The Native Stranger: Argentine Discourses of Race and Nation in a Vanishing Settler Frontier
Tamar Miriam Blickstein
Indigenous people have not disappeared, yet the myth of the vanished native persists as an ideological feature of settler politics and identities today. This dissertation examines the social mechanisms of this common settler narrative through an ethnographic study among settler colonists in Argentina who identify as primeros pobladores (“first inhabitants”) despite having built their economy on local indigenous land and labor. Based on field results, I argue that settlers sustain an identity as founders by turning indigenous locals into strangers from elsewhere—a mode of racialized role-reversal that I call “native estrangement.” My argument draws on 18 months of multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork among settler, creole and indigenous Qom populations in the Argentine cotton belt—a subtropical lowland region of the Gran Chaco conquered from the Qom and other natives by the Argentine military in 1911 for European immigrant settlement. The dissertation focuses on three case studies of “native estrangement” developed in three parts: “Labor,” “Space” and “Race.”
The two chapters of Part I – entitled Labor – argue that racialized regimes of plantation labor have been central to indigenous dispossession and resistance in Chaco historically, and that they continue to shape settler imaginaries of territorial primacy to this day. The first chapter revisits the early 20th century history of joint land and labor conquest, exemplified by the state-run Napalpí reservation: designed to keep conquered natives off settler-colonized land, the reservation also sought to both exploit and “civilize” them through de-Indianizing field labor in conditions that led to a native strike, culminating in a genocidal massacre. The second chapter turns to the present, showing that today’s settlers continue to discount indigenous primacy on the land through racialized religious distinctions between the “sacrificial labor” of settler cotton farming, and the mere “gathering” of cotton-picking labor, deemed an inherent distinction of evolutionary aptitudes between sedentary and hunter-gathering peoples.
Part II – Space – argues that settlers turn natives into strangers spatially by imagining them as an influx from elsewhere. A chapter examines what I call the settlers’ “imagined geographies of native origin,” which includes both nationwide Argentine patterns of attributing foreign provenance to indigenous people near the borderlands, as well as smaller-scale settler tendencies to imagine natives as migrants from a locus beyond the space and time of settler “founding.” The following chapter examines the effect of this racialized estrangement on those estranged, through a comparison between two ethnically similar Qom slums outside the settler colony that are respectively racialized as more “savage” or more “civilized.” Through archival and oral history, the precursors of this difference are traced to the “savage” slum’s ancestral ties to the colony’s terrain itself, from which they were repeatedly removed or ousted in several stages over the past century.
Part III – Race – complicates the settler-native binary by exploring how criollization contributes to indigenous dispossession, through a case study of racialized ghost-stories and segregated deathways in the traditional Qom territories of Napalpí. The chapter traces criollo rumors about white settler ghosts at the inauguration of a settler landmark near a segregated gringo-criollo cemetery, all of which is built on an original Qom “burial ground”. While the state-funded landmark was meant to sacrilize a settler myth of founding, these criollo rumors disrupt that official narrative with a phantasmagoric backstory of white devil worship that highlights the ongoing segregation between the groups. Although the creoles’ segregated class position is premised on their visible indigenous trace, their rumors of resistance nevertheless disavow a third indigenous Qom deathway. Racialized rifts between dominant “melting pot” and repressed “creole” renditions of national territorial belonging generate and sustain a native absence from both narratives. A process which, as I demonstrate, is not able to eradicate the ongoing assertions to sovereignty that indigenous claims to these territories represent.