Author Post: Finding Indigenous Women in Nineteenth-Century Argentine Anthropology

As part of Vanderbilt UP’s celebration of the Latin American Studies Association LASA2020 virtual congress this week, we welcome a guest post today from Ashley Elizabeth Kerr, author of Sex, Skulls, and Citizens: Gender and Racial Science in Argentina (1860–1910).

Finding Indigenous Women in Nineteenth-Century Argentine Anthropology
by Ashley Elizabeth Kerr

At some point in my research on the relationship between science, nation building, and colonization in nineteenth-century Argentina, I came across a series of images of Indigenous women and children at the natural history museum in La Plata, Argentina, in the 1880s. In one of the photos, a group of young women, children, and babies pose around a few cooking pots and a tea kettle. In another, two bare-chested Araucanian women stand side by side. One of them holds a naked baby who squirms, blurring the photo. My previous reading and writing about early Argentine anthropology had centered the image of rugged male explorers observing and negotiating with male “savages,” while other men created policy, led military offensives, and worked to define the ideal citizen (male, of course). These pictures made me wonder: what role, if any, did women play in these anthropological-colonial projects?

As it turns out, they played many roles. As I went through travelogues, novels, poems, letters, photographs, and newspaper articles from 1860 to 1910, Indigenous women were everywhere. Lucio V. Mansilla, Estanislao S. Zeballos, Francisco P. Moreno, Ramón Lista, and George Chaworth Musters observed, measured, and photographed their bodies. Women also were often the scientists’ primary source of information about their communities: Mansilla learns Araucanian from a Ranquel woman named Carmen, Musters is taught by the chieftain Orkeke’s niece, “a remarkably pretty little girl of about thirteen years of age,” and the Tehuelche women in the La Plata museum alternately informed and frustrated museum employees with their ever-changing responses to questions about their traditions.

The anthropologists also entertained the idea of sexual relations with Indigenous women. In Mansilla’s An Excursion to the Ranquel Indians, he describes a long flirtation with Carmen that rhetorically supports his thesis that all humans are part of a single species. At the same time, his refusal to actually sleep with her foreshadows his change of heart: several years later he would deny Indigenous people’s humanity in front of the Argentine Congress. Conversely, Ramón Lista had a sexual relationship with Clorinda Coile, a Tehuelche woman, living with her for a period of time during his governorship in Santa Cruz, Patagonia, and fathering a child that would be named Ramona Lista.

Finding these women in the margins of the nineteenth-century texts raised even more questions. Was Coile’s relationship with Lista totally consensual? What did Ramona Lista know of her father, who quickly returned to Buenos Aires? Were the scientists’ female informants being honest with them, or might they have been carefully manipulating their answers to protect their interests and those of their community? What was it like raising a baby thousands of miles from home, in a still-being-built museum and with limited freedom? Unfortunately, the preconceptions of the scientists themselves and later scholars have made it difficult or impossible to find answers. Indeed, most of the women I’ve found are unnamed, labeled at best as “wife of” someone or “Araucanian girl,” and their perspective is rarely considered. Nonetheless, I believe it is extremely important that we recognize Indigenous women’s participation in (and even resistance to) Argentine anthropological-colonial projects. We must continue to ask these questions and value women’s lived experiences, even if we cannot definitely prove the answers. If we do not, we perpetuate the biases of the past, further erasing Indigenous women from Argentine history and culture.

In celebration of LASA2020, you can save 40% and get free shipping on Sex, Skulls, and Citizens and other VUP Latin American Studies titles via the VUP website now through June 30, 2020, with code 15LASA20.

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