On the Modern Cult of Indian People (A Fetishistic Approach to Indigenous Peoples’ Spiritual Rights)[1]

André Menard
Universidad de Chile

Volume 10, 2016

Men are the Chinese shadows of God projected onto the screen of the spirit.

Martin Heidegger[2]

The Monumental Evolution of Indigenous Peoples and the Colonial Order

Based on the reflection developed by Aloïs Riegl around the forms of valuation of monuments in his work The Modern Cult of Monuments from 1903 (Riegl 1987), I propose exploring the function that the figure of “spirit” and the “spiritual” can have in current legal discourse regarding indigenous peoples as subjects of rights at the international level. In fact, if we review the relatively recent UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples adopted by its General Assembly on September 13, 2007, we observe the recurrent reference to this spiritual dimension as a matter for protection and as the foundation of their rights. For example, Article 25 sets out the right of indigenous peoples “to maintain and strengthen their distinctive spiritual relationship with their traditionally owned or otherwise occupied and used lands, territories, waters and coastal seas and other resources” (UNESCO 2007). What logics may be behind this introduction of an ineffable spirituality on the plane of legal/political arguments?

I propose that we follow Riegl and explore the distinction that he makes between the historical value of the monument and its more recent age value. Doing so implies engaging a hypothesis: that indigenous people entered a process of monumentalization in the 19th century that was parallel to the change in their legal and political status at the international level as a result of the deployment of colonial regimes during that century (and especially during the second half of it). These were based to a great extent on ignoring an entire history of pacts and treaties over which the Euro-American states fought and negotiated with these peoples until the emergence of the terra nullis doctrine and the construction of a jus gentium or law of nations restricted to a community of nations defined by a state organization and modern sovereignty. The new nomos which was thus created meant that in the best of cases the indigenous person who did not accept this sovereign order would move from the political status of enemy to the infra-political status of criminal and that in the worst of cases he would shift to the epidemiological variable to be eliminated.[3] The interesting thing is that this process was developed parallel to that of modern museography and the emergence of anthropology. The latter was initially (during the late 19th century and early 20th century) thought of as a means of rescuing the primitive characteristics that were destined for an ineluctable extinction.

This century of colonial deployment is the one that Riegl says has been fairly called the century of history. It is a century in which the monument ceases to refer to its restricted value of memoration or mere national pride and comes to refer to a broader and more universal process: evolution. In this way, Riegl says, ‘even the smallest and precisely the smallest thing can have importance. And that importance is based exclusively on the historical conviction that it is impossible to substitute one thing within the evolutionary process, no matter how minimal it may be’ (Riegl, 1987:38). As such, the monument’s historical value emerges, which means that the uniqueness of objects is valued in function of their unique situation in a unique evolutionary chain. In this context, the indigenous person who has become an object of conquest also becomes a museographic object, that is, the thing or cadaver meant to be preserved as a testimony to a process that must be narrated and described by the scientist or historian. As we have said, this process began during the second half of the 19th century, for example, with the coincident culmination of the conquest of Mapuche territories by the Argentinean state and the foundation of the Museo de la Plata. It lasted throughout the 20th century, as evidenced in the following statement by the archaeologist Debenedetti (cited by Carlos Oliver Schneider, director of the Museo de Concepción, Chile, in 1932):

The Indian (…) fulfilled his mandate the day that the first tempered steel reached AmericaN soil. The present culture has no role other than that of assisting him in his final hour, making his agony tolerable and piously preparing his obsequies. There will be no rivals for the distribution of the indigenous legacy; science will be its only and universal heir.

(Oliver Schneider 1932: 96)

We see this even today, from those like Chilean historian Sergio Villalobos, who insistently affirms that the Mapuche do not exist due to their dissolution under the weight and attractiveness of civilized life and mestizaje (miscegenation). In fact, Villalobos bases his argument on the evolutionary distance that would separate ethnic groups like the Mapuche from civilized nations. He understands the former as culturally “less developed” and thus condemned to an inevitable process of disappearance. In this context, the characteristics of Mapuche identity will always be museographic traces and vestiges whose only value is that of knowledge of ‘man in general’ and not History with a capital h (Villalobos 1992: 17). In other words, the Mapuche will only have historical value as a reference to the general evolution of humanity and not Chilean History understood as a space of transformation and struggle among political projects. For Villalobos, when an indigenous person leaves the museum and puts forth a political demand, he or she ceases to be indigenous.

However, at the beginning of the 20th century, a type of indigenous demand emerged that was political yet did not leave the museum or cease to be monumental. We can link this demand to the contemporary emergence of what Riegl calls age value. This is the value that remits to the subjective and sentimental effect of the mere perception of a temporal distance, perception of the passage of time that produces the ruin, rather than remitting to the objectivity of the specific phenomenon. To use a more current category, one can speak of a value of vulnerability, manifested by “qualities that suggest the disappearance of the monument in universality … instead of those that reveal their objective, original and complete individuality” (Riegl 1987, 39-40). Elsewhere, Riegl speaks of the value that emanates from the perception of the dissolution of the individual in the universal. There is a shift from the monument as a complete element inscribed in the entire chain of evolution to the monument as a fragment of an irretrievably lost whole that is disappearing.

From Age Value to the Patrimonial Value of Cultural Diversity

A half-century after Riegl’s publication, the first formulations of the notion of intangible heritage refer to this valuation of the vulnerability conveyed by age value. While the UNESCO convention in which this category of heritage is set out is quite recent (UNESCO 2003), we find the earliest discussions of it in the thesis that Lévi-Strauss put forth in the context of the de-racialization of politico-scientific discourses that this agency promoted after the end of World War II. But he did so in an ambivalent manner, oscillating between humanist optimism and misanthropic pessimism.

It was the optimism of announcing in 1956 (in a letter to the First Conference of Black Writers and Artists) the advent –“after the aristocratic humanism of the Renaissance” and “the bourgeois humanism of the 19th century”- of a humanism that was finally democratic in which “all human societies will deserve a space and not only some of them”. This was a doubly democratic humanism because of the humility of the societies included but also because of the unanimity of its contents:

These civilizations … have barely had written documents and some only engaged perishable forms of the monument. Given the lack of these productions that are called noble, in order to learn about them, one must adhere to the ‘popular’ forms of culture with equal passion and respect: those shared by all members of society.

(Lévi-Strauss 1956, 384-385)

As we will see later, there is thus a movement from the indigenous person as a specimen of a race to the indigenous person as a representative of an intangible collective heritage.

There is also pessimism as he observes the nearly inexorable disappearance of these heritages under the weight of global cultural homogenization, a process that runs parallel to the destruction of animal and plant species under the weight of demographic explosion and industrial development. Inverting the evolutionist optimism of the 19th century, Lévi-Strauss ends up deploring this process with the melancholy resignation of a person who observes the march of history not as the deployment of an ever more perfect and more complex order, but as the manifestation of the irremediable principle of entropy that condemns everything to the inertia and disorder of the landfill:

From the moment he began to breathe and feed himself until the invention of atomic and thermonuclear weapons, passing through the discovery of fire… , man has done nothing more than happily separate millions of structures in order to reduce them to a state in which they are no longer susceptible to integration.

(Lévi-Strauss 2001, 496)

In other words (or in Riegl’s words), he expresses melancholy over watching the individual disappear into the universal.[4]

In a context in which race as a scientific and political device of organization and management of human differences has given way to notions such as ethnicity or culture, the persistence of this observance of disappearance is related to the impossibility of having a finished object –like the racialized body- to understand this idea of alterity as a totality. The advent of culture as a successor of race has the drawback of partiality. In other words, either due to the always abstract status of its supposed organicity or –from a more culturalist conviction- due to the effect of its inevitable immersion in the historical process of its transformation, and thus its eventual dissolution in the universal, culture will never be seen as a finished organism (to use Riegl’s terms, we will never appreciate it as a monument with novelty value). Rather, its appearance will always be fragmentary or, from the Lévi-Straussian pessimism, it will always be ruined.[5]

And in this context, its value will move from unique and differential contents to the more general value of its mere vulnerability, age value. Almost like biodiversity with respect to natural species, cultural diversity does not remit to the intrinsic (and thus immeasurable) value of each culture but rather to the quantifiable value of a scarcity of diversity. We thus see that if the monumentalization of those primitive societies without monuments is more democratic, it is not only because it remits to more humble or scorned human groups, or because it reveals more shared and unanimous configurations.[6] It is also because it remits to a form of valuation that Riegl himself describes as more democratic: age value, in its subjective and sentimental character, does not require the capital of erudition implied by the historical valuation of the monument.[7]

Monumentalized by an age value, that is, by a subjective value independent of its unique contents, indigenous peoples transformed into a generic category have turned in the same breath into a sort of heritage of humanity. This places them in a position that is different from the potential processes of turning indigenous people into local or community heritage, whether they are religious, political, regional[8] or especially national.[9] And it is surely this process of internationalization or universalization that has given generically indigenous demands a platform of legitimacy that other cultural demands lack. I’m thinking of those cultural demands that refer to a body of specific content, such as those based on the specificity of certain canons and explicitly religious norms. As such, in one case one speaks of an always ambiguous and positive indigenous spirituality and in another of dark and rigid fundamentalisms.[10]

It is not difficult to see that indigenous peoples monumentalized in this way function as a space for the projection of the values and principles of modernity. These are the image of a globalized world space (indigenous or autochthonous peoples constitute a transnational category[11]), an idea of nature as absolute alterity before history (linked with the supposed ecological essence of the indigenous condition) and the resulting relativity of cultures,[12] as well as the postulate of a certain substrate of a universality over which one can lay values and rights for a total humanity. This can be explained by the fact that, as Riegl says, age value “is nothing more than an aspect of a phenomenon that dominates modern times, the emancipation of the individual” (Riegl 1987: 39). Déotte paraphrases this thesis, writing of “a value that is the horizon of the emergence of the modern individual over the ruin of the community” (2005, 241 and following).

But what this perspective –focused as it is on a philosophy of perception- cannot engage is the resulting emergence of a different subjectivity. It is not that of the modern subject standing before the ruin, but that of the ruin made subject and, even more so, the subject of political demands. And if age value allows the modern subject to withdraw-as individual singularity-from the plane of community and tradition (immunizing himself, as put by Esposito [2003]), the indigenous subject would also withdraw from the modern shared space of national citizenship. Thus he will appear as the specimen of his own community, a community by definition incommunicable (immunity of the community). And at the same time, it will be the community represented by him that will withdraw from the international community of nations and sovereign states. In one case the individual withdraws from a ruined world, in the other it is the ruin or the monument that withdraws from the profane plane of every-day life.[13]

The Monument as Subject of Rights and the Problem of Untranslatability

Returning to the hypothesis with which we began this text: this withdrawal is nothing other than the exclusion of indigenous peoples from the common plane of a jus gentium and a horizontal international politics, as an effect of the installation of colonial regimes in the 19th century. What age value introduces in the early 20th century has to do either with the internationalized perception of these peoples and with the articulation of a political discourse formulated from the monumental condition constituted in that way. And it is in this new context of valuation of the monument in which, for example, in Chile we see the emergence in 1910 of the Sociedad Caupolicán Protectora de la Araucanía, an organization that served as a space for the political representation of a “race” declared to be under threat of extinction by scientific reason and dominant historiography.[14] An example at the international level is the incursion of the first indigenous representative in an international agency, Iroquois Chief Deskaheh, who appeared at the League of Nations in 1923 dressed in his traditional feather headdress to argue for the sovereign rights of his people. The world would have to wait until the last decades of the 20th century for these demands to finally be recognized and set into instruments of international law such as ILO Convention 169 or the aforementioned UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. But these still reaffirm a form of monumentalization of the indigenous people determined by age value. From the anti-evolutionist perspective of contemporary culturalism, we can call this a value of exoticism.[15] In fact, if we review the operational definitions that these agencies have developed to refer to something like an indigenous people (sometimes called tribal or autochthonous peoples), we see that at least four basic factors are contained in them. The first is the occupation –original and prior to the arrival of the colonists- of a specific territory. The second is the voluntary perpetuation of certain cultural characteristics, including, of course, religious and spiritual values. The third is collective self-identification and its recognition by other groups. Finally, the fourth is an experience of exclusion, discrimination, subjugation or expropriation (Saugestad cited by Barnard 2006:1).[16] In short, the indigenous group is defined by coming before the State (and by having an original relationship to the territory), a difference (which can be codified in spiritual terms) and vulnerability. Thus age value comes into play through the anteriority and vulnerability (which can be codified in political terms as a status of non-dominance) and also by cultural difference. As we have seen, given that the latter is subjective, it does not remit to specific cultural content but to the mere perception of difference.

We also saw how the displacement of race as a category for organizing these differences dissolved the specificity of the cultural content in the general value of vulnerability. This introduces the question of the destiny, in this formally deracialized context, of the dimension of untranslatability that race carried as a corporeal limit, that is a material limit, into the common circulation of political statements and arguments. We thus propose as a second hypothesis of this study the idea that the recurrent characterization of the content of these differences, which have now become cultural, under the enigmatic figure of spiritual, has to do precisely with a reformulation of the limit that opposed the materiality to the aforesaid horizontal circulation of political statements. Here it is important to note the limit that race installed in the space of the circulation of political arguments, which corresponded to its parallel inscription in the space of the circulation of scientific arguments that determined its (natural and pre-political) condition of biological object, which corresponds to the “naturalist” structure (sensu Descola) of the modern sovereign order.[17] One could place the introduction of race as a biological variable that is determinant in human hierarchies perpetrated by racist anthropologies written between the 19th century and the mid-20th century in opposition to the anthropological humanism that underpinned, for example, the evolutionist theory of E.B. Tylor (1870). Let us recall how this author, in his polemic with polygenist theses, postulated a principle of unity of the human genre and based on this a generic (and thus biological) basis for his thesis on a universal evolution of cultural stages (Stocking 1968: 130). However, this evolutionary supposition did not cease to place a lower limit (indigenous peoples) and a higher one (European civilization) for human culture. This introduced the natural variable as an immanent referent regarding which one could measure greater or lesser cultural evolution and as such greater or lesser distance from a pre-cultural condition (and thus a pre-human one). The later culturalisms (from Boas to Lévi-Strauss) would try to conjure this persistence of a principle of natural hierarchy of cultural differences through the supposition of a radical distinction between culture and nature, which would imply a preservation of the natural datum but, as a synchronic (and no longer diachronic) limit of cultural diversity. And it is in this context that modern multi-culturalist reason would operationalize its articulation of the particular and the universal through the spiritual dimension of the indigenous category.

In this sense, we saw how this spiritual dimension of the indigenous reaffirms the spiritual postulate of a human community defined by a certain universality, which implies the use of the image of the Spirit. However, in this case it is the Spirit with a capital s and as a dialectic process of translation of all differences. But in the double subtractive operation implied by age value (subtraction of the modern subject from a specific community and subtraction of the ruin as subject with respect to the universal community), indigenous spirituality rescues in one way and translates untranslatability in another, making it profitable on the current market of cultural goods.

As such, one could say that through this installation of indigenous spirituality as a condition of commensurability of cultures, that is, as an exchange value of cultural diversity, late modernity would try to mediate the distance that separated the always universal -and as such Western- character of the Spirit in the singular, and the exoticizing character of spirits in the plural. This plural would characterize the discourses on non-Western others because, as Peter Pels put it “…spirits in the plural mostly signify studies of the ‘rest’ rather than the West” (Pels 2003: 243). In other words, indigenous spirituality functions as the device or supplement through which that other expression of the Spirit, or Culture in the humanist sense and with a capital c, can capitalize the multiplicity of spirits with a small s (and the multiplicity of cultures with a small c), which is implied by the irreducible diversity of cultures from an anthropological and relativist perspective. This is the case because anthropology has had a habit of understanding ethnologic cultures as belief systems, but as exotic belief systems by implying the belief in spirits in the plural.

As we will see, the rescue of the untranslatable is analogous to the rescue that structuralist theory executed of the in-significant when it wished to manifest that other limit to signification implied by the figure of the fetish. Here it is worth noting that –against a Marxist, Freudian or structuralist reading- we are considering the fetish in its most affirmative and etymological sense (Brosses 1760). This is also a subtractive sense through which the object acquires the dignity of the thing to the extent that it is withdrawn from the codes that determine its use.[18] Subtraction of the African fetish (like the Bambara boli or the Kongo nkisi) as a potent singularity in its interruption of any representational function, a subtraction that is analogous to that of the museographic object, because, as Blanchot says, “not disappearing in its use, the utensil appears”. It is the subtraction of the ruin given that, as Blanchot also says, “the damaged utensil becomes its own image’ in its pure similarity ‘behind which there is nothing more than the being” (Blanchot 1999: 347-348). This may be another way of saying that there is nothing more than spirit…

The destiny of the indigenous leader monumentalized by age value, who appears as a political actor without losing himself in the common and homogeneous citizenship of the national state or the community of national states, is the same. This is the case of Chief Deskaheh, who wore his feathered headdress out of the museum to which he had been relegated by the historical value of colonial monumentality, and appeared as an image of himself, as a fetish, inaccessible in the evidence of his impenetrable materiality. But age value emerges, and the spiritual operation through which the untranslatable is translated as such, and all of the strength of Chief Deskaheh as an affirmative fetish, that is, as the singular concentration of historicity (not History or biography), as a heterochronic montage of feathers and ties, of treatises with the British Crown[19] and anthropological texts, tribal wars, and world wars, is flattened by the representational function of the spirit, turned into the name with which the translation translates itself and interrupts its interruptions (in other words, it incorporates the untranslatable).

The Spirit and the Fetish

Structuralism of the UN or UNism of structuralism. In 1970, two years before UNESCO signed the Convention on the Protection of World, Cultural and Natural Heritage, the Nouvelle revue de psychanalyse published an article by Jean Pouillon, in which the author tried to use structuralism (that is, a logic of signification and, in this sense, negativity) to describe the evidence of the affirmative fetish (that is, a fetish that is not defined by its reference to an absence). Pouillon turned to Evans Pritchard’s classic The Religion of the Nuer to show how in the complex religious system of this people (in which the value of the gods was determined by an entire scale of spiritual hierarchies), certain objects would appear that deserved to be qualified as fetishes in that they did not remit to a discourse or specific rituality. He added that in general these were idols imported from foreign groups. We might talk about a Nuer museography at another time, but Pouillon does not do this. Instead, the author argued that in its in-significant materiality, these objects did not cease to carry out a structural function instead of marking an outside that cannot be reduced to signification. At the end of the text, Pouillon offers the following paragraph:

Every fetish appears as one of the two limits of symbolism, this limit that we call inferior because we are used to considering the element in whose direction the symbolized separates itself from the symbol instead of merging with it as superior [here Pouillon is thinking about the mana type categories that Lévi-Strauss had conceptualized 20 years earlier (Lévi-Strauss 1950: VII-LII)]. The fetish on the one hand and the abstract word on the other determine the symbolic field and form part of a single system that they establish together.

(Pouillon 1970: 147)

The fetish is thus returned to the fold of the structure through the shrewdness of the floating signifier as a sign that signifies signification, with the subtlety of distinguishing between that which signifies signification signifying anything else, and that which signifies signification signifying the crude materiality of the signifier.

But a bit earlier, referring to the position that these Nuer fetishes occupy in their religious model, Pouillon discusses a difficulty that is inherent to the system. It is the paradox that “in the end one can speak of the fetish, in spite of its flagrant materiality, only in terms of the Spirit; this is due to the fact that the link of the Spirit to the reality with which it is associated is increasingly closer as it moves down on the scale, and the Spirit is associated with more strictly material realities”. He concludes that “of these, indeed, given that they are nothing on their own, one can only say one thing: that they are Spirit” (Pouillon 1970: 146).

And this identification of the Spirit with the always supplementary function of a signifier that signifies itself – and thus pure signification-, that is, a ‘floating signifier’[20] is coherent with the place that legal discourse reserves for the spiritual dimension that affects indigenous rights. If we review the two most important legal frameworks for the current defense of indigenous rights, ILO Convention 169 and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, as we saw in the quotation with which this discussion began, we will note that many of their articles are not limited to mentioning culture, beliefs, economics, mentality institutions or indigenous traditions as objects of protection against the threats implied by government policies or economic intervention of private companies in their territories or communities. The spiritual dimension is added to all of the above in each of these doctrines, as if there was a permanent need for something more to protect the ethnic and political difference that these instruments seek to protect.

We can thus return to the UN along with Jean Pouillon, stating that the right to have spiritual rights seems to be related, on the one hand, to the old “right” to remain connected to a race, that is, to the strictly material reality of a thing, in this case a body as non-transferable datum. But on the other hand, it is related to the fact that once race was displaced by ethnicity and culture, this thing that is a body ended without a race to sustain it, and thus it revealed its “not being anything on its own”, and as such one can only speak of it in terms of spirit. There is thus the consecration of spiritual Indians in which the spirit functions as a specter of race abolished by post-war humanist reason, and more specifically as a specter of the biological and objective referent of its historical value, that is, the differential value of its specificity in the context of a universal evolutionary chain. With the advent of age value, the differential value of the particular was emptied of evolutionary content and substantivized the temporal differential of its mere vulnerability. And if the biological and evolutionary notion of race in the colonial context codified the historical irreducibility of political differences on the pre-historic and pre-political plane of substantive nature (that is, an absolute and objective nature), the spiritual version of that irreducibility will recodify it on the analogous plane of a substantive humanity (that is, an absolute and subjective humanity), as the transcendental subject of all difference.

Spiritual rights have to do with this transcendental aspect of humanity that means suspending not only the question about what concrete practices rights should protect (excisions, anthropophagy, sacrifices?), but also the evidence of always unique wars, translations and treaties that have been the conditions of production of utterances of identity or difference, and thus of always contingent demands and rights (in opposition to the abstract universalism of human rights). The irreducible heterogeneity of plural historicities and always heterochronic formations gives way to the colorless substance of spirit as a common measurement of humanity. As such, over the monotonous desert of monocultural entropy deplored by Lévi-Strauss, these new spiritual Indians are raised as monuments to cultural diversity and as a subjective reserve for all of the spiritual values that modernity projects onto the ruins that constitute it (as we saw, they correspond to ecology, orality, the unanimity of a transparent and reconciled society, etc.). But monumentalized in this way, that is, made objects of multicultural management, diversity is smoothed out and extended as the equally monotonous desert of the spirit.


01. This paper is part of the Project Fondecyt nº 1140921.

02. Note: All English translations of Spanish and French language source material in this article are ours.

03. While, as Isabelle Schulte-Tenckhoff observes, the use of treaties was more visible in the British colonial model than that of the Spanish Crown, there are important examples in certain parts of the Americas. These include the Mapuche territory, in which the practice of the parlamentos (major political negotiations between colonial authorities and indigenous people) as a space of production of these treaties survived even the independence of the Chilean and Argentine republics and has been taken up by contemporary Mapuche movements as the legal basis for their demands. Schulte-Tenckhoff also clearly describes the ambivalence that the reading of those treaties acquired in the early 19th century. For example, in the case of North America, the texts could be read as guarantees of the sovereignty of indigenous peoples and their distinction from the category of colonized peoples. At the same time, they were used as the legal basis for the “domestication process”, the management of ‘relationships with Amerindian nations [progressively moved] from the field of relations between states to that of national politics.’ (Schulte-Tenckhoff 1994: 179). For a review of the treaties produced in Ngulumapu (Mapuche territory in what is now Chile), see Méndez 1980; for a review of Hispano-Mapuche treaties in Puelmapu (Mapuche territory in Argentina), see Levaggi, 2000; for an analysis of the conditions of production of these treaties and their political consequences in Mapuche territory, see Pavez 2006. In a broader sense of the literature associated with indigenous demands and negotiations in Latin America between the colonial period and the Republican period, see Lienhart 1992. (Note: All English translations of Spanish and French language source material in this article are ours).

04. In fact, in the preamble to the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, we see this same valuation of cultural diversity and the threat that growing globalization processes presents to it. “Considering the importance of the intangible cultural heritage as a mainspring of cultural diversity and a guarantee of sustainable development…. Recognizing that the processes of globalization and social transformation, alongside the conditions they create for renewed dialogue among communities, also give rise, as does the phenomenon of intolerance, to grave threats of deterioration, disappearance and destruction of the intangible cultural heritage….” (UNESCO 2003)

05. This partially explains the contradiction identified by Nas in the double requirement of “clear risk of disappearance” and that of “outstanding value” that UNESCO requires in order for intangible works to enter the world heritage list. The example of the Lithuanian wooden cross sculpture tradition, which is clearly at risk of disappearing (with the resulting decline in the quality of current work in the field), eliminates its ability to represent an “outstanding value” (Nas 2002: 141 and 143). The same is true for the category of “living culture,” which is currently defined by UNESCO as a quality of intangible heritage, because if those heritages are supposedly loaded with this “living culture” vitality, it is difficult to understand the need to protect them. This yields the deadly, fossilizing and thus ruining potency that is suspected of existing behind the process of transforming these intangible practices and traditions into heritage. (Smith, 2006: 111)

06. On the other hand, it is important to note that this concept of non-Western forms of monument, which current understandings of heritage code under the figure of intangible cultural heritage, presents certain ideological continuities with colonial and Euro-centric forms of racial hierarchy. In this sense, and as Laurajane Smith observes, it is symptomatic that the lists of intangible heritage of humanity only consider non-Western traditions and practices. This suggests that there are no cultural and value systems, which are also intangible (which would suggest an immediacy of their value), behind the heritage value of material monuments such as the Bolshoi Ballet or Metropolitan Opera (Smith 2006: 112). On the other hand, a hierarchical framework through which this supposed democratization of monumental or heritage valuation appears as an effect of a phenomenon of “descent” of culture from Western civilization centers to marginal areas, which can be read as a process of legitimation from the civilized center of these exotic forms of culture. In this sense, the words of the Director General of UNESCO (which in a certain way reproduce Lévi-Strauss’ unconscious ethnocentrism nearly a half-century later) are very symptomatic: “Culture no longer solely inhabits the proud temple that European civilizations had raised up to it: theatres, operas, museums and libraries. Throughout the world, it has moved into cities and countryside, descending into the streets, pervading the forests and fields, endorsing traditions, customs and know-how, encompassing oral traditions as well as the written word in expression of the memory and of creativity, drawing together the functional object and the work of art, and relativizing the distances that used to lie between actual experience and creation.” (cited in Smith 2006: 111)

07. We should recognize that the formal procedure for establishing heritage (that is, its inscription in the heritage lists developed by UNESCO) for intangible (and thus non-Western) expressions requires an apparatus of historical, aesthetic and anthropological justification produced by experts in these disciplines. However, here we are not focusing as much on the policies and techniques of management of heritage as we are on the ideological suppositions that define it as a general category and determine its uses and forms of consumption by the public. 

08. This justifies Smith’s critique of this logic of heritage. By naturalizing the idea of heritage value in and of itself, thus remitting it to a plane of universal valuation, any possibility of “dissonance” is rejected: “There is no site on the World Heritage List that will be seen to be valuable to all cultures –or even to all people within the state in which the ‘world heritage’ site may exist. The ability (…) for heritage to be all things to all people is simply absurd” (Smith 2006: 110). 

09. As has been the case of the Mapuche in Chile, partly thanks to the consecration of the poem “La Araucana” as a ‘monument’ of the nation. The text was written in the mid-16th century by a Spanish soldier named Alonso de Ercilla. In it, he narrates the epic war between the Spanish and Araucanos (Mapuche). With the advent of the Republic in the 19th century, the poem became the basis for a certain representation of the origin of the Chilean nation as a product of the encounter between these two “races,” which has implied the installation of an idealized imaginary of the Araucano indigenous person as capital of autochthony and thus part of the heritage of the Chilean nation in terms of identity. The interesting thing is that this imaginary has been used by the Mapuche as the basis for their political demands. This strategic use of the government valuation of autochthony is obviously not exclusive to the Mapuche. For example, Alec Leonhardt has written regarding Cameroon’s Baka: “Autochthony is a kind of ‘magic of the state’: not magic that the state exercises upon citizens, but the reverse. Autochthony is not a coherent body of principles on which rights are based. It is a mystification of ancestry, a method used for the purpose of magically extracting wealth from the state” (Leonhardt 2006: 70).

10. Here we agree with Slavoj Zizek’s reading of multiculturalism as an ideological discourse of global capitalism: “We are finally leaving behind the ‘immature’ political passions (the regime of the ‘political’-class struggle and other ‘out-dated’ divisive antagonisms) for the ‘mature’ post-ideological pragmatic universe of rational administration and negotiated consensus, for the universe, free of utopian impulses, in which the dispassionate administration of social affairs goes hand in hand with aestheticized hedonism (the pluralism of ‘ways of life’)-at this very moment, the foreclosed political is celebrating a triumphant comeback in its most archaic form: of pure, undistilled racist hatred of the Other which renders the rational tolerant attitude utterly impotent. (…) Liberal ‘tolerance’ condones the folklorist Other deprived of its substance (…) however, any ‘real’ Other is instantly denounced for its ‘fundamentalism’, since the kernel of Otherness resides in the regulation of its jouissance: the real Other is by definition ‘patriarchal’, ‘violent’, never the Other of ethereal wisdom and charming customs.” (Zizek 1997: 37)

11. In which, as Alan Barnard correctly notes, the category of a Urkultur posited nearly 100 years ago by Wilhelm Schmidt and the Vienna School resonates (Barnard 2006).

12. Here we are thinking of the idea developed by P. Descola of “naturalism” as a Western cosmological perspective characterized by this ontological distinction between the absolute plane of nature versus the relative plane of culture or cultures (Descola 2005: 241 and following).

13. This is manifested in the discourses of those indigenous leaderships that associate their political activity with a ‘spiritual’ level that differentiates them from the profane political plane occupied by formal political parties. See, for example, the case of Mapuche leader Manuel Aburto Panguilef in Menard 2013: lxii-lxiii. 

14. For example, just two years earlier, ethnologist Tomás Guevara feared the extinction of the “Araucano race” due to the low birth rate, degeneration because of alcohol, and ‘morbid predispositions more abundant in Araucano society than civilized society.’ (Guevara 1908: 164-5) 

15. And this in contradiction with the strictly historical and legal/political arguments that Chief Deskaheh (who wore a Western-type suit in daily life) presented in 1923. In this sense, it is interesting to underscore the contrast between the rejection of the proposals and demands set out by Deskaheh by the Society of Nations (a rejection which, as Rostkowski correctly notes, determines the approaches that future indigenous demands will take in international instances, which would receive them as ethnic or minority groups instead of nations or peoples [Rostkowski 1998:154]), and the aesthetic fascination which he exercised upon a series of groups and actors (Esperantists, members of the YMCA or the Theosophical Society of Geneva, among others) who were enthusiastic about meeting a Rousseauian “good savage” in the flesh (Hauptman 2008: 135) or with the “appearance” of a mythical and romantic Indian chief (Rostkowski 1998: 151).

16. For a defense of the same definition, see Deroche (2009: 19-20). For a study on the historical formation of the category of indigenous as a category of politics and international law, see Niez (2003).

17. For an analysis of this “cosmological” breakdown of the world and its disciplinary correlate between science and politics, see Latour (1991).

18. For an anthropological reading of this affirmative notion (that is, not symbolic or representational) of the fetish, see Bazin (2008: 493-520).

19. In fact, in the photographs that portray him in Geneva and in his last appearances in Rochester, New York (where he died, since he was prevented from returning to his home in Canada), in addition to exhibiting the traditional paraphernalia, he held a parchment with an original copy of the Haldiman treaty from 1784 (through which the British Crown recognized the sovereignty of the Six Iroquois Nations) (Hauptman 2008: 142) 

20. Let us recall Lévi-Strauss’ definition of “floating signifier” as a “supplementary ration” of signification (Lévi-Strauss1950: XLIX) or a “supplementary symbolic content” (Lévi-Strauss 1950: L).

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