Rethinking Manuel Quintín Lame
An attempt to understand indigenous juridical culture in Cauca (Colombia) at the beginning of the 20th century
Manuel Quintín Lame was an indigenous leader who started a movement in Tierradentro, Cauca, at the beginning of the 20th century to recover indigenous communal lands. His figure as an icon and leader of the Cauca’s indigenous movement has been the object of a variety of studies which have focused on different aspects of Lame’s life and actions. Many of these studies have focused on his manuscript Los pensamientos del Indio que se educó en las selvas colombianas (1939), which came to light in 1970, but also on the tradition of litigation behind the multiple petitions written by him and his secretaries to the Colombian authorities. Within his own lifetime, Lame’s words opened a space in the Mestizo society for indigenous matters. His claims and opinions were not taken note of by the Bogota press, but they resonated with many indigenous persons, who could identify with his views. Later his approaches were used to structure the political agenda of CRIC (‘Consejo Regional Indígena del Cauca’) – which is still in force – and his figure has redefined the struggle for land at different times and by various means (e.g. the ‘Armed Movement Quintin Lame’ (MAQL) or the movement ‘The Grandsons of Quintin Lame without land’). However, this academic fascination with Lame (not without grounds) has obscured other possible indigenous positions concerning identity and territory that might have existed during those times. Although the voice of Lame became ‘the’ indigenous voice regarding collective ownership and identity since the 1970s, we are missing other indigenous voices on the topic that existed during Lame’s times. I propose that it is only within the context of this polyphony that we can really understand the scope and limitations of the Colombian indigenous movement.
Thus, my research attempts to understand Quintín Lame’s legal culture, not only based on his writings and actions, but by giving voice to his detractors as well as his supporters. This exercise seeks to understand indigenous legal culture in Cauca at the beginning of the 20th century, as a space of conflict and negotiation between diverse actors (even non-indigenous), with diverse positions, interest and understandings about juridical notions and beliefs. Each one of these actors had different recourses to superimpose his ideas and trusts over others, with dissimilar chances of success. So, my research questions are the following: What voices accompanied Lame’s political life as well as those of his supporters and / or detractors inside and outside the indigenous population in Cauca? How did his intellectual network develop? How did the discourse built around Lame’s ideas and language become the dominant voice regarding indigenous land ownership? Which were Lame and his followers’ argumentative resources, and how can we differentiate them from those of his detractors? What type of legal culture configures these tensions?
I have constructed a rich documentary corpus based on sources of different kinds. This corpus can be divided into five groups according to types of documentation. First, we have a big group of correspondence. In this section can be found official and private letters regarding indigenous land issues. A significant part of these primary sources are indigenous claims to public sources, and internal communications between public sources (most of them lawyers) in order to come up with a response to those claims. In the second group we have the press coverage. This documentation has been useful not only to reconstruct the political context of the region, but also to identify networks between the different parties participating in indigenous land conflicts and diverse indigenous political allies and foes. Third, there is legal documentation which includes not only the legal normativity regarding indigenous lands but also some of the legal debates related to them. In the fourth group, we have some audio and transcribed interviews of indigenous leaders which participated in the configuration of the Indigenous Movement in the 117 70s but who also coexisted during Lame’s life. Finally, we have a diverse group of documentation which can delineate the local and, in some cases, international intellectual atmosphere in which all these debates where immersed, for example, law and history manuals, syllabus, anthropological debates, and some others. The narrative of the research starts with Manuel Quintín Lame’s birth in 1880 and finishes with his death in 1967. During this period – and because of the diverse nature of the documentation collected – I have been able to identify many voices both in favor of and against Lame that have not yet been analyzed in Colombian historiography. All this information has allowed me to understand this ‘indigenous legal culture’ as a rich and contextual space of confrontation and negotiation in which the idea of ‘indigeneity’ was created. This process has become the heart of this investigation. So, in conclusion, my research project seeks to contribute to contemporary scholarship in three ways: first, by assessing the possibilities that cultural legal history might have for legal historical methodology and knowledge; second, by introducing a polyphonic element to the information about indigenous legal culture in the first half of the 20th century; and third, by adding to the knowledge about Colombian history at the beginning of the 20th century, a period that has been particularly neglected in Colombian historiography.