The Chiriguanos, the descendants of the Tupi-Guaraní migrated in the fifteenth century from what is now Brazil to the foothills of the southeastern Bolivian Andes, where they conquered and intermingled with the resident Chané Indians. Superb warriors, the Chiriguanos presented a threat to the Incas, who constructed numerous fortresses to defend themselves, not always successfully. When the Spanish conquered the Andean peoples, the Chiriguanos raided deep into the highlands, almost reaching the silver-mining center of Potosí. Viceroy Francisco Toledo mounted a large expedition against the Chiriguanos, but was forced to retreat. He then adopted the Inca strategy of creating a number of fortress-towns to contain the Indians. Chiriguano demographic growth in the seventeenth century and a society organized for war made it possible to resist Spanish encroachment.
By the end of the century, the Chiriguano population may have approached 250,000. A highly decentralized system of government, based on consensual politics under village-level chiefs who accepted the loose leadership of regional chiefs, remained a distinguishing feature of Chiriguano politics. Jesuit attempts at missionizing the Chiriguanos in the eighteenth century failed, but between 1780 and 1810 the Franciscans were able to establish a string of missions in the region. The Wars of Independence led to the destruction of the mission system, and participation on the patriots' side by Chiriguano groups under the leadership of Cumbay helped them to reconquer much of the territory lost earlier.
In the second half of the nineteenth century Creoles were able to regain the initiative when the Bolivian mining economy improved and cattle ranching, the main creole economic activity, became lucrative. Creole settlers drove their cattle onto the Indians' cornfields and, with better weapons, were able to subjugate the Chiriguanos. A sharp demographic decline set in; whereas the Chiriguanos numbered around 100,000 at the beginning of the nineteenth century, by the early twentieth those remaining in Bolivia numbered only 26,000. By this time, many Indians had migrated to Argentina. At the same time a new Franciscan mission system, in which Chiriguano groups sought refuge from the exactions of the settlers, helped in the conquest of the region. In an effort to avoid the onerous living conditions on haciendas or the restricted environment of the missions, many Chiriguanos left their homes and, through labor contracts mediated by their chiefs, became migrant laborers on the sugar plantations of Jujuy in northern Argentina. Valued very highly for their hard work, the Chiriguanos were the most important workers on the plantations from the late nineteenth century to the 1930s.
The Chaco War (1932–1935) brought about the destruction of the Franciscan missions and the dispersal of the Chiriguanos into Paraguay and especially Argentina. Because they spoke Guaraní like many Paraguayans, the Bolivian military saw the Chiriguanos as traitors and often refused to permit them to return to their homeland. As a result, Chiriguano groups are dispersed throughout southeastern Bolivia, the Salta province of Argentina, and the Paraguayan Chaco, living as hacienda peons or in independent villages.
The most inclusive histories of the Chiriguanos are Francisco Pifarré, Los Chiriguano-Guaraní: Historia de un pueblo (1989); and Giuseppe Calzavarini, Nación chiriguana: Grandeza y ocaso (1980). A collection of brilliant essays spanning much of Chiriguano history is Thierry Saignes, Ava y karai: Ensayos sobre la frontera chiriguana: Siglos XVI-XXX (1990). Hernando Sanabria Fernández, Apiaguaiqui Tumpa (1972), and Erick D. Langer, Economic Change and Rural Resistance in Southern Bolivia: 1880–1930 (1989), treat the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Erick D. Langer