Dr. David Sheinin is a professor of Latin American and American history at Trent University, and has received funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) to facilitate his research of the indigenous people of Argentina.
Sheinin hopes to contribute and add to the scarce work on indigenous Argentines through “what social scientists would call, a dialogical process.”
Sheinin put into perspective how little has been done in terms of studying indigenous Argentines, “In 2005, the Argentinean equivalent to Statistics Canada did a survey of indigenous languages, where they were spoken, and how many people spoke these languages. This was the first survey of its kind in Argentina. It never occurred to anyone in that organization to ask those question or try to answer them before, which is shocking.”
There are numerous groups of First Nations in Argentina, including the Toba Qom and Kolla people. There is no concept of “status” for indigenous people in Argentina, as there is in Canada.
The stigma and racism in Argentina against First Nations cause many individuals to hesitate, and often conceal their identities as indigenous.
Most surveys conducted that focus on indigenous demographics have ignored urban areas, or have not been successful in calculating the large population of indigenous people living in Argentina, and are therefore flawed or incorrect.
Sheinin’s research will focus on a specific time period between 1976-1983, when a “ferocious dictatorship” attempted to revolutionize Argentina by organizing a plan to modernize the indigenous people of Argentina.
Dr. Sheinin explained how this dictatorship attempted to assimilate the indigenous groups in the nation.
“They came up with a number of projects, one of them aimed at erasing traditional languages, cultures, and spirituality, which they saw as primitive. They hoped to achieve this by putting indigenous people in schools, and teaching them Spanish and the doctrines of Catholicism. What was not known before I started to write about it was that they saw indigenous people and decided that it would be a triumph to turn these people into entrepreneurs.”
Racist, presumptuous, and frankly, quite scary, due to the involvement of anthropologists and academics who supported this plan, the government constructed a strategy on behalf of every indigenous group in Argentina. They thought it was a brilliant idea to have indigenous people making crafts, which would then be sold in the international market.
There was a strong backlash by indigenous representatives who were highly involved in this dialogue, and the plan was never carried out.
The period of this dictatorship excludes indigenous narratives, Sheinin said, “There has been virtually nothing done to think about indigenous people and violent state dictatorship in Argentina.”
He hopes to reconstruct this history by speaking to people who can provide their own oral history of the time period, and how the indigenous people fought against this dictatorship.
Sheinin has established contact with the Kolla group in Northern Argentina through colleagues and friends in the greater Buenos Aires area. He has also established contact with the Guarani-speaking people in the north of Argentina, as well as the Qom people.
Tired of being mistreated and given little access water, food, or land rights, the Toba Qom people decided to take action.
In 2011, the Qom people marched to the capital, Buenos Aires, and set up an encampment on the streets for months. They were provided with food, water, blankets, and outdoor toilets by the municipal government and humanitarian groups, but eventually had to dismantle, as they could no longer sustain themselves.
This display of protest and political presence injured the Qom, and strengthened hostilities instead of creating a political dialogue.
Unimpressed that the Qom people had made the central government look bad, those in charge felt even less inclined to make transfer payments to the poor province of Formosa, which is very dependent upon these payments.
“When people protest it’s not something the Argentinean government likes. It harmed them more than it helped them, and there is evidence that the Qom people have been punished. They made enemies in high places,” mentioned Sheinin.
Félix Díaz, leader of the La Primavera Qom indigenous community, has become well-known, and met with Pope Francis this past summer upon the request of Nobel Prize winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel to discuss indigenous concerns including land rights.
Sheinin hopes to connect the various indigenous communities in a variety of ways.
“I do not wish to speak for these communities the way the Argentine government did, so there are groups such as the Kolla, Guarani, and Qom people related to these communities who are part of these urban studies,” he explained.
Oral histories of individuals within these disparate groups will provide insight into the unknown narrative of indigenous people during Argentina’s dictatorship period.
“You don’t need an expert to write history. People can write their own, and must be confident.”