The Mapuches: a long resistance

The Mapuches: a long resistance

After having fought against the Incas and the Spaniards, they fought for their lands.

A population that refused to be submitted to the Incas and later to the Spaniards

Mapuche means “people from the land” in mapudungun, the Mapuche language. Even before the arrival of the Spaniards, they occupied a vast territory on each side of the Andes Mountain Range, of the province of Buenos Aires, and on the South of Patagonia. It was a sedentary population that had reached certain degree of development living on hunting and agriculture, they were an organized society.

In the 15th century, they put at risk the conquest of the Inca Empire who could not subdue them. The Spanish conquerors could not subdue them some tens of years later either. After several confrontations, a border is settled demarcating the Mapuche territory.

Mapuche family

By mid 19th century, after the Independence and the birth of Argentina, the government decided to colonize the Southern lands with all the European immigrants coming en masse. So far, Patagonia, Chaco and a great extension of La Pampa were free aboriginal territories. There were contacts between the aboriginal and Creole societies: they entered into treaties to establish the borders, they made commercial exchanges, and even several caciques took sides and combated in the fight for Independence.

Mapuche craft

In 1860, Orélie Antoine de Tounens, a French adventurer who got thrilled by the Mapuches, the Puelches and the Tehuelches, was self-proclaimed King of Araucania and Patagonia. Warned by this secessionist intention, the Chilean government started a military campaign and ended up subduing the Mapuches in 1880, two years after the death of Périgueux, who had made a confession in exile in Dordogne where he had been born.

Orélie Antoine I had had time to draft a constitution, compose a national anthem, and create a flag… The kingdom was amazingly perpetuated with a landless King, Prince Philippe, born Philippe Boiry in Paris in 1927. A story that made many people laugh but never lacked glamour.

Mapuche region's landscape

In Argentina, several military expeditions called “Conquest of the Desert” were launched in 1879 and 1885. The aboriginal populations refused to subdue to them. Almost all the big Mapuche caciques died fighting, were sent to prison and executed, 2,500 aborigines died. The survivors were moved to reserves and were hired as cheap workforce. Their lands were given to the militaries and speculators.

Mapuche population in Chile and Argentina

According to the last census, there are 600,000 Mapuches in Chile, that is, 4% of the population and 30% less than at the beginning of the 1990s. They live in rural areas in the IX region (Temuco), in the X region (Puerto Montt), and in the metropolitan region of Santiago. They were persecuted under Pinochet’s government and now they hardly fight to recover their territories or identity.

Paso Cordoba, Neuquen

The figures of the Mapuche population are subject to a controversy and vary between 100,000 as per the government and 500,000 as per the Mapuche community. They live mainly in the provinces of Chubut, Neuquén (Lanín National Park), Santa Cruz and Río Negro in Patagonia, as well as in La Pampa and Buenos Aires. A few of them are owners of their lands; they are usually given the less fertile regions and in the outskirts of the cities. They have a survival economy with a little of cattle-rearing and culture, as well as a craftsmanship production.

Funerary Mapuches statues

The “aboriginal issue” reappeared with the return of the democracy in the 1980s. In 1994, the Constitution of the Argentine Republic recognized the rights of the aboriginal populations with access to a bilingual education. Mapuches are the best-organized population with associations, councils and confederations. Their goals: to reaffirm their cultural identity, their language, their culture, their traditions and their territories.

Mapuche Culture

The Mapuche culture is packed with a deep respect for the lands; they do not consider it private property but community wealth. Every year in autumn, the Nquillatún, a big party is held to ask for a good harvest with rituals, music, songs and dances. Their other precious treasury is the family that is gathered in the ruca (Mapuche house) and the community; their social ties are very strong.

Many Mapuches today live on selling their pieces of craftsmanship. The silver objects and jewels have great true and symbolic values in their culture: stunning necklaces, earrings, brooches, diadems, bracelets carried by women in parties and religious ceremonies. Men pay great attention to anything that may be an ornament to their horses: spurs, stirrups, etc. The work is very fine with antropomorph patterns, ideograms, and animal or flower representations. The colors and the drawings of the knitted works also entail symbolic values. Women still make, in the traditional manner, their blankets, ruanas (ponchos), rugs or bags.