State Building and Transnational Indian Policies in the Americas, 1940–80

AHA Session 224
Conference on Latin American History 47
Saturday, January 6, 2018: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Columbia 9 (Washington Hilton, Terrace Level)
Marc Becker, Truman State University
Stephen E. Lewis, California State University, Chico

Session Abstract

Broadly conceived, indigenismo is a social movement that sought to identify the socioeconomic problems confronting indigenous populations and remedy the worst of those abuses. Typically spearheaded by non-Indians, early expressions of indigenismo in the 1920s typically excluded the present indigenous population from the nation-building project while appropriating pre-Columbian culture as symbols of national heritage. However, by the 1940s, indigenismo became a key function of national unification and state building projects across the Americas. As such, the state became the main party identified as being responsible both for the extension of social services to indigenous areas, but also in shaping indigenous peoples into national citizens. This project, which took institutionalized form with the creation of the Inter-American Indianist Institute in 1940, was transnational, drawing intellectuals and diplomats from countries throughout the Americas. Building on the belief that the incorporation of Indians into the body politic of the nation would foster national and hemispheric security and solidarity, indigenismo influenced a variety of political and social projects, creating a mechanism for both transnational political engagement but also more localized encounters between national, regional, and ethnic identities.

Bringing together historians of Latin America, the United States, and anthropology, this panel explores the ways in which adherents of indigenismo revised the social and racial category of the Western Hemisphere’s “Indian.” To shape the conversation, our papers all converge around the following questions: 1) How did indigenismo shape national and international policies and understandings of governance throughout the Americas in the twentieth century? 2) How did intellectuals revise and shape contemporary understandings of the category of “the Indian”? 3) How did indigenous communities and individuals, the intended recipients of indigenista programs, respond to efforts to incorporate them in the nation?

Much of the scholarship on indigenismo classifies it as paternalistic at best and often focuses on the evaluation of the movement and its successes and failures. Building off of this work, recent scholarship is beginning to take a more nuanced approach to the examination of indigenismo, focusing instead on the intellectual history of this movement and the social and political consequences that indigenismo produced. Our panel joins this effort, focusing on the ways in which twentieth century indigenismo, in its multiple forms, influenced shifting ideas about national identity, social inclusion, and racial categories. We approach this topic from a transnational perspective, seeking to interrogate how shifting notions of Pan-Americanism during and after WWII and into the late Cold War period influenced the ways in which indigenismo was used to generate hemispheric solidarity and security. While geographically specific to the Americas, the panel’s broad theme is relevant across the Global South and beyond as we focus on the interconnectedness of national and transnational politics and policies with national attempts to create a modern unified national identity in the face of an ethnically diverse public.

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