Paraguay Table of Contents

Sixteenth-century Iberian explorers in South America found the Atlantic Coast of modern-day Brazil in the control of Guaraní Indians; the groups on the southern Brazilian coast, known as the Tupinambá, had extended their territory inland to the Río Paraguay, Río Paraná, and Río Uruguay. Various migrations eventually brought these and other closely related groups to the eastern flanks of the Andes.

The Spanish rapidly subjugated and assimilated the Guaraní they encountered in what later became Eastern Paraguay. High rates of intermarriage or concubinage between Spanish settlers and Guaraní women created a society that was overwhelmingly mestizo. In the resulting synthesis, the dominant social institutions and culture were Hispanic; the commonly spoken language, however, was Indian in origin.

As many as 100,000 Indians lived in Jesuit-run reducciones during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. After the expulsion of the Jesuits from Paraguay in 1767, the reducciones were taken over by civil authorities; subsequent mismanagement caused their population to decline. The survivors either were assimilated into the rural mestizo population or fled to the hinterland.

Over the next two centuries, relations between vestigial groups of Indians and the dominant rural Paraguayans were infrequent. When interaction occurred at all, it was often violent. Nevertheless, the War of the Triple Alliance reduced the Paraguayan population sufficiently to reduce pressure on forest lands and thus buffered the remaining tribes.

The Indians' situation remained relatively stable until the mid-twentieth century. Although much land along the eastern border was held by foreign investors, these vast estates were not worked intensively. Hunters and gatherers therefore had sufficient reserves of land, as did the more sedentary populations. Although Indians might occasionally serve as laborers, they were not pressured by other rural settlers or missionaries. In the Chaco most tribes adopted sheep and goat herding; the inhospitable nature of the region provided a natural barrier to mestizo settlement and protected many groups from outside interference until the Chaco War of 1932-35.

In the early 1980s, the Paraguayan Indian Institute (Instituto Paraguayo del Indígena--Indi) estimated the country's Indian population at nearly 40,000. Indi's efforts to count the Indians met with significant resistance from some indigenous leaders. Various anthropologists placed the count higher, at 50,000 to 100,000, or 1.5 to 3 percent of the total population. But all the numbers represented only the roughest of approximations.

Paraguay's indigenous peoples were divided into seventeen tribal groups representing six language families. Even in the ethnographic literature, there was confusion about the precise distinctions among tribes and the linguistic relationships involved.

In general, observers relied upon a person's self-identification and that of those in contact with him or her in categorizing the individual as an Indian. Those who viewed themselves as tribal members--separate and distinct from the national culture--and who were seen by others as indios or indígenas, were classified as Indians. Language was a less certain cultural marker, but in general Indians spoke as their primary language neither Spanish nor the variety of Guaraní used by most Paraguayans.

Despite pride in their Guaraní heritage and language, many Paraguayans had negative feelings toward the country's remaining Indians and viewed nomadic tribes as subhuman. A survey of attitudes toward Indians in the 1970s found that 77 percent of respondents thought: "They are like animals because they are unbaptized." Indianness was a stigma; even Indians who became sedentary and Christian faced continued discrimination in employment and wages. According to estimates in the 1980s, the 3 percent of the population considered Indians accounted for roughly 10 percent of the poorest segment of Paraguayan society.

The Río Paraguay split the country's Indians: the four groups in Eastern Paraguay all spoke varieties of Guaraní, whereas the approximately thirteen tribes of the Chaco represented five language families. In the 1970s and 1980s, the situation of specific tribes varied according to a number of circumstances. The principal factor affecting a tribe's well-being was the extent and kind of pressure brought to bear on Indians and their traditional territories by outsiders.

The Guaraní speakers of Eastern Paraguay were scattered throughout the (formerly) remote regions to the northeast, along the country's border with Brazil. Although much land occupied by Indians had been legally owned by large estates, the tribes traditionally had been able to practice slash-and-burn agriculture and hunting and gathering largely undisturbed. Members of some tribes occasionally worked as wage laborers on the immense yerba maté plantations, whereas others had no peaceful relations with the larger society. Beginning in the 1960s, however, the tribes' customary ways of life were eroded by the IBR-sponsored settlements, the influx of Brazilian migrants, the purchase and more efficient operation of many estates by multinational firms, and the initiation of large-scale hydroelectric projects. As a result of increasing intrusions into traditional Indian lands, almost all Indians in Eastern Paraguay were involved in wage labor to some degree by the late 1970s.

For the past century, the largest tribe in Eastern Paraguay, the Paiú-Tavyteraú, subsisted through a combination of slash-and-burn farming, fishing and hunting, and periodic wage labor. For them the far-reaching changes of the 1960s and 1970s meant loss of land, the depletion of hunting and fishing resources, and increased dependence on wage labor. By the early 1970s, anthropologists found malnutrition widespread and tuberculosis endemic among tribal members. Estimates of mortality during the first two years of life were as high as 50 percent. The Avá-Chiripá, to the south of the Paiú territory, had been subject to even more outside pressure: they were well on the way to being dispossessed of their traditional lands and becoming dependent on wage labor.

Contact between the Aché tribe and the larger society had never been peaceful. During the 1960s and 1970s, a variety of rural Paraguayans raided and enslaved some of the Aché, who continued to follow a seminomadic existence in Eastern Paraguay's forests. By the late 1970s, the Aché survived only in a few communities run by missionaries and on a few ranches in Eastern Paraguay. Because of the Aché's more secure position on missions and ranches, organized raiding was largely eliminated by the early 1980s. Nonetheless, small groups of Aché on return trips to the forest to forage and hunt were often the targets of rural Paraguayans, and reports persisted in the mid-1980s of Indians being held involuntarily by Paraguayan families.

The Chaco Indians had a more varied history of contact with outsiders. They tenaciously resisted colonial efforts at pacification and conversion. Indeed, the warlike Indians, in combination with the inhospitable Chaco terrain and climate, presented an effective barrier to Spanish expansion west of the Río Paraguay. The Chaco Indians subsisted in a traditional manner by hunting and gathering and raising livestock. The sale of animal skins and periodic wage labor in tanning factories along the Río Paraguay or on sugar plantations in Argentina provided a source of cash income.

The tribes lived without undue interference until the Chaco War (and the subsequent expansion of ranching in the region) and Mennonite colonization in the central Chaco. Almost all Chaco tribes became more sedentary after the war. The Mascoi-Toba speakers of the central and southeastern Chaco were especially affected, and by the 1980s many spoke only or primarily Guaraní. Some tribes that provided scouts for the army during the war later found occasional employment with military garrisons. The increase in ranching meant less land and game available to hunters and gatherers and a concomitant rise in the need for wage labor. After the government banned the sale of skins in an effort to preserve the declining animal population, the Indians became increasingly dependent on the region's cattle ranches for wage labor. Dependence also increased following the closing of most of the tanning factories. Demand for labor in ranching, however, declined precipitously as lands were cleared and fenced. In addition, the opening of the Trans-Chaco Highway meant that Indians had to compete with migrants, usually single males, from elsewhere in the country. Ranchers often preferred employing these transients to assuming responsibility for allowing Indians with families to settle and work on their ranches.

Language use among the Chaco tribes reflected the various ways that groups adapted to the presence of outsiders and the changing economy. Migration and wage labor brought with them a significant amount of intertribal marriage. Guaraní or (less frequently) Spanish came to serve as a lingua franca. In groups that had a history of several generations of labor in the tanning factories, husbands and wives from different tribes often spoke Guaraní in their home. Their children were monolingual in that tongue until they learned Spanish at school. By the 1980s, it appeared that a number of languages--Angaité, Guaná, and Mascoi-Toba among them-- might die out within the next generation. By contrast, a group of Mac'á who settled on the west bank of the Río Paraguay under the patronage of General Juan Belaieff, whom they had assisted in the Chaco War, remained almost entirely monolingual in Mac'á except when engaged in commerce.

In the late 1970s, researchers estimated that more than half of all Indians lived on settlements under the auspices of various missionary organizations. This was particularly true of those groups whose first intensive contacts with Paraguayan society dated from the 1960s and 1970s. In the Chaco almost all Indians who were not scattered on individual ranches lived under the patronage of the missions.

Historically, official government policy had often left Indians to the care of religious groups. Until the 1960s, the government's only defined Indian policy was in the form of a 1909 law that enjoined Paraguay "to take measures leading to the conversion of the Indians to Christianity and civilization . . . ." Because the legislation permitted missionaries to acquire land for Indian settlements, some tribes were able to obtain land. At the same time, however, the law increased the tribes' dependence on missionaries as advocates in dealing with the larger society.

The missionaries offered the Indians under their care a measure of protection from the worst predations of rural Paraguayans. In some cases, mission educational programs taught in Indian languages offered the only hope that these tongues would be preserved at all. The impact of Christian proselytizing on indigenous belief and social institutions was less positive, however. Fundamentalist groups were particularly unrelenting in their efforts to eliminate indigenous beliefs. Anthropologists David Maybury-Lewis and James Howe noted that efforts to "crush witch doctors" drove a wedge between Christian and traditional believers within the same tribe. Critics charged that fundamentalist groups' aggressive proselytization destroyed Indian culture in the process of conversion.

Roman Catholics had the longest history of missionary activity. Their efforts were focused on protecting Indians from the worst effects of outside incursions, in particular forced removals from tribal lands. The philosophy of the Second Vatican Council (1962- 65) called for a process of gradual conversion that included respect for indigenous beliefs.

Anglicans had been active in the southeast Chaco since the turn of the century. By the late 1970s, the Lengua converts at the Anglican mission were generally in charge of running the settlement. The most serious problems came from overcrowding as more and more Indians displaced from elsewhere in the Chaco sought refuge at the mission.

Mennonites used Indians as a ready source of labor when they first settled in the central Chaco. As Mennonite-Indian relations became more complex, the Mennonites formed the Association of Indian-Mennonite Cooperative Services (Asociación de los Servicios de Cooperación Indígena-Mennonita--ASCIM) to proselytize and assist the Indians. As was the case with other mission settlements, the problems ASCIM faced grew as Indians forced off their lands elsewhere in the Chaco flocked to the Mennonite settlements. Although ASCIM had resettled about 5,000 Indians on their own land by the late 1970s, large numbers of landless people remained around Filadelfia, hoping for employment on Mennonite farms.

A number of secular and official organizations attempted to assist Indians over the years. Inspired by the indigenist movement that flourished in Latin America in the early twentieth century, middle- and upper-class Paraguayans founded the Indigenist Association of Paraguay (Asociación Indigenista del Paraguay -- AIP) in the early 1940s. Over the years AIP campaigned for Indian rights and publicized the problems Indians faced. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the association was active in sponsoring legal defense and regional development projects for the tribes of Eastern Paraguay and in drafting legislation that established Indi. Indi's mandate was to help Indians improve their legal status, especially in matters pertaining to employment and landholding. The efforts of Indi and other advocates for Indian rights resulted in enactment of legislation in 1981 that formally recognized the Indians' right to pursue their culture and way of life, stated that landholding was integral to the continued survival of Paraguay's Indians, and expanded the means through which communities could obtain formal legal status and title to their lands.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress