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A nascent campaign is slowly forcing a public reckoning with Uruguay’s history and self-image, while simultaneously raising broader questions about what, exactly, makes a people

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Felipe Lobato, 28, shown on the outskirts of Montevideo, is part of a campaign of people who want the government to recognize them as Indigenous and as victims of cultural genocide.Matilde Campodonico/The Globe and Mail

When Felipe Lobato was growing up, people sometimes called him negrito (darky) and asked him if he was Peruvian, or some other kind of exotic foreigner. He was in his teens when he began to learn the history of Indigenous people who lived, not just in the Andes or other far-off corners of South America, but in Uruguay. Four years ago, as he was trying to put words on his own identity, Mr. Lobato stumbled across Facebook photos posted by people who looked like him and who said they were Charrua – members of Uruguay’s First Nation.

The hitch, for Mr. Lobato, was that the Charrua are extinct. So say the history books, the government, anthropologists and indeed Uruguay’s whole national creation story.

Intrigued, Mr. Lobato, a 28-year-old sound engineer and DJ who lives in the capital, sought out the people in the pictures and learned that there is a significant challenge to that creation story – living, breathing Charrua who are undeterred by the anthropologists and the textbooks who say they were wiped out nearly 200 years ago.

“We lived on this territory before the Uruguayan state started to administer it – and they tried to erase our whole existence – but some of us are saying, we are still here,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be over because some anthropologists claim it is. We’re used to that, by now.”

Today, a nascent campaign by Mr. Lobato and others who say they are Indigenous, who want the government to recognize them as a people and as victims of a cultural genocide, is slowly forcing a public reckoning with Uruguay’s history and self-image. At the same time, it is raising broader questions about what, exactly, makes a people.

The Charrua were among a handful of First Nations who inhabited the territory that is now Uruguay when the Spanish arrived in the early 1500s. Colonial settlement came relatively late here, compared with the rest of the Americas and the historical record is limited. Some accounts say there were about 10,000 Charrua when the Spanish came, but their numbers fell fast after exposure to new diseases, as the Portuguese and then Brazilians successively claimed the region.

The Charrua were a semi-nomadic people and soon came into conflict with the owners of ranches and plantations that began to spread through their traditional territory – a different experience than the Guaraní, who lived in the north of the country near the border of what is now Brazil and who settled into agricultural communities based around Jesuit missions.

However many Charrua there may have been, their numbers were dramatically reduced in a conflict led by Fructuoso Rivera, a Uruguayan founding father, who mounted an army financed by plantation owners against them in 1831. In a battle known as Salsipuedes (“get out if you can”), after one of its locations, all, or nearly all, the Charrua men of fighting age were killed. The elderly, women and children were sent on a forced march toward the capital – but many were parceled out along the way to plantation owners who agreed to “Christianize” them in exchange for their slave labour. Four Charrua adults, including a healer, were sent as a curiosity to France, where they were put on display to the public but soon died of disease. How many others survived Salsipuedes is a subject of historical contention and central to the debate happening here today.

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At a park in Montevideo, a monument called Los ultimos Charruas (The Last Charruas) depicts four Charruas: Senaque, Vaimaca, Guyunusa and Tacuabe.Matilde Campodonico/The Globe and Mail

“When I was a child in school, I learned, ‘We are a very civilized country, very advanced, because we’re white and European and, thank God, we had no Indians,’” said Nicolas Guigou, who directs the department of social anthropology at the University of the Republic in Montevideo. Eventually, he said, the historical narrative that celebrated wiping out the Indigenous evolved to the idea that the population was sparse to begin with and over time just disappeared, drifting away to other places or succumbing to disease.

This became the Uruguayan creation story: the Indigenous were exterminated or evaporated, leaving behind only a bit of useful warrior genetics – the nickname for the national soccer team is the Charruas and someone who does something daring is described as having garra Charrua, meaning strength. That bit of fighting DNA was blended with that of the white, European immigrants who became the population of the country, along with a small number of descendants of African slaves .

This story only began to be questioned after the end of the military dictatorship in 1985 – when there was a sense that everything Uruguayans knew about themselves merited reconsideration.

In 1989, a first group of people with Indigenous identity began to work together – including Mónica Michelena, the woman whose pictures Mr. Lobato saw on Facebook years later.

“We called ourselves ‘descendants of the Charrua nation’ – that was all we could be,” Ms. Michelena, a 55-year-old math teacher, says. “It was impossible to be Charrua in Uruguay at that time – people laughed in your face. They said, ‘How is it that now we have Charrua when we didn’t have any before – you must have an agenda, you’re looking for something, some kind of compensation.’”

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Monica Michelena, 55, speaks with The Globe and Mail in her Montevideo backyard. 'We called ourselves ‘descendants of the Charrua nation’ – that was all we could be,' she says.Matilde Campodonico/The Globe and Mail

In the late 1990s, she and others in the movement got a call from a group of Charrua in Argentina who suggested they come visit. Ms. Michelena and some of her fellow activists went and began to learn from their experience in a country where the fight for Indigenous rights was more advanced.

“They asked us, ‘Why don’t you call yourselves Charrua – what are you afraid of?’ ” Ms. Michelena recalls. For her, it was a revelation. “If my grandmother was Charrua, why aren’t I?”

The version of history that says no one survived Salsipuedes, that they were wiped out, is simply untrue, says Martín Delgado, the director of the National Council of the Charrua – not all the clans at the time went to confront General Rivera, and some eluded confrontation after the massacre. They, and the survivors taken to the city, passed the language and culture to their children. ( Mr. Delgado, 26, is studying anthropology in Montevideo and hopes to do a doctorate; he’s the first-ever Indigenous student in the faculty ).

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Martin Delgado, director of the National Council of the Charrua, prepares a mate, a signature South American beverage.Matilde Campodonico/The Globe and Mail

Almost nothing of that language or culture survives today. There is one living speaker of the closely related language Chara, a septuagenarian in Argentina; and one historical source, an interview with survivors of the massacre a couple of years later that contains about 70 words in Charrua. Mr. Delgado said his organization is hopeful that other sources that could help reconstruct the language may be found in archives in Europe, as has happened with other Indigenous languages.

“We are debating within the Charrua – do we need the language to be a people?” Ms. Michelena said. “Of course, the language contains the vision of the world.” She said they are “stitching together” the culture that they lost, from the memories of elderly people, historical accounts and meetings with other Indigenous communities in Argentina and Brazil. It makes her no less Charrua that she cannot speak the language, she said.

But this is a point of considerable contention: Some Uruguayan anthropologists argue that without any of these things – a language, cultural practices, traditional dress or songs or customs – the Charrua today are, regrettably, only descendants.

“I’ve been investigating this for years … There is no document or other proof that a group was permanently here and maintained customs into the twentieth century: The last group, maybe 15 people, disappeared in 1850,” said Oscar Padrón, a prominent historian with an expertise in the Indigenous issue. “So 150 years later, you have descendants saying they are Charrua – from a scientific point of view, there is no basis to say they are a people. Yes, they are descendants – but there is nothing to demonstrate an ethnic continuity for 150 years – it’s personal fantasy.”

That argument elicits a dark laugh from Felipe Lobato. “These anthropologists say, ‘You’re not isolated in a tribe’ – well, how can we be if the state itself forced us out? This is our history.”

Prof. Guigou says that anthropologists in Canada or elsewhere would not hesitate to call the Charrua a people and that their battle within Uruguay is a symptom of racism entrenched in the universities. “Self-identification is what’s most important,” he said. He described, with distaste, a program by other researchers at his university to take blood samples from people with Charrua heritage to study the proportions in their DNA. “The academy here is very provincial and close-minded. Identity is not a question of blood unless you’re a Nazi.”

Today, the Charrua council is focused on the goal of getting government to recognize the existence of living Charrua and to put the name “genocide” to the events of the 1800s – including the massacre at Salsipuedes – and the subsequent obliteration of Indigenous people from official history.

Mr. Delgado said there is no consensus within the movement about whether the Charrua should also be pressing for some sort of land rights – some feel that the surviving Charrua are so displaced that there is no connection with a particular place that needs to be recognized.

But Guidaí Vargas, a 24-year-old teacher who is a leader among young people claiming Charrua identity, said the movement cannot rule out potential land claims. “We can’t cede that right, not now, because it would be deciding for future generations,” she said. “In a few years, the land will become more important as people want to go back to the land of their ancestors.”

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Guidai Vargas, 24: 'We can’t cede the right to potential land claims for Charrua descendants, 'not now, because it would be deciding for future generations.'Matilde Campodonico/The Globe and Mail

Uruguay’s government has not signed the International Labour Organization’s Convention 169, the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples’ Convention, which is the framework many neighbouring countries have used to negotiate agreements with Indigenous people. Prof. Guigou said they haven’t done it precisely because of the risk of opening the need to negotiate with the Charrua and he called it indicative of state “schizophrenia.”

The federal government, a left-wing coalition, is internally divided on the issue, he said – some ministers feel it is important not to recognize the existence of present-day Charrua in order to avoid the messiness of claims for land or other rights; and another group feels that failure to address the Indigenous issue makes Uruguay look bad internationally.

“Uruguay is a very liberal country in other senses – abortion is legal, marijuana is legal, gay couples can marry and adopt kids – but in this sense, it is hugely behind,” he said. “It’s a liberal, racist state.”

No one in several government departments approached by The Globe and Mail would comment on the issue.

In 2014, Ms. Michelena was appointed to an unpaid position as an advisor on Indigenous affairs in the “racial and ethnic unit” of the foreign ministry. The Charrua succeeded in getting a question added to the national census in 2011 – people were asked to identify the race of their ancestry and, if they identified more than one, to say which they considered predominant. Nearly 5 per cent of people said they had some Charruan ancestry and 2.4 per cent said that was their main heritage – some 76,000 Indigenous people. “That means there are 76,000 Charrua,” Ms. Michelena said.

But Prof. Padrón says that is simply untrue: There is a historical record of Indigenous presence in Uruguay, he says – tens of thousands of church records of marriages, births and deaths of people listed as Indigenous. But almost none of them were Charrua; most were the Guaraní who settled near the missions. “We have a large Indigenous history but it isn’t Charrua,” says Prof. Padrón, who directs a museum called Casa Rivera, in the General’s historic home in the city of Durazno.

The desire to claim Charrua identity stems from an admiration for their supposed tradition of fiercely resisting colonization, he said, and a sort of nationalism – “every country has its own Indian, the Charrua are Uruguay’s.”

Prog. Guigou called this attitude the “second violence of the political strategy” – first came the genocide of the 1800s, and now there is denial of the existence of survivors. Today, the fifth-grade school social studies books in Uruguay contain a couple of paragraphs on the “slaughter” at Salsipuedes; the sixth-grade unit, on genocide, discusses Armenia, Bosnia and Rwanda, but makes no mention of Indigenous people.

Mr. Lobato says that is something government could address fairly easily, as is the fact that a great many Charrua work in conditions one step above slavery as labourers on plantations today. But the incentive to remain the one Latin American country without Indigenous people is strong, he said.

“No government wants to deal with this ghost in the closet because the territory [that Charrua could claim], although small compared to other nations, has a lot of interests, lots of value,” he said. “The government looks at what is happening in other countries – giving us control of land, including us in decision-making – and they don’t want to get into that.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Nicolas Guigou directs the department of social anthropology at the Humanities University in Montevideo. He directs the department at the University of the Republic in Montevideo. This is a corrected version.

Editor’s note: This version corrects Ms. Michelena's age and a reference to Indigenous people.

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