Politics, Land, and Religion in Colombia


A review of Negotiating Indigenous Autonomy: Politics, Land, and Religion in Tierradentro (Colombia) 1905-1950, by Alejandra Boza Villarreal.

When one thinks of missionaries in Latin American history, several images come to mind. One is that of rapacious agents of imperial power, violently subduing indigenous peoples in attempts to bring them under the mantle of both Catholicism and the Spanish colonial state. Or they are the Jesuit rulers of autonomous regions, distant from imperial centers, presiding over small empires of dense trade networks they constructed through indigenous labor. Or, more heroically, they are the rebellious liberation theologians, inspired by a desire for social justice to help preserve indigenous autonomy, culture, and livelihood.

Yet not one of these images adequately describe the priests of the Congregation of the Mission (more commonly known as Vincentians) at work in the Tierradentro region of Colombia in the first half of the twentieth century. As Alejandra Boza Villareal deftly shows in her 2013 doctoral dissertation titled, “Negotiating Indigenous Autonomy: Politics, Land, and Religion in Tierradentro (Colombia), 1905-1950,” these missionaries were neither effective agents of the Colombian national state, overseers of the economic activities of this indigenous region, nor benevolent priests out to help the indigenous peoples maintain their culture and autonomy. And as Boza shows, they also did not fit the image commonly assumed in Colombian historiography either, that of a group of priests in the early twentieth century who completely controlled primary and secondary education in the territories of the indigenous peoples, known as resguardos.

Boza’s work is situated within the growing body of scholarship examining the relationship between indigenous peoples and post-colonial states in Latin America. These relationships became particularly contentious toward the end of the nineteenth century, as export booms throughout the region increased encroachment on indigenous territories. Scholars such as Laura Gotkowitz, Florencia Mallon, Virginia Tilley, Greg Grandin, and Diego Escolar have placed indigenous organizing and agency not only at the center of local struggles to preserve control over indigenous territories, politics, and culture, but also at the center of broader struggles over national identity and state formation. Boza’s dissertation richly complements this body of work; while her description of indigenous organizing in Tierradentro in the early twentieth century often centers on issues of local concern, she consistently demonstrates how the indigenous people there connected these concerns either to broader questions of autonomy facing indigenous peoples throughout Colombia or to significant national questions regarding partisan politics and land policies in general.

Where Boza departs from these other scholars is in her examination of the role of missionaries in these phenomena. This fills a significant gap in the literature; most scholarship examining the relationship between indigenous peoples and religious organizations focuses on either the colonial period or the second half of the twentieth century. Scholars such as Edward L. Cleary, Timothy J. Steigenga, and Deborah J. Yashar argue that late twentieth-century religious organizations played a crucial role in the development of indigenous social movements. Boza indicates that this strengthens the perception that religious organizations were not particularly active or strong in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, supposedly the result of growing secularization during a time of liberal ascendance. What scholarship exists on this time period focuses on how the Catholic Church, in alliance with Conservative parties and groups, attempted to recruit indigenous peoples to their anti-Liberal causes. Boza, on the other hand, joins a small group of scholars, such as Derek Williams, Hayley Froysland, C.L. Higham, Benjamin F. Tillman, and Kirk Dombrowski, whose work shows that missionaries continued to play an important role in post-colonial states throughout the Americas. Rather than being swallowed up in a wave of secular liberalism, they helped bring indigenous and other groups under the purview of emerging states. For Boza, this represents a strong counter-argument to Benedict Anderson’s well-known claim that the process of nation-building was an inherently secularizing process. However, as Boza notes, only a handful of scholars have examined such historical phenomena, and most of their work centers on nation-building, leaving the impact of missionaries on the indigenous groups themselves significantly understudied.   

But beyond filling a gap in the historical scholarship on Latin America’s indigenous peoples, Boza’s close examination of the activities of the Vincentians in Tierradentro significantly contributes to Colombian historiography, particularly in relation to questions of state formation and the development of identity-based social movements in the twentieth century. Boza reveals significant contours to indigenous organizing, highlighting a very intriguing contradiction: some indigenous groups effectively deployed national discourses and political practices in local struggles, while simultaneously fending off national state curtailment of indigenous autonomy. By approaching indigenous peoples through missionary activities, Boza adds significant nuance to previous examinations of the history of indigenous social movements in Colombia, countering scholars such as Joanne Rappaport who has asserted that the missionaries achieved almost total control over indigenous territories. Yet it was in Tierradentro where the most powerful indigenous movement emerged in the twentieth century. Boza explains this paradox by closely examining missionary activity and uncovering the myriad ways that indigenous peoples developed complex strategies of resistance to both missionaries and the state and in the process nurtured the much larger-scale movement that emerged later in the century

In Chapter 1, Boza situates her work within the literature described above and introduces the reader to the region and peoples she examines in her dissertation. Boza focuses on the indigenous groups of Tierradentro, an extremely mountainous region in the department of Cauca in southwestern Colombia. Historically, the Nasa have constituted the largest indigenous group in this region. Overall, Colombia’s indigenous groups total only approximately two percent of the total population. Nevertheless, they are at the center of several important national concerns, primarily because they have long controlled approximately one-fourth of the national territory. Boza outlines various reasons that led her to focus on the Nasa. Cauca has played an important role in Colombia’s indigenous policies and it was in Cauca where the strongest indigenous movements emerged, particularly among the Nasa. In the late nineteenth century, the Colombian state labelled most indigenous regions as “mission territories,” opening them up to missionaries. While indigenous groups have controlled large portions of Colombian national territory, this control was most widespread in Tierradentro. During the colonial period, the Spanish Crown granted indigenous groups parcels of land known as resguardos. Post-independence national indigenous policy dismantled these land grants, and many disappeared throughout Colombia. In Cauca, however, policies favored preserving them, and when Caucans came to national power in the 1880s, this became national policy. Law 89 of 1890 protected resguardos and enhanced the power of local indigenous councils (cabildos). Parcialidades (smaller groups within the resguardos) were prohibited from selling land, and the cabildos could negate such sales if they occurred. However, Law 89 also contained a number of stipulations designed to ensure that these indigenous institutions weakened over time. It stipulated that resguardos and cabildos were temporary institutions, to be eliminated within fifty years. It also upended administrative structures within the resguardos. Previously, cabildos had authority over parcialidades; Law 89 gave that authority instead to local and regional governing structures outside of the resguardos. Fragmentation was increased further by another stipulation which allowed areas within resguardos to be separated for settlement purposes. In addition, this law was passed during the Regeneration, a period of Conservative ascendance after several decades of Liberal rule. The Conservative party hoped to restore Church privileges that had been eroded and thus, it granted missionaries broad powers to operate schools in the resguardos – yet another means by which the national government hoped to weaken the resguardos over time.

In Chapter 2, Boza describes how the Nasa not only resisted national and regional laws designed to curtail the power of the cabildos and resguardos, but ultimately strengthened them. This largely occurred by adapting colonial institutions to suit the new context. During the colonial era, a system of hereditary rule called nuevos cacicazgos emerged. As these leaders represented a form of political authority outside of national and regional state structures, they were one of the main targets of the laws put in place at the end of the nineteenth century. But within the resguardos, a new form of leadership emerged, the “cacicazgos cum caudillos.” Unlike the pre-Columbian caciques, who were not hereditary rulers, the colonial era nuevos caciques created ruling dynasties that mediated between the indigenous peoples and the Spaniards. Although the legal bases of these dynasties were stripped away in the nineteenth century, the families retained cultural, political, and symbolic power within the resguardos into the twentieth century. The caciques-cum-caudillos gained power in the late nineteenth century by marrying into these old dynasties while simultaneously forging connections to the Colombian state through military service. This allowed them to effectively mediate between indigenous groups and the national state, as the nuevos caciques had done in the past. Boza points out that while other scholars have emphasized how the strength of these indigenous leaders helped preserve overall indigenous autonomy, they have failed to consider how important it was that the nuevos caciques spoke Spanish and were familiar with Colombian regions outside of Tierradentro. The ability of the caciques-cum-caudillos to operate effectively in both worlds significantly helped the Nasa navigate the enormous economic and political changes going on around them. Quinine production boomed in Tierradentro in the late nineteenth century, sparking in-migration, which then spurred administrative reforms, in attempts to establish a more concrete state presence in the region. The main change was bringing the cabildos under the purview of local municipalities rather than the national state. Ironically, one of the premises underlying these changes was that cabildos would weaken over time as the municipal government become more important, and thus, no provisions were put in place to temper the cabildos’ power. The paradoxical effect was to strengthen the cabildo. The combination of powerful caciques-cum-caudillos and cabildos set the stage for the confrontations that emerged in the early twentieth century, when the national state sent the Vincentians to the region. The missionaries would have to contend with these two powerful entities.

In Chapter 3 Boza explains how the missions grew in the early twentieth century as a result of the stability that followed the conclusion of the Thousand Day’s War and the expansion of coffee exports. Both helped maintain the Conservative party in power for the first three decades of the century. Many of the political struggles of the previous century centered on liberalism and secular education. With the Conservatives firmly in charge, national policy focused on returning power over education to the Church and it was partly for this reason that the missions were organized in Tierradentro during this time period. Owing to the size of the resguardos, by 1970, missions nominally controlled over 77% of national territory. Unsurprisingly, church control over public education in Colombia remained a contentious issue, with contemporary Liberals and subsequent scholars claiming that the Church had gained complete control over public education, especially in indigenous regions. However, Boza shows that such control was more fiction than fact. Most schools were located in the two main urban areas of Tierradentro and only used Spanish-language instruction. Thus, the vast majority of indigenous children rarely attended. But perhaps even more surprising is the evidence Boza uncovered indicating that the missions placed far more emphasis on secular issues rather than religious ones. The heyday of the missions in Tierradentro was between 1921 and 1946. Missions were generally small and scattered before 1921; that year the church reorganized the missions as an apostolic prefecture, under direct Vatican control, which greatly increased the number of missionaries active in the area. Most of these were of French origin. Rather than religious instruction, however, they focused primarily on secular issues such as land use, infrastructure, economic activities, and migration. Mission leaders, particularly a priest named David Gonzalez, held the racist views of indigenous peoples common at the time and believed that assimilation into the rest of Colombian society was more important than proselytizing. Priests had very little to say about indigenous morality, instead focusing on how the Nasas’ lives would be improved with in-migration of “white” settlers from other parts of Colombia, who would supposedly teach the indigenous people the value of private property and integration into regional and national markets. Thus, the priests actively encouraged such migration, while simultaneously working to expropriate indigenous lands and undermine the premises of communal land ownership. The Nasa strongly resisted these actions, often successfully.

Chapter 4 offers a very intriguing discussion of the complicated tensions at play in Tierradentro’s local politics. In contrast to previous studies which tend to show one-dimensional engagement with national politics among Colombia’s indigenous peoples, Boza shows how the Nasa were deeply integrated into national political parties and local clientelistic networks. Demonstrating the power of partisan politics in the region, Boza examines the challenges facing Manuel Quintín Lame, Colombia’s most well-known indigenous leader of the twentieth century. Quintín Lame attempted to articulate an “indigenous agenda” that transcended political partisanship and Tierradentro itself, in order to build a national indigenous movement. For Quintín Lame, an effective way to achieve this goal was the election of indigenous leaders throughout the country. Thus, he strongly encouraged participation in electoral politics. However, this presented a challenge, as all politics in Colombia at this time were deeply partisan. While Quintín Lame was nominally a Conservative, he was not fiercely attached to the party and, again, hoped to build a larger, non-partisan movement. Ironically, Quintín Lame’s efforts to promote electoral participation helped bring another indigenous leader to power who did not share his lack of partisan fervor. José Pío Collo was elected to Cauca’s Asamblea Departamental in 1938. A member of the Liberal Party, Collo was fiercely partisan, and deeply connected to local clientelistic networks, with political connections that transcended race, class, and ethnicity in the region. In other words, he was the complete opposite of Quintín Lame, and was, in fact, deeply opposed to the latter, primarily because of his affiliation with the Conservative Party. Boza’s discussion of the political interplay among these two very different indigenous leaders effectively counters much of the existing literature, which suggests that the national state and political parties essentially abandoned Tierradentro’s indigenous peoples once missionaries moved into the region.

Chapter 5 examines indigenous efforts to preserve resguardo lands in the face of various challenges between the 1920s-1950s. Prior to the 1920s, strong cabildos and laws favoring resguardos meant that the Nasa easily resisted attempts to usurp indigenous lands. Law 89 of 1890 had provided indigenous groups with powerful legal protection, when it declared that land titles within resguardos could be granted under two conditions – either the presentation of colonial era documentation or, if that was unavailable, witnesses who could testify that the residents had occupied the land in question for at least thirty years. Since most indigenous groups could not provide the requisite colonial-era documents, witness-based titles were key in preserving resguardo lands. In the 1910s settlers (known as colonos) and their missionary allies began to dispute witness-based titles, almost always unsuccessfully. Their fortunes changed in 1926, however, when the new land law, Law 200, was passed. Two main premises lay at the heart of this law: 1) land had a “social function,” and 2) colonos could help provide more food for the growing urban areas. The issue of “social function” was designed to undermine the power of latifundistas – large landowners who held thousands of acres, but produced nothing on them. Indigenous lands were threatened in this case, because settlers and missionaries compared the large resguardos to the estates of latifundistas. Although the law also declared that all lands without titles were “baldio” – open lands available for colonization by settlers – the witness-based titles were still in effect. However, missionaries such as David Gonzalez began promoting a different interpretation of Law 89, an interpretation which declared witness-based land titles invalid. Usurpation of indigenous lands proceeded based on this new interpretation. Although the Supreme Court upheld witness-based titles in 1936, this did not prevent missionaries and settlers from continuing to fight against them. Thus, resguardo size began to decrease in the 1920s. Simultaneous to the attack on witness-based titles, the department of Cauca “stripped cabildos of veto-power” in relation to settlement areas. In other words, indigenous groups could no longer legally override the activities of settlers on resguardo lands. This occurred at a moment when national policy in general favored smallholders and colonization throughout Colombia, and Boza describes a number of laws and initiatives designed to eliminate resguardos. At the same time, however, new allies emerged to help indigenous groups meet these challenges. These allies included anthropologists and members of Colombia’s Communist Party. Anthropologists in particular established the Instituto Nacional Indigenista in 1943 and in Cauca they helped set up the Departamento de Negocios Indígenas within the regional government. In addition to helping break down myths about indigenous people, they also helped defend indigenous land rights. This was particularly crucial during the rise of the Liberal party between 1930 and 1946, when national policy began to favor large landowners over small holders. Resguardo lands were targeted for further decrease in size, and ultimately, elimination. La Violencia in the 1950s put many of these policies on hold. By the 1960s, when land reform once more became a central national issue, indigenous groups and their allies mounted successful defenses and ensured that protective legislation was put in place.  Thus, only a small number of resguardos were actually disbanded or declared extinct between 1920 and 1980.

Chapter 6 focuses on Nasa culture and how it was interpreted differently by missionaries and anthropologists: the former saw the Nasa as Catholics, albeit non-pious and superstitious ones, while the latter saw them as “traditionally” indigenous with only a veneer of Catholicism manifesting itself in different customs and practices. While the reasons that each of these two different groups would come to such vastly different interpretations of the same people raise intriguing epistemological issues, Boza’s primary concern here is grappling with the debates among historians and anthropologists over what these interpretations reveal about indigenous agency. Documents produced by missionaries in this region rarely mention “indigenous” practices, nor do discuss the need for or methods of proselytizing among the indigenous. Aside from a general lack of devoutness, the indigenous people’s Catholicism was not in question, and, as Boza showed in earlier chapters, the missionaries’ main concerns were secular: land, property, economic development, and race. This has led to two interpretations regarding indigenous agency. One emerges from a literal reading of these documents and asserts that indigenous peoples essentially had no agency at all and that the Catholic Church was entirely successful in converting them to the religion of their oppressors. Another interpretation reads these documents “against the grain” and argues that they reveal tremendous agency on the part of indigenous peoples who only pretended to convert to Catholicism, in order to trick their oppressors. Boza compares the accounts of missionaries and anthropologists to make a different claim: the syncretic mixture of indigenous and Catholic beliefs and practices demonstrates that the Nasa purposefully pulled from these two traditions in order to create multiple strategies for survival and spiritual protection. She asserts that indigenous peoples were not dissimulating by adopting Catholicism, but that they genuinely adhered to the Catholic beliefs they adopted. But, this did not mean that they allowed those beliefs to push traditional ones aside. In other words, a comparison of these two distinct accounts of the indigenous peoples in Tierradentro reveals complex, subtle, and multifaceted forms of indigenous agency.

To tell this story of the Nasa’s resistance to missionary attempts to curtail indigenous autonomy and control over land, Boza relies on several previously unexamined archival and published primary sources. Her use of regional archives is particularly compelling as they have often been overlooked. Some of her major sources include:

  • Regional archives, such as the Archivo de la Gobernación del Cauca and the Archivo Central del Cauca, both located in Popoyán
  • Local archives such as the Archivo Parroquial de Inzá
  • National archives, such as records of the Ministries of Education, Government, Foreign Relations, Public Instruction, and the Interior, all located at the Archivo General de la Nacion in Bogotá.
  • Published works by the missionaries in Tierradentro, particularly the “memoir” of David Gonzalez titled Los paeces o genocidio y las luchas indígenas en Colombia, describing the Nasa and his several decades living among them as a “civilizing” missionary.
  • Papers, reports, and published works of Colombian indigenistas, particularly the anthropologists Segundo E. Bernal Villa and Gregorio Hernández de Alba.

Boza’s work will ultimately make an important contribution to the very understudied story of state-formation and nation-building in Colombia while adding significant nuance to processes of indigenous resistance throughout Latin America. Her examination of resistance to missionary activity demonstrates the paradoxical ways that indigenous peoples defied the state by relying on the very institutions of the state, broadly conceived: elected offices, the church, institutes devoted to indigenous preservation, interpretations of the law. Thus, we see both the state and the indigenous groups strengthened simultaneously.

Rebecca Tally
Center for Historical Research, Department of History
The Ohio State University

Primary Sources

Archivo de la Gobernación del Cauca
Archivo Central del Cauca
Archivo Parroquial de Inzá
Archivo General de la Nacion in Bogotá
Los paeces o genocidio y las luchas indigenas en Colombia

Dissertation Information

University of Pittsburgh. 2013. 331 pp. Primary advisor: Lara Putnam.

Image: A citizenship identification card for an inhabitant from the village of Tálaga, in 1934. Archive of the Registraduría Municipal of Páez, Department of Cauca, Colombia.

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