Indigenous Cosmopolitics in the Andes: Conceptual Reflections Beyond "Politics"

Peer Reviewed


In Latin America indigenous politics has been branded as “ethnic politics.” Its activism is interpreted as a quest to make cultural rights prevail. Yet, what if “culture” is insufficient, even an inadequate notion, to think the challenge that indigenous politics represents? Drawing inspiration from recent political events in Peru—and to a lesser extent in Ecuador and Bolivia—where the indigenous–popular movement has conjured sentient entities (mountains, water, and soil—what we call “nature”) into the public political arena, the argument in this essay is threefold. First, indigeneity, as a historical formation, exceeds the notion of politics as usual, that is, an arena populated by rational human beings disputing the power to represent others vis-à-vis the state. Second, indigeneity's current political emergence—in oppositional antimining movements in Peru and Ecuador, but also in celebratory events in Bolivia—challenges the separation of nature and culture that underpins the prevalent notion of politics and its according social contract. Third, beyond “ethnic politics” current indigenous movements, propose a different political practice, plural not because of its enactment by bodies marked by gender, race, ethnicity or sexuality (as multiculturalism would have it), but because they conjure nonhumans as actors in the political arena.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published many essays on politics in Latin America. See, for example, Thomas Pearson’s “On the Trail of Living Modified Organisms: Environmentalism Within and Against Neoliberal Order” (2009); Cymene Howe’s  “Spectacles of Sexuality: Televisionary Activism in Nicaragua” (2008); and Charles Brigg’s “Mediating Infanticide: Theorizing Relations between Narrative and Violence” (2007). 

Cultural Anthropology has also published many essays focused specifically on indigeneity in Latin America.  See, for example, Charles Hale’s “Activist Research versus the Cultural Critique” (2006); Ana Maria Alonso’s “Conforming Disconformity: “Mestizaje,” Hybridity, and the Aesthetics of Mexican Nationalism” (2004); Diane Nelson’s “Stumped Identities: Body Image, Bodies Politic, and the Mujer Maya as Prosthetic” (2001) by David W. Dinwoodie’s “Authorizing Voices: Going Public in an Indigenous Language” (1998); and Jean Jackson’s “Preserving Indian Culture: Shaman Schools and Ethno-Education in the Vaupes, Colombia” (1995).

About the Author

Marisol de la Cadeña is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Davis. Her current research interrogates the relationship between indigeneity and “politics” in the Andes.

Additional Work by the Author

2008  "Alternative Indigeneities: Conceptual Proposals." Latin American and Caribbean Ethnic Studies 3(3):341-349.

2005  "Are mestizos hybrids? The Conceptual Politics of Andean identities." Journal of Latin American Studies 37(2): 259-284.

2005  "The Production of Other Knowledges and Its Tensions: From Andeanist Anthropology to Interculturalidad." In World Anthropologies: Disciplinary Transformations within Systems of Power. Gustavo Lins Ribeiro and Arturo Escobar, eds. Pp. 201-224. Oxford: Berg Publishers.

2000  Indigenous Mestizos: The Politics of Race and Culture in Cuzco Peru. Durham: Duke University Press.


Workers of the Yanacocha mine march to demand the reopening of roads in Cajamarca (Spanish).

Peru's indigenous groups vow to fight for land.

Related Readings

Albro, Robert. 2006  “The Culture of Democracy and Bolivia’s Indigenous Movement” in Critique of Anthropology 26 (4): 387-410.

Aparicio, Juan and Mario Blaser. 2008  “The Lettered City and the Insurrection of Subjugated Knowledges in Latin America” Anthropological Quarterly 81(1): 59-94.

Descola, Philippe. 1996  In the Society of Nature: A Native Ecology in Amazonia. Cambridge: Cambridge  University Press.

Graham, Laura. 2002  "How Should an Indian Speak? Brazilian Indians and the Symbolic Politics of Language Choice in the International Public Sphere." In Indigenous Movements, Self-Representation and the State in Latin America. Jean Jackson and Kay Warren, eds. Pp. 181-228. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Nash, June. 1992[1972]  We Eat the Mines and the Mines Eat Us: Dependency and Exploitation in Bolivian Tin Mines. New York: Columbia University Press.

Stengers, Isabelle. 2005  "A Cosmopolitical Proposal." In Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy. Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, eds. Pp. 994-1003. Cambdridge: MIT Press.

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