Tens of thousands of South Americans gather on July 16 every year in a small town in the Atacama desert for a ceremony witnessed by almost 200,000 visitors. The several-days-long event features round-the-clock dance groups with some of them dressed to imitate the original inhabitants of Turtle Island.
The annual “Fiesta de La Tirana” celebration features organizations bearing names like “Sioux,” “Dakotas” and “Cheyenne.”
Erica Cuello says her organization, the Religious Society Sioux Indians of Mary, has participated in La Tirana over the past four decades. Currently there are 54 “Sioux” dancers and they are all Chileans and Catholics, she says, adding, “We would like to learn more about North American Natives and their dances.”
The organization names always end with “of Mary,” and all the dances are connected to a pilgrimage to a Catholic church built in the 1700s that honors the “Virgin of Carmen of La Tirana” — the Virgin Mary.
The involvement of the Catholic Church in the La Tirana celebration is relatively new because this annual pilgrimage has much older indigenous roots, Eliseo Huanca, a Chilean Aymara Native group leader and Aymara history expert says.
She explains that the celebrations connected the Catholic temples which are built atop ancient indigenous ceremonial centers, the same places where the old inhabitants of the Andes made pilgrimages to honor the “Father Sun” and “Mother Earth.”
The La Tirana pilgrimage was traditionally held on August 6 to coincide with a Bolivian “Copacabana Virgin” celebration, but was moved to July 16 to appease the Chilean government and align with the patron saint of the Chilean army, the “Virgin of El Carmen.”
Between the 1920s and the 1970s, the large nitrate mines in the area were intensely exploited, leading to large migration from central Chile into the Atacama area.
As part of the nitrate extraction efforts, the mine owners built towns to house thousands of workers. The towns included movie theaters where mine owners showed movies filmed in the U.S. The most popular films were westerns where actors portrayed American Indians.
“It was there in the mining towns that the mine workers learned names like Dakotas, Cheyenne and Sioux,” Cuello says. They created dance groups imitating the dances they saw in the cowboy movies.
Cristian Salazar has been researching and attending La Tirana for many years. Salazar wrote in an e-mail to ICTMN that the Sioux or Dakota dresses and dances used by South Americans “are fantasy representations but there are common grounds” with American Indians.
Salazar has observed a pride in using Native American dress imitations that provide local populations “the feeling of representing an indomitable Native American culture” that would not likely be possible in another way.
Older participants of La Tirana have told Salazar that Native American names are used in place of real Aymara and Quechua cultures to represent indigenous cultures in a “less conflicting way.”