Distraction Free Reading

Thinking in Constellations: Problematizing Indigeneity in the Atacama Desert, Chile

In October 2021, I flew from the capital of Chile to the driest desert in the world—the Atacama Desert, a place with a long history of colonialism and extractivism. I was 12 years old the first time I visited as part of a family trip that lasted one month. We traveled by car 2000 km, so it was exhausting but also unforgettable. I remember our fleeting time in Calama city in the Antofagasta region to continue the journey to San Pedro de Atacama, a town in the Atacama salt flat basin where “atacameño” communities[1]  (one of the ten “native peoples” recognized by the Chilean state since 1995) live.

I would like to stop in Calama, just like that day when we stopped at a gas station and had lunch. Calama is a mining city usually considered in the Chilean social imaginary as a “shitty city” because of the dry dust, crime, mining, and contamination there. At the time of our family visit, we were barely conscious of the existence of “indigenous peoples” in the city. But in October 2021, twenty years after that remarkable trip, with some years of research experience in the northern region on my back and with some analytical concerns in my head, I was able to get to know the city and the region further.

I flew to attend the Semmu Halayna Ckapur Lassi Ckunsa (First Great Reunion of Ckunsa), in the native language of atacameños[2]. In that instance, “indigenous communities” were not protagonists. There were different organizations and individual atacameño people from San Pedro de Atacama and Calama, where now I know, the vast majority of atacameños live[3]. They organized and planned for seven months a daring task in the Atacama region: an autonomous initiative totally independent from mining companies and the state. That is to say, the whole Reunion did not depend on funds from the mining companies nor thematic guidelines dictated by state agencies. The Reunion’s primary goal was to use language revitalization as a political tool to make visible their identity as atacameños in the conjuncture of Chile’s recent constitutional process[4].

When I was listening to an atacameño from Calama talking about language revitalization as a way of decolonizing thinking and his efforts to add new words to the graphemic system, the silent audience became active and some of the participants asked to speak, others stood up, and whispers were heard. The social atmosphere became dense. Some argued about the Ckunsa word that should designate the “atacameño” people. Succinctly, urban “atacameños” from Calama were in favor of the term Leri, and sanpedrinos (from San Pedro de Atacama) favored the term Lickana. This tense moment and the terms of the discussion were more than mere semantics: they debated the politics of recognition in neoliberal multiculturalism[5]. More specifically, urban “atacameños” argued that the use of Lickana, although it refers to the “atacameño” territory in its entirety, designates in the first instance the “atacameños” of San Pedro de Atacama, excluding the “atacameños” who live in other areas of the “atacameño” territory such as Calama. Therefore, Leri would be a better way to refer to the “atacameño” people, they argued, since the “atacameño” people not only live in the territory of San Pedro de Atacama, as I learned during my first trip to the region as a child[6].

At the end of the day, a similar deliberation began when I attended the “graphemic system table” in the context of the First Great Reunion of Ckunsa, an instance between traditional educators from Calama, members of the language council of San Pedro de Atacama, and the traditions and customs association that represents eight villages of Atacama La Baja. Representatives of the council led the initiative seeking to unify thousands of words in Ckunsa in order to harmonize one form of speaking, but the debate turned out to be interminable. I recall the position of representatives of the traditions and customs association and their total disagreement with such a unification arguing that words change depending on the place. Linguistic unification was a gesture of erasure, they argued.

Both scenes were problematizing what is or what counts as “atacameño” not only as a community/people tension but also as that which belongs to a stagnant territory in Atacama La Grande or Alta. In this regard, Morales (2016) has stated that “the Atacameño is shown to the outside as the ascription that gives unity to all the inhabitants of Atacama, but inwardly it is recognized that only the inhabitants of San Pedro de Atacama would be the Atacameños” (2016: 191, translation by author). Morales concludes that the “atacameño” ethnogenesis ends inevitably with the classifiers– “atacameños” from San Pedro de Atacama—at the top of social stratification (Morales, 2013).

“Atacameño” leaders of communities behave as the administrators of the “atacameño” difference to later include it “in the circuits of multicultural coexistence, adjusting to the normalization of the difference in the current social and legal frameworks” (Morales, 2016: 196). Although Morales’s research shows the complex processes of ethnicization and ethnogenesis and the predominance of Lickana as a term to refer to the territory, Lickana ends up reducing “the atacameño” to the forms of identification of a group of atacameños defined by the parameters of multicultural neoliberalism. This ends up classifying what atacameño is in a static territory rendering invisible alternative forms of discursive identification and practices of “other atacameñidades” that in fact, problematize the term in first instance. More specifically, alternatives that prefer to use Leri to refer to the territory or more radical ones that avoid classifications of indigeneity as impositions of the state.

These problematizations resonated with what I was reading about indigeneity and policies of liberal “indigeneity.” The idea of recognition as an epistemological exercise of subsuming ethnic difference under policies and conceptual tools of domination (Klatmeier, 2004) and the essentialism inherent in liberal identity conceptualizations (Calhoun, 2003) were evident. Atacameñeidad as an identity emerged under current legal and social frameworks in Chile and adjusted to the parameters of neoliberal multiculturalism. The irruption of CONADI (National Corporation for Indigenous Development) in the context of the return to democracy in the 1990s functioned as a critical motor in the formation of well-defined and functional “communities” that adjust to the spaces of participation offered by the multicultural policy (Babidge, 2020). The “community” as a notion ended up encapsulating the different atacameños in “lo atacameño” as the only legitimate form of socio-territorial and political organization, defined by specific logics of ethnic affiliation and inter-ethnicity.

Forms of international classification such as the Cobo report (1968) and the ILO Convention (1991) also came to mind. These functioned as crucial referents in the definition of indigeneity in the 1980s and 1990s (CEPAL 2005; Kenrick and Lewis 2004; Niezen 2003; Saugestad 2001, 2004) and served to construct the concept of “peoples rights” and “indigenous rights” within a legal basis informed by enlightenment principles of law and western principles of descent and territorial legitimacy (Canessa, 2007). I also remembered what some collaborators said when I interviewed them for my doctoral dissertation, “we were not atacameños before the indigenous law”. When some of them rejected these classifications, they affirmed convincingly, “we are not indigenous.”

Representation of a constellation showing a llama

Representation of the Yacana (the llama) constellation, the spirit creator of the llama among the Incas. Taken from Parques Cielos del Sur

Regularly, when we talk about indigeneity it turns to national and state emphasis, as the nation is positioned as the sole locus of political negotiation for “indigenous” leaders. In other words, the “indigenous” must use the cultural and political frameworks understandable within the nation (Tsing, 2007). Thus, indigeneity is defended as an identity within liberal democracies (Ivison et al, 2002; Merlan, 2009) even though its presence at the local level is questioned and there exists little consensus on what it means to be properly “indigenous” (Timperley, 2020; Merlan, 2009).

The problem with this framework is that those who do not self-identify as “indigenous” or “atacameños” or those who problematize categories as established by the state are excluded, exacerbating intra-ethnic tensions (Kuper, 2006). As Plaice (2006) points out, with “indigeneity” we have fallen into the trap of codifying certain cultures, and those that are considered “indigenous” have been particularly prone to reductionism. Such a framework thus limits and conceals the political potentials of other forms of making identity within groups.

But how can we think beyond these frameworks? Indigeneity is often defined and classified following certain criteria. In primordial terms, these include being the first inhabitants of a territory or having a particular relationship with the land. In relational terms, power dynamics between colonialists and indigenous communities or between “indigenous” groups and the state are considered (Merlan, 2009). But identity thinking is also linked to relations of domination and exploitation and may tend to disavow “indigenous groups” (Macdonald, 2012; Smith, 1999). Identity thinking can also be dangerous because there is a risk of disguising the uniqueness of objects, people, or concepts of emancipation, wrapping them in a language of liberation while reinforcing repressive norms and actions (Timperley, 2020). This can be interpreted in such a way because identity thinking is often used to conceptualize how particular objects or ideas are like others presenting objects in terms of representation without examining their details. By focusing on how one object is identical to another, the particularity of an object is obscured by turning concepts into absolutes (Adorno, 2000 [1966]).

Adorno’s “non-identity” ideas serve as a resource to explore the power and limits of indigeneity by challenging the totalization of definitions and highlighting the particularity of the experiences and histories of “indigenous” groups, recognizing their non-identical nature (Timperley, 2020). The concept of “non-identity” questions the use of categories to discuss and define “what is indigenous,” challenging the logic of colonizing states that restrict and control “indigenous” individuals and groups. The non-identity thought expressed in Adorno’s Negative Dialectic (2000 [1966]) invites us to think about the non-conceptual, the heterogeneous, the irreducible, the qualitative, the alien, and the non-identical (O’Conner, 2004). Instead of focusing on identifying objects or ideas by classifying them according to their similarities to other objects or ideas, thinking non-identically encourages attention to those characteristics that cannot be subsumed into the universal.

To recognize the non-identical nature of indigeneity allows us to engage with constellations of concepts critically. Constellations are understood as those distinctive aspects of indigeneity at a particular time and location and have one characteristic that Adorno draws on to develop a complete sense of non-identity thinking. For him, constellations are not simply sets of concepts but also a series of historical processes. A conscious knowledge can only deliver the object in its relationship with other entities. The cognition of the object in its constellation is the cognition in the process stored in the object (Adorno, 2000 [1966]). Therefore, the constellations mark the physical characteristics and the temporal characteristics of an object.

Thinking in constellations encourages engaging with definitions of indigeneity, both criteria-based and relational, to critically explore distinctive aspects of indigeneity in a specific time and place. In particular, it allows a “total abandonment of oneself to immerse oneself in things that are heterogeneous…without placing those things in prefabricated categories” (Adorno, 2000 [1966]: 13). Thinking in constellations allows us to delve into the unique experience and the history of different conceptions of indigeneity instead of focusing only on identifying specific characteristics of indigeneity. If we consider the constellation of concepts that indigeneity evokes, we can reconsider the possibilities of “indigenous” rights and policies. This implies avoiding totalizing definitions of indigeneity and moving toward recognizing the unique experience, history, and culture of places and people.

Together, these elements open up a broader discussion that has been highlighted as one of the most significant limitations of liberal multiculturalism: the fact that the recognition of indigenous otherness can only exist through its legal recognition (Povinelli, 2002). As Povinelli puts it, the law has become the site where local languages, indigenous ways of life, and memories are diverted into legal languages. And consequently, they become residual realities haunted by a liberal imagination that cannot recognize them. Considering the Atacama Desert and the problems posed by “atacameño” people as they attempt to escape a liberal logic raise critical questions regarding the possibilities, limitations, and applications of these other ways of doing politics.



[1] I use quotation marks as a way to problematize identity categories. I will use the ethnonym “atacameño” although atacameño communities also refer to themselves as likanantay. In Chile, “indigenous communities” are organizations recognized by the state. They must have a directive with approved statutes and meet the following requirements: come from the same family, recognize a traditional leadership, own or have owned common land, and come from the same town. These parameters do not necessarily fit traditional power structures and forms of social organization. For instance, the traditional social structure of “atacameños” was the ayllu, a basic unity of social organization that was also linked to rituality

[2] Today, only phrases and ritual expressions in Ckunsa language survive and are used in ceremonies (Unicef, 2009)

[3] In Calama, 18100 atacameños live from a total of 159534 present in the region (Statistical Comunal Reports, 2017b in Kalazich 2021)

[4] On October 19th, 2019, a social revolt that stressed the economic, political, and social structures of Chile took place. One of the political results is the constitutional process that aims to write a new constitution to replace the one implemented by the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet Ugarte

[5] For ethnic studies in the Atacama Desert see: Bolados and Boccara (2015); Boccara and Bolados (2008); Morales (2016); Bolados (2014); Gundermann and Göbel (2018). Although these works contribute to understanding atacameño ways of life, they tend to elude the conversation around ethnic diversity

[6] Archaeological and ethnohistorical perspectives also describe an Atacama area that included Atacama La Alta (including the “doctrine of San Pedro” as the Spanish chroniclers called it), and Atacama La Baja, that includes Ayquina, Caspana, Calama, Conchi, among others (Castro, 2001)



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