Chile Culture slider — 19 May 2016

indians in chile and peru


Walker Rowe

Map From The Language Gulper.

Thumbnail graphic from Famous Crying Indian Commercial in the 1970’s.

I am in a unique perspective to reflect upon the condition of the Indian here in Chile and all of Latin America.  This is because I was born and grew up in South Carolina, where there were many wars between the English settlers and Indians, and now live in Chile, which is a culture of mestizo, i.e. Indo-European people, and also the site of a continuing Indian rebellion.

I want to tell you briefly what is the situation of Indian cultures in Latin America versus that of Anglo-Saxon America.  You might be surprised to hear that the Indian peoples who were pushed from their homes by British and French settlers today are in many ways better off that those here in Latin America.  They have their own lands today.  Their cultures were not erased as they were for many Indians in the rest of the Americas.

The Mestizo Race of Peoples

But first a little background.

There is a fundamental difference between how the French and English people who settled Canada and the United State treated their Indian populations and the Spanish who took Latin America.  There is no way to couch this in euphemism. We have to be blunt here and say that the Spanish Conquistadors raped, married, and took the Indian women as wives, mistresses, and concubines.  The English and French did not. Instead, they butchered them, along with the men, children, and aged.

You can literally see this history written on the face of the brown-skinned people here in Latin America.  That clash of civilizations produced the race of people we now call Mestizo.

Here in Chile, for example, there are basically two kinds of people: those of Indian descent and those who are of European descent.  The whitest people here sit at the top of the social hierarchy.  You can see that when you look at who owns the businesses here and all those white faces on television and in the magazine ads.  These are the people whose parents and grandparents immigrated here from Europe.  Their last names are German, French, English, Italian, and of course Spanish.

Contrast that with people whose skin is darker and hair jet black.  These people are either pure Indians or of mixed ancestry.  These people will usually have Spanish surnames or even Indian ones if they comes from an Indian culture that survives today, like the Mapuches of Chile.

Skin and hair color for the most part defines where people are here in the social classes.  Take a look at who runs the banks, cell phone companies, and grocery store chains in Latin America.  With the exception of Mexico, which is a culture of almost entirely Mestizo people, you will not find many dark skinned people having those positions. Central America too is a little bit more like Mexico.

Among Latin American countries, there is more European blood among the Chilean and Argentine people than other countries.  That is a direct result of immigration.  In Argentina so many Italians came there that their version of Spanish sounds Italian. In Chile the immigrants are more mixed.  For example Chile’s richest man is of Slovenian descent.

What Color is your Rainbow?

Now, there is good news with regards to political power if you are of Indian descent, which is that Indians have come to political power in Bolivia.  That is just, as they are the majority population there. That hold on political power is not the case in Colombia, Peru, Chile, Paraguay, Argentina, Ecuador, or Uruguay.  Chile’s president, for example, has French grandparents.

Consider an example, the president of Bolivia is an Aymara Indian. There are millions of people living in that wide swath of region from Peru through Bolivia who consider themselves Aymara, Inca, Atacama, Diaguita, or of other Indian race.  Those cultures have survived as well as their languages, at least in the case of the Inca and Aymara.  Millions of people speak those languages, as well as Quechua, further north, in Ecuador and Peru.  That is also the case of Mapuche Indians in Chile, who live several thousand miles south of those high desert people of Peru and Bolivia. Take a look at the map at the top of this essay.  It shows where Indian languages are spoken today in South America.

Mexico is a different situation.  The people there are less European than, say, Argentina.  With the exception of certain communities, like Chiapas, Mexicans would not call themselves Indians.  The people of Mexico are descendants of the Mayan and Aztec Indians, whose culture has disappeared entirely.

Boots on the Ground

Now, what is fascinating to me, and I hope to you as well, is to consider the number one distinction between Indians and the USA and Canada and Latin America.  Indians in the USA and Canada have their own lands. In Latin America they do not.

The Mapuches here in Chile have literally been at war with European invaders for 500 years.  I wrote about that at length here.  They are fighting even today.  What they want is what Indians have in America and Canada, their own lands.

When the English came to America they fought frontier wars against many Indian nations. The French even allied themselves with the Iroquois and Cherokee people when they took on and lost a war to the British.  But for the most part it was settlers and then the British and finally American armies fighting the Sequoia Indians in Florida, the Cherokees in the Carolinas, the Navajo in New Mexico, and the Apaches in Arizona.  In addition there are hundreds of Indian cultures that exists and still exist in all of the USA, all the way from Connecticut to Washington.

When these people were defeated by European immigrants to America they were pushed onto reservations.  The best lands were taken from them and they were moved to some of the worst, such as the most barren parts of the Arizona desert. The Cherokees, for example, were pushed all the way from the mountains of Carolina to the plains and rolling hills of Oklahoma. Almost 1/2 of Arizona is Indian territory.

Here is a map of the larger Indian nations in America and where they are or were located. It is taken from the website of a school in Georgia.

american indian map

The Indians in America were given dominion over their domains.  In other words they kept and still keep their own system of government.  They pay US taxes, but are often exempt from state taxes and state law.  The police in the states need the permission of the tribal police to enter the reservation.  Violate federal law and Indians go to American prison just like anyone else.

So while the Trail of Tears was a horrible ordeal, the Indian in America is better off with regards to real estate than the Indians in the rest of the Americas. They have their own lands.  Plus their cultures were not erased.  They kept their own language.  You can write documents in Microsoft Word using the Cherokee language today.  Turn on the radio in the deserts of New Mexico and you are liable to hear Navajo.

Here is the Cherokee alphabet:


There is one final point to make which is the situation on the American reservations is not exactly rosy.  There is high unemployment and alcoholism.  The reasons for that might be they are a defeated people.  Look at the YouTube video at the top of this essay.  It gives you some idea of how Indian and American cultures have clashed, leaving the Indian, in the case of that commercial, in tears.

I hope you have found some of this useful or interesting.  It’s not something I have seen anyone else write about before. I welcome your comments below.



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