In this second podcast episode historian, teacher and activist Claudia Andrea Gotta and artist Karen Michelsen Castañón discuss aspects of the exhibition Listening and the Winds related to the textiles produced by the women’s weaving collective Thañí/Viene del monte and in particular converse about the relationsship between textiles, testimonies and territories. English translation: JD Pluecker German translation: Luisa Donnerberg Music: Marcelo Berrini
K: Welcome to this second podcast episode. We have come together to have a conversation that begins with the exhibition La escucha y los vientos [Listening and the Winds] at the ifa Gallery in Berlin. Claudia, today we are going to focus on the elements of the show that have to do with the textiles in the exhibition, particularly the woven pieces produced by the women’s weaving collective Thañí/Viene del monte/Comes From the Brushlands. The weavers call these fabrics SILAT, or messages. We can think of these fabrics that unfold in the space of the exhibit as extended nets. The women participating in the exhibit tell the story of these nets in the exhibit brochure; they come from the interwoven bags that in Quechua are known as llicas, and these bags are used while traveling to collect and store things. Indeed, the word can also refer to the fine threads of a spiderweb. What is the relationship then between the llica—this woven bag—and the territories where it is woven?
C: The interwoven fibers of the bags, of these llicas, of these objects that have other uses in daily life, they are made by hand by women and in some cases by men—in some towns women do not always do the weaving—and within the weft and the weave are interwoven forms of ancestral knowledge, which are still possible because there is still chaguar fiber available, because there are still fibers in the native brushlands. This is also a form of struggle. It is not possible to continue making these works if the brushlands are destroyed, and making these bags—used for a variety of purposes depending on their size and the person carrying them—will no longer be necessary if it is no longer possible to go out searching in these different territories for the things that Mother Earth provides us. So then, the bags that are on display there are a living reminder of this, of these fabricator’s hands, of the messages that are continually renewed and that in many cases are the legacy of a long chain of generations that not only have taught others to weave, but also to communicate through the weavings, but that above all they are finding a reason for being, not just in terms of carrying messages but also for utilitarian purposes. These peoples are hunters, gatherers, and fisherpeople, with a form of fishing that entails something more similar to gathering or hunting than what we understand in our societies as fishing. They can continue using them if only the white man—who has positioned himself above all other expressions of life—ceases to invade their territories. If not, the bags will no longer have a reason to exist. In these objects, we come face to face with a society that resists a hegemonic model, that co-exists in a territory with the other life forms. A society that although it cannot fight, it actually does not desire to fight against the hegemonic model, a society that wants to continue living in community in communal territories and communally.
K: The women’s weaving collective Thañí/Viene del monte/Comes From the Brushlands is also part of the association Lhaka Honhat/Nuestra tierra/Our Earth and—according to the exhibit brochure, “has been struggling for the last 30 years for recognition of communal property, for those who have always lived in this territory.” In March of last year, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled in favor in this case of Lhaka Honhat. So then, what does this decision mean for these territories and the communities that live within them?
C: First of all, this organization is pan-communitarian, we could call it, because not only is it comprised of an important number of communities that exceed 130 in number—I believe it is 132 or 133—but also it contains a group that is significant because it is pluri-ethnic, it is multi-ethnic because it contains five indigenous or original peoples in the province of Salta, located in the northwestern part of our country. The nations that are present there are the Wichí, the Qom, the Tapiete, the Chulupí or Nivaclé and the Chorote. These five peoples—who each one have their own names for themselves in each one of their languages and several also have different names for their neighbors (but these are the most well-known names)—all of them are present in this organization, Lhaka Honhat, and in this emblematic case that marked such an important moment at the beginning of last year with the definitive verdict of the IACHR. After this definitive verdict in March 2020 in this case known as 12094, the case of Lhaka Honhat at the Inter-American Court, became a paradigmatic event, but we know almost nothing about the concrete advances made, because this took place in the beginning of this huge standstill in all aspects of our lives brought on by the arrival of COVID-19 across all the territories of the planet. I think that, or I consider, because above all this is an analysis, that the case of Lhaka Honhat is going to be successful, but we have not yet seen the results because we are in this critical moment of change. But we cannot stop thinking that this is going to be an almost spasm-like event in the wider context in which the pandemic itself allowed for the continuation of the on-going destruction of all the territories that were inhabited ancestrally and continue to be inhabited, and whose rights are unalienable and unquestionable in terms of all the indigenous peoples who inhabit the territory of my country. We can think about this across the length of the entirety of Abya Yala and this has to do with the fact that the bulldozers, the trucks, the usurpers, the landowners did not stop. They did not stop during the whole of 2020, but rather continued invading, dismantling, clearcutting, repressing and even, all of the local authorities were backing these actions, because if indigenous people protested by taking over a roadway or going to town to denounce the activities, they were sanctioned for violating the quarantine orders, but the men with the power and the money were never sanctioned for their activities. So this is what is especially worrisome for us. Even though the success of Lhaka Honhat at the IACHR is a victory for all of us involved in this struggle, we have to continue to be cautious in terms of, on the one hand, continuing to emphasize this victory, but without losing track of the reality that prevails in all of the other Indigenous territories that have surely taken the case of Lhaka Honhat as an example to strengthen their own internal organization, because the victory of Lhaka Honhat is no credit to the IACHR. The IACHR has only done what it has to do. The credit should go to the complex and really legitimate organization of Lhaka Honhat, that not only brings together an important number of players and communities, but which has also taken up the possible instruments and has not sold out its own rights. Because this is also what must be valued, to continue thinking with the actual criteria established by Indigenous politics, about what is actually meant by traditional rights and a life in harmony with other forms of life. These are all of the elements that they have thought so deeply about at the moment when—following the requirements imposed by the law and hegemonic power structure—they defend their own rights, and this is what we must celebrate and provide as an example, but it is a struggle that in many other territories is still on the horizon. Because the advancement of these forces that have objectified and commercialized life is a constant all across the territories of Abya Yala. We can see it just by traveling through the territories where previously what predominated was wildness, vibrancy, the sounds of nature; now these same spaces are crisscrossed by cement, large infrastructure projects, all at the service of the commercialization of so-called natural resources, which actually for us are communal property. These are the gifts of Mother Earth given to us so that we might be able to live well.
K: Thank you, Claudia. Could you talk about a few historical precedents in terms of the legal process of recognition of Indigenous communal property for these territories in particular?
C: Yes, of course. In order for our listeners to perhaps have a more complete accounting, we should say that this region—as in all of Abya Yala—was actually always inhabited by these peoples, from time immemorial. And what begins to be seen at the start of the twentieth century, particularly at the beginning of the 1910s, is the arrival of a significant number of criollos (people of European descent) to the region, and these criollos begin to impose their own production models. This begins to give rise to conflicts just as in all the regions of Abya Yala. Some took place during the actual process of invasion, but others arose much later, as is the case in our country where it has taken decades for this to become visible. In 1966, I think, or in the 1960s, in that province, as in many others, the first reservations for Indigenous peoples were created. This is a process that one must get to know because the state begins to record the conflicts, though of course in terms that are always plagued with colonialism and racism, but it cannot ignore it all and some measures must be implemented. So in the 1960s in the face of these developments and this conflict between criollos and Indigenous peoples, the state begins to create Indigenous reservations. Then by the 1970s, at the very beginning of that decade, one of the lots—Lot 55—that is involved in the conflict, known by the name of the Indigenous commission Lhaka Honhat, is declared by a decree to be an Indigenous reservation. This is the first point that must be remembered. When this arrives to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in 1998, we have to think that Lot 55 was already in existence, and it was considered an Indigenous reservation ever since the 1970s. The conflict is over Lot 55 and Lot 14. Despite the existing legislation, and this must be recognized, we cannot ignore the fact that the States [in Abya Yala] have enacted legislation but the problem is that these laws are not enforced. In the early 1980s, there was an initial large gathering in Misión La Paz of 27 Indigenous leaders who are already quite conscious of the increasing criollo presence in the territory and along with this presence what also arrives is a voracious production model, and this development in the territory is extremely troubling. It is extremely troubling because they note how conditions in their territory are deteriorating, along with the harmonious relationship with Mother Nature that they had always attempted to preserve. This relationship is increasingly threatened. So then and there, they make it known that they want a definitive solution to this problem from the State and that there is no way in which they would accept the subdivision of the lots into individual properties, because they do not know the meaning of private property. This is important because this is how they posit this fact. They say that they are rooted in a relationship of harmonious dependency with nature and that on the other hand, they do not know the meaning of private property. We should emphasize the point about the word “meaning.” It is not that they do not accept its existence, but that within their culture this is not feasible. The conflict progresses through a series of moments in which national and provincial governments take an array of diverse positions. This is important to keep in mind because this conflict is part of the political changes taking place in the country. By 1991 and after multiple problems faced in the process, the possibility of being listened to becomes less and less probable. In 1991, they finally are able to achieve a certain awareness of the problem at the level of the provincial government, as they develop and present three maps, which are the result of an extraordinarily significant participatory process in the communities. And in addition, this process is also accompanied by a census of the population of these five ethnic groups in which it is demonstrated that they are greater in number than the criollos. But, in the midst of all this, there is a change in the government. Even though five days prior to the inauguration of the new national administration, the governor of Salta declares that he is going to grant Lots 55 and 14 to the communities and that he will block the activities of the criollos. This action is suspended, because the governor belongs to a party in opposition to the new national government. This is important to mention, because it makes clear how traditional state political actors hold diverging positions on claims that are simply unquestionable within the Indigenous political sphere. In 1992, in the midst of all of the commotion brought on by the Quincentenary, this complex, solid, and multiethnic organization is formed under the name of Lhaka Honhat, which means “our land.” So then, the tactic is not only to demand a definitive solution to the adjudication of these two lots and the meaning of communal property, but also to concretely denounce this highly exploitative model that pillages Mother Earth, as the market and capital bleed the brushlands dry. And then not only is there is a demand for the territory, but also efforts to denounce the indiscriminate clearcutting of woodlands, the wire fences being imposed on the landscape and the destruction of native wildlife. All of this is documented in different legal records. In 2012, there was an additional demand proffered, now based on GPS maps, in which a plethora of national and international entities join up with the Lhaka Honhat. This is crucial because this issue transcends borders. And thus finally the Inter-American Court begins to provide a response. The responses occurred at distinct moments from 1998 through 2020. Throughout these 22 years of conflict, there were moments when there could have been—we could call it—a friendly meeting-of-the-minds for the parties involved, promoted by this international organism, but nevertheless it took 22 years to reach its final ruling. By 2012, the IACHR publishes a background report that summarizes all of the rights violated by the Argentinian state, and it calls on the State to recognize definitively their rights over the more than 400,000 hectares held by these five peoples who comprise Lhaka Honhat. In addition, the Court says that the Argentinian state can no longer continue to permit deforestation and wire fences cutting through the territory. It admonishes the state to remove these wire fences and to refrain from any kind of construction work in the territory. Because remember that all of this began with an attempt to build an international bridge without previous consultation with Indigenous peoples. This consultation had to be free and informed as ordered by Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization, as well as being outlined in a plethora of national accords and legal cases, which demand governments carry out consultations prior to any construction work or project that is proposed for territories recognized as Indigenous.
K: I think it is important to add that this bridge was going to be built as part of the efforts of Mercosur.
C: Yes, of course.
K: It is a very symbolic then of the economic system you are discussing, which is still destroying these territories.
C: Yes, definitely. We can also think about what happened in the middle of the Administration of Evo Morales, long before the coup by Añez, with that highway that also was set to cross through Indigenous territory in the Isidro Sécure National Park. This is known as the conflict of the Tipnis, when the capitalist model is imposed despite the rights recognized as being held by the Indigenous peoples, because this is a territory that was receiving support from the government at the time of the Plurinational Republic of Bolivia. Despite this, a neighboring government like Brazil—which was looking for an outlet to the Pacific Ocean, even though Bolivia itself does not have one—was interested in building a highway that would cross through that territory. Here, we find the same situation: this international bridge is part of this hegemonic model that besides being backed up by Mercosur, we must also remember that the territory of Lhaka Honhat includes the border between Bolivia and Paraguay. So that bridge connected our country with these two neighboring nations, but the lines were traced on our territory in accordance with the needs of the market and capital. The same thing happens when we insist that the river is not a hidrovía [hydroway], it is not a highway made out of water for ships to pass through. These territories are territories of life and that is the frame used by Lhaka Honhat for their defense. We also have to say this now, because we are in a great struggle around the consolidation of a law like 26.160, which is the one that prohibits evictions, which also encourages all communities to participate in the registry and to acquire judicial personhood, which is what allows it to then go and act in these frames to fight for justice when the State is not respectful. And in addition, we have projects, some of them presented by Indigenous organizations like the Organización de Pueblos Indígenas del Noroeste Argentino (Organization of Indigenous Peoples of Northeastern Argentina, or OPINOA in its Spanish acronym) which with our support at the Asamblea Permanente por los Derechos Humanos (Permanent Assembly for Human Rights) in 2019 presented a project that is conceptualized by the communities themselves in alignment with the rights of the Mother Earth. Beyond whatever project might emerge, the Law of Indigenous Communal Property has not been debated and it is far from being enacted, in terms of what we can see in this situation as far as the state. And when I say this situation, I am referring to two issues: one is the pandemic which we know has changed the rhythm of everything and also the fact that it is an election year. Since it is an election year, it means that candidates and those who are in office today are watching their backs and strengthening their alliances in each one of the provincial territories with the hegemonic powers, because we know that these territories are besieged by the great hegemonic economic powers, besides everything involved in this racist, colonialist worldview.
K: Claudia, so let’s return to the topic of the textiles by the Thañí collective in La escucha y los vientos [Listening and the Winds]. We can conclude this podcast perhaps by talking about what these women weavers have shared about their relationship with the Río Pilcomayo and the technology and philosophy of their weavings. In the exhibit brochure, which is where their knowledge about the Ilicas is shared, there is a poem by Julio Pietrafaccia that says: “El río es un murmullo que habla sin callar. Una voz que repite una y otra vez su historia” / “The river is a murmur that speaks without falling silent. A voice that repeats its story over and over again.” What sentipensares (feeling-thoughts) are born for us out of this last poem?
C: One can think of it this way: in the same way the river repeats its own story over and over again, these textile pieces should not be simply objectified by a gaze that would conceive of them solely as parts of an exhibit or pieces in a museum. They are also narrating a story that is continually re-elaborated. This repetition also has to do with a continual re-elaboration of lived memory, which women carry with them always. But in this fabrication, which in addition is accompanied by a circular movement in which the hands are the actual instruments and the only technology used belongs to the body, clear messages are transmitted to us that should lead us to think beyond them in this space as we attempt to transit through our gatherings in the brushlands and where the Pilcomayo is life. It is water that runs and transits through these territories carrying with it the story of these peoples. I think that this is one of central questions, and the river is what allows for the renewal of life cycles, it appears to flow also in the continuous circular networks in the weaving and in the interlacing. The weave has to be recovered, this warp and the weft that goes beyond the pieces we are looking at. There is a sociocultural warp and weft that is possible, given the role assigned and preserved by the women in Wichí communities. And this is difficult for us because our perspectives are so colonized. And the feminine as a concept or category of analysis is also colonized in and of itself, and this is what we have to insist. To arrive to a perspective that is in relation to these objects that are much more than objects, in fact. They are carriers of messages and at the same time they invite us to think from an Other place.
K: Thank you, Claudia. Perhaps we can talk a bit more about what is unfortunately the problem of the water, because I wouldn’t want to end with an image that we are idealizing the river and the water, since you have shared many times with me about the struggles precisely for the water in these territories as well.
C: Of course, because this river has been objectified by a mode of hegemonic production and today, despite what is involved with the Pilcomayo in this situation, the possibility of access to safe drinking water is almost impossible for the majority of the communities because not only has the river been converted into a hydroway restricted by the market and capital, but also the territories are being invaded by a mode of production that pollutes the soil and the water. So this is really very problematic and we are talking about an inalienable right. Access to water is a basic human right for any community.
K: That is true. I think we could continue to have this conversation here, but we can say that in the context of this podcast the only thing we can do is to approach several of these topics respectfully.
C: Yes. I think that the public’s ability to visit an exhibition like La escucha y los vientos [Listening and the Winds] is giving us the chance to listen to a message—in their voices and in these objects made by women’s fabricating hands—that is necessary and urgent insofar as it can provide evidence of life stories and a cultural record that is built in daily life through a very strong, ancestral relationship with Mother Nature. But at the same time today it is a strategy of resistance and struggle, and the community radio project La Voz Indígena is telling this story about how over the last three decades these same women along with their brothers and children have been able to make some heroic achievements that are recognized in the recent history of my country, actions like their resistance to clearcutting, the pillaging of their territories, and the imposition of a way of being that they themselves want no part of.
K: That is true. In the exhibit there is a soundscape that is just a taste of some of the sounds in these territories. In addition, the community radio project La Voz Indígena has made a selection of some of their programs related to the memory workshops that were organized by these women on the radio station you are referring to.
C: Yes. I have listened to it carefully. I think these are very clear and forceful voices of resistance. At one point, we hear this idea of the brushlands as life, the river is life. It really is not a cliché. These are political, cosmogonic, and epistemic positions that are very much internalized in these voices. They really are teaching us other things that we do not usually find in books.
K: That is true, Claudia. Thank you so much for being here. We will see each other and talk more soon.
C: I hope so, it is always a pleasure to be able to be in dialogue with you and simultaneously to be able to transmit these reflections and these sentipensares (feeling-thoughts) that move us and which are actually an invitation to decolonize ourselves. Because we are all doing the same work, no one has ended that process, it is a huge challenge. Isn’t that right?
K: That is right, Claudia, we’ll say goodbye then for now.
C: Bye, talk soon.