First Argentinean inhabitants arrived 12,000 years ago. In the Patagonian regions in the south of Argentina great grasslands, known as the Pampas, stretch for thousands of miles. Archeological traces were found 11,000 years old. During the 16th century native communities had to fight the Spanish conquerors to be able to maintain their way of life. Others chose to “blend” with the European culture. In both cases they not only lost their culture, land, and community life but they are also frequently discriminated. Today, only 11 ethnic groups and half a million indigenous try to survive and rebuild their culture.
This special hostility to the people of Tucuman was due to the fact that years before a large number of Mocovi, who had been induced through the efforts of the Jesuit Fathers Altamirano and Diaz to come in from the war-path and had been organized into the mission of San Xavier, had been treacherously seized and distributed as slaves by the governor of that province. They received a temporary check in 1710 from Governor Urizar, who led a great expedition of over three thousand men against the Chaco tribes, with the result that several tribes made peace, while the Mocovi retired to the southwest and continued their raids in that quarter. Thirty years later, during a period of truce, some of the Mocovi became acquainted with the Jesuits of the College of Santa Fe, through whose influence they were won to friendship with the Spaniards, and the chiefs Aletin and Chitalin consented to receive Christian instruction together with their people. As a result the Mocovi mission colony of San Xavier was established in 1743 by Father Francisco Burges Navarro, thirty leagues from the city, and from a small beginning increased rapidly by accessions from the roving bands of the tribe, who were, from time to time, won over by the persuasions of the new converts. Prisoners captured in the various expeditions were also brought into the new mission, while many voluntarily took refuge there to escape pursuit.
The Mocovi proved devout, tractable, and willing workers, and particularly competent musicians under the instruction of the German Father Florian Pauke, who organized a band and chorus whose services were in demand on church occasions even in Buenos Aires. With bell in hand, the chief himself, Aletin, acted as crier every morning to call his people to Mass, and took the lead in every task of difficulty. A third chief, who had long held out against the Spaniards and made war upon his mission kinsmen in revenge for their abandonment of the old life, finally came in voluntarily. In 1765 a second Mocovi mission, San Pedro y Pablo, was established by Father Pauke with another portion of the tribe which had until then continued hostile.
At the time of the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767 the two missions contained about 1200 Mocovi of whom all but a few were Christians. Deprived of their accustomed teachers, most of them finally rejoined their wild kinsmen in the forests of the Chaco. In 1800 the tribe was still loosely estimated at 2000 warriors or over 6000 souls. They are now reduced far below that number, but retain their tribal organization and habits, though no longer hostile, and range generally along the western banks of the Parana. The best study of their language is Father Tavolini’s “Introduction al Arte Mocovi”.
Physically they are tall and well-built, with fierce countenance, and from going constantly barefoot the soles of their feet are toughened to resist thorns and sharp rocks. Both sexes go nearly naked except when in the presence of strangers, and wear their hair long, the men confining it by means of a band or turban. On special occasions they wear shirts or skirts of skins or of woollen stuff, of their own weaving, from the sheep they now possess, together with headdresses, belts, and wristlets of ostrich feathers. They tattoo their faces and upper bodies with vegetable dye. They live almost entirely by hunting and fishing, but raise a little corn. They have large herds of horses and are fine horsemen. The men are expert in the making of dug-out canoes and fish traps, while the women are expert, potters and net weavers. Their huts are simple structures of willow branches covered with grass, sometimes large enough to have several compartments. Their weapons are the bow, lance, and wooden club, besides which they now have some guns. They bury the dead, the aged being sometimes killed by their own children from a feeling of pity for their helplessness. For the same reason, when a mother dies her infant is buried with her. Men have only one wife at a time. There is no head chief, the government resting principally with the old men. Little is known of their religion, which seems to consist chiefly of a special reverence for the sun and the rising moon, and the propitiation of a host of invisible spirits which are held responsible for sickness and other misfortunes. In war they are distinguished for their ferocity and barbarous cruelty, and are dreaded alike by settlers, travellers, and Christianized Indians throughout the whole northern Chaco frontier. In 1882 they massacred an entire exploring expedition of fifteen men under command of the French geographer, Crévaux. In 1854, however, the American expedition up the Paraguay, under Captain Page, held friendly intercourse with them. Some special studies of their language, which is virtually the same as that of the Abipón, have been made by Carranza and Quevedo. An interesting, though strongly anti-religious, account of their latter-day condition and habits is given by the Italian engineer, Pelleschi.
In the early colonization period of the eighteenth century the Toba, with the Abipón and Mocoví, were among the most determined and constant enemies of the Argentine-Paraguayan settlements and missions, and hardly a half year ever passed without a raid or retaliatory punitive expedition. On one occasion six hundred Toba attacked Dobrizhoffer’s mission, but were repelled by the missionary himself single-handed with the aid of his firearms, of which the savages were in deadly terror. The missionary received an arrow wound in the encounter. In 1756 a number of Toba and Mataco were gathered into the Mission of San Ignacio de Ledesma, on the Rio Grande tributary of the Vermejo, where they numbered 600 souls at the time of the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767. Some later attempt was made by the Franciscans to restore the Chaco missions, but with the end of Spanish rule the missions declined and the Indians scattered to the forests.