Over the years, I have researched intercultural education, gender relations, art production, environmental humanities, and museum collections in collaboration with Indigenous peoples and communities. In particular, my research explores the impacts of colonialism on the lives of people, things, and territories from the perspective of Indigenous ontological self-determination. By this, I mean that my work combines collaboration and symmetrical methodologies to address the unfolding of colonialism from the reality criteria that animate Indigenous worlds.

I frame my research agenda as a commitment to decolonization and repatriation, especially querying the intersection between both ideas. Thus, repatriation here informs not only the devolution of looted things from museums but also land restitution and land-based practices revitalization. Having land and self-determination as a horizon, my work aims to engage in practical issues my collaborators value, seeking ways to support their contra-colonial processes. At the same time, I am also interested in exploring methodologically and theoretically what happens to anthropological thought once we transit from the image of the gift – in contrast with the commodity – as a metaphorical base to conceive descriptions.

Repatriation as a research horizon requires rethinking how descriptions of material culture are made, considering their processes of musealization. For instance, what would have happened to Gell’s famous theory of agency if he had inflected his concept by recognizing and digging deeper into the effects of musealization on the objects he worked with? Therefore, I am interested in experimenting with forms of description that, instead of having their base metaphor in the contrast between gift and commodity, want to transform it by centralizing the image of repatriation. This leads us to think, for example, of the global connections that not only things but spirits, people, and territories make, producing transformations due not only to colonial collecting, but to the decolonizing impetus. Therefore, my research has explored, for instance, how shamans and spirits travel themselves to museum collections because of the things taken away and to claim their release and return, acknowledging that legal, museological, and material dimensions of collections ontologize within things.

As a result, my collaborative research requires assuming that I do not know what repatriation might be without exploring its many facets and complexities. This has led me to argue for a case-by-case understanding of what repatriation can be. Repatriation cannot be reduced to an institutional policy and a predetermined package of actions to be taken regardless of dispossessed peoples’ ontological self-determination. This is because the physical return of bodies and objects, if required, needs to be traversed by other ontological criteria to achieve the undoing of some colonial implications that exceed the capacity to recognize the real under which museum institutions run, for example.

I am currently researching decolonization practices in museums. It seeks to understand what different institutions refer to with notions of decolonization. That is, what is behind this term that, despite having become an institutional buzzword, still reveals the need to disrupt settler and colonial relations. At the same time, I am preparing to start research on the process of musealization and collection of Mapuche shamanic drums, now in museums in the Global North. The idea is to think about how the vital energy of these drums, their newen, can be used in territorial reconstitution and repatriation concerned with land-based practices.

Research Projects

The Drums’ Many Lives: Stories of a Mapuche Shamanic Being in Museum Collections (Upcoming)

“Stories, like the kulxug [drums], can carry newen [vital energy] back,” maci (shaman) Mauricio Reyes told us during one of our territorial work meetings. Like me, he is one of the Mapuche Repatriation Program’s representatives. This project is an effort to, in dialogue with such perspective, retell the stories of Mapuche drums kept abroad. Through archive and collection research, it will gather information about the shamanic drums in European museum collections. Then, it will also share that information with the Mapuche communities associated with the Repatriation Program, aiming to recreate the drums’ stories and reclaim their vital energy.

“Negotiations across worlds”: an ethnography of repatriation as collaboration to freeing Mapuche ancestors and spirits from museum captivity (Upcoming)

Imagine spirits and ancestors imprisoned and unable to resume their life cycles. Now consider that because of this situation, they begin tormenting and making people ill. Finally, think of a prominent museum as their prison. This is precisely the case this collaborative research faces. Conveyed from the Koyawe territory and in collaboration with their Repatriation Program, this research is an ethnography of the international repatriation process involving the Mapuche things removed by Samuel Lothrop between 1929 and 1939. It focuses on describing the “negotiations across worlds” – co-researcher Rosa Huenchulaf’s words – that repatriation entails: including the more-than-human assemblages the process convokes and enacts as stakeholders, the research makes palpable the ontological dimensions articulating relations across the institutional, legal, and bureaucratic requirements. For this, it will use gvxan – conversations, Mapuche discursive and analytical genre – as a methodological guide, gathering different knowledge regimes (cultural transmission, shamanism, anthropology) to produce evidence that will be collectively analyzed with the Koyawe territory’s representatives of repatriation. Interested in the global connections created by the politics of spirits, the research begins in Washington, DC, and concludes in the Koyawe territory, following the dispossessed things’ return home.

Collections as captivity, things as ancestors: the Mapuche Museum of Cañete as a decolonial tool (2022-2024)

This research respectfully involves and engages Indigenous communities. During the Chilean state’s military annexation of Indigenous Mapuche territories in the 19th century, many items (including human remains) were looted from Mapuche cemeteries and places of spiritual significance. Many of those items ended up in the Mapuche Museum of Cañete collection. In recent years, this museum came to be managed by Mapuche staff, who began to fall sick because, according to them, the ancestral powers associated with the collections do not want to be there. From the standpoint of these staff, keeping ancestors captive, the museum re-enacts the ongoing colonialism upon which the Chilean state is grounded. Consequently, they intend to free the ancestors by turning the museum into a decolonial tool. This does not simply imply a matter of repatriation but involves an experiment of profound institutional transformation. The overarching goal of this collaborative research with the museum’ Mapuche staff is to explore potential pathways for this transformation. Interested in describing the museums’ daily practices, the research focuses on disputes over heritage, querying the Chilean state’s ownership of what are, from the Mapuche perspective, their ancestors. Thus, it investigates (1) how Chilean national legislation transforms Mapuche ancestors into objects that can be extracted, collected, and displayed; and (2) how the Museum staff care for and work with their ancestors to transform the institution into a decolonial tool. Rather than reducing these claims to cultural beliefs that might or might not be attended to, the research takes them as statements of facts with which one must work. The results are aimed to be not only of academic value but also a collaborative contribution to strengthen the museum’s decolonization. Also, it foresees collaborations between Indigenous-led organizations in Canada and the Mapuche Museum.

Lives in Captivity: stories of the Mapuche mogen and museum collections (2018-2022, Ph.D. Dissertation)

Based on conversations and reflections around four sets of Mapuche things, ethnographic objects understood as mogen (living beings), this thesis discusses the formation of some museum collections, questioning their colonial contours. More specifically, it asks about the consequences of collecting based on elaborations carried out with Mapuche collaborators. Having colonialism as an object of inquiry, this thesis explores not only a series of relationships that are based or that take place in the vicinity of things but also reflects on the living conditions of spirits, lineages, and knowledge, among others, associated with and affected by collections. This research took place in close dialogue and collaboration with the Mapuche Museum of Cañete Ruka Kimvn Taiñ Volil Juan Cayupi Huechicura, particularly with Rosa Huenchulaf, the then head of the museum’s educational area. 

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