This article is a part of our Series on Memory, History, and Power. Read the Series Introduction here.
At least since 1925 Uruguay has officially proclaimed itself a country on whose territory no indigenous peoples inhabit. A commemorative book written to celebrate the nation’s hundredth anniversary reads that Uruguay is ‘the only nation of America that can make the categorical claim of having no single community that resembles its aboriginal population inside its territorial limits’, and that ‘it has been almost a century since the Uruguayan land has ended up in absolute possession of the European race and its descendants’. The reference for indigenous extinction matches an infamous set of planned attacks undertaken by the presidency of Fructuoso Rivera from 1831 to 1834 with the explicit objective of ‘cleaning the countryside’ and getting rid of the ‘savage horde of Charrúas’, thus conceding to longstanding requests made by organized landholders. Nowadays, Uruguay stands as one of the few Latin American countries that lacks legal frameworks to deal with indigenous peoples. How and why is that so? A closer look into the nation’s historical formations might give us some clues.
By the late 1870s, virtually no land remained privately unclaimed in Uruguay. With national modernizing polices, large cattle-ranching properties (estancias ganaderas) were fenced and consolidated as the dominant model of land tenure and wealth accumulation, dividing the landscapes of the countryside in a grid-like diagram. These arrangements came at a time when the state was finally managing to acquire some degree of territorial stability under its (loose) coercive apparatus. Consolidating sovereignty and forging national citizenship required, however, more than the monopoly of violence. It demanded the creation of modern histories and myths capable of granting symbolic legitimacy to a political community whose (also loose) material foundations had emerged from coordinated ethnocide and widespread land enclosure. Commonly referred as a country of late colonisation, the activities undertaken both by Iberian empires and national elites in what is now Uruguay resulted less in massive native labour exploitation (as it was the case for densely populated regions such as Mesoamerica and the Andes) than on their systematic displacement and extermination to make room for European/white settlement, fostered by massive migratory waves in the late XIX century. It is sustained that Uruguay accounts for a case of settler-colonialism.
Similar to other American nation-states, discourses about native subjects and images have played a central role in the construction of the Uruguayan post-colonial nationality. The Charrúas, once considered the biggest threat against local landlords, were romantically refashioned as ideal ‘national Indians’. Through a positive revaluation of their primitive bravery under proto-national framings, it was said that they ‘held the destiny of the Uruguayans in their hands’. The cruel irony of this story is that what allowed them to move from enemies to cultural forbearers was an ideology of temporal discontinuity, one that can only find authentic (national) indigenous subjects in an unattainable and long-gone past. As prominent artists and writers, such as Eduardo Acevedo Díaz, Francisco Bauzá and Juan Zorilla de San Martín, mythologized indigenous pasts, many nationalistic-inspired archaeologists and historians biologized indigeneity and divorced it from modernity, rendering invisible almost all histories of native descendants and overlooking Indigenous social persistence.
The prevalence of such a discursive construction is observable in distinct sites throughout the country. It is the case of the imposing Monumento a El Entrevero, sculpted by José Belloni and inaugurated in 1967 at the Plaza Fabini, a square located in a noble area of Montevideo. Depicting a ‘total war’ image, where it is impossible to distinguish sides, it is officially said to represent ‘the evocation of the first battles of the motherland by Indians and gauchos’. The tribute to an ancient Hobbesian-like ‘state of nature’ legitimizes the establishment of the Uruguayan state as a historical necessity for an unruly land – a teleology that is either only possible with and a direct consequence of the extinction of ‘its’ native inhabitants. The only Indigenous subject that fits within this story, as displayed in the monument, is a male, conflict-prone and doomed-to-death subject, as the national canon cannot make sense of any kind of hybridism or mestizaje between the European/white citizen and the native, whose extinction is a sine qua non condition for the birth of the nation. A similar logic is found in the (in)famous Monumento a los últimos charrúas, sculpted by Edmundo Prati, Gervasio Muñoz and Enrique Lussich, inaugurated in 1938 at the Prado park in Montevideo, which celebrates the abhorrent journey of four native captives taken to Paris to be publicly exposed as the ‘last (authentic) Charrúas’ in 1834.
Other sites where such a temporal-racial rupture is pointedly symbolized are museums. Indigenous-related exhibitions hardly ever share the same spaces and rooms with those that celebrate the history of the nation-state, its republican institutions or illustrious figures. Although important archaeological advancements have been fiercely challenging the stereotypical imagery of ancient proto-national Charrúa dominance in the region, which has staged complex interethnic indigenous relations, most national museums lack major exhibitions on the many ways indigenous histories intertwined with the formation of the Uruguayan state and its contemporary society. A passage found in an article displayed in the Museo Indígena in Colonia del Sacramento explicitly reads that ‘[Indians] have made no influence at all in the general culture of the country’.
The Uruguayan nationality shares a double-edged relationship with indigenous subjects: on the one hand, it grows on top of their alleged extinction; on the other, its legitimacy as an American nation is indebted to their pre-historical ‘symbolical heritage’. Hence, how much of a threat could contemporary groups claiming an indigenous identity pose to the foundational European/white pillars of the nation? Would they be ‘integrated’ under a renewed framework for national citizenship? Those are, perhaps, the most important questions one has to ask after becoming aware of the growing claims being made by organized descendants of Charrúa and other indigenous peoples in Río de la Plata region, who are collectively reconstructing and vocalizing previously silenced memories. If a continental trend follows, one can be sure that disputes over monuments, museums and national sites of patrimonial interest will provide the closest we can get as an answer.
 Perfecto López Campaña, El Libro del Centenario (Montevideo: Agencia de Publicidad Capurro, 1925), p. 43.
 Quart.l General Salsipuedes, Abril 15 de 1831, in Eduardo Acosta y Lara. La Guerra de los Charrúas, período patrio (Montevideo: Linardi y Risso, 1989), v. II.
 Adriana Dávila and Andrés Azpiroz, Indios, cautivos y renegados en la frontera: los blandengues y la fundación de Belén, 1800-1801 (Montevideo: Ediciones Cruz del Sur, 2015) and Acosta y Lara, La Guerra.
 José Pedro Barrán and Benjamin Naum, Historia rural del Uruguay moderno, vol. 1, 1851-1885 (Montevideo: Editora Banda Oriental, 1967); Samuel Brandt, The Makings of Marginality: Land use intensification and the diffusion of rural poverty in eighteenth and nineteenth century Uruguay, (M.A. Thesis, University of California, 2019). It is estimated that dozens of thousands of cattle-rounding jobs, which are commonly associated with the figure of the “gaucho”, became pretty much worthless with the advent of wiring.
 Gustavo Verdesio, “La mudable suerte del amerindio en el imaginario uruguayo: su lugar en las narrativas de la nación de los siglos XIX y XX y su relación con los saberes expertos,” Araucaria, n. 14 (2005): 161-195; Jeffrey Erbig Jr. and Sergio Latini, “Across Archival Limits: Colonial Records, Changing Ethnonyms, and Geographies of Knowledge,” Ethnohistory 66, n. 2 (2019): 249-273; Carolina Laurino, La construcción de la identidad uruguaya (Montevideo: Universidad Católica, 2001).
 Francisco Bauzá, Historia de la dominación española en el Uruguay 96, Tomo II (Biblioteca Artigas, colección Clásicos Uruguayos, 1965), 145.
 Diego Bracco, “Los guenoa minuanos misioneros,” Memória Americana, cuadernos de etnohistória 24, no. 1 (2016): 33-54; Sergio Latini, “Repensando la construcción de la Cuenca del Plata como espacio de frontera” in Fronteras, espacios de integración en las tierras bajas del sur de América, ed. Carina Lucaioli and Lidia Nacuzzi (Buenos Aires: Sociedad Argentina de Antropología, 2010): 69-99; Norberto Levinton, “Guaraníes y Charrúas: una frontera inclusivista-exclusivista,” Revista de História Regional 14, n. 1 (2009): 49-75.
 See Jeffrey Erbig Jr, Where Caciques and Mapmakers Met (Chapel Hill: The University of South Carolina Press, 2020).
 Such a sentence was said by notable Uruguayan anthropologist Renzo Pi Hugarte in a newspaper interview. As only selected pieces were shown in the museum, it is impossible to make a proper reference.
 Andrea Olivera, Devenir Charrúa en el Uruguay: Una etnografía junto con colectivos urbanos (Montevideo: Lucida Ediciones, 2016); Mariela Eva Rodríguez and Mónica Michelena, “Memorias Charrúas en Uruguay: reflexiones sobre reemergencia indígena desde una investigación colaborativa,” Abya Yala 2, n. 2 (2018): 181-210.