Negro. In 1881, a letter written from Santa Cruz asked the Buenos Aires-based Office of Land and Colonies to supply rations for “indios reducidos,” a term which referred to non-hostile Indian subjects. The document might have referred to native combatants that had surrendered to Argentine forces, or simply tribal populations that had presented themselves to those forces.[6] While the exact identity of these “indios reducidos” was not made clear in the document, they nonetheless represented an ongoing transition within the government. The state had engaged in warfare against native communities to the south; this document showed government institutions working to provide sustenance for these groups. Newly under the authority of the state, many Mapuche subjects were displaced from their homes in the immediate aftermath of the conflict. As the historian Andrea Lluch has noted, the majority of subdued native groups—particularly native soldiers that had battled against Roca’s forces—were destined for service work throughout Argentina. This movement of people often meant military escort from the location of capture to various destinations. Women and children were sent to lives of domestic servitude in Buenos Aires and other metropolitan centers, while men entered into the army or into forced labor.[7] Many Mapuche and Tehuelche groups remained in the Pampa and Patagonia in the spaces the state had annexed into Argentina.

6. “Letter to the Interior Minister,” December 14, 1881.

7. Lluch, Andrea. “Un largo proceso de exclusión,” Facultdad de Ciencias Humanas, Universidad Nacional de LaPampa, Revista Quinto Sol, Num. 6, 2002, 49.

There are parallels with the United States, where state persecution of Indian subjects did not obliterate tribal populations but strangely imposed government authority over them. Historians like Nicholas Shumway have made a clear connection between the two nations in their expansion into frontier space. In the States, the imagined Wild West was both dangerous and inviting, a lawless territory that, when conquered, would contribute enormously to the nation. In Argentina, territory to the south became known as “Desert,” a land untamed and uninhabited by bearers of civilization.[13] In Domingo F. Sarmiento’s 1845 Facundo, the novel that coined the term “Desert,” the author exalted North American expansion.[12] In the years after the Conquest, another official enthusiastically alluded to Argentina’s own Manifest Destiny: “Instead of the go ahead of the pioneers of the Far West, let’s shout another phrase that is ours …hands to work!”[5] As explained in Frederick E. Hoxie’s A Final Promise: the Campaign to Assimilate the Indians, the assimilation of surviving native communities grew to be a less enticing political project as American officials embraced scientific notions of a racial inferiority of Indian communities. Legislators believed that these communities were fundamentally different from other American citizens. This thinking led to the eventual creation of Indian reservations, spaces where Indians would remain separate from society and somewhat autonomous.[4]

13. Shumway, Nicholas. The Invention of Argentina. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

12. Sarmiento, Domingo Faustino. Facundo: o civilización o barbarie. Buenos Aires: Librería ‘La Facultad,’ 1921.

4. Hoxie, Frederick E. “The Appeal of Assimilation,” in A Final Promise: The Campaign to Assimilate the Indians, 1880-1920. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska, 1984.

Argentines were aware that the Conquest would not wipe out all native groups to the south, and that indigenous subjects would eventually fall under the authority of the state, as they had in the United States. An 1883 article in El libre pensador, a Buenos Aires-based newspaper, described an attack on a property in Quequen Chico, a town about 300 miles from the capital. According to the article, a group of native assailants assaulted the estancia in broad daylight, victimizing innocent civilians. The attack was brutal, but not unexpected: “the surprise was Indian; perfectly savage.”[2] Embracing the common imagery of the savage on the border, the same perception promoted as justification for the war effort by Roca and other hardline Argentine officials, it also revealed that the Conquest was incomplete. Indian subjects in the Pampa had “to submit or perish” to the expansion of Argentina but offered a second option to persecuted native groups that extermination did not: the acceptance of defeat at the hands of Argentine forces.[12] In Argentina, as opposed to the U.S., the treatment of indigenous subjects who inevitably survived the Conquest is a recent development in historical literature.

2. De todo un poco.” El libre pensador, Buenos Aires, September 2, 1883. “La sorpresa ha sido de indios; perfectamente salvaje.” Infoweb.newsbank.com (accessed April 9, 2016).

12. Sarmiento, Domingo Faustino. Facundo: o civilización o barbarie. Buenos Aires: Librería ‘La Facultad,’ 1921.

In recent decades, the historiography of institutional engagement with indigenous Argentinians at the turn of the twentieth century has followed their incorporation as a perceived inferior citizen. In the 2004 Memorias de expropiación, the historian Walter Mario Delrio outlines the strange integration of native subjects in Argentina in the decades after the Conquest. The book coined the phrase “internal other” to describe the belonging of native communities in Argentina. Indigenous subjects existed within Argentina’s borders but were perceived to be a different kind of citizen within the nation. This construction, according to Delrio, was catalyzed by the isolation of many native communities, living on land allotted to them through the government or living on missions.[3] Official constructions of the memory of the Conquest initially emphasized what the historian Mónica Quijada has labeled several myths about the Conquest. These fictions include the conception of the savage in native populations, and the belief that these “savages” never interacted with Argentine officials before the war. But it was the opposite, the government maintained treaties with native tribes in order to secure the passage of trade in seemingly unconquered land. Additionally, historians have assumed that no state officials preoccupied themselves with the question of indigenous belonging in the years after the Conquest.

3. Delrio, Walter. “Largos peregrinajes,” in Memorias de expropiación: sometimiento e incorporación indígena en la Patagonia (1872-1943). Bernal: Universidad Nacional de Quilmes Editorial, 2010.

This project seeks to unpack the myths identified by Quijada and others through a close examination of the ways in which state actors and others aligned or affiliated with the state addressed indigenous subjects to the south in the years after the Conquest. As the Conquest drew to a close and as a shift in the political position of Tehuelches in Argentina demanded a change in their perception, it became difficult for Argentine officials to characterize their own citizens as enemy combatants. While constructions of savagery did not disappear, other constructions of indigenous groups came to focus on their helplessness in the Conquest. In 1883, residents of Buenos Aires might have read an article that questioned the brutal methods of the war: “It seems faster to kill than to educate. Is this the mission of cultured societies?”[8] As the article showed, Argentines maintained perspectives on the issue that strayed from Roca’s talk of extermination.

In chapter one, the role of the state legislation in determining the place of indigenous Argentines in the Pampa and Patagonia is examined. As remembered through government Memorias, official records of legislation accompanied by commentary of ministers in the Ministry of Agriculture, in the years after the Conquest, the government distributed land to tribal leaders believing these communities could contribute to the national economic project. In the second chapter, Robert Lehmann-Nitsche, a German anthropologist working at a museum of nature in Argentina, comes to the forefront as an influential voice in answering the “Indigenous Problem.” As remembered by an official record of the 1910 International Scientific Congress, Lehmann-Nitsche came into conflict with another anthropologist when he argued for the need to create Indian reservations, in the image of the United States. In the final chapter, written accounts from Italian priests about the creation of missions in southern Argentina are examined as an executed solution to the persecution of indigenous groups. Written letters from the Salesian Giovanni Bosco in the 1870s, coupled with a glowing review of mission work as civilizing of indigenous subjects four decades later, provides context to this solutions.

While the Régimen preoccupied itself with the maintenance of a populace hit by an influx of European immigration, other influential actors felt an impulse to address Mapuche, Tehuelche and Fuegino subjects from 1880-1916. Across purposes, these institutional efforts helped to shed light on the fate of indigenous subjects in the decades after the Conquest, as seen from elite vantage points. In this context, the issue of language becomes clear, specifically in the monikers used by elite actors to label Mapuche, Tehuelche, and Fuegino citizens. As institutional actors spoke of their interactions with indigenous people, many of these actors tended to present these citizens as one demographic bloc, a homogenous group of indios or indígenas. In this project, the terms “Indian” and “indigenous” will be used to designate these citizens when describing their construction by institutions when determining policy. When possible to discern Mapuche, Tehuelche and Fuegino agency in this era, these citizens will be labeled by their self-identifying ethnic affiliations. Elite explanations of engagement with indios interpreted their lived experiences, reflecting an on-the-ground reality with paternalistic bias. Their accounts of indigenous life gave light to the perception of indios held in elite sectors of society that had significant sway in determining the place of the Argentine indio in a rapidly diversifying populace.

Ultimately, different institutions worked separately and simultaneously to project similar conclusions about Indians in Argentina. From 1880-1916, these institutions all solidified the perception of a gap between indios and their new nation, codifying an elite perception of indigenous difference. Undoubtedly, their projections muddled the reality of the existence of Mapuches and Tehuelches in the decades after the Conquest. In the same way Roca and the Régimen tended to ignore the reality of institutional engagement with indios, other elite sectors of society limited their own understanding of these lives. Officials in the Ministry of Agriculture, for instance, did not solicit the opinion of the caciques to whom it distributed land under the Law of the Home when trying to explain their apparent failure as tillers. Likewise, despite Robert-Lehmann Nitsche’s intimate contact with his subjects, his interpretation of their biological difference—the foundation of his argument for reservations—was ultimately made by him. Salesians, of course, believed they provided a better existence for marginalized subjects in Tierra del Fuego, but how would a Yagan family explain its decision to migrate to a mission? The question remains: what was life like for the people with whom these institutions dealt? The source material used in this project provides just one window into the lives of indigenous people in Argentina after the Conquest.

Another conclusion advanced by this project muddles the notion of Argentine uniqueness within a greater Latin American context. In other Latin American nations, institutions engaged indios as citizens, albeit in varying circumstances, and often with prejudices in mind. The seemingly obvious comparisons between Argentine expansion and the American case were based, fundamentally, on the belief that citizens of European descent would come to constitute the most significant portion of the populace. Argentine history is one dominated by Europeans and Americans of European descent as a photo history of Argentina’s most influential figures shows. These figures carved out a national history that is indeed unique to Argentina. Twentieth century representations of the Eurocentric nature of Argentine history do not read as incorrect in their descriptions of the importance of Europeans in representing themselves in the makeup of Argentine nationhood. However, these histories tended to either ignore the “Indigenous Problem” or to characterize it as a finished problem after the onslaught of the Conquest. The Conquest was brutal and racially motivated against enemies labeled savages, but it opened an era in which indios were more easily subjugated to the rule of the state than ever before. The role of scientists and missionaries in addressing these communities should be understood as a great awareness of their existence as subjects alongside other Argentine citizens. The American comparison in this respect falls flat. United States officials separated Indians from their populace to spaces where institutions did not burden themselves with the marginalized existence of peripheral subjects. Institutions in Argentina oppositely engaged these communities in simultaneity with their interactions with other new Argentines. The institutional engagement of indios, then, reflected a reality that was Argentine.

8. “Más vale tarde que nunca,” El libre pensador, Buenos Aires, June 17, 1883. Infoweb.newsbank.com (accessed April 9, 2016): “Pues es más espedito matar que educar. ¿Es la misión de las sociedades cultas?”


Bill Edwards