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After More Than a Century, Argentinian Museum Returns Indigenous Chief's Remains to His People

Museo de la Plata - Argentina del usuario de Flickr Cristian bajo licencia  (CC BY-NC 2.0)

La Plata City museum – Argentina from Flickr user Cristian unver license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The complete remains of Chief Inacayal are finally back with his people in Argentina after 127 years. In December, the Museum of the City of La Plata returned the brain and scalp of the cacique, who died in the museum in 1888, as well as the remains of his wife and niece to representatives of the Tehuelche indigenous community.

In 1881, then President of Argentina Julio A. Roca began a campaign against the indigenous in Patagonia, a region spanning the southern tip of South America. After resisting, Modesto Inacayal was captured along with his family. He was rescued in October 1886 by the museum's director at that time, Perito Francisco Moreno, in gratitude for the cacique's kindness during his stay in Patagonia.

He and his family were then taken to the museum, where he died in 1888 of unknown causes.

Blog Misterios de la Ciudad de la Plata explains some of the theories about the cause of his death:  

Murió el 24 de septiembre de 1888, por razones no del todo claras; sin embargo, se elaboraron las siguientes teorías acerca de su deceso:

  • Se suicidó por el tormento que le ocasionaba estar lejos de su tierra y prisionero en el museo en donde tenía que ver expuestos en las vitrinas los restos de sus seres queridos.
  • Lo empujaron por las escaleras de acceso al museo cuando se desnudó en público en uno de sus rituales. Esto lo fundamenta el antropólogo Ten Kate, quien observó que el esqueleto tenía los huesos de la nariz quebrados por alguna caída o golpe, y además le faltaban varios dientes.
  • Por último la teoría más mencionada, la cual dice que Inacayal al saber que iba a morir, realizó un ritual tras el cual se desvaneció. Así lo dejó asentado el naturalista italiano Clemente Onelli, secretario de Moreno: “Ya casi no se movía de su silla de anciano. Y un día cuando el sol poniente teñía de púrpura el majestuoso propileo de aquel edificio engarzado entre los sombríos eucaliptos… sostenido por dos indios, apareció Inacayal allá arriba, en la escalera monumental: se arrancó la ropa, la del invasor de su patria, hizo un ademán al sol, otro larguísimo al sur: habló palabras desconocidas y en el crepúsculo, la sombra agobiada de ese viejo Señor de la tierra se desvaneció como la rápida evocación de un mundo”.

He died on September 24, 1888, for reasons not entirely clear; however, the following theories about his death were developed:

  • He committed suicide because of the torment of being away from his land and imprisoned in the museum where he had to see the remains of his loved ones on display.
  • He was pushed down the stairs of the museum when he undressed in public during one of his rituals. This, according to anthropologist Ten Kate, who observed that in his skeleton, the nose bones were broken by a fall or blow, and he had missing several teeth.
  • Finally, the most mentioned theory, which says that knowing he would die, Incayal performed a ritual after which he vanished. This theory was put forth by Italian naturalist Clemente Onelli, Moreno´s secretary: “We hardly ever moved from his elderly chair. And one day when the Propylaea gateway of that building, mounted between shady eucalyptus, was turned a majestic purple by the setting sun … Incayal appeared there on the monumental staircase, supported by two Indians. He ripped the clothes that the invaders of his homeland had provided him, made a gesture toward the sun, and gave another lengthy salute to the south: he spoke unknown words, and in the twilight, the overwhelming shadow of that old Lord of the Earth vanished like the quick evocation of a world”.

Regarding the cacique's his remains, the blog continues:

El esqueleto del cacique fue descarnado y se lo preparó para exponerlo en el museo en donde había vivido sus últimos años. Así permaneció a la vista del público durante más de 50 años, hasta la década de 1940.

The flesh was removed from the chief's skeleton, and it was prepared for display in the museum where he had lived out his last years. It remained on public display for over 50 years until the 1940s.

In 1994, a portion of his remains were returned. In 2006, the official process of restitution began under National Law 25.517 which prescribes that “the remains of indigenous people, whatever their ethnic characteristic, which are part of museums and / or public or private collections, should be made available to indigenous peoples and / or communities to which belongs that claim.”

Watch the moment Inacayal's remains were returned to his people in the following video from Movimiento Estudiantil Liberación:

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