Date of this Version
Crosscurrents: Land, Labor, and the Port. Textile Society of America's 15th Biennial Symposium. Savannah. GA. October 19-23. 2016.
Beating, spinning, and sewing fiber, a woman works to perpetuate her culture a thread and stitch at a time. While her hands work expertly and she talks casually, Carolina is crocheting a hat from a fiber called chaguar to be worn under a motorcycle helmet. She learned to crochet five years ago from a nonindigenous woman whose house she was paid to clean. Because crocheting is not a traditional technique, she only does it to sell to the local townspeople, preferring the techniques from her Wichí heritage. “Wichí” means simply “the people” in her original language. Their culture is centered on their language, Wichí Lhamtés, and the word for their work is Wichí Chumtés. Together these define the central features of their cultural identity.1 Women work in the gathering, processing, spinning, and weaving of chaguar. Chaguar (Bromelia hieronymi) is a ground cover in a dry, salty soil where not many other plants thrive. Today, many Wichí are displaced from their lands in the Chaco, a process accelerated by provincial laws and deforestation due to agribusiness. Carolina uses this textile tradition not only to provide a source of cash income but also to sustain the culture of her community.
The Wichí are an indigenous people from an area known as the Gran Chaco in South America, an area second only to the Amazon in terms of size and ecological importance. 2 It is a vast plain with a gentle slope extending through Bolivia, Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil. Fifty percent of the Chaco lies in Argentina as an arid subtropical region of low forests and savannas bounded by the Andes on its west, the Paraguay and Parana rivers on the east. It is filled with the alluvial sediments washed down from the Andes mountain range and the Brazilian highlands so its soil is sandy and silty, without stones. Drainage is poor with its meandering rivers, sometimes flooding and sometimes drying up in the intense heat. The Wichí have forged a culture over generations in this beautiful but harsh environment through a semi-nomadic lifestyle supplied by foraging, fishing, hunting, and simple horticulture. While they identify as a large ethnic group united through a shared language and customs, they do not form a uniform entity but function socially in bands of smaller groups according to a system of expanded kinship. 3 They have for generations traveled from one camp to another, forming larger and smaller groups based on the ebb and flow of natural resources.4One of the most important of their survival strategies is the gathering, processing, spinning, and weaving of chaguar. The intersection of ecosystem, necessity, and social demands lead to the creation of textile forms constructed with elaborate patterns for many different applications.