Jeffrey Alan Erbig Jr. : Indigenous Rights in “A Country Without Indians”

Today we welcome a guest post from Jeffrey Erbig, author of Where Caciques and Mapmakers Met: Border Making in Eighteenth-Century South America, out now from UNC Press.

During the late eighteenth century, Portugal and Spain sent joint mapping expeditions to draw a nearly 10,000-mile border between Brazil and Spanish South America. These boundary commissions were the largest ever sent to the Americas and coincided with broader imperial reforms enacted throughout the hemisphere. Where Caciques and Mapmakers Met considers what these efforts meant to Indigenous peoples whose lands the border crossed. Moving beyond common frameworks that assess mapped borders strictly via colonial law or Native sovereignty, it examines the interplay between imperial and Indigenous spatial imaginaries. What results is an intricate spatial history of border making in southeastern South America (present-day Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay) with global implications.

Where Caciques and Mapmakers Met is now available in print and ebook formats.


Indigenous Rights in “A Country Without Indians”

Uruguay is often considered one of the most progressive countries in Latin America. Whether for its generous welfare state, strong labor unions, the decriminalization of abortion, marriage equality laws, the legalization of recreational cannabis, or otherwise, the country has stood out in the region. Yet Uruguay is one of the only countries in Latin America to not ratify the International Labor Organization’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention 169 (Map 1). This 1989 convention is the only legally binding international document regarding Indigenous peoples’ rights, including the right to self-determination, and is a forerunner to the United Nations’ 2007 Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Map 1. Convention 169 Signatories in Latin America. Source:

Uruguay’s opposition to signing this convention derives from a national imaginary that simultaneously denies and appropriates indigeneity. Since the nineteenth century, political leaders and academics alike have cultivated the notion that Uruguay is a country without Indians (“un país sin indios), instead emphasizing European immigration as its population’s defining characteristic. Meanwhile, they considered Charrúas – the principal Indigenous nation in and around Uruguay – to have been prehistoric forebears of Uruguayan national spirit, no longer around but living in everyone. This sentiment is ubiquitous yet perhaps most visible internationally in the use of the concept “garra charrúa” to refer to the tenacity of Uruguay’s national soccer team and players abroad. The logic is thus that if there are no more Charrúas or if everyone is Charrúa then there is no need to officially recognize Charrúa rights.

Since Uruguay’s return to civilian government in 1985, Indigenous activists have publicly challenged these long-standing beliefs. In 1989, the same year that ILO169 was drafted, the Association of Descendants of the Charrúa Nation (ADENCH) became the first nationally recognized Indigenous social organization in Uruguay. Since then, other community organizations emerged and formed coalitions with one another, including the Council of the Charrúa Nation (CONACHA), created in 2005. Charrúa activists have worked to gain visibility, to repatriate the remains of an ancestor from France’s Musée de l’Homme, to gain inclusion of ethnicity as a census category, and to mark April 11 as the Day of the Charrúa Nation and Indigenous Identity in Uruguay.

April 11, 1831, is at the center of debates regarding indigeneity and state responsibility in Uruguay. It was then that the newly formed Uruguayan military infamously massacred and took captive scores of Charrúas, after which Charrúas began to disappear from historical records. These events have long been used to mark victims as the last Charrúas (“los últimos charrúas”), but activists and academics have drawn upon genealogical studies and community based oral histories to challenge the notion of such an end.

Different challenges arise when looking back before 1831. Temporal limits of historical memory have made us reliant upon written accounts, which in this case have been spread across dozens of archives in at least seven countries. This, combined with the lack of Indigenous-authored sources, has led to persistent narratives of the inevitability of Charrúas’ demise.

Map 2. Colonial Borders in Southeastern South America. Source: Erbig, Where Caciques and Mapmakers Met, 2

Recent archival research has challenged these assumptions, showing that Charrúas and other Indigenous peoples in the region were neither bit players nor antecedents to the histories of nation-states, but integral agents who persisted amid colonial efforts to eliminate them. In my own work, which focuses on Luso-Hispanic efforts to partition South America (Map 2), I used digital mapping of dispersed archival records to find meaning in Indigenous movements across the region. I found that Native leaders maintained effective sovereignty over the countryside even as colonial governments claimed it as their own, leveraging imperial border making to their advantage (Map 3). Such recasting is important because, among other things, it points to the colonial roots of the present-day denial of Indigenous existence and situates Charrúas as protagonists of their own stories.

Map 3. Reported Locations of Indigenous Communities (tolderías) and Imperial Borders. Source: Erbig, Where Caciques and Mapmakers Met, 125

These dynamics are hardly unique to Uruguay. I write this post from California, a state that is comparable to Uruguay in many ways. I work in the United States, a country that has not merely opposed ILO169, but was one of only four countries to vote against the United Nations’ 2007 declaration. It also has not officially recognized the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, upon whose traditional and unceded lands I work at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Within Latin America, other holdouts to ILO169 include El Salvador, Panamá, and most Caribbean nations, places where Indigenous histories have been routinely diminished or denied. In each instance, present-day socio-political relations hinge upon prevailing interpretations of the past, increasing the need for innovative, thorough approaches that counter archival silences.


Photo by Sara Niedzwiecki

Jeffrey Alan Erbig Jr. is assistant professor of Latin American and Latino studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Visit his website or follow him on Twitter.