GeoSemantics / Moira Millán on Land Struggle and Terricidio / Leila Gómez

Credit: Altmodern.

Moira Millán is the founder of the Movimiento de Mujeres Indígenas y Diversidades por el Buen Vivir (Movement of Indigenous Women and Diversities for Good Living) in Argentina. As a Mapuche weychafe (“protective warrior” in Mapudungun), she has contributed in various ways to the defense of Indigenous territories. Her work as a novelist and scriptwriter is one of the creative and philosophical dimensions of her activism. In this brief essay, I would like to discuss Millán’s concept of “terricidio” (in English, “terricide”) as a new category that does not align with the division between culture and nature—or between the human and the non-human—but rather measures the fight for defense of the land and all that inhabits the land. For her, the defense of territory is inextricably linked to the defense of the identity, sovereignty, language, knowledge, and spirituality of Mapuche women. This concept ties together the fundamental claims of her novel El tren del olvido (Planeta, 2019) as well as those of the recent documentary “La rebelión de las flores” (2022), on which I will comment below.

Millán defines “terricide” as a concept that synthesizes all the ways of killing by the “civilizatory matrix of death” (matriz civilizatoria de muerte).” Terricide encompasses ecocide (the killing of tangible ecosystems, what we call the environment), genocide (the killing of peoples),  epistemicide (the killing of the diverse ways in which we understand how to live in the world, i.e. culture, spirituality, philosophy), and feminicide. Millán differentiates feminicide from femicide, defining the former as criminal politics against women’s bodies, which she refers to as “cuerpas”). Terricide also has to do with crimes against childhoods and diversities (niñeces y diversidades) like forced labor and homophobia.

When I asked Millán how the concept of terricidio resizes the fight for climate change and the environment, she answered that fighting for preservation of the ecosystem will succeed if only that struggle includes fighting for the Indigenous peoples that have cultivated respect for the land and the art of living in reciprocity (the Good Living). What terricide seeks to make visible is the relationship that humans have not only with nature but also with their spirituality, their culture, and their sacred spaces. It is a concept that comes directly from Indigenous peoples, who believe that there are sacred places, territorial spaces where spiritual forces lived. The fight against terricide seeks to transform this concept into a legal category according to which governments as well as companies that commit terricide can be judged and condemned.

According to the Mapuche, the territory to which Millán refers, lives in the bodies of Mapuche women. In their culture, crimes against the bodies of Indigenous women thus are also terricides. Moreover, Millán points out that there are forces that inhabit rivers, mountains, jungles, and lakes, and these forces sometimes also reside in people—that is why the Mapuche people have machis, or medicine women, who receive these forces, these spirits that come from the land to their bodies, which later transmit that energy. In a conversation with me, Millán described the body-territory:

Our body takes the energies of the territory where it has been built—for example, if we are near a river, the forces of water will inhabit our spirit, our being, our body. Wherever we go, we will feel the vibration of that river; that’s why we say that when we go to a place, the river goes with us. The spirits of the territory inhabit us. A machi, for example, sometimes cannot get away from her rewe, her place of nourishment, for those forces do not allow it. The machis must ask the territory for permission to leave. When I leave my community, I must ask the territory for permission to leave. When I arrive in another community, I must ask permission, introducing myself to that territory and expressing that I am there. In this way, I avoid sickness. And that is a very common practice in the Indigenous world.1

In accordance with this concept, Indigenous women maintain that their people have no self-determination unless there is free determination of their bodies and their territories. Thus, the femicides of Indigenous women who fight for territories in Argentina and Latin America can also be interpreted as terricides. In this way, anti-patriarchal feminist struggles must also be environmental and anti-colonial when they involve defending the lives of Indigenous women: “Feminists must allow themselves to be permeated by that vision of Indigenous women who bring their ancestral epistemology to this crisis of civilization”.2

Millán is the first Mapuche woman to write and publish a novel, El tren del olvido (2019). When Millán was one year old, her family moved to Bahía Blanca and settled in a poor neighborhood. She grew up surrounded by other families, most of them Mapuche, that had relocated from distant regions. In the city where Millán attended school, she was taught that most of the Mapuche were exterminated in the Argentine government’s war against them in the late nineteenth century. For Millán, the official history taught in the Argentine school was impossible to reconcile with her life and experience, not only in Chubut, where she lived for a short time, but also in Bahía Blanca where most of her neighbors were those—supposedly extinct—Mapuches.

Nonetheless, according to the Argentine state’s official version of the “war against the Indians,” the government was successful not only in killing the majority of the Indigenous in the country but also in assimilating the few who remained alive, by placing them in boarding schools or in servitude to rich criollo families. Thus, the state constructed the national discourse of citizenship, according to which everyone was Argentine. This discourse, however, is incomplete and false, discounting both the survivors who after the war moved to less hospitable areas in Patagonia, as well as others who were incarcerated, and still others who were brought to natural history museums for exhibitions on the nation’s past. The assimilation strategies thus essentially entailed erasure or exhibit. The name of the war, La Conquista del desierto (The Conquest of the Desert), falsely suggests an emptiness, which did not in fact exist because there were Indigenous people living in the “desert” both before and after the war. Furthermore, when Europeans and their descendants took possession of their territories, many Indigenous people ultimately relocated to different regions of Argentina. In short, they survived.

At the age of eighteen, Millán decided to go back to the lands of her family and ancestors, who welcomed her graciously. She became an activist and warrior for the land rights of Indigenous peoples in Argentina. Her novel rewrites the story of the Conquest of the Desert by presenting the perspectives of the Mapuche nation, and in particular those of Mapuche women. As a novel, the text seeks to insert itself in a historical and also literary debate. At the end of the nineteenth century, Argentine politicians, scientists and authors wrote about the war against Indigenous people and their texts became the canon of the modern Argentina nation-state. The ability to chart, “pacify,” and grab the land would prove vital for the country’s industrialization. In the 1880s, under the presidency of Julio A. Roca, a tragic solution to the “problem” of the Indigenous peoples was proposed: their assimilation, incarceration, and/or extermination. A complex machine of terricide was developed to kill all forms of material and spiritual Indigenous life, involving ecocide, genocide, epistemicide and feminicide.

Feminicide, as Millán defines it (criminal politics against women’s bodies) is historically rooted in the consolidation of the modern Argentine state. In 1869, Argentine Civil Code (enacted 1871) clarified the rights of male heads of households. In classifying both children and women as minors, this code reiterated a husband’s authority over his wife and his responsibility to provide for her. It also required a woman to obtain her husband’s permission before she could initiate any legal action, such as that needed to buy, sell, or mortgage property; become employed; or administer her own wages. As a consequence of this code, polygamy quickly became a target of Argentine efforts to integrate Indigenous peoples. The state instituted repressive measures to prohibit marriage with two or more women, as well as other tribal ceremonies that offended “moral decency”.3

In El tren del olvido, Millán recounts the story of the female machi Fresia, one of the protagonist’s ancestors, who lived through the Conquest of the Desert. In this story, Fresia is the second wife of the Longko (chief). Even after her wedding, Fresia exercises her right not to sleep with her husband, as well as her ownership of her house and farm, and her friendship with the Longko’s first wife, who was her best friend. Thus, Millán’s novel presents an opposition to the repressive and oppressive policies against Indigenous women’s bodies. What state law perceived as “moral indecency” was in fact an essential aspect of social and economic self-determination for women. In Fresia’s case, this self-determination is tied to her position in the community as that of a female machi, the prestigious position of a healer who uses rituals and herbal knowledge in intrinsic connection with her rewe/sacred space.

In Maria Lugones’s view, one of the first achievements of the colonial state was the creation of “women” as a category. At one level, the transformation of state power into male power was achieved by excluding women from government. Addressing Anibal Quijano’s coloniality of power, Lugones cites Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyèwùmí (in the case of Yoruba colonization), recognizing two crucial colonization processes: the imposition of races with the consequent inferiorization of nonwhites, and the inferiorization of anafemales. The latter spread very widely, through various practices, ranging from exclusion from leadership roles to loss of land ownership and other significant economic consequences. Replacing gynecocratic spiritual plurality with a male supreme being, as Christianity did, was crucial in subduing the tribes. Lugones, following Paula Gunn Allen, argues that the passage of Indigenous tribes from egalitarian and gynecratic to hierarchical and patriarchal required the fulfillment of several objectives, among which were that the primacy of the female as creator was displaced and replaced by male creators […] and that people were “driven from their lands, deprived of their economic livelihood, and forced to diminish or abandon every enterprise on which their subsistence, philosophy and ritual system depend. Already dependent on white institutions for their survival, tribal systems cannot maintain gynecracy when patriarchy—indeed their survival—requires male domination”.4

In Millán’s novel, the female protagonists resist state/patriarchal domination by capitalizing on their position as the machi, or female spiritual healers. Although in Mapuche communities domestic/private space is run by females, the dichotomy between the private-spiritual and the public-political is an important signifier for both Mapuche and national state gendered discourses, as anthropologist Ana M. Bacigalupo points out. This dichotomy between the private-spiritual and the public-political does not reflect the complex practices of female machi. These women transgress gender norms, take on public roles in rituals such as that of machi moon priestesses, and travel away from home to heal patients.5 Rediscovering and recovering that tradition of female Mapuche machis and leaders is an important anti-colonial and anti-patriarchal task for Millán.

Her work seeks to make visible the fundamental spiritual leadership of all Indigenous women. In 2012, Millán began a series of meetings with women from different communities of native peoples in Argentina. Her actions gave rise to the first March of Native Women for Good Living in 2015, which represented thirty-six native nations. In 2018, this initiative was consolidated with the formation of the Movement of Indigenous Women for Good Living. Flor Copley’s 2012 documentary Pupila de mujer, mirada de la tierra shows that Millán united the experiences of these women—who persevered through their own and their children’s migration and succeeded in maintaining and reestablishing their language, knowledge and traditions for their children and generations to come. Millán then imagines a new community within Abya Yala beyond the Wallmalpu, her land, inhabited by others like her.

In a recent documentary, La rebelión de las flores (2022) directed by María Laura Vásquez, Moira Millán, and other women from the nations Tapiete, Qom, Mapuche, Mbya, Guaraní y Mociví peacefully occupied the Argentine Ministry of the Interior for eleven days in October 2019, demanding an end to “terricide” in their communities. There they faced the neglect of the state and the indifference of society, but still managed to assert their need to recover a way of living where reciprocity and solidarity between peoples and nature is essential. They demand justice for their disappeared and murdered children; they denounce the land grabbing of extractivist companies that leave their communities without water and in precarious living conditions; and they raise their voices to be heard.

Apropos of La rebelión de las flores, I asked Moira about the future of the Movimiento. She responded in the present tense because this future is being built now:

The movement is a space for articulation and unity of many women from different nations with deep pain, the pain of centuries. We are women omitted by history, denied our rights by the state, under the guardianship of white feminism. We are women who are breaking with all those impositions, those restraints. And we are wanting to raise our voice, reconstitute our identity, strengthen our spirit, our bodies. And I think that the movement in that sense is a beacon for the Indigenous women of the world, for the racialized women of the world. Because while our men fail to build consensus, because of their egos, because of their pettiness—we, from love, respect, and reciprocity, are weaving consensus, we are weaving unity, with the sole purpose of re-establishing harmony. We are very clear that our anti-patriarchal struggle is an anti-colonial struggle; it is a libertarian struggle, for the self-determination of our bodies, of our territories, and for the self-determination of our peoples.6

I would like to express my gratitude to Moira Millán for her answers to my questions about “terricidio” and environmentalism, about territory and Indigenous women’s bodies, and about the future that she imagines for the Movimiento de Mujeres Indígenas por el Buen Vivir.7 I would also like to thank her for permission to publish the photo included in this essay.

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This is part of the cluster GeoSemantics. Read the other posts here. 

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  1. Gómez, Leila, “Conversation with Moira Millán” (March 25, 26 and 27, 2023).
  2. Millán, Moira: “La colonización se ha inoculado en el espíritu y el pensamiento de los hombres”, Interview of Moira Millán for France 24 Español. Accessed 3/26/2023.
  3. Kerr, Ashley Elizabeth. 2020. Sex, Skulls, and Citizens : Gender and Racial Science in Argentina (1860-1910). Vanderbilt University Press. 31.
  4. Allen quoted in Lugones, Maria, “Heterosexualism and the Colonial / Modern Gender System” Hypatia, Volume 22, Number 1, Winter 2007, p. 199.
  5. Bacigalupo, Ana Mariella, Shamans of the Foye Tree: Gender, Power, and Healing among Chilean Mapuche, University of Texas Press, 2007.
  6. Gómez, “Conversation with Moira Millán”.
  7. Ibid.