Gastón Gordillo has worked for several decades amongst members of the qom group (also known as toba). His anthropological research focuses on the qom living in western Formosa along the River Pilcomayo, whose shifting path has long caused territorial angst for the Argentine and Paraguayan governments.
In his book, Nosotros vamos a estar aca para siempre: historias tobas (We're going to be here forever: Toba histories), Gordillo collects and shares the memories of the qom people, interviewing numerous community members.
The qom were able to resist Spanish, and later Argentine, control due to their impenetrable home deep in the Chaco. They fought an Argentine army in 1917, having been warned of their approach by a shaman know as Yogodíñik. In the collective memory, this battle was a proud moment of struggle against the criollo people. However, the outcome was that many qom abandoned their land for a number of years. Difficult living conditions led to them taking up work at sugar mills, notably San Martín del Tabacal in Salta, often migrating seasonally for the work. They also worked on the construction of the railway. Both sugar mills and the railway were linked to British investors (more on that another time).
In 1928 the qom of the Pilcomayo region asked a local Anglican missionary (from the South American Missionary Society) to visit them. The missionary, Alfred Leake (whose son David Leake later became Bishop of Argentina), had a huge impact on the life of the qom. He was welcomed by many who felt they needed support in a fast changing context, facing conflict with recent criollo arrivals to the area. In 1938, the missionaries helped prevent a massacre of the people by the army. Toribio Sánches, one of the qom interviewed commented:
Era muy jodido antes cuando no había misionero. Todos querían matar al aborigen. It was damn awkward before when there were no missionaries. Everyone wanted to kill the indigenous people. (Toribio Sánchez, en Vaca Perdida, 1996)But the mission also weakened qom traditions and methods of survival and resistance. Leake tried to stop converts drinking aloja, dancing, singing and consulting the pioGonáq (witch doctors or shamans). Not everyone was willing to turn their back on their culture, nor relinquish the guidance and healing offered by the shamans.
By the 1970s local lay workers had replaced the English missionaries but the qom community of Pilcomayo retained its Anglican identity, distinguishing it from other toba or qom groups that were predominantly Pentecostal. And this is where the trouble kicked in when Argentina came into conflict with Britain over the Falklands/ Malvinas in 1982. Argentine soldiers beat up local men and searched for weapons in their villages. The soldiers suspected the community of being loyal to the anglos/ anglicanos who had lived amongst them. They even claimed the qom were hiding an atomic bomb left by the English, to which one of the interviewees commented, 'The only bomb they left us was the Bible' (nicely ambiguous, I think).
Again, the qom survived and in 1985, after years of struggle, they finally gained official recognition of their ancestral lands.
This story is also a small fragment of my own, an encounter of English and Argentine, Argentine and qom. It warns me that good intentions can be marred by cultural arrogance. It alerts me to the easy excuses of those in power, searching for another justification for their violence. Most of all, the story of the qom encourages me to trust that holding onto the things that heal and nourish us will help us resist and remain, believing that, no matter what lies ahead, 'We're going to be here forever.'
Gordillo, Gastón (2005) Nosotros vamos a estar acá para siempre. Historias Tobas Buenos Aires: Editorial Biblos