Ancient owners of the arrows
Plaza de Mayo. The very heart of Argentina’s capital, Buenos Aires. It’s March 17, 2014. In that square, which witnessed the struggle against the military dictatorship of that brave group of women known today as “the Madres”, Qom communities are now demanding that their rights be respected. Their need and their despair are evident but, even though they are protesting in front of a noticeably fenced-in Casa Rosada (Presidential Palace), nobody seems to hear their voices – at least, nobody powerful enough to change things. “We’re in a worst situation now than during the dictatorship”, the Qom declare. “Now we’re faced by these fences, keeping us away from the heart of government.”
Until recent times, all that most Argentines knew about the Qom indigenous people were a few things mentioned in a popular Argentine folk song titled “Antiguo dueño de las flechas” [“Ancient owner of the arrows”]. “Toba Indian / Wandering shadow of the jungle / Ancient owner of the arrows”, the lyrics say. Pejoratively called “Toba” by their Guarani neighbors (from továi, “forehead”) and “Frentones” (“big foreheads”) by the Spanish conquistadors, after their custom of shaving their foreheads, the Qom, like many other South American indigenous cultures, chose the word “people” to call themselves in qom l’aqtaqa, their mother language. Members of the Guaykuruan linguistic family, they have lived, and still mainly live, in Central Chaco, in the north-eastern Argentine provinces of Chaco and Formosa.
Even if the Qom currently have a relatively large population and keep alive their language (having bilingual education programmes and libraries) and their rich oral tradition, their daily life is dramatic. They are the victim of discrimination, constant aggressions and violations of their rights at the hands of “criollos” (creoles, white people) and local authorities, and they suffer serious health problems, with recurrent epidemics (such as cholera and dengue fever). They face famine, endemic poverty and continued illiteracy. The few lands they still own are being stolen from them and in recent times, Monsanto’s GM crops and the dangerous agrochemicals associated with it (such as glyphosate) come on top of their existing problems – and of those of many other Argentineans as well.
Both national and provincial governments and the INAI (Instituto Nacional de Asuntos Indígenas / National Institute of Indigenous Affairs) create more conflicts than solutions and generally tend to side with the big landowners and the multinational corporations.
The abuses the Qom suffer and the critical situations they endure have not usually been covered by the mass media in the past, and visibility, let alone justice, for their claims has been seldom obtained. Around 2001, however, Argentine civil society started to recognize Qom struggles and from 2010 on, the change in the public opinion has gone deeper. Examples of the mistreatment the Qom and many others native American peoples receive can now be found in social networks, or in collaborative platforms like Indymedia.
In October 2013, for instance, a Qom newly born was burnt to death in an improvised incubator at Pampa del Indio’s only hospital, in Chaco province. There, the “food parcels” programme aimed at reducing hunger and malnutrition was canceled, as well as the distribution of clean water through tankers (though that water was generally unfit for consumption anyway). During 2014, at least four acts of brutal repression have been confirmed in the Chaco against Qom people, the latest in early March of this year, against demonstrations calling for health, food and access to potable water.
Early in 2010, Qom communities from Formosa province had reported the terrible human rights violations they had been suffering during the preceding months: from bloody unsolved murders to police abuses and invasions of community lands. In December of that year, Qom camped on Av. 9 de Julio, the most emblematic avenue in the centre of Buenos Aires, to denounce impunity, political clientelism and corruption, as well as the lack of electricity service, potable water and sanitation, and the illegal occupation and the plunder of their ancestral lands.
Nobody heard their complaints, though; governor of Formosa Gildo Insfran, said to be one of the main culprits, has a close relationship with President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner; she has ignored the Qom and has advised Argentine indigenous peoples to be “smart” and embrace the same extractive activity that is devastating their lands and lives. During the camp, qarashé (leader) Felix Diaz, from the community of Potae Napocna Navogoh, which is situated 160 km. from the city of Formosa, started a hunger strike. Since then, Diaz has become a sort of “public face” for the Qom social movement; and, as usual in these cases, he has taken the brunt of Fernandez de Kirchner’s hurtful statements, as well as suffering several attempts on his life and attacks on his family members throughout 2012.
As many other American indigenous societies, Qom have a long history of conflict with “foreigners”. Sad to say, their current problems are not something new. Sixteenth-century colonial chronicles place them in the forests and plains between the Bermejo and Pilcomayo rivers. Semi-nomadic foragers, slash-and-burn farmers and dauntless warriors, they fiercely resisted the Spanish conquest, alongside other peoples of the region (Abipón, Mocoví, Pilagá, Wichi).
During the 17th century, Qom acquired horses and became much more dangerous, a powerful culture of equestrian fighters. By 1710, Qom communities had become a confederation that opposed Spanish “entradas” (attacks) and always struck back, looting and burning the nearest colonial cities (Asunción, Santa Fe, Corrientes, Córdoba, Santiago del Estero, Salta) and even forcing their horses to cross the wide Paraguay river to escape punishment. By 1810, thirty forts surrounded Central and Southern Chaco, keeping a fragile peace that was easily broken. Around 1830, the Qom started ransacking estancias and timber mills and buccaneering in the Pilcomayo and Paraná rivers, and in 1858 they even dared to harass the already strong city of Santa Fe.
After the Paraguayan War, in 1870, the Argentine government decided to advance into the still unconquered Chaco and by 1883 national troops had already completed seven “expeditions” and carried out a terrible genocide. In 1884 the so-called “Victorica campaign” ravaged the surviving communities. Roads were built, rivers and forests were explored and chartered, land was shared out among European doqshé (“white”) settlers, and by 1899 any significant indigenous resistance seemed to be exterminated.
But in the early 20th century settlers reported sporadic indigenous attacks, so new campaigns were launched to eliminate them. In 1915 the state claimed the total control of Chaco, yet Qom assaults continued until 1923. From 1924 to 1937 the Qom organised messianic revolts which were crushed with much bloodshed. In 1938, Chaco was finally “pacified”. Qom fields were divided and used for agriculture, while their old forests fed the timber industry. Stripped of their lands and heritage and denied their rights and their culture, they became a cheap labor force, employed under degrading conditions, which they were forced to accept, for their traditional way of life was wiped off the map. Catholic and Protestant missionaries undertook a religious assault that was as devastating as the military one.
Chaco has been completely deforested and the indigenous population, extremely diminished. Argentina’s National Census of 2001 showed 70,000 Qom living in rural and urban communities. From the 1960’s onwards they began to move to “barrios tobas” (literally, “Toba neighborhoods”), slums located in the poverty belts around large cities, especially Buenos Aires and Rosario. Urban Qom subsist on rag-picking, construction working, crafts selling and other unskilled jobs. In the countryside, they live in government lands or indigenous territories, and often work as cheap farm labourers. In 1994, the Argentine Constitution (art. 75, par. 16) recognized for the first time the rights of all national indigenous peoples. Unfortunately, these rights still remain on paper. As they do for many other indigenous peoples in the Americas.
Today, the Qom name is known. And there are new songs that better reflect their idiosyncrasy and their struggles than “Ancient owner of the arrows”. For those legendary arrows that put fear in the hearts of big cities during the past are not ancient and are not gone. In the past no fences stopped them and no attack was left without a response. And so it is today. The battlefield may have changed, but the struggle continues.
* Edgardo Civallero is an Argentinean librarian, musician, writer and teacher with a long experience on Latin American indigenous peoples, their culture and their struggles.
Photos by Graciela S. Bustamante – Qom camp in Plaza de Mayo (Buenos Aires, Argentina, 17 March 2014).