Marc Becker's Home Page


Current Research


Indigenous Movements in Latin America  

Class oppression and racial discrimination, often combined with a further sexual repression of women, merge to form systems of domination that for centuries have subjugated indigenous peoples to the interests of a ruling white or mestizo elite in Latin America. This repression has taken a variety of forms, ranging from labor drafts, tribute and tax payments, and confiscation of land and water to suppression of cultures and even genocide. Indigenous peoples have responded in various ways, from everyday forms of resistance that included working slowly or breaking tools, legal petitions to challenge harmful policies, rebellions against abusive officials or landholders, and organized strikes and petitions to full-scale revolts that challenged state power. Although it has taken different forms and shapes, this resistance continued from the European conquest into the twenty-first century. Rather than being passive victims, indigenous peoples significantly influenced and altered historical developments.

Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.
More than a hundred revolts ripped through the Andes during the eighteenth century, with the uprisings becoming increasingly large scale, widespread, and violent. This so-called age of Andean insurrection culminated in the powerful Túpac Amaru II uprising which swept through the southern Peruvian and Bolivian highlands from 1780 to 1782. Led by José Gabriel Condorcanqui, a moderately wealthy kuraka who took the name of the last Inca leader, this insurrection threatened to remove the colonial elite and establish a neo-Inca utopia. In a second, more radical, phase, Túpac Katari led a siege of La Paz with visions of emancipation and self-determination. The desire to either eliminate the Spanish or subordinate them to Andean peoples became a key interest during these anticolonial revolts. Although the revolts failed and Spanish officials executed the leaders, these uprisings placed indigenous Andeans at the heart of struggles over state formation and demonstrated their political consciousness. Far from traditional images of passivity or disengagement, indigenous peoples were active agents who imagined an alternative vision of the nation that conflicted with that of the dominant culture. Túpac Katari's last words before he was executed in 1781 were, "I will return and I will be millions;" and this has been interpreted as a prophetic statement that has been fulfilled in subsequent indigenous mobilizations.

In the late nineteenth century through the early twentieth century, a new cycle of indigenous uprisings raged through Latin America, reaching its highest level since Túpac Amaru's revolt. These were often reactions to the expansion of haciendas onto indigenous communal lands, governmental taxes, labor drafts, and abusive officials. One of the most noted uprisings was the Caste War of Yucatán, with the Maya fighting back against the Mexican government's threats to their traditional autonomy. In 1849 the Maya almost reconquered the Yucatán peninsula. Reflecting their agrarian roots and the demands of an agricultural economy, the Maya combatants returned home to plant their corn fields when they sighted clouds of winged ants that were a sign of the first seasonal rains. Whites eventually retook control of the peninsula, but the underlying racial conflict persisted, and the war simmered until 1902.

In the South American Andes, resistance strategies included litigation and occupation of hacienda lands. In 1886, Pedro Pablo Atusparia led a revolt in Peru against a poll tax on the indigenous peasantry. In 1899, Aymara leader Pablo Zárate Willka raised an indigenous army that demanded a restoration of traditional lands and the establishment of an indigenous government. In 1915, Teodomiro Gutiérrez took the name Rumi Maqui (Quechua for "stone hand") and led a radical separatist revolt that employed the rhetoric of restoring the Inca Empire. Expropriation of community lands led to a massive revolt at Jesús de Machaca in the Lake Titicaca district of Bolivia in 1921. Several years later, in one of the largest indigenous uprisings of the twentieth century, ten thousand people attacked haciendas in the Chayanta province in northern Potosí. Ultimately the government's superior firepower and a lack of indigenous unity led to the failure of these revolts and the massacres of hundreds of people. These uprisings, however, stopped hacienda expansion onto community lands and achieved the replacement of local officials.

Peasant Syndicates.
In the 1920s indigenous peasants began to organize rural syndicates. The syndicates were often allied with urban labor unions or leftist political parties, and their creation represented a shift from focusing on local and narrowly conceptualized issues to agitating for larger and more structural changes. In Bolivia, Aymara and Quechua Indians agitated for land reform following the 1952 nationalist revolution. This grew into the Katarista movement that took its name from the late colonial indigenous leader Túpac Katari. Bridging a long-perceived division between ethnic identities and class consciousness, Kataristas announced that they would analyze their exploitation with "two eyes"-as indigenous peoples and peasants.

In Guatemala, a Maya nationalist movement emerged that championed cultural pride in traditional lifestyles, dress, religion, language, literature, and education. In 1992 the activist Rigoberta Menchú won the Nobel Peace Prize and became a high-profile international symbol of the indigenous rights movement. Indigenous militancy emerged not only in Bolivia and Guatemala-which have majority and largely homogenous indigenous populations-but also in countries like Colombia, which has a small and extremely diverse indigenous population. Despite numbering only 3 percent of the population, Indians became a significant political force through the Organización Nacional Indígena de Colombia (ONIC; National Indigenous Organization of Colombia). Thanks to these efforts, indigenous peoples gained far-reaching concessions including citizenship and territorial rights, as well as official recognition of ethnic diversity and indigenous languages in the 1991 constitution.

Transnational Organizations.
In the 1960s and 1970s activists increasingly organized indigenous movements on an ethnic basis, with the support of nongovernment organizations (NGOs) and in a transnational framework. The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) grew out of a 1968 meeting of anthropologists who had witnessed the abuses that indigenous peoples faced. In 1975, IWGIA helped establish the World Council of Indigenous Peoples (WCIP) and its South American branch Consejo Indio de Sud America (CISA; South American Indian Council) in 1980. CISA, the first regional indigenous organization in South America, attacked colonial centers of power as it sought to recoup ethnic identities and unify indigenous organizations into a liberation struggle.

In 1983, Nilo Cayuqueo, a Mapuche from southern Argentina, launched the South American Indian Information Center (SAIIC) in California to provide information on and international support for CISA and the indigenous rights movement in South America. In 1984, Amazonian indigenous organizations formed the Coordinadora de las Organizaciones Indígenas de la Cuenca Amazónica (COICA; Coordinating Body for the Indigenous People's Organization of the Amazon) in order to act internationally to defend their territorial, cultural, economic, and political rights. COICA became best known for its alliances with environmental groups.

With an ethnic consciousness heightened by protests against the quincentennial celebrations of Christopher Columbus's 1492 voyage to the Americas, many of these movements began to embrace common demands for recognition of the pluricultural nature of Latin American societies. This helped drive a powerful indigenous uprising in Ecuador in June 1990 that paralyzed the country for a week. The Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador (CONAIE; Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador) emerged at the forefront of these protests, and its protests gained Ecuador a reputation for having the most powerful and well-organized indigenous movement in Latin America. A month after the June 1990 uprising, CONAIE joined with SAIIC and ONIC to organize the First Continental Conference on Five Hundred Years of Indigenous Resistance in Quito, Ecuador. Representatives from throughout the Americas gathered to form a united front in the struggle against oppression, discrimination, and exploitation.

On a national level, indigenous political influence has grown tremendously throughout Latin America, particularly through the emergence of indigenous political parties, election of indigenous representatives to political office, and codification of constitutional provisions for indigenous peoples. Democratic openings and support from nongovernment organizations were key factors that led to these changes. Nevertheless, indigenous representation and political power remained far below their proportion of the population, and poverty and discrimination continued to be persistent and systemic problems.

Perhaps more than any other action, the 1994 New Year's Day uprising in Chiapas in southern Mexico by the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN; Zapatista Army of National Liberation) thrust indigenous demands into mainstream consciousness. The warrior and poet Subcomandante Marcos emerged as the public face of their struggle for land, education, freedom, democracy, and justice.

New Social Movements.
Scholars often present as "new" and "transformational" contemporary indigenous movements that are primarily concerned with legal (including constitutional) reforms, struggles over territory and resource use, and identity politics. New social movements are seen to differ from traditional political parties or labor unions in that they respond to a specific crisis rather than engaging in a project of historical transformation (such as taking over state structures). Some critics argue that "new social movements" are neither new nor isolated from broader class and partisan struggles. Rather, these movements' fundamental goals, strategies, and tactics (demonstrations, sit-ins, marches, petitions, letter-writing campaigns) are often similar to those of parties and unions.

Indigenous peoples emerged at the end of the twentieth century as one of the most powerful and well-organized political actors in Latin America. They led protests against neoliberal economic policies that often weighed most heavily on indigenous peoples. Indigenous organizations increasingly formed political parties that competed for state power, and they joined coalitions that threw out unpopular presidents in Ecuador and Bolivia. Far from being static, indigenous people continually embraced new strategies and technologies such as the Internet (see NativeWeb, to advance their struggles. Some spoke of the "return of the Indian." Indigenous peoples, however, had never left and were always present in Latin America as they agitated for their concerns in a variety of ways.

[See also Aymara Movement; Ecuador, Indigenous Uprisings in; and Túpac Amaru Rebellion.]
Albó, Xavier. "Andean People in the Twentieth Century." In South America, edited by Frank Saloman and Stuart B. Schwartz, pp.pp. 765-871. 2 vols. Part 3 of The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Brysk, Alison. From Tribal Village to Global Village: Indian Rights and International Relations in Latin America. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2000.

Langer, Erick D., and Elena Muñoz, eds. Contemporary Indigenous Movements in Latin America. Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 2003.

Postero, Nancy Grey, and León Zamosc, eds. The Struggle for Indigenous Rights in Latin America. Brighton, U.K., and Portland, Ore.: Sussex Academic Press, 2004.

Van Cott, Donna Lee. From Movements to Parties in Latin America: The Evolution of Ethnic Politics. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Van Cott, Donna Lee, ed. Indigenous Peoples and Democracy in Latin America. New York: St. Martin's Press, in Association with the Inter-American Dialogue, 1994.

Wearne, Phillip. Return of the Indian: Conquest and Revival in the Americas. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.

Marc Becker

Marc Becker "Indigenous Movements in Latin America" Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern World. Ed. Peter N. Stearns. © Oxford University Press 2008. Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern World: (e-reference edition). Oxford University Press.

| Marc Becker's Home Page | |