12th October marks the anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas in 1492, an event that would lead to the genocide of indigenous populations, the slave trade, and massive loss of biodiversity in the name of economic growth.
Often dubbed ‘the whitest country south of Canada’, the land that now is Argentina was not as populated as its northern neighbours five centuries ago. But when the first Spaniard sailed up the Río de la Plata in 1516 there were dozens of different communities living here, some living in organised settlements, others enjoying a more nomadic life, between them speaking 35 different languages. Today, census reports show that around 600,000 of the country’s 40 million consider themselves indigenous.
Whilst Columbus Day is still celebrated in North America, in many parts of Latin America the day is called ‘Día de la Raza’ (Day of Race). In Argentina 12th October is called the ‘Day of Respect for Cultural Diversity’, and is marked with a public holiday, to reflect on human rights and the country’s cultural diversity.
To mark this anniversary, we have selected five stories from our archive that give an overview of the issues indigenous communities are facing 500 years later – from the struggle for land rights, to the loss of culture and heritage through languages dying out, to the fight for much needed investigations and into more recent recent human rights abuses.
This 2012 interview saw Kelsey Jost-Creegan speak with Eulogio Frites, Argentina’s first indigenous lawyer. He has been a central figure in the country’s indigenous movement since attending the first world conference on indigenous issues in Mexico in 1974, and played a key role in helping pass three laws that officially recognise indigenous rights on a national level in Argentina.
This 2007 article looked into the loss of indigenous languages in Argentina and the loss of culture that accompanies a language’s disappearance. Only 15 of the 35 languages that existed in Argentina 500 years ago are still spoken, and some of them by just a handful of people. Kate Granville-Jones visits a Toba community which is trying to revive language through instilling in young people a sense of heritage.
Around the world, suicide is a big problem facing indigenous communities caught between modern life encroaching onto their land and into their communities and their traditional culture. The Guaraní community – which straddles the borders of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay – has the highest suicide rate in the world, but one leader from Misiones came up with an innovative way of dealing with the issue, as Kristie Robinson investigates in this 2008 article.
Aigul Safiullina visits a Mapuche community in Patagonia to hear of their struggle for land rights and the historical case in which the community faced off against the global corporation Benetton, which had purchased land they claimed was rightfully theirs. The case, which they eventually won, was emblematic of the territorial struggles faced by indigenous communities around the world.
Kristie Robinson visits the northern province of Formosa to meet with survivors of a 1947 massacre in which around 1500 members of the Pilagá tribe were killed in a two-month campaign that many have termed genocide. The case, which has only recently started to be investigated after the discovery of two mass graves, remains mostly unknown and is not taught in official local history.