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Indigenismo is an influential cultural-political program that has its origin in the Americas at the turn from the 19th to the 20th century. In nation states shaped by coloniality it raised the question of how to deal with the colonized indigenous population. In bringing the “Indian question” into the debate on the nation indigenists put into question the in the 19th century established systems of exclusion and extinction of the indigenous population. In the midst of the 20th century indigenist institutions are founded in nearly all American countries, although Mexican and Peruvian indigenism is most known. Nevertheless, mostly its supreme aim has been the inclusion and assimilation of the indigenous population into the projects of nation-building under the lemma of “mestizaje” forgetting about autochthonous ways of development. The underlying politics of representation in the field of indigenismo was highly problematic because mainly non-indigenous experts were designing programs for indigenous people which were in many cases aimed at assimilation.

In spite of the general criticism of indigenismo, which focuses on the assimilation-policy, it seems important to point out that inter-American indigenismo has managed to, first, put the “Indian/Indio question” on the political agenda and, second, give it a hemispheric scope. In doing so it opened niches for indigenous political participation and forged a discursive field which was later contested and expanded by indigenous movements.

History of indigenismo

Franz Boas, the founding father of cultural anthropology, had already envisioned an International School of American Archaeology and Ethnology with a focus on the western hemisphere which has not been realized. In Mexico it is with the Revolution (1910) that indigenist politics began. A further increase in the dynamics of indigenist politics could be seen in the 1920s in the context of the political stabilization of the Revolution. These institutions aimed at the assimilation, hispanization, and nationalization of the indigenous population through education. Since 1936 the Departamento de Asuntos Indígenas has coordinated the integration of indigenous people into the nation, and in 1939, under the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia (INAH) was founded.

A dynamic new inter-American turn began in the 1920s with the already mentioned programs of assimilation through education in Mexico and a significant change in the indigenous policy of the United States. After the military defeat of the First Nations at the end o f the 19th century the US government as well as Canada pursued a strict reservation policy. In the 1920s criticism of the reservation policy arose due to the disastrous social and economic circumstances to be found there. In order to implement a new indigenous policy John Collier was assigned as Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, where he remained from 1933 to 1945. In allusion to the Roosevelt’s overall policy Collier’s indigenous policy became famous as the “Indian New Deal.”

In 1931 John Collier and Mexican anthropologist Manuel Gamio discussed the necessity of the establishment of an inter-American organization that might serve as a clearinghouse and that could collect anthropological data as well as promote the exchange of experience in regard to indigenist policies. Officially, the foundation of an Inter-American Indigenist Institute (III) was first discussed at the Octava Conferencia Panamericana (Lima 1938). This debate culminated two years later in the organization of the Primer Congreso Indigenista Interamericano, in 1940 in Patzcuaro, Mexico, which was originally planned for La Paz, Bolivia. At this congress the delegates decided the foundation of the Inter-American Indigenist Institute as an independent international organization with its seat in Mexico City. In 1942 the III was inaugurated and – due to the sudden death of Moises Sáenz, who was the principal organizer of the Patzcuaro conference – Manuel Gamio became the first director of the institute. Gamio held this office until his death in 1960.

Most Latin American governments were skeptical about the III because their hegemonic projects of nation-building were based on 19th century notions of blanqueamiento and exclusion of the indigenous population. Yet, despite the resistance of traditional elites, the III was successfully established. Furthermore, most countries of the Americas set up national indigenous institutes, following the agreements of the Patzcuaro congress, although with different degrees of institutionalization.

After the inaugural conference frequent conferences in various American countries were organized, thus establishing an inter-American network of exchange. The hemispheric circulation of indigenist ideas was facilitated by the establishment of journals like América Indígena and Boletín Indigenista (later renamed Anuario Indigenista), both edited by the III. The Boletin Indigenista was directed at a wider public of political decision makers, while Amércia Indígena had an academic target group. Inter-American indigenist congesses were organized in Cuzco, Peru (1949); La Paz, Bolivia (1954); Guatemala City (1959); Quito, Ecuador (1964); Pátzcuaro, Mexico (1968); Brasilia, Brazil (1972); Merida, Mexico (1980); Santa Fe, New Mexico (1985), and Argentina (1992). Despite the asymmetrical politics of representation that guided the conference, indigenous people were, nevertheless, involved in the first conference.

In the Andean region indigenismo was related in the 1940s strongly to socialism and questions of social inequality. Of particular influence was the indigenist thinking of Peruvian José Carlos Mariátegui who saw one of the main problems in the land-tenure system. In Ecuador the communist Federación Ecuatoriana de Indios was one counterpart of the low-institutionalized Ecuadorian indigenist institute. In Guatemala indigenism was first influenced by biologist and racist discourses. Nevertheless, mainly indigenismo empowered cultural anthropology as new state-sponsored sciences for the intervention in indigenous communities, as it was the case in the US and in Mexico.

Beyond the political intervention indigenismo has opened a broad field of cultural production that included indigenous aesthetic elements. Inter-American relations were particular important to these aspects. The historians Frank Tannenbaum and Lesley Byrd Simpson, the photographers Tina Modotti and Edward Westen as well as Frances Toor, anthropologist and the editor of Mexican Folkways (1925-1939) traveled regularly to Mexico or lived for a time in Mexico. On the other side, Mexican intellectuals such as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo traveled to the US. The periodical Mexican Folkways – issued in English and Spanish – was an important cultural platform for an inter-American exchange in which indigenist intellectuals such as Manuel Gamio, Moises Saenz, Robert Redfield, and Diego Rivera among others participated. In the Andean region Jorge Icazas novel Huasipungo, written in 1934, is considered as an indigenous masterpiece. And in the literary field José Maria Arguedas, Miguel Angel Asturias, Rosario Castellano promoted indigenist literature.


After WW II the III and its inter-American vision lost importance, and in 1953 it was integrated into the Organization of American States. Nevertheless, single national indigenist institutes remained important (especially in Mexico, Guatemala and Peru). But at the end of the 1960s state-run indigenismo in the Americas entered into a deep crisis. Since the 1970s indigenism was more and more replaced by self-organized indigenous movements with an agenda based on autonomy. The crisis of indigenismo found its probably highest expression in the meeting of anthropologist in Barbados in 1971 criticizing state-run indigenist practices for its ethnocide-tendencies. Although state-run indigenismo underwent a deep crisis, there can be observed a curious alliance of neoliberalism and (neo-)indigenismo in the context of the multicultural turn in the 1990s. Offering opportunities for participation and recognition these neo-indigenist politics also aimed at the pacification and cooptation of indigenous movements. In the context of the recent new wave of indigenous de-colonization - which found its highest expression in the election of Evo Morales in Bolivia in 2008 - there was no space left for the III, consequently it was closed in 2009.

Olaf Kaltmeier

Please cite as:
Kaltmeier, Olaf. 2015. "Indigenismo." InterAmerican Wiki: Terms - Concepts - Critical Perspectives.


Blanchette, Thaddeus. “Applied Anthropology and Indigenous Administration in the United States. 1934-1945.” Desacatos, 33 (2010): 33-52.

Bretón, Victor. “A vueltas con el neo-indigenismo etnofago: la experiencia Prodepine o los limites del multiculturalismo neoliberal.” ICONOS, 29 (2007): 95-104.

Giraudo, Laura. “El Instituto Indigenista Interamericano y la participación indígena. 1940-1998.” América Indígena, 62 (2006): 6-34.

Luis-Brown, David. Waves of Decolonization. Discourses of Race and Hemispheric Citizenship in Cuba, Mexico, and the United States. Durham, 2008.

Marroquín, Alejandro D. Balance del Indigenismo. Informe sobre la política indigenista en América. México, 1972.

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