The penetration of whites into the triangular territory (Neuquén) in southwest Argentina, bounded by the Neuquén and Limay rivers and the Andean cordillera, is the subject of this book. Relying on archives (particularly those of General Julio A. Roca and his closest collaborators), oral testimony, and archeological findings, Curapil Curruhuinca, a descendant of the Mapuches, the original inhabitants of Neuquén, and Luis Roux, a descendant of European immigrants to Argentina, have divided their account into stages of gradual penetration or encerronas (traps). Spaniards were followed by Chileans and Argentines and occasional Englishmen and Germans, and included missionaries, traders, slave hunters, explorers, and scientists, until the peaceful inhabitants of a territory resembling Switzerland were finally destroyed. Although motives differed, whites were determined to bring “civilization” to the area, and the Indians, by reason or by force, would have to acquiesce or be removed.
The end came with the so-called “Campaign of the Desert” of 1879, as Argentine military forces determined to push the “savage” beyond the Río Negro. Disobeying congressional law, military commanders pushed on into the Neuquén. The results, according to Curruhuinca and Roux, were equivalent to genocide, as, within 15 years, death, flight, and forcible removal caused the population to plummet from the original 60,000 inhabitants to 14,500, including recently arrived white settlers. Land greed, rather than a desire to civilize the Indians or the fear of Indian raids on white settlements, eventually won out in the minds of Argentine political and military leaders. Neuquén Indians were far from Buenos Aires province and quite disposed to maintain friendly relations if they were left in peace. The authors note that the possibility of an Indian province within an Argentine federation was never a serious consideration.
The epilogue, although indicating continued discrimination against modern-day Mapuches, ends with a note of optimism with their recent participation in local political affairs. In short, the fate of the Mapuches was not very different from the fate of North American Indians.