As statues of queens and conquistadors are tumbled amid protests across North and South America, Indigenous people are pushing for a region-wide reckoning with colonialism’s bitter legacy of massacre and cultural erasure.
From the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego, Indigenous Americans have taken aim at the Catholic Church, national governments and other powerful institutions.
In Canada, the horrifying discovery of the unmarked graves of Indigenous children near former Catholic boarding schools has prompted widespread calls for a reassessment of the country’s colonial history and the structural inequalities that persist today.
In Chile and Colombia, uprisings over social inequity have also been accompanied by demands for a reconsideration of national narratives and the lingering aftermath of conquest.
And while contexts and histories vary drastically across the region, a common experience of marginalization, poverty and low life expectancy has prompted many Indigenous people to draw parallels across colonial borders.
After her election last month as president of Chile’s new constituent assembly, Elisa Loncón, a member of Chile’s largest Indigenous group, the Mapuche, expressed solidarity with First Nations and decried Canada’s residential schools, where thousands of children died over the course of a century. “It is disgraceful how colonialism has attacked the future of the original nations,” she said.
Loncón will preside over the drafting of a new Chilean constitution to replace the Pinochet-era document, which does not even recognise the existence of the country’s Indigenous people, even though they make up around 12.8% of the population.
“It is possible, brothers, sisters, and friends, to found Chile anew,” she said.
Across the Andes in the Bolivian capital of La Paz, feminist activists recently marched to the defaced statue of Christopher Columbus, denouncing the genocide perpetrated on Indigenous communities.
It was something they had done many times before, said Adriana Guzmán, an Aymara member of the Communitarian Antipatriarchal Feminism of Bolivia group, but the discovery of the graves in Canada added fuel to their rage.
“One assumes, because of colonialism, that Canada is perfection,” she said. “But that’s colonial logic. It erases the memory of our communities [and] it erases its own crimes.”
Canada's residential schools
Over the course of 100 years, more than 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their families to attend state-funded Christian boarding schools in an effort to forcibly assimilate them into Canadian society.
They were given new names, forcibly converted to Christianity and prohibited from speaking their native languages. Thousands died of disease, neglect and suicide; many were never returned to their families.
The last residential school closed in 1996.
Nearly three-quarters of the 130 residential schools were run by Roman Catholic missionary congregations, with others operated by the Presbyterian, Anglican and the United Church of Canada, which is today the largest Protestant denomination in the country.
Survivor testimony made it clear that sexual, emotional and physical abuse were rife at the schools. And the trauma suffered by students was often passed down to younger generations – a reality magnified by systematic inequities that persist across the country.
Dozens of First Nations do not have access to drinking water, and racism against Indigenous people is rampant within the healthcare system. Indigenous people are overrepresented in federal prisons and Indigenous women are killed at a rate far higher than other groups.
The commissioners identified 20 unmarked gravesites at former residential schools, but they also warned that more unidentified gravesites were yet to be found across the country.
Canada’s residential schools were part of a policy to forcibly assimilate Indigenous children into colonial society, under which at least 150,000 children were taken from their families over the course of a century.
“The point of residential schools was to disrupt Indigenous communities, to attack the very heart of our culture, and to assimilate our people into a settler body politic. That was necessary as part of the colonial project that is Canada. Canada had to establish itself by destabilizing Indigenous communities,” said Courtney Skye, research fellow at the First Nations-led Yellowhead Institute.
“Part of that was taking children from their families, displacing Indigenous peoples … all of these policy tools that dispossessed Indigenous people of their land. From there, Canada was able to more easily exploit natural resources and build its economy.”
The recent discovery of more than 1,300 unmarked graves at the sites of former schools sparked an outpouring of revulsion in which protesters threw paint at churches and pulled down statues of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II.
Such incidents mirrored protests across the Americas, where Indigenous people have increasingly pushed back against the routine veneration of colonisers.
When Chile erupted in protest in 2019, statues of Spanish conquistadores were torn down and, in some cases, replaced with representations of Indigenous heroes.
Similarly, as Colombia was convulsed by anti-poverty demonstrations this year, statues of colonisers were again targeted by protesters, who said the statues represent an invading class of warmongers and tyrants.
“These [are] symbols that represent slavery and oppression,” said Tata Pedro Velasco, a leader of the Misak people from the Cauca province. On the first day of a nationwide strike Misak protesters in Cali pulled down a statue of Sebastián de Belalcázar, a Spaniard who founded the city (as well as the Ecuadorian capital of Quito) but has long been despised by many Andean Indigenous communities.
In late June, a monument to explorer Christopher Columbus was toppled in Barranquilla, a major city on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Authorities also removed a statue of the South American independence hero Simón Bolívar, worried that it could also come tumbling down.
“As Indigenous people, it’s important to start to re-evaluate ‘official history’ – and to understand that the colonisation of Indigenous peoples continues five centuries later across the Americas,” said Velasco.
Lourdes Albornoz, a social worker and member of the Diaguita community in Argentina’s Tucumán province, said events in Canada made her recall her own people’s experience.
Just a generation ago, wealthy landowners in Tucumán would routinely take young Indigenous women to work in their homes, she said. “They would take half the cows, half the harvest – and the young women,” she said.
The girls were given religious names, new birthdays to correspond with those of Catholic saints, and were signed up as members of their abductors’ preferred political parties. “They lost their identity, worked for free, were exploited, sexually abused,” said Albornoz. Even today, such experiences are largely denied or ignored, she said.
“We are embracing our brothers and sisters in Canada, because it must be a very tough moment for those communities,” she said. “They are not alone. We are embracing them and suffering with them. But from that pain, and those tears, we will be reborn.”
Canada’s government has asked for forgiveness from Indigenous peoples for its actions, but Albornoz said that its colonial practices continue across Latin America, this time in the form of mining projects – often in territories claimed by Indigenous people and which have contributed to environmental degradation, forced displacement and human rights abuses.
Across the Americas, Indigenous people fare significantly worse in the vast majority of indicators, from multidimensional poverty to life expectancy and employment prospects.
Beyond symbolic measures and feeble declarations of solidarity, many are now demanding concrete, tangible improvements to their lives after centuries of seeing their demands marginalised or dismissed.
“Despite the various phases of colonisation Latin America has endured, the cultural fabric of the founding nations has not been destroyed,” said Fernando Pairicán, a Mapuche historian at the University of Santiago.
“For every act of genocide, there needs to be economic, political and social reparation. Only then can we move towards self-determination, equality and the restitution of lands to Indigenous peoples across the Americas.”