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LOCATION: Chile; Argentina
POPULATION: About 800,000
LANGUAGE: Mapudungun
RELIGION: Roman Catholicism mingled with indigenous religious beliefs


The Mapuche (people of the land in Mapudungun) have historically inhabited the valleys of Central and Southern Chile and Southern Argentina. During colonial times, the Spaniards knew the Mapuche as Araucanos (Araucanians in English), term that is now considered pejorative. The Mapuche are a diverse ethnicity composed of various groups that share a common social, religious, and economic structure, as well as a common linguistic heritage. Each group has a distinctive name regarding the region they live in. It is believed that Mapuches first inhabited the valleys between the Itata and Toltén Rivers in Chile. In the early 15th century, Mapuches fought the Inca invaders from Peru, stopping the expansion of the Inca Empire toward the south. After the arrival of the Spaniards, Mapuches began expanding eastward into the Andes and pampas forming, with the native people, the Pehuenche (people of the Pehuén, the Araucaria's fruit).

Even though the Picunche (people of the north), who lived in the farming areas of Chile's Central Valley between the Aconcagua and Bío Bío rivers, were relatively peaceful, were easily overcome by the Incas, and then subdued and assimilated by the Spaniards in the 17th century, Mapuches established a reputation as fierce warriors who bravely defended their lands and their way of life. The Huilliche (people of the south) continued to resist the Spaniards in the so-called War of Arauco, answering to no central authority and choosing leaders only for the specific purpose of waging their wars of resistance. One of the main geographical boundaries was the Bío-Bío River, which Mapuches used as a natural barrier to Spanish incursion for 300 years.

Finally, in the late 1880s, Chilean authorities sent the army into Mapuche territory in the course of the so-called Araucanía Pacification. Using a combination of force and diplomacy, Chile's government obliged Mapuche leaders to sign a treaty absorbing their territories into Chile. The state appropriated the majority of the new territory, while forcing Mapuches to live in reservations that accounted for only 6.4% of their original territory.

After enduring another frontal attack on their lands, this time under the Pinochet dictatorship (1973–1990), the Mapuche organized in resistance groups that struggled to recuperate their ancestral land from the hands of forestry companies and private landowners. In 1993, the new democratic government signed an Indigenous Law that created the National Corporation for Indigenous Development (CONADI) in charge of protecting and expanding land and water rights for the Mapuche and other indigenous peoples. Even though the law permitted land subsidies and buybacks, agricultural training, and inter-cultural education and health, the state failed to recognize the Mapuche in its constitution. This situation has encouraged further assimilation of the Mapuche into the national project because of the dismissal of their status as a distinct people with a historical basis for rightful claims to collective and cultural rights.

Following their historical warrior skills, Mapuche organizations have occupied part of the land they claim and burnt private property in it, in order to assert their legitimate ownership over ancestral territory. The state has often resorted to repression and incarceration of Mapuches. The majority of them have been labeled as terrorists and charged under the Anti-Terrorist Law that was designed during the dictatorship to repress the opposition. This has motivated Mapuche organizations to demand justice through the United Nations.


Mapuches have historically inhabited a small region in Southern Chile and Argentina. After Mapuches in Chile were defeated and incorporated into the national project, they were forced to settle in reducciones, a land-tenancy scheme similar to North American reservation systems, many of them in the Araucanía Region, in the vicinity of towns such as Temuco, Villarica, Pucón, Valdivia, and Osorno, as well as in the southern island region of Chiloé. Today, there are only around 600.000 Mapuches left in Chile and only 20% of them live in reducciones. The majority of Mapuches have migrated to the cities and now live the lives of poor, urban workers.

In the 16th century some Mapuches crossed into Argentina, in the region of Patagonia, and resisted the Spanish colonizers until the 19th century. After Argentina gained its independence from Spain, the struggle against the Indians continued until 1879 when, during a cruel war led by General Julio Argentine Roca, Mapuche territory was conquered and thousands of Indians were killed. Those that remained were forced to work in the ranches of the new owners, in military forts, or as domestic servants. General Roca adopted a tough attitude to the hard fate of the Indians, and appeared to rejoice in the conquest of such a huge tract of land. Today, there are still a few Mapuche reservations in Argentina, particularly on the shores of Lake Rucachoroi and Lake Quillén. However, most Mapuches today continue to live in Chile, country in which they have concentrated their struggle for preserving their land and their identity.


Even though the majority of Mapuches speak Spanish, they continue to communicate with each other in Mapudungun, their ancestral language, which also survives in many place names: quen means "place," as in the town of Vichuquen, while che means "people," and mapu means "land." Mapuche, therefore, translates as "people of the land." In times of war Mapuches used to choose a leader who was called toqui, while in peacetime their leader was called ulmen. Choosing people to perform certain tasks because of their abilities was the Mapuche's principal strength. For instance, messengers, called huerquenes, were chosen because of their excellent memory.


The greatest hero in Mapuche folklore is the toqui called Lautaro, who was chosen to do battle against the Spanish invaders. While a captive of the Spaniards, Lautaro acquired important advantages with which to fight the invaders. He was trained as Pedro de Valdivia's page and learned Spanish and military strategies. After escaping from the enemy's camps, he developed original guerrilla tactics and trained his warriors to ride horses. During lengthy battles, his warriors would fight in waves for short periods of time, then other groups of warriors would replace them in other waves, so that none of his men would be too tired. He won all the southern territories for his people over four years of remarkable battles with the Spaniards, and eventually killed his former master, the Spanish conqueror Pedro de Valdivia. Lautaro even reached the gates of Santiago, but the night before he planned to storm into the city, an Indian slave who had once fought for the Spaniards and then for the Mapuche, killed him while he was asleep in his tent. After this tragic loss, Mapuches retreated to the south, where they continued their resistance for three centuries, right up to their decisive defeat in the 1880s.

The Cuncos, a Mapuche group that inhabits the region of Chiloé, developed a rich mythological culture. One founding legend tries to explain the scattered islands of Chiloé and begins with a battle between the evil serpent Cai Cai, who rises furiously from the sea to flood the earth, and her good twin Tren Tren, who slumbers in her fortress among mountain peaks. While the Mapuche try unsuccessfully to wake Tren Tren, the evil serpent Cai Cai's friends, the pillars of Thunder, Wind, and Fire, pile up the clouds to make rain, thunder, and water. However, a little girl dances with her reflection in Tren Tren's eye and her laughter awakens Tren Tren, who also begins to laugh. Deeply insulted, Cai Cai is angry and shatters the earth, scattering islands all over the sea, while throwing water higher and higher in order to flood the mountain peaks where Tren Tren lives. But Tren Tren manages to raise the mountain up toward the sky and the sun, until the evil serpent Cai Cai and the Pillars of Thunder, Wind, and Fire fall from the peak into the deep abyss, where they are finally silenced.


Mapuches believe in the forces of creation (Ngenechen) and destruction (Wakufu) and the ultimate balance between them. When the Spaniards arrived they were perceived as an expression of Wakufu because of the zeal with which they finally drove the Mapuche from their lands and forced them to pay tribute to the Spanish crown, and the impoverishment and threat to Mapuche culture, which followed from their forced resettlement in overcrowded reservations at the hands of the newly independent Chileans.

Central to Mapuche's beliefs is the reverence to spirits (pillan) and ancestors (wangulen), as well as to the forces of nature (ngen). The most important figure in Mapuches' system of beliefs is the machi or shaman, who is usually a woman. The machi performs ceremonies for curing diseases, warding off evil, influencing weather, harvests, and social interactions. Traditional prayer meetings called machitunes are held to invoke the help of the gods and goddesses for rain and good crops. Another type of meeting, called malon, which is still regarded as important by Mapuches who uphold their religion, involves listening to dreams as well as prophecy.

Jesuit missions were established early on during the Spanish colonial period, even as far south as Chiloé, and Roman Catholicism has coexisted alongside the original religious beliefs of the Mapuches. The relation between Catholicism and Mapuche beliefs reached its peak in November 2007 when the Argentinean Mapuche Ceferino Namuncurá was beatified.


Mapuches who live in cities and have joined the urban poor celebrate the major Chilean national holidays together with the rest of the population. In contrast, Mapuches who live in reservations have maintained some of their own celebrations, which do not have a strictly secular character, since the Mapuche do not divide the material from the spiritual. One of the best-known festivals is the nquillatún, which lasts for three days and dedicates the lands and the harvest to the gods and goddesses, and which is still celebrated at the reservation of Huapi Island on Lake Ranco.


Traditional Mapuche family celebrations are large, since each chieftain can have many wives and many children, and gatherings for major occasions such as a birth or a wedding will also include brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents.

All major life events, such as birth, puberty, marriage, and death, are marked in special ceremonies among the Mapuche. Important members of the tribe such as chieftains, called lonkos, play special roles. There are religious connections to each event, and it is thought that certain women, who have chosen to speak for the spirits, can gather important information from the gods and goddesses on all such special occasions. In keeping with Mapuche beliefs in good and evil, women who deal with the forces of destruction are called kalku, and those who deal with the forces of creation are machi. Music accompanies the ceremonies, and there is a strong oral tradition that weaves poetry, history of the people, legends, and religious beliefs into the celebrations.


The formality of a greeting is well-regulated, but a stranger can only come into a traditional Mapuche environment with the utmost care: strangers who come with another Mapuche may be welcomed with elaborate feasting and great hospitality, but those who come alone could just as easily be met with hostility and silence.

There is a formal structure governing Mapuche society, which is centered on the extended family. People are ranked according to age and relationship as well as socially recognized skills. There is, however, a contrast between this element and the fact that there is no single, central authority that governs them. The lack of central power, and the recognition of individual merit in appointing people to particular tasks and responsibilities within Mapuche culture, has enabled Mapuches to develop a particularly independent spirit and a resilience which survives among many of them even today.


The Mapuche have tried to preserve and defend their way of life for centuries, but their less-than-happy encounters with the Spaniards and their descendants have left them in a condition of poverty. Some Mapuche continue to live in a fairly traditional style, but many have migrated as poor workers to towns where they share the lot of other urban workers as pobladores in shantytowns with poor housing and health conditions. The hardiness of the Mapuche makes them especially prized workers in some demanding working environments where the weather and the terrain tax people heavily. There-fore, Mapuche have acquired a reputation early on for toughness and indifference to hardship.

This "indifference" noted by Europeans is revealing: it is quite possible that the traditional cultural standards of the Mapuche and the adverse circumstances of their more recent history demanded a stoic outlook, and that the ability to develop endurance was highly prized by the Mapuche themselves because it was, in part, a necessary survival tactic as well as a virtue. Their seeming indifference has been a victory of character over circumstance, rather than a curious lack of sensitivity.

The housing in shantytowns among other urban poor people is basic, and the shelters can be of adobe and bits of other materials. In remote country areas the traditional thatched roof huts known as rucas provide shelter. In towns the bus is the most common form of transport, but in more remote areas horses are still used, and in the southern Chiloé region boats are an important form of transport. The Mapuche share with other poor people of Chile the difficulties of access to health care. In some towns there are better facilities; in more remote areas, people often rely on traditional healers or herbal remedies.


The Mapuche that still live in reducciones have tried to maintain traditional family group structures, which include the extended family unit and a clan-like structure with a chief. The various Mapuche chiefs get together in the traditional way to arrive at important decisions by a process of lengthy discussion and consensus. This collective spirit traditionally ensured that land was owned and worked by the group as a whole rather than by individual families. Power, whether in economic, social, or political terms, rested on the family, and at the head of the extended family stood the lonko or chief, with several wives and many children. The sense of family identity extends to grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and relatives by marriage.

Although this sense of family identity survives psychologically, this type of social structure is gradually being undermined, as various efforts both to Christianize the Mapuche and to erode their freedom and their access to land takes its toll. Under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s, a land law was passed that further restricted the Mapuche and forced them to get assimilated into the rest of society.

The role of women is important in a variety of ways. Very often women continue to maintain traditions even though their husbands and sons are engaged in struggles for work that bring them into contact with white society both politically and economically.


Men in towns wear Western-style shirts and trousers; women are sometimes dressed more traditionally, with colorful aprons embroidered in abstract patterns; head scarves, sometimes decorated with silver coins; other types of jewelry such as long, heavy necklaces which include motifs such as crosses and coins; and gold earrings. Traditional skirts are long, and some forms of dress also include innovations, developed during colonial times, of Spanish elements such as elaborate, lace-edged collars.

Younger Mapuche girls often wear Western-style clothing such as sweaters and skirts, and boys wear shirts or sweaters and trousers.


Traditional hunting and fishing, as well as some planting and harvesting of crops such as corn and various fruits, ensured a varied diet for Mapuches. However, more-modern town dwellers have adapted to the food that has developed over the centuries which includes elements of Spanish and other European cuisines, including corn turnovers or empanadas with fillings of hard-boiled egg, olives, raisins, and ground meat. The distinctive curanto oven allows meat and vegetables to steam for hours, wrapped in leaves, in the island of Chiloé.

Traditional feasting on special occasions can still last for several days. Utensils include clay pots.


The Jesuits were active in early efforts to educate the Amer-indians all over South America, and Chile was no exception. But struggles over land, and clashes caused by the expansion of Spanish conquests, also created dilemmas for the Mapuche, who did not want their way of life to disappear. Nevertheless, those who received an education in Western-style schools later developed organizations that helped them take part in Chile's political life. Mapuches who lost their lands and had to migrate to the towns to survive now try to offer their children opportunities to attend school. In the reservations many still try to preserve a traditional way of life. There have also been some efforts to develop a type of school that includes Spanish as well as important elements of traditional Mapuche culture.


The music of the Mapuche includes special instruments such as whistles made out of wood, a type of flute called the trutruca, and various percussion instruments such as the cultrun. Music and dancing always accompanied important rituals. A type of poetic singing in Mapudungun includes the reciting of legends, special invocations and prayers, and stories associated with the forces of life and death.

Mapuche culture has an extensive oral literature tradition, which combines admiration for oratory skills, which are considered a supreme social talent, and for the beauty of the indigenous language. The principal form of oral literature is the epew, a fictional story in which animals have human characteristics.


The Mapuche who still live in reservations engage in some farming or fishing, as well as in the production of handicrafts. A majority of Mapuche town dwellers live as urban workers. In their brave and remarkable struggle to preserve their culture and identity, they gradually developed in the 20th century a number of organizations to represent their interests. One of the most important modern Chilean Mapuche leaders was Manuel Aburto Manquilef. Following his lead, the Mapuche in towns affiliated themselves with larger trade union movements, especially the Workers' Federation of Chile during the 1930s. Some Mapuche joined political parties and were even elected to the Chilean Congress.

Working conditions and opportunities for work were closely linked to the struggle for representation and preservation of their identity, as well as their part in union movements, which led to persecution during military rule in Chile during the 1970s and 1980s. Many Chilean workers and leaders of workers' movements, including Mapuche, were killed or simply disappeared. However, not all the Mapuche took the path of opposition and struggle. Some thought that silence, conciliation, or accommodation with the military regime would ensure better chances of survival.

Women often contribute to the family's earnings by taking part in markets and fairs to sell their wares. In what is today a more democratic country, many Mapuche continue to struggle both to improve their working conditions and to try to preserve their customs and identity.


The main indigenous sport is the chueca or palin, a game that resembles hockey. Many of the younger Mapuche who are growing up in towns and are gradually changing their habits and lifestyle are enthusiastic soccer supporters. In more traditional settings, a lifestyle that has included both hunting and fishing combined both practical skills necessary for survival as well as the enjoyment of developing and mastering these skills. Some of the Mapuche who have lived either on the island of Chiloé or by the shores of other lakes are skilled boaters.


Mapuche who live in or near towns enjoy the many fiestas beloved of many Chileans. Some of these are religious feast days, and others are linked to agricultural or special cultural events.


The Mapuche are skilled weavers of cloth and baskets, jewelry-makers, and potters. Traditional crafts included tool-making for hunting and fishing, including spears, bows, and arrows. They used wooden tools to farm potatoes and corn. They also thatched the straw roofs for their traditional houses known as rucas, an activity that still continues in some areas.

The descendants of the Mapuche who live on the island of Chiloé have blended with the original Chono Indian inhabitants and still maintain a distinctive culture, which includes the use of a special loom, which they use to weave sweaters and ponchos. Llama wool is used elsewhere, but in Chiloé sheep's wool is used, and the women prepare dyes made from herbs.

There are several important craft fairs in Chile that display Mapuche arts and crafts. One of these is the annual cultural fair in the town of Villarica on the Chilean mainland.


The social problems of the Mapuche are related to economic hardship as well as to the struggle to preserve their traditions and identity. The situations of town dwellers and inhabitants of the reducciones differ in some important respects. Some of the Mapuche inhabitants of the reservations prefer to keep themselves aloof from the ways and customs of Europeans, even today, and try to teach their children the traditions and beliefs of Mapuche culture. Other groups of Mapuche, who migrated to the towns when they lost their lands, have been engaged in a struggle in which they joined trade unions as a way of fighting poverty by pushing for workers' rights in general. There is a growing awareness of their struggle in Chile today, and a more sympathetic attitude toward their difficulties.


Mapuche women see their interests as connected to those of their people, a people who possess a particular worldview in which man and woman together form a dyad and act in equilibrium and complementarity. The Mapuche struggle to maintain their identity and territory began with the arrival of the Spaniards but it was only the Chilean state, 70 years after independence, which managed to officially annex the Mapuche territory. Thereafter, a campaign of assimilation into the national worldview was imposed and reinforced by military, schools, and churches.

Mapuche men and women resisted this mandate of forced assimilation, especially throughout Pinochet's dictatorship (1973–1990), during which laws were decreed to facilitate the sale of Mapuche lands to non-Mapuches and the denial of their indigenous identity. Women such as Isolde Reuque, Ana Llao, and Elisa Avedaño were among the most important Mapuche leaders during the dictatorial regime.

After the return to democracy in 1990, Mapuche women formed the Coordinadora de Mujeres Mapuches to push for Mapuche women's rights and the recognition of their indigenous identity, in contrast to non-Mapuche women. Mapuche women assert that their unique cultural background and experiences of discrimination make their concerns and priorities different from those of non-Mapuche women. For instance, Mapuche women are discriminated against because of their indigenous features and are disproportionately represented in domestic service, where violations of workers' rights are most invisible and ignored.

In 1993, the government mandated the CONADI to encourage the participation and development of indigenous women in coordination with the National Women's Service (SERNAM). However, indigenous peoples' rights in general and indigenous women's rights in particular have been constantly neglected by the state. Women have been visible actors and leaders in the conflicts derived from Mapuche resistance. For instance, in the emblematic case of the construction of the Ralco dam, two elderly sisters, Berta and Nicolasa Quintremán, led the group of families affected to resist the construction and halt the project, action that forced the state to compensate the dislocated Mapuche families.


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—revised by C. Vergara