BUENOS AIRES – The glass case where an Argentine museum displayed the remains of an indigenous woman who spent the last three years of her life as an exhibit is now empty and the remains of Margarita Foyel are to be buried, 128 years later, in her native Patagonia.
It was 1884 when Foyel was brought to the newly inaugurated Natural Sciences Museum in the city of La Plata, south of Buenos Aires, to go on exhibit.
She died three years later, at the age of 33, but the museum decided to keep her remains, putting the skeleton on display.
A public campaign forced the museum to withdraw the remains from view in 2006 and on Thursday, a motorcade carrying her bones left La Plata bound for the Patagonian village of El Foyel for a funeral organized by the Mapuche community of Las Huayatecas.
“She is returning to her territory, where she will be buried as appropriate, in the Earth, the land for which our people, our ancestors, fought so much,” community spokeswoman Mirta Ñancunao told EFE.
“From the Mapuche point of view, territory is an indivisible unit comprising the person, natural forces, living people and ancestors,” said Victor Quillaqueo, a historian and indigenous rights activist accompanying the caravan.
Foyel was part of the last Mapuche community to fall to the military campaign known as the Conquest of the Desert, which ended with the subjugation of the indigenous people of southern Argentina.
She was among the hundreds of Mapuche prisoners taken to Martin Garcia Island, where she remained until naturalist Francisco Pascasio Moreno, better known as Perito Moreno, selected Foyel, her uncle Inkayal, who was a chief, and Inkayal’s wife for his new museum in La Plata.
“The women were forced to weave the tapestries later exhibited in the halls, they worked at the museum, and they were living exhibits,” Fernando Pepe, coordinator of the University Social Anthropology Research Group, or Guiias, told EFE.
“Painters would come to do portraits and had them posing, anthropologists would come to weigh and measure them. Inkayal again and again refused to comply, he offered passive resistance,” Pepe said.
The captives, according to contemporaneous testimonies cited by Pepe, “were ill-fed, living in crowded conditions, psychologically despondent and dirty.”
Guiias says at least six Mapuches died at the museum, several of them from treatable conditions such as the lung infection that killed Foyel.
“This restitution vindicates our ancestors’ dignity after they suffered so much in the state-sponsored genocide of our people in what they call Conquest of the Desert,” Ñancunao said.
“To bring her back to our land and to have her little bones resting in peace has a tremendous spiritual, symbolic and political importance,” she said.