Mapuche language


The Mapuche are the indigenous inhabitants of Central and Southern Chile and Southern Argentina. They were known as Araucanians (araucanos) by the Spaniards. This is now considered pejorative by the people and the term Mapuche is the one most often used by people in conversation. Mapuche make up about 4% of the Chilean population, who are particularly concentrated in the Araucania Region, while over 60% of Chile's population is believed to possess some Mapuche ancestry.

Contrary to popular belief, the Quechua word awqa "rebel, enemy", is probably not the root of araucano: the latter is more likely derived from the placename rag ko (Spanish Arauco) "clayey water".

The Mapuche had an economy based on agriculture; their social organisation consisted of extended families, under the direction of a "lonko" or chief, although in times of war they would unite in larger groupings and elect a toqui (from Mapudungun toki "axe, axe-bearer") to lead them.

The Mapuche are a wide-ranging ethnicity composed of various groups which shared a common social, religious and economic structure, as well as a common linguistic heritage. Their influence extended between the Aconcagua River and Chiloé Island and later eastward to the Argentine pampa. The Mapuche (note that Mapuche can refer to the whole group of Picunches (people of the north), Huilliches and Moluche or Nguluche from Araucanía or exclusively to the Moluche or Nguluche from Araucanía) inhabited the valleys between the Itata and Toltén Rivers, as well as the Huilliche (people of the South), the Cuncos. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Mapuches expanded eastward into the Andes and pampas forming with the existing people the Poyas and Pehuenche. At about the same time ethnic groups of the pampa regions, the Puelche, Ranqueles and northern Aonikenk, called Patagons by Ferdinand Magellan, known now as Tehuelche, made contact with Mapuche groups, adopting their language and some culture (in what came to be called the Araucanization).



The origin of the Mapuche is not clear. The Mapuche language Mapudungun, has been classified by some authorities as being related to the Penutian languages of North America. Others group it among the Andean languages , and yet others postulate an Araucanian-Mayan relationship ; Croese (1989, 1991) has advanced the hypothesis that it is related to Arawak. Recent DNA analysis has found that Mapuche pre-Columbian Araucana chicken came from Polynesia, suggesting contact between the Mapuche and Polynesia. One of the earliest sites of human occupation in the Americas, Monte Verde, lies within what was later to become Huilliche territory, although there is currently no demonstrated link between the Monte Verde people and the Mapuche.

War of Arauco

The Mapuche successfully resisted many attempts by the Inca Empire to subjugate them, despite their lack of state organisation. They fought against the Sapa Inca Tupac Yupanqui and his army. The result of the bloody three day confrontation known as the Battle of the Maule was that the Inca conquest of the territories of Chile ended at the Maule river. They fell back to the north behind the Rapel and Cachapoal Rivers where they established a fortified border guarded by fortresses like Pucará de La Compañía and the Pucará del Cerro La Muralla.

After the successful subjugation of the Picunche in the Conquest of Chile the Moluche of the area the Spanish called Araucania fought against the Spaniards for over 300 years. Initial conquests of land by Spain in the late 16th century were repelled by the Mapuche, so effectively that there were areas to which Europeans did not return until late in the 19th century. One of the main geographical boundaries was the Bío-Bío River, which the Mapuche used as a natural barrier to Spanish and Chilean incursion. The 300 years were not uniformly a period of hostility, but often allowed substantial trade and interchange between Mapuche and Spaniards or Chileans. Nevertheless, the long Mapuche resistance has become primarily known as the War of Arauco, and its early phase was immortalized in Alonso de Ercilla's epic poem La Araucana.

From the mid 17th century the Mapuches and the governors of Chile made a series of treaties in order to end the hostilities. By the late eighteenth century many Mapuche loncos had accepted the de jure soverignity of the Spanish king of their lands while having a de facto independence.

When Chile revolted from the Spanish crown, some Mapuche chiefs sided with the royalists of Vicente Benavides. The aid of the Mapuches were vital to the Spanish since the had lost the control of all cities and ports north of Valdivia. Mapuches valued the treaties done with Spanish authorities, however most regarded the matter with indifference and took adventage of both sides. After Chile's independence from Spain, the Mapuche coexisted and traded with their neighbours, who prudently remained north of the Bío-Bío River, although clashes occurred frequently.

Occupation of the Araucanía

Chilean population pressures increased on the Mapuche borders, and by the 1880s Chile extended both to the north and to the south of the Mapuche heartlands. Further, Chile in the 1880s, as a result of its preparation for and its victory in the War of the Pacific against Bolivia and Peru, found itself with a large standing army and a relatively modern arsenal for the period. Finally, in the mid- to late-1880s, partially on the pretext of crushing a French adventurer, Orelie-Antoine de Tounens, who had declared himself King of Araucania, Chile overwhelmed the Mapuche in the course of the so-called "pacification of the Araucanía".

Using a combination of force and diplomacy, Chile's government obliged some Mapuche leaders to sign a treaty absorbing the Araucanian territories into Chile. The immediate impact of the war was widespread starvation and disease. It has been claimed that the Mapuche population dropped from a total of half a million to 25,000 within a generation, though the latter figure has been called an exaggeration by several authorities. In the post-conquest period, however, there was internment of a significant percentage of the Mapuche, the wholesale destruction of the Mapuche herding, agricultural and trading economies, the wholesale looting of Mapuche property (real and personal - including a large amount of silver jewelry to replenish the Chilean national coffers), and the creation and institutionalization of a system of reserves called reducciones along lines similar to North American reservation systems. Subsequent generations of Mapuche live in extreme poverty as a direct result of being conquered and expropriated.

Recent history

Mapuche descendants now live across southern Chile and Argentina; some maintain their traditions and continue living from agriculture, but a growing majority have migrated to cities in search of better economic opportunities. Contrary to popular imagination, the majority of the Mapuche people live in urban areas, especially around Santiago Chile's region IX continues to have a rural population made up of approximately 80%; there are also substantial Mapuche populations in regions X, VIII, and VII.

In recent years, there has been an attempt by the Chilean government to redress some of the inequities of the past. The Parliament voted, in 1993, Law n° 19 253 (Indigenous Law, or Ley indígena) which recognized the Mapuche people, and seven other ethnic minorities as well as the Mapudungun language and culture. In the frame of this law, Mapundungun, which was prohibited before, was included in the curriculum of elementary schools around Temuco.

Furthermore, representatives from Mapuche organisations joined the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation (UNPO) seeking recognition and protection for their cultural and land rights.

Land disputes

Nevertheless, land disputes and violent interactions do continue in some Mapuche areas, particularly in the northern sections of the IX region between and around Traiguén and Lumaco - where a history of conflict continues into the present. In an effort to defuse tensions, a special government body, the Commission for Historical Truth and New Treatment, issued a report in 2003 calling for drastic changes in Chile's treatment of its indigenous people, more than 80 percent of whom are Mapuche. The recommendations included the formal recognition of political and "territorial" rights for aboriginal peoples, as well as efforts to promote their cultural identity.

Though Japanese and Swiss interests are active in the region that Chileans call "Araucanía" and the Mapuche call "Ngulu Mapu", both of the main forestry companies are Chilean-owned. On land the Mapuche claim is theirs, the firms have planted hundreds of thousands of acres with Monterey pine and eucalyptus trees, species that are not native to the region and that consume large amounts of water and fertilizer.

Chilean exports of wood to the United States, almost all of which come from this southern region, are about $600 million a year and rising. Though an international campaign led by the conservation group Forest Ethics resulted in the Home Depot chain and other leading wood importers agreeing to revise their purchasing policies, to "provide for the protection of native forests in Chile," some Mapuche leaders were not satisfied.

In recent years, Mapuche activists have been prosecuted under counter-terrorism legislation originally introduced by the military dictatorship, under Pinochet. The law allows prosecutors to withhold evidence from the defense for up to six months, and to conceal the identity of witnesses, who may give evidence in court behind screens. There are several violent activist groups, which utilize various tactics, including the destruction of private property, including, but not limited to, the burning of structures and pastures. Protesters from Mapuche communities have engaged in these tactics against multinational forestry corporations and private individuals, all of which possess and occupy territories originally owned by Mapuche communities.


There were 604,349 Mapuche according to the census of 2002, making up approximately 4% of the Chilean population, while an estimated 300,000 living in Argentina. Due to the loss of their lands, many Mapuche now live in impoverished conditions in large cities such as Santiago (See also: Demographics of Chile). Mapuche resistance continues, especially against the large forestry companies exploiting traditional lands. Pinochet-era anti-terrorism laws have frequently been used in recent years against certain community leaders and Mapuche political activists.

At the time of the arrival of Europeans, the Mapuche were capable of sufficiently organizing themselves to create a network of forts and complex defensive buildings but also ceremonial constructions such as some mounds recently discovered near Purén. They quickly adopted iron metal-working (they already worked copper) and horseback-riding and the use of cavalry in war from the Spaniards, along with the cultivation of wheat and sheep. In the long 300 year coexistence between the Spanish colonies and the relatively well-delineated autonomous Mapuche regions, the Mapuche also developed a strong tradition of trading with the Spanish/Chileans. It is this which lies at the heart of the Mapuche silver-working tradition, for it was from the large and widely-dispersed quantity of Spanish and Chilean silver coins that the Mapuche wrought their elaborate jewelry, head bands, etc.

Mapuche languages

Mapuche languages are spoken in Chile and to a smaller extent in Argentina. They have two branches: Huilliche and Mapudungun. Although not related, there is some discernible lexical influence from Quechua. It is estimated that only about 200,000 full-fluency speakers remain in Chile, and the language still receives only token support in the educational system. In recent years it has started to be taught in rural schools of Bio-Bio, Araucanía and Los Lagos Regions.

Mythology and beliefs

Central to Mapuche belief is the role of the machi "shaman". It is usually filled by a woman, following an apprenticeship with an older Machi, and has many of the characteristics typical of shamans. The machi performs ceremonies for curing diseases, warding off evil, influencing weather, harvests, social interactions and dreamwork. Machis often have extensive knowledge of Chilean medicinal herbs, though as biodiversity in the Chilean countryside has declined due to commercial agriculture and forestry, the dissemination of such knowledge has also declined but is in revival. Machis also have an extensive knowledge of sacred stones and the sacred animals.

A book by investigative journalist Patrick Tierney, The Highest Altar: Unveiling the Mystery of Human Sacrifice (1989) ISBN 9780140139747 , documents a possible modern ritual human sacrifice during the devastating earthquake and tsunami of 1960 by a machi of the Mapuche in the Lago Budi community. The victim, 5 year old José Luis Painecur, had his arms and legs removed by Juan Pañán and Juan José Paincur(the victims grandfather), and was stuck into the sand of the beach like a stake. The waters of the Pacific Ocean then carried the body out to sea. The sacrifice was rumored to be at the behest of local machi, Juana Namuncurá Añen. The 2 men were charged with the crime and confessed, but later recanted. They were released after 2 years. A judge ruled that those involved in these events had "acted without free will, driven by an irresistible natural force of ancestral tradition." The story is also mentioned in a Time Magazine article from that year, although with much less detail.

The most important beliefs of the Mapuche are expressed in the tale Trentren Vilu y Caicai Vilu, and manifest in the Ngen and Pillan spirits, the Kalku and Wekufe (evil/illness) spirits, the Chonchon, the Piuchen, the Nguruvilu, and the Calchona.

An equally important part of Mapuche belief and society is the remembered history of independence and resistance from 1540 (Spanish and then Chileans) and of the treaty with the Chilean government in the 1870s. In that perception, it is important to include not exclude Mapuches in the Chilean culture. Having said that, memories, stories, and beliefs, often very local and particularized, are a significant part of the Mapuche traditional culture. To varying degrees, this history of resistance continues to this day amongst the Mapuche, though at the same time a large majority in Chile would also strongly include themselves as Chilean similarly to a large majority in Argentina including themselves as Argentines.


Further reading

  • Language of the land : the Mapuche in Argentina and Chile:, 2007, ISBN 9788791563379
  • When a flower is reborn : the life and times of a Mapuche feminist, 2002, ISBN 0822329344
  • Courage tastes of blood : the Mapuche community of Nicolás Ailío and the Chilean state, 1906-2001, 2005, ISBN 0822335859
  • Neoliberal economics, democratic transition, and Mapuche demands for rights in Chile, 2006, ISBN 0813029384
  • Shamans of the foye tree : gender, power, and healing among Chilean Mapuche, 2007, ISBN 9780292716582
  • A grammar of Mapuche, 2007, ISBN 9783110195583
  • ''Mapuche Dreamwork:

See also

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