Diaguita

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  • Environment and Geography

    The present-day Diaguita people are located in in the Huasco and Choapa river valleys of Chile’s Norte Chico region, where they have officially constituted as indigenous communities, based on their former existence as “Indian towns” established during the colonial period. Most of the population that self-identifies as Diaguita lives in the Upper Huasco River basin, particularly around the Tránsito River and Huasco Alto, in the municipality of Alto del Carmen. Other Diaguita communities are located in Vallenar and Freirina (Huasco Bajo), and further south in Chalinga, in the Choapa Valley.

    The zone of Huasco Alto is a foothills region with a semi-arid climate. Geographically it features steep, narrow valleys and high mountain peaks. The valley is watered by the Tránsito River, whose tributaries include the Valeriano, Cazadero, Conay and Chollay rivers, which flow down from high in the Andes. Its indigenous inhabitants have their settlements and grow their crops on the valley’s broad terraces. The Huasco River emerges at the confluence of the Tránsito and Carmen rivers then flows down to the sea. The territory of Huasco Alto varies in altitude from 1500 to more than 6000 m above sea level, with a climate ranging from cold desert to Alpine tundra. Its vegetation includes a pre-Andean tier (1500–2700 m a.s.l.) covered by herbaceous plants and cacti on the slope, valley bottoms and low lying ravines. Somewhat higher (2700–3500 m a.s.l.) is the sub-Andean tier with grasses and bushy scrub, while the Low Andean tier (3500–4250 m a.s.l.) includes a variety of grasses, low shrubs and cushion plants. The final ecological tier is the subniveal or Andean desert (4250–4500 ma.s.l.), where sparse grasses are the only vegetation.

    The Diaguita community of Chalinga is located in the valley of the same name in the middle reaches of the Choapa River, near the town of Salamanca. The Choapa River emerges in the Andes Mountains at the confluence of three of its tributaries—the Totoral, Leiva and Del Valle rivers. Downstream, in the foothills, it receives the waters of the Cuncumén and Chalinga rivers. This zone has a lowland marginal desert climate that is characterized by a maritime influence, winter precipitation, clear skies, low humidity and a high daytime-night time temperature variation.

  • Economy

    The Diaguitas of Huasco Alto, in the Tránsito River Valley, have an extensive territory they inherited from the old colonial “Indian Town”, which covers 370,000 hectares and was registered as part of the “Estancia Diaguita de los Huascoaltinos”. In this vast territory they grow crops, raise livestock, mine for minerals and collect plant resources. Families live on small plots of land in the valley bottom, where they cultivate traditional crops and keep orchards alongside their dwellings. Goat herders raise their flocks in the ravines, hills and mountains of Pinte, Colpe, La Plata and La Totora (Chanchoquín), as well as at the summer grazing grounds of Laguna Grande, Laguna Chica and Cazadero. The Tránsito River Valley is very fertile, and its inhabitants produce surpluses that they then sell at market. Today, however, the valley is being colonized by vineyards of grapes destined for export grown by large enterprises that have acquired estates in the Diaguita territorial zone.

    The Diaguita community of Taucán de Chalinga, for its part, subsists by farming small parcels of land in the valley and (in the case of some families) raising goats for leather, meat and milk (for cheese making). Cultural tourism is another economic activity for the Diaguitas here, especially in zones with a certain heritage value such as the abundant ancient rock art sites in the area. Diaguita-themed functional and ornamental ceramics are also produced and sold.

  • Art

    The Diaguita are well known for their ceramics, which is a traditional craft in Huasco Alto. The ceramic workshops that remain in the villages of Chollay and Pachuy continue to practice the ancient techniques to make their pieces, which include large urns for storing food and dishes for daily use. Textiles are produced by women, especially those living in the Huasco communities of Junta de Valeriano, Chollay, Pinte and Chihuinto. The women spin the yarn from sheeps wool and color it with natural and artificial dyes, and then weave it in the traditional way on their “backyard looms”, producing blankets, ponchos, capes and bags of different sizes. They also manufacture a variety of cordage and braided items for horse and mule tack. The textiles have the same forms, techniques and styles throughout the valley, with subtle differences in coloring from locality to locality. The Huasco Diaguitas also practice the art of healing with herbal medicines, making infusions and ointments for different afflictions and illnesses. Chalinga is home to traditional Diaguita medicine practitioners who are known as the most skilled healers in the Choapa Valley. Among their various crafts, other members of Chalinga community have recovered ancient ceramic techniques and designs from their pre-Hispanic ancestors, and now benefit economically from their small businesses while reinforcing their indigenous identity and traditional lifeways.

  • Beliefs and Funerary Practices

    The Diaguitas have celebrated Catholic religious celebrations since colonial times, as this part of the Norte Chico was one of the first to be evangelized in the early colonial period. But the people also continue to hold their ancient nature-based beliefs. Thus, as the people of Huasco Alto celebrate traditional Catholic feast days—such as the Cruz de Mayo in Malaguín, the Virgen de Andacollo in Chollay, the Virgen de la Merced in Pinte and the Virgen del Tránsito in the town of the same name—these local devotional cults are expressed, among other ways, in the ancient indigenous tradition of Chino dances. In some zones of Huasco Alto, traditional forms of governance also remain in place for irrigation systems, including the figures of the celador (water magistrate), who is called the Camayo or Camayoc, a Quechua term that dates back to Inca times. Similarly, until a few decades ago the Husaco Diaguitas still held ancient indigenous celebrations such as the Challa. Hybrid Christian-Indigenous celebrations incorporate traditional figures such as the ancient deity of Yastay—a Kakán figure from the Argentine Calchaquíes valleys that is a guardian spirit of animals and appears as a large guanaco that lives in the mountains.

    The practices and oral tradition of the Diaguita community of Chalinga, in the Choapa Valley, also blends Hispanic and Indigenous elements. The ancient witches that are believed to inhabit the nearby mountain, Raja de Manquehua, represent ancient indigenous practices that were prohibited (and prosecuted) by the colonial orthodox hierarchy. Recently, some Diaguita communities have adopted State-sponsored festivities focused on indigenous peoples, such as the National Day of Indigenous Peoples, which falls on the winter solstice, when the indigenous New Year is celebrated in the Andean world, with offerings to the Pachamama (Mother Earth).
    Modern Diaguita funerary rites, for their part, differ little from Western, Catholic ones, with evident traditional Hispanic elements.

  • Settlement Pattern

    The Huasco Diaguitas live in individually held parcels of land grouped together into sectors in the valley, in some cases forming small villages. The hamlets higher up in the Tránsito River Valley are spread over almost 100 kilometers and include, from West to East, Juntas, Ramadillas, La Marquesa, El Olivo, Chihuinto, Las Pircas, Alto Naranjo, Los Perales, Las Pircas, Chanchoquín Grande y Chico, La Fragua, La Arena, La Junta de Pinte, Pinte, La Pampa, La Plata, Los Tambos, Colpe, Conay, Chollay, Malaguín, Los Corrales and Juntas de Valeriano, the last of these at the headwaters of the Tránsito River. These settlements consist of permanent dwellings made of adobe or more modern materials such as brick and cement. Those Diaguitas who live on larger parcels maintain farm fields and orchards alongside their dwellings. Only a few Diaguita families still practice seasonally nomadic herding, journeying from winter to summer grazing grounds with their animals. In the latter they maintain small shelters called majadas built with locally available materials, and consisting of dry stone walls and log-and-branch roofs covered with plastic. The Diaguita settlement of Chalinga is divided entirely into parcels, each families having their dwelling alongside their agricultural fields.

  • History

    The term Diaguita may have come from Quechua or Aymara, as the term exists in both languages, and means hill or mountain. It could also have been created locally, derived from from the now-extinct Kakán language that was used by the pre-Hispanic Diaguita-Calchaquí people of Northwest Argentina. This cannot be confirmed, however, as the only Kakán dictionary—from the Calchaquíes valleys, written in the late 16th century by Catholic priests Alonso de Barzana and Pedro Añasco—has been lost. This document could have been an important point of reference, as the archeological Diaguita culture emerged at least 400 years before the Spanish conquest throughout what is now the Norte Chico of Chile, and had ties of some kind with the contemporary peoples of the Calchaquíes valleys as well as those further south, on the other side of the Andes. Historic documents from the colonial period contain several mentions of “the Diaguitas”, all of which refer to the Elqui Valley in Chile. The earliest of these comes from the first Spaniards to arrive in the land that is now Chile, and who used the name Diaguita to identify the indigenous people inhabiting the Elqui Valley, distinguishing them from the indigenous inhabitants of the other valleys of the Norte Chico, which they generically referred to as indios. In 1549, the Diaguitas are mentioned as participants in an attack on the colonial city of La Serena, and in 1605, there is mention of the “Valley of the Diaguitas” in reference to a sector of the upper Elqui River Valley. In 1612, another document refers to the founding of the “town of the Diaguitas”, while another reference in 1764 names the caciques (chiefs) and other indigenous residents of that same town.

    In the early decades of the 20th century, ethnologist Ricardo Latcham proposed that the name “Chilean Diaguitas” be used to identify the indigenous inhabitants of the Copiapó, Huasco and Elqui valleys whose surnames ended in “ay”—including Campillay, Huenchicay and Liquitay—and appeared in the parish registries dating from the colonial period. These surnames are known to be of Kakán origin, and appear in the registries of some of the so-called “indian towns” founded by the Spanish in the Norte Chico. In the region of Huasco Alto, especially, there is a long genealogy of such Diaguita surnames in the colonial registries, which date back to the early 17th century. The forced dissolution of these “indian towns” occurred in the early years of the Republic, when the first Chilean government administrations enacted laws in 1823 and 1830 to have them disbanded. At that time, most of the “indian towns” in the Copiapó, Huasco, Elqui, Limarí and Choapa valleys lost part of their land base, which reverted to the State, and had their colonial legal status revoked. Only the old Huasco Alto “indian town” has managed to retain all of its territory up to the present day, because their (collective) owner-residents have been able to demonstrate their historic claim to those ancestral mountain territories.

    The indigenous community of Taucán de Chalinga, for its part, has confirmed its claim to its territory by pointing to the parish registries of Choapa Alto, which date back to 1691. The surname of Taucán appears in the late colonial period as a family name of residents of the Chalinga “indian town”, which became crucial to the self-identification of these individuals as Diaguitas and allowed them to constitute as an official indigenous community in 2013 under the provisions of Chile’s Indigenous Law 19.253.

  • Language

    It has been proposed that the Diaguita’s mother tongue is Kakán, as that was the language spoken by the so-called Diaguita groups inhabiting Argentina’s Calchaquíes valleys. Very little is know about this language, as it disappeared quickly after the Spanish conquest, according to historians. Present-day Diaguita communities in Chile speak Spanish only. According to scholar Ricardo Latcham, surnames ending in “ay” are characteristic of the Kakán language, as are local place names ending in “…gasta or its short-form ga, il, til, quí, quil, ama or cama, ao, ahoho, mar, alá…”, among others. The same could be said of surnames found among the Diaguitas of Huasco Alto, such as Campillay, Huenchicay and Eliquitay, and in the place names found in the valleys of the Norte Chico, such as Elquí, Sotaquí, Talinay, Salala and Combarbalá, among many others.

  • Social Organization

    Traditional Diaguita society tended to be was organized around family and extended family ties. But the modern Diaguita indigenous community has only recently emerged, under the auspices of Indigenous Law Nº 19.253, although many of its current members are longstanding participants in Neighborhood Associations, Campesino Boards, Agricultural Collectives and/or Irrigation Associations in the same territory. With the official constitution of the Diaguita indigenous people, today these people are organized according to the provisions set out in the Indigenous Law for that purpose. The first Diaguita community officially constituted under the Law was Estancia Agrícola Diaguita de los Huascoaltinos, which formed in 2006. Later, other Diaguita indigenous communities emerged, encouraged by their respective municipalities and the collective will of their members. Those communities include Alto del Carmen, Vallenar and Freirina, in the Huasco Valley, and the most recently formed (in 2013) Comunidad Diaguita Taucán de Chalinga, in the Choapa Valley.

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