Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy


Political Science


Dr. Verónica I. Schild


In the context of neoliberal multiculturalism, indigenous activists face a fundamental dilemma. While they organize as indigenous peoples to negotiate and demand from states new terms of citizenship, activists recognize that new forms of accommodation for such demands exist within state institutions. However, indigenous organizations also discover that certain demands exceed these new spaces of participation. I argue that territorial autonomy is one such demand because it challenges the existing power imbalances between indigenous peoples and the state.

Not surprisingly, territorial autonomy is a common feature of many emerging forms of indigenous activism in contemporary Latin America. Based on new understandings of “indigenous territories” and “autonomy,” indigenous collective action uses the language of territorial autonomy to challenge the framework and functioning of neoliberal multiculturalism at the local level. By studying neoliberal multiculturalism as a form of government over indigenous populations at a local level, this study engages with broader perspectives that address state formation as a cultural process that involves the formation and control over citizens’ subjectivities through specific forms of citizenship.

This approach to indigenous activism allows me to examine the complexity of ongoing political negotiations between indigenous subjects and the neoliberal state. Compliance with the neoliberal parameters of citizenship continue to be sought by post-Washington Consensus states, however, demands for territorial autonomy and the practices of land reoccupations remind us that indigenous activism offers a legitimate alternative form of politics. This is a politics aimed at taking back what has been lost or perceived as lost by a group via collective action. In this study, I call this form of politics “redemptive.” In exploring redemptive politics, my study privileges the local level of indigenous activism. Through a study of the Mapuche, the indigenous peoples of southern Argentina, I argue that the local level is a fundamental space to address the exchanges, negotiations, and conflict between indigenous peoples and the state, especially in cases where they constitute a minority of the national population.

To understand the meaning and impact of new kinds of Mapuche activism and new forms of indigenous collective identity, this dissertation addresses three dimensions of indigenous politics: the configuration of indigenous collective identities and their translation into political organizations; the configuration and consolidation of such identities as the result of ongoing resistance, negotiations, and accommodation with the state; and the conflicts around demands for territorial autonomy that often result in the criminalization and rejection of indigenous demands by the state because they exceed the limits of indigenous citizenship under neoliberal multiculturalism. All three dimensions are studied privileging the local level, which this study argues is fundamental to address in the contexts in which indigenous peoples are considered a minority of the national population. Thus, I claim that the study of indigenous politics must privilege the ways in which new forms of activism negotiate and enter into conflict with the states against the background of neoliberal multiculturalism, a cultural project of governing indigenous subjects that is compatible with the expansion of global capitalism and the reach of modern state institutions.

This thesis relies on a field study of contemporary indigenous mobilization in Argentina through which the Mapuche have become politically organized. Through an analysis of the ways in which Mapuche activists organize in a particular locality, the province of Neuquén in southern Argentina, this dissertation contributes to the theoretical understanding of collective identity formation and indigenous activism in contexts indigenous peoples are a minority of the national population. Building on interdisciplinary contributions on state formation, citizenship, and collective identity formation, I argue that in the context of minority indigenous mobilization, territorial struggles and the importance of the local political level are crucial for understanding how collective identities are configured and how indigenous activists engage with the state in interesting ways to advance their claims. In this study, I look at the formation of collective identities through processes of contestation, struggles and conflict and also of negotiation and accommodation with institutions, discourses, and practices of the state and the forms of citizenship it sustains. Accordingly, this study on contemporary Mapuche activism advances our understanding of how indigenous collective identities are formed as the result of ongoing interactions between indigenous activists and the state.