Leleque museum: even Mapuche history appropriated by Benetton
by Leslie Ray - 4th June, 2004
What is a museum for? The idealists among us would hope that through its exhibits it could educate our younger generations about the past, enabling them to learn lessons from history to gain an understanding of the world and their place in it. Noble ideals perhaps, but the real purpose of Argentina’s museums, and Leleque in particular, is somewhat different.
Originally privately financed, by the wealthy or the church, museums came to prominence as public institutions in the middle of the 19th century, which just happens to be the period of the formation of the Argentine state. According to historian Graeme Davison:
“From its origins in the early nineteenth century to the present day, the fortunes of the modern museum have been closely intertwined with those of the nation-state. It is mainly nations that found, fund, foster and sometimes fetter museums. The museums themselves often see themselves as advancing national aspirations and expressing a national sense of identity or character”.
The victors write the books ... and build the museums
There are a large number of historical museums in Southern Argentina, as most of the towns of any size have one. Though the grandeur of the buildings and the quality of the exhibits may vary - the one in Viedma small, grubby, and with one solitary, forlorn member of staff, while the one across the river in Carmen de Patagones, capacious and pristine clean - they all seem to follow the same basic pattern, or rather, the same route-map through time:
The subtext is clear: the rifle and the railway brushed aside the “savages” to make way for “civilisation” through colonisation. This is the version of history preferred by the noble patriarchs of the Argentine nation, such Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, President from 1868-1874, generally viewed as being responsible for creating Argentina’s education system. Sarmiento had this to say of the Mapuche:
“Above all, we would like to remove the savages from all American social questions, as for them we feel, without being able to remedy it, an unconquerable loathing, and for us Colocolo, Lautaro and Caupolican, despite the civilised and noble robes in which Ercilla clothed them, are no more than disgusting Indians, whom we would have had hanged...”.
Sarmiento did indeed remove the Mapuche from Argentine history, except as representatives of the “chaos” that preceded the arrival of the order of European enlightenment. Another such patriarch was the father of Argentine science, Perito Francisco Pascasio Moreno, who founded the Museum of Natural Sciences of La Plata in 1884, which just happens to be the year when General Vintter was murdering Mapuche in the Neuquén Triangle during the final stages of the “Conquest of the Desert”, when General Roca’s armies swept across the pampas and Patagonia killing and enslaving, freeing the fertile plains for the arrival of European immigrants. Although known in the history book as the “Conquest of the Desert”, it was not a desert, as flora, fauna and civilisation were abundant there, and it was not a conquest, it was a massacre. Thousands of dead, tens of thousands of prisoners.
The venerated Perito Moreno did not stand idly by while all this was going on. Inakayal and Foyel were two lonkos (leaders) whose communities were located in the area of Tecka, in the south-west of what is today’s Chubut. In October 1884 they were taken prisoner through treachery during negotiations with a military commander who had stationed a fort on their land. Their homes were destroyed and they and their families were force marched to the El Tigre prison in Buenos Aires, while their land was sold by the government to the British Tecka Land Company.
A year and a half after Inakayal and Foyel’s capture, Moreno was given permission to provide accommodation for them and their families. Inakayal died in the museum on 24 September 1888. Instead of being buried, his bones, brain, scalp and death mask joined the museum collection. His skeleton remained on display in the Museum’s Anthropological Galleries until 1940, when it went into storage. Was Moreno the father of Argentine culture or the father of Argentine vultures?
On 19 April 1994, the “Day of the Indian” in Argentina, the urn containing Inakayal’s bones was returned to Tecka, to be covered by stones in a chenque (traditional tomb), with his descendants present at the ceremony. An archaeologist from the Museum of La Plata accompanied the urn on its journey, and formally apologised to Inakayal’s descendants on behalf of the institution.
Through the “Conquest”, the defeat of the Mapuche was intended to be total, including the destruction of their religiosity. As a finishing touch to the taking of their land, their cemeteries were subjected to profanation, all in the name of Christianity. At the time the writer and politician Estanislao Zeballos, whose slogan was “with arms, science”, defended such actions in these terms: “Barbarism is cursed and in the desert not even the remains of their dead will be left”.
Rankulche lonko Panguitruz Nuru, son of the great Painé Nuru, was imprisoned as a child and handed over to Juan Manuel de Rosas, who made him his godson and baptised him Mariano Rosas. After years of captivity, he escaped to the base of his community at Leuvocó, where he led his people until his death. A few years later, when the forces of the Third Desert Expeditionary Division invaded Rankulche territory. Panguitruz’ tomb was desecrated, and by order of the leader of the expedition, his skull was taken and sent to Estanislao Zeballos, who donated it to Moreno's Museum of Natural Sciences, where it was displayed for 123 years.
On 28 August 2000, to much celebration, the remains of Panguitruz Nuru were finally returned to his people in Leuvucó.
To this day, in the Viedma Museum there is still the mummified body of a Tehuelche in the foetal position, accompanied by the description: Burial of Tehuelche of Idevi. The individual was placed in a curled up position wrapped in hide.
Burke and Hare were notorious grave-robbers, but the robbing of Mapuche graves to fill Argentina’s museums was commonplace - they were allowed no dignity, even in death.
In recent years the Mapuche organisations of Viedma and Carmen de Patagones have protested against such “exhibits”, even carrying out raids to reappropriate their sacred items and cultural artefacts. I spoke to the curator if the Museum of Carmen de Patagones after such a raid, and she told me that the artefacts that the Mapuche took from the museum were in fact reproductions of Tehuelche weapons, e.g. boleadoras, etc. and a poncho, and not the real thing. “They had to be recovered by the police”, she said.
Discussing how national identity is a fabrication of a country's élite, Néstor García Canclini has this to say:
“Those - historically changing - referents of identity were embalmed by folklore at a ‘traditional’ stage of their development and declared essences of the national culture. They are still exhibited today in the museums, relayed by schools and the mass media, dogmatically asserted in religious and political speeches, and defended, when they falter, by military authority”.
There is an old Mapuche saying that expresses a similar concept, but more succinctly:
'An Indian who profanes a white man’s
tomb is put in prison;
The privatisation of history
Today the great state museums have been supplanted by private ones, such as the Benetton Museum in Leleque. After privatisation, the history of the region is still in 'good hands'.
In 2000 Benetton inaugurated their Anthropological, Archaeological and Paleontological Museum in Leleque. A tourism website for Patagonia has the following to say of the museum:
“The museum is the result of the will and passion of Pablo Korchenewski, who has devoted his whole life to the gathering of testimonies on the peoples of Patagonia, and of Carlo Benetton, who is so fond of the natural beauties of this land that, in 1991, he acquired the Compañía de Tierras Sud Argentino, and who, thanks to his tradition in top quality wool producing sheep breeding, is part of the history of Patagonia since the 19th century.”
The museum enables the Benetton company to feel good about itself, while paying lip service to its famous anti-racist mission. An admirable enterprise, then, apparently motivated primarily by Benetton's fondness for natural beauty. Not according to the 11 October Mapuche-Tehuelche Organisation, who, in a press release dated 12 May 2000, commented on the event in the following bitter and sarcastic tones:
“Today the Anthropological, Archaeological and Paleontological Museum was inaugurated on the Benetton estate, in the area of Leleque. Present at the inauguration were the Governor of the Province of Chubut, officials, representatives of the Roman Catholic church, millionaire foreigners from various countries, scientists, historians and national and international media. Everything was highly organised for such an “important event”, which cost around US$ 1,000,000. They needed the token indigenous face for such an event, of course, which is why they resort to Mapuche individuals without any dignity, who willingly lend themselves for the circuses they set up.”
That Benetton acquired the land around Leleque in 1991 when they took over the “Compañía de Tierras Sud Argentino” [Argentine Southern Land Company] is clearly documented. Much murkier is how the latter came to acquire the land, back in 1896. The company say it was a “donation from the [Argentine] government”, but many believe that it was given to them in return for services rendered, for contributing to financing the Conquest of the Desert.
Whether that is or is not the case, the museum
now stands on ancestral Mapuche land. It is part of the revamping of
the area for tourism purposes, which includes the re-opening of the “La
Trochita” railway. Though “La Trochita” fell into
disuse for many years, after its inauguration in 1945 it played an
important part in the development of the region. All the materials
and goods arrived along this route, and it was from its stations that
the wool and hides produced and livestock bred on the farms of the
Argentine Southern Land Company departed for the north.
There are four rooms: room one has archaeological finds of the Original People, room two the artefacts of what is euphemistically called the “War of the Desert” and rooms three and four have items from the coming of the railway and the period of European immigration. Attentive readers may recognise this format, which is mentioned above; the museum may be private, but the template is the same as ever.
The museum literature makes reference to Original Peoples, to Indians, to Natives, to the “Tehuelche tribes”, who are not accorded the dignity of being referred to as a “People”. Imagine talking of the Italian tribes, or the Welsh tribes! Yet if the latter had not been helped to hunt by the Tehuelche when they arrived in Patagonia in 1865, these supposedly more “civilised” Europeans would have died of hunger, as they readily admit. The Tehuelche were lucky, however, as at least they are mentioned, being the official “Argentine Indians” (“an autochthonous, exclusively Argentine race”, according to Enrique Amadeo Artayeta, director of the Museum of Patagonia in the 1940s). As far as I have been able to verify, at the Leleque museum there is no mention of the Puelche, the Pewenche, the Rankulche, the Williche, or any of the other regional identities that made up the Mapuche nation and in the mid-19th century had been inhabiting the Pampas and Patagonia for many centuries.
They may have been erased from official history, but their descendants have not been wiped out, despite the best efforts of Argentine generals and statesmen. They are still alive in the cities and towns of Southern Argentina, and in the many communities that do not even appear on the official maps. They are in the process of reclaiming their history. The process may be a long one, but they will ultimately succeed in recovering what is rightfully theirs.
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