Courtesy Martin Garcia
Members of the Religious Society Sioux Indians of Mary during a dance held in a sunrise as part of the celebration of La Tirana in honor of the Virgin of El Carmen in 2015.

Fake Sioux, Cheyenne, Dakota Dances Thrive in South America

Renzo Pipoli
6/15/16

Tens of thousands of South Americans gather on July 16 every year in a small town in the Atacama desert for a ceremony witnessed by almost 200,000 visitors. The several-days-long event features round-the-clock dance groups with some of them dressed to imitate the original inhabitants of Turtle Island.

The annual “Fiesta de La Tirana” celebration features organizations bearing names like “Sioux,” “Dakotas” and “Cheyenne.”

Erica Cuello says her organization, the Religious Society Sioux Indians of Mary, has participated in La Tirana over the past four decades. Currently there are 54 “Sioux” dancers and they are all Chileans and Catholics, she says, adding, “We would like to learn more about North American Natives and their dances.”

The organization names always end with “of Mary,” and all the dances are connected to a pilgrimage to a Catholic church built in the 1700s that honors the “Virgin of Carmen of La Tirana” -- the Virgin Mary.

Members of the Religious Society Sioux Indians of Mary in Arica during the celebration of the Cross of May, in the parish of the Holy Cross in Arica in 2014. (Courtesy Katherine Cuevas)

The involvement of the Catholic Church in the La Tirana celebration is relatively new because this annual pilgrimage has much older indigenous roots, Eliseo Huanca, a Chilean Aymara Native group leader and Aymara history expert says.

She explains that the celebrations connected the Catholic temples which are built atop ancient indigenous ceremonial centers, the same places where the old inhabitants of the Andes made pilgrimages to honor the “Father Sun” and “Mother Earth.”

Cowboy movies

The La Tirana pilgrimage was traditionally held on August 6 to coincide with a Bolivian “Copacabana Virgin” celebration, but was moved to July 16 to appease the Chilean government and align with the patron saint of the Chilean army, the “Virgin of El Carmen.”

Between the 1920s and the 1970s, the large nitrate mines in the area were intensely exploited, leading to large migration from central Chile into the Atacama area.

They created dance groups imitating the dances they saw in the cowboy movies. (Courtesy Martin Garcia)

As part of the nitrate extraction efforts, the mine owners built towns to house thousands of workers. The towns included movie theaters where mine owners showed movies filmed in the U.S. The most popular films were westerns where actors portrayed American Indians.

“It was there in the mining towns that the mine workers learned names like Dakotas, Cheyenne and Sioux,” Cuello says. They created dance groups imitating the dances they saw in the cowboy movies.

Cristian Salazar has been researching and attending La Tirana for many years. Salazar wrote in an e-mail to ICTMN that the Sioux or Dakota dresses and dances used by South Americans “are fantasy representations but there are common grounds” with American Indians.

Salazar has observed a pride in using Native American dress imitations that provide local populations “the feeling of representing an indomitable Native American culture” that would not likely be possible in another way.

Older participants of La Tirana have told Salazar that Native American names are used in place of real Aymara and Quechua cultures to represent indigenous cultures in a “less conflicting way.”

Dancers imitate North American Natives during the Celebration of the Virgin of La Tirana in 2011. (Courtesy Cristian Salazar)

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Liliann Nola
Submitted by Liliann Nola on
One key to understanding this phenomena is remembering our native brothers and sisters to the south have many years head start in dealing with colonization. The church all but destroyed their identity as their purpose was to "civilize" native people and "kill the Indian." How southern natives managed to hold on to their language and customs while salvaging remnants of their ancient culture is a miracle. Just to quickly note the last paragraph is very telling: Older participants of La Tirana have told Salazar that Native American names are used in place of real Aymara and Quechua cultures to represent indigenous cultures in a “less conflicting way.” I see it as their desire to connect with what they clearly understand to be Indigenous cultures like their own. This reminds me of the melding of intertribal identities when native people from different tribes were forced to live together on reservations because after all they were all "Indians"! I certainly agree education and compassion is in order. The article is misleading and doesn't offer any historical context as background for why the organizations developed in the first place. Certainly these indigenous people were isolated in these mining towns far from their own people. The article is simplistic in its explanation and doesn't offer any support for the fact that these native people are clearly discriminated against for connecting to their actual native identities as noted in the last paragraph.
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