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    Land of winds > The people > Culture | Issue 07 (Sep.-Oct. 2011)
    By Edgardo Civallero | Sara Plaza

The Mapuche


The Mapuche

Regarded as direct descendants from the Pitrén culture, the Mapuche are the most important and numerous native people in Chile. When the Spanish first encountered them in the 16th century, the Mapuche inhabited a large part of the country including areas of central-south Chile. They were divided in several groups identified by the Spanish as Pikunches (between the rivers Maule and Bío Bío), Mapuches (between the rivers Bío Bío and Toltén), Pehuenches (in the foothills of the Andes, from Chillán to Antuco) and Huilliches (from the Toltén River to the Chiloé Island).

Their territory comprised several ecological levels, and very different altitudes and climates. As a result, they had to adapt themselves to different conditions, which shape and determined each group’s life. However, in response to Spanish conquest and colonization, these groups joined together to resist foreign invasion. During the 19th century many Mapuches saw themselves forced to migrate from the country to the urban centres, while those who remained in the country made up the local peasantry.


The Mapuche

During the 16th century, the Mapuche had a subsistence economy based on hunting and gathering, non-intensive agriculture and textile and pottery production in order to meet their needs. During the “Arauco War” (1536-1810) they shifted their economy towards raiding ranches for livestock once they had learnt to use horses well.

By those times, the Mapuche began a process of commercial and cultural expansion into the Argentinean pampas (known as “the Araucanizacion of the pampas”), which had its peak at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century. During this period, the Mapuche became horse and livestock traders moving cattle from one side to the other of the Andes. They also enlarged the production of textiles and silverworks. After the incorporation of the Araucanía into Chilean national territory (1861-1883 — a series of military campaigns, agreements and penetrations by Chilean army and settlers known as the “Occupation of the Araucanía”, though Chilean authorities refer to it as the “Pacification of the Araucanía”), the Mapuche were confined to reservations that all together covered about six percent of their original territory, where they subsisted on agriculture and cattle raising.


The Mapuche

Mapuche artistic practices were and are strongly connected to daily life. The Mapuche are notably renowned for their fine silverwork: jewellery became part of women’s traditional costume, including narrow belts (trarilongko), earrings (chaway), breast plates (trapelakucha) and brooches (akucha and tupu). Their textiles were as functional as they were decorative, including blankets (makuñ) and wide belts (trarihue) embellished with distinctive traditional motifs. The Mapuche are also well-known for their pottery pieces, such as the famous metawe vessels, and their wood carvings. Among the later there are chemamüll (wooden statues that were used in funeral services and to signal the graves), basic household tools (spoons, bowls) and ritual objects (masks kollong). Mapuche music, whose repertoire includes both ceremonial and popular songs, is played on such traditional instruments as the trutruka (a hollowed colihue attached to a horn of bovine), the kultrun (a small conical drum), the kaskahuilla (a leather bracelet with bells) or the pifilka (a cylindrical whistle made of wood).

At present, Mapuche population mostly live in urban centres. Those still living in rural communities do so in rukas, their traditional dwellings (a big wooden hut with a thatched roof).

Unlike Mapudungu (from mapu “land, earth” and dungu “speech, speak”), the Mapuche language, which is still spoken by large groups of people in both Chile and Argentina, other social and cultural activities (e.g. the game of the palín or chueca) are falling into oblivion.


The Mapuche

Mythology, stories and religious beliefs are an important part of the Mapuche traditional culture. Known as admapu, Mapuche traditional symbols, practices and beliefs establish that the earth/land (mapu) and the human beings were created by Ngenechen, the “celestial father”. Another Mapuche supernatural being is the pillan, the spirit of the founder ancestor of each lineage. Number four plays an important role in the Mapuche’s view of the world: in performing traditional rites, the shaman (machi) invokes four main spirits; the Wenumapu (“the sky”, “the upper land”) is divided in four levels; and four songs and four prayers make up the backbone of the Ngillatun (rogation, supplication, prayer), one of their most important ceremonies.

The Mapuche people have always been in resistance. They resisted bravely the many attempts to subdue them carried out by the Inca forces, the Spanish crown’s, the republic’s national army, and the dictatorship. And they have also fought fiercely against spiritual domination and to safeguard their thousand-year-old identity. However, they could not retain their land, which was sold to the highest bidder, including inland and foreign companies that are polluting the environment using up their natural resources. Mapuche demands have been answered with repression, persecution and torture by authorities and security forces, what has been wide and consistently denounced as a violation of human rights.

The use of force to suppress citizens’ rights and silence their demands will not prevent Mapuche people from remembering what they have always known: “Despite the shrapnel / and the tyrant’s decree / still remains standing up / the indomitable Araucanian people” (from the song “Arauco en pie”, Arauco standing up, by Illapu).


Mapuche, in Wikipedia.
Mapuche language, in Wikipedia.
Mapuche religion, in Wikipedia.
Arauco War, in Wikipedia.
Mapuche People, in Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art [es].
The Mapuche people, in Memoria chilena [es].
Book. “Voces Mapuches” (Mapuche voices), in Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art [es].
Book. “Platería Araucana” (Araucanian silverwork), in Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art [es].
Book. “Mapuche. Semillas de Chile” (Mapuche. Seeds of Chile), in Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art [es].
Book. “Mapuche”, in Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art [es].
Thesis. “The Mapuche people’s battle for indigenous land: possibilities for litigating on indigenous land rights” by Anne Skjævestad, University of Bergen, Norway.
Thesis. “The conceptualization of Mapuche relgion in colonial Chile (1545-1787)”, by Stefan Eim, Heidelberg Ruprecht-Karls University.


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