Both Puerto Rico, where I lived for many years, and Chile have a rich Amerindian heritage. But while Puerto Rico’s Indians, the Tainos, exist only in the DNA of many islanders, the Mapuches of southern Chile are very much alive and well, a distinctive and important cultural group with a past unlike any other in the Americas.
The Mapuches are the original inhabitants of south-central Chile and southwestern Argentina. The word ‘Mapuche’ refers collectively to several Amerindian groups who live in the region and traditionally speak the Mapudungun language. Historically, the Spaniards used the word ‘Araucanian’ for Mapuche.
Chile’s Mapuches maintained their independence longer than any other Indians in the Americas. Some 2,000 years before Spanish colonizers reached Peru, Mapuches inhabited the valleys of central Chile. The first major invaders were the Incans, who sought to expand their southern borders. The Mapuches repelled them. A century later, the Spaniards, having vanquished the Incans, also looked to expand. The conquistadors established a settlement in Santiago and several outposts farther south (refer to my last post), but the Mapuches — clever, fierce, and resourceful — banded together with other tribes and fought back. The Spaniards eventually had to admit defeat, and for more than 200 years an independent Araucanian territory was located between the Bío-Bío and Toltén rivers. Never subjugated by the Spaniards, the Mapuches remained independent even after the founding of the Republic of Chile. By 1883, though, all Mapuche territory became part of the new country.
In Valdivia and throughout the region, many residents reflect Mapuche Indian ancestry, and brightly patterned sweaters are common on chilly days. These are contemporary versions of a traditional Mapuche craft. Over the centuries, Mapuche artisans developed beautifully designed textile products for daily use as well as elaborate silver necklaces and head pieces for special occasions. Historical examples of these crafts are displayed in museums such as Valdivia’s Museo Histórico y Antropológico (which I’ll talk about in a future post), and shoppers can purchase contemporary items at city marketplaces.
The Mapuches are the largest group of Indians in South America. Of Chile’s 1,500,000 indigenous people, some 84% are of Mapuche ancestry. Many live in the Araucanía region, including the capital city of Temuco, and in towns and rural areas to the south—Valdivia, Lago Ranco, La Unión—down to the Chiloé archipelago.
In the 20th century, the Mapuche language and traditions declined, and the people themselves remained on the sidelines of Chile’s progress. Today, few Mapuches speak Mapudungun fluently, but there is renewed interest in teaching the language and heritage to the younger generation. In several places I saw signage in Spanish and Mapudungun. Many Chileans have an increased appreciation for Mapuche contributions to the country’s culture, and some Mapuches demand greater rights for the original inhabitants.
Native foods such as corn and potatoes, long used in the Mapuche diet, remain a mainstay of Chilean dishes. Even today, boiled potatoes and fish are common dinner fare. (As an interesting aside, cooks in Chiloé have hundreds of species of potatoes from which to choose, and this small archipelago is considered the birthplace of the ubiquitous potato. For more about that, refer to Nick Rider’s Travelling Observations.) Corn, known as choclo, is featured in a hearty stew and a local tamale. Curanto remains a special-occasion meal of seafood and meat cooked in a hole in the ground using hot stones, perhaps seasoned with merkén, a condiment of smoked red chilis and coriander. All these dishes have their origins in Mapuche cuisine.
Traditional Mapuches follow a female spiritual healer known as a machi. Well versed in the use of medicinal herbs, she can predict weather, interpret dreams, cure illnesses, and ward off evil. Part of her ritual is through prayer and animal sacrifice, necessary to maintain the cosmic balance between good, as represented by the serpent Tren-Tren, and evil, the sea dragon Cai-Cai. In my novel-in-progress, Clara Valle is a student of Chilean history and mythology. Knowledgeable about the Mapuche cosmology, she becomes entangled in a struggle to correct a past imbalance.
For a more extensive overview of the Mapuches, visit the South America website.