Wichí ethnic group: The long return of three indigenous people kept as a trophy in an Argentine museum | International

“Skeleton No. 1773″. “Skeleton No. 1774″. “Brain No. 6847″. This is how the remains of three people of the Wichí ethnic group were cataloged for more than a century who, after being murdered in different circumstances between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, went on to nourish the collections of the Museum of Natural Sciences of La Plata, capital of the province of Buenos Aires. Now, this native town of northern Argentina will recover three ancestors. It is part of an institutional policy promoted years ago by anthropologists and students sensitized by the exhibition of humans in this emblematic museum already in the 21st century, and by the discovery of more remains and photographs in its subsoil.

The museum was born in 1884. The first collections were put together with purchases, institutional exchanges and donations, but also with the contribution of explorers who traveled through Argentina. One of them was Robert Lehmann-Nitsche, the director of the museum’s Anthropology Division until 1930. In those years, this Polish anthropologist and linguist visited sugar mills in northern Argentina, farms where indigenous labor predominated (of the Wichí peoples, Chorote, Pilagá and Qom, the so-called Chaco tribes). “Cheap arms that make up an extremely cheap and unassuming body of workers,” observed Lehmann-Nitsche, who returned from his trips to the world of sugar cane with annotations, photos and also bones.

The “Skeleton No. 1774” belonged to an “Indian I kill” [nombre antiguo y hoy peyorativo para wichí] killed with machetes in 1906 at the La Esperanza sugar mill in San Pedro, province of Jujuy. He was unearthed by the mill’s doctor, William Paterson, “who personally knew the Indian and had treated him,” Lehmann explained. La Esperanza came to occupy 3,500 indigenous people in the harvest, in inhumane conditions.

The remains “N° 6847″ belong to a 40-year-old worker from another sugar mill in Jujuy. Lehmann put his brain in a jar along with a handwritten letter where he dumped what he had found: “Brain of a Mataco cacique, killed on July 11, 1921, on the main street of the Ledesma sugar mill by the Hindu Laccár with a revolver ”. And the “Skeleton N ° 1773 ″, the third of those who will return to his community, is of a Wichí murdered by a colonel in 1881 in the current province of Formosa.

Photo of a Wichí from the La Esperanza mill, taken by Carlos Burch on the trip he made in 1906 with Lehman-Nitsche.
Photo of a Wichí from the La Esperanza mill, taken by Carlos Burch on the trip he made in 1906 with Lehman-Nitsche.Guides Group

Anthropologist Fernando Pepe coordinates the program of Identification and restitution of indigenous human remains and protection of sacred sites in it National Institute of Indigenous Affairs [INAI] and explains that everything is ready: “From the INAI we accompany the entire process. Now the new authorities of the Faculty of Natural Sciences and Museum have to take the next step and carry out the restitution, long awaited by this town. We are patiently waiting for you, so that the niyat [autoridad] Octorina Zamora and Wichí leaders can come to La Plata and have the remains of the three men murdered in the genocidal context of the late nineteenth century returned to them.”

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This museum was among the ten best in the world, according to the historian from La Plata, Gustavo Vallejo, an expert on the subject. In its first decades, the Anthropology Division amassed about a thousand skulls and hundreds of skeletons. For example, in drawer No. 98, where the remains of the Wichí victims were found, there were also bones of a “Toba Indian”, a skull of a “Bolivian Indian” and the pelvis of an “Araucano Indian man, Michel, Calachú tribe, killed in 1888 by one of those who took part in an expedition to the Museum”, according to Lehmann himself in 1910.

All these quotes are in the book The familiar. From the La Esperanza mill to the La Plata Museum (2011), of the University Research Group in Social Anthropology [Guías]. This group of students and graduates was born in the Faculty of Natural Sciences, and has been working for more than fifteen years identifying the human remains in the museum, which are estimated at 10,000. They seek to reconstruct their stories and support their restitution to put an end to a colonialist practice. The book is dedicated “to our brother zafreros”, and shows the photos taken of the Wichís of La Esperanza, naked and dressed, by the German Carlos Bruch, who accompanied Lehmann on that trip in 1906. The photographer Xavier Kriscautzky discovered them in the basement of the museum.

Brain of a Wichí cacique and handwritten letter of Lehmann-Nitsche kept in the Museum of Natural Sciences of La Plata, Buenos Aires.
Brain of a Wichí cacique and handwritten letter of Lehmann-Nitsche kept in the Museum of Natural Sciences of La Plata, Buenos Aires.Guides Group

For Guides, science was not so different from the Army and religion: it worked to legitimize ethnocide, and the evidence remained in the museum. It is what they have denounced in this and other books, in conferences, seminars and photo exhibitions, such as one entitled prisoners of science. When they started, the subject was taboo, but their fight twisted history, not without friction with the institution. And the largest museum of its kind in the country has not exhibited individuals from the native peoples of Argentina since 2006. In addition, they have already made 12 restitutions to the Selk’nam, Tehuelche, Mapuche, Ranculche, Qom, Nivacle and Aché communities, and they have more on the agenda. .

This process accelerated in 2010, with the regulation of Law 25,517, approved in 2001, which orders museums to return human remains. Pepe, also a founding member of Guías, says: “In this last decade we have made a leap not only quantitatively but also qualitatively, and that is a triumph of the communities in struggle, who demand the restitution of their ancestors killed or shot by the army. or the police.”

La Plata, 60 kilometers from Buenos Aires, was founded in 1882 as an ideal city, with a scientific imprint, a mathematical urban layout and parks every six blocks, as if designed to control natural and social chaos. The museum, located in a large forest, looks as it did then: an imposing neoclassical temple guarded by two saber-toothed tigers and the busts of 19th-century naturalists on the façade. But inside, the world of the vanquished in the showcases ended.

The living prisoners

During the so-called Desert Campaign, organized to advance on indigenous territories, living people also came to the museum, who were studied there while they served until they died in masonry, cleaning or cooking tasks.

On the list are the Mapuches Modesto Inakayal, Llanke Néul and Tropa Chun, who died in 1887 (already restored); Maish Kensis, a young man from Tierra del Fuego (far south) died in 1894 and exhibited until 2006 (his restitution to the Yagán of Chile is pending); and Kryygy., an Ache girl who survived the massacre of her family by white settlers in 1896 in Paraguay, was kidnapped and renamed Damiana, and ended up in La Plata.

Kruugi was the object of study by Lehmann-Nitsche, who photographed her nude, was a servant of the mother of Argentine psychiatrist and politician Alejandro Korn, and died at the age of 14 from tuberculosis. Her skeleton was shared between La Plata and the Anthropological Society of Berlin and in 2019 she returned to the Aché. Her story was recorded in Damiana Krygyya documentary by Alejandro Fernández Mouján.

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