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Summary Article: Mapuches
from Ethnic Groups of the Americas: An Encyclopedia

The Mapuches, sometimes known as Maputongos, Arucanians, Arucanos, or Mapuchs, are a South American ethnic group inhabiting both sides of the Andes Mountains in southern Chile and western Argentina. The estimated 1.8 million Mapuches speak a number of related dialects collectively known as Mapudungun, with most speaking Spanish as their second language. The Mapuches are nominally Roman Catholic, usually blending Christian rituals with traditional beliefs and customs.

The origin of the Mapuches is not well known and is disputed by scholars studying the language and culture. The Mapuches controlled a large territory in southwestern South America perhaps for thousands of years. They mostly lived in distinct regional groups, each with its own dialect and cultural traditions. From the 12th century ce the Mapuches came under constant pressure from the expanding Inca Empire to the north. The various Mapuche groups united to face the invading Inca warriors and over time they evolved a strong warrior tradition. They halted the southern expansion of the Incas, defeating invasions led by Tupai Yupanqui between 1448 and 1482. The Inca troops, unable to defeat the fierce Mapuche resistance, finally withdrew leaving the Mapuches as the most powerful nation in the southern part of the continent prior to the arrival of the Europeans. Mapuche territory stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic, a vast area traversed by the high Andes Mountains. Though they controlled a huge territory, the Mapuches did not recognize any central political or cultural authority above the village level. Spanish military forces under Pedro de Valdivia moved south from present-day Peru in 1540. The Spanish founded Santiago in 1541 and eventually crossed the Bío-Bío River that was the northern boundary of Mapuche territory. Meeting only minimal resistance the Spanish continued south in the Mapuche heartland in 1552. Having established a number of permanent settlements, the Spanish considered the conquest of Chile complete and the people they called the Arucanos completely pacified. Led by their warrior chief Lautaro, the Mapuches launched a massive attack on the Spanish settlements in 1553, beginning a long series of conflicts known as the Arucanian Wars. The victorious Mapuches surged north intent on driving the Spanish back to Peru, but the death of Lautaro and a severe smallpox epidemic—a disease brought to the area by the Europeans—saved the colony. The Mapuches withdrew to the south of the Bío-Bío and continued to repulse Spanish incursions. The Mapuches had defeated the world's most powerful state, the Spanish Empire of the 16th century. Unable to overcome Mapuche resistance, the Spanish, a century after the first invasion of Mapuche territory, negotiated a treaty that guaranteed Mapuche independence and prohibited further Spanish settlements south of the Bío-Bío River. In spite of the Spanish treaty, the Mapuches were forced to unite to defeat renewed Spanish invasions in 1725, 1740, and 1766, as well as numerous raids by Spanish slavers.

The Mapuches comprise 14 distinct castes or clans, each with its own dialect and cultural traditions. The following are the most important of the clans: the Mapuches, the “people of the land,” who are mostly farmers; the Moluches, the “people of O,” who are traditionally warriors; the Pipuche, the “people of the pines,” who are traditionally mountain dwellers; the Huilliche, the “people of the south”; the Pehuenche, the “people of the north”; and the Liquenche, the “people of the coast.” Despite advances in recent decades discrimination continues to affect the Mapuches, with an estimated third of the total population now living in urban areas where alcohol, illiteracy, disease, and poverty continue to be major problems. The Mapuche language, Mapudungun, meaning “language of the land,” is a group of closely related dialects that make up a separate language family of disputed origins. Until recently the language was an oral tradition; Spanish was used as the literary language. A number of scholars and organizations are working toward the creation of a Mapuche alphabet in order to standardize the dialects and to sustain and preserve the oral tradition. The Mapuches were mostly converted to Roman Catholicism in the 19th century but have also retained their traditional beliefs, including the belief in spirits and the reliance on the shaman or machi, who is the spiritual leader of each village.

Mapuche woman weaving a blanket (1998).

(AP Photo/Santiago Llanquin)

Chile and Argentina gained independence from Spain in 1810, though the Mapuches retained their independence in their traditional homeland. The new national governments revived the struggle to conquer the Mapuches, whose territory they claimed and divided by the new national boundaries. In Argentina, the so-called Campaign of the Desert devastated and nearly exterminated the Mapuche population east of the Andes. In Chile the Mapuches repeatedly defeated Chilean military incursions but having decided to colonize the region the Chilean government began selling land grants to European immigrants in Mapuche land. In the 1850s the Mapuches retaliated by raiding the settlements established in their territory by German immigrants. In 1866 the Chilean government passed a law declaring Mapuche lands as “public land” to be sold to the growing number of immigrants arriving from Europe. The Chileans sent a large military force south in 1873, determined to take control of the entire Mapuche region of Arucania. Once again defeated, the Chileans withdrew but returned in 1880 with the entire national army. Finally defeated in 1881, the Mapuches were forced to surrender, ending over three centuries of successful resistance. The Mapuches were the last indigenous nation in South America to fall to the conquerors. Most of Chile's Mapuches were forced to settle on small reservations in 1884. Over the next decades they lost nearly all their lands to the colonizers while the reservations set up in Chile and Argentina were unable to adequately support the surviving Mapuches. The continuing loss of the productive lands and a tripling of the Mapuche population between 1927 and 1961 caused severe poverty, disease, and hunger forcing many to leave their homes to migrate to the cities in search of work. During the 1970s the Mapuches gave their support to the leftist Salvador Allende, who was elected president of Chile in 1970. His procommunist ideals appealed to the Mapuches with their ancient communal traditions. The Allende government passed new laws allowing the Mapuches to recover lost lands. Allende's overthrow and the establishment of a right-wing dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet ended concessions to the Mapuches, whose leaders and many followers were murdered and their bodies thrown into mass graves. Most of the lands recovered during the Allende years were again taken away. Mapuche life under the dictatorship was harsh and poverty was widespread. Younger activists began to mobilize the population in the 1980s following the abolition of the reservations, the prohibition of their religious practices, the ban on using their language in public, and punishments for educating their children about their language and culture. The Mapuche clans, formerly autonomous and traditionally disunited, had become a viable tribal group by the early 1990s. Demands for greater autonomy and for the unification of the Mapuches’ traditional territory in Chile and Argentina have won widespread support among the growing Mapuche population. Activists continue to demand that the Spanish, Chilean, and Argentine governments honor the many treaties that recognized Mapuche sovereignty over territories south of the Bío-Bío River in Chile and the Colorado River in Argentina.

Further Reading
  • Bacigalupo, Ana Mariella. Shamans of the Foye Tree: Gender, Power, and Healing among Chilean Mapuche. University of Austin Press Austin TX, 2007.
  • Course, Magnus. Becoming Mapuche: Person and Ritual in Indigenous Chile. University of Illinois Press Champaign IL, 2011.
  • Ray, Leslie. Language of the Land: The Mapuche in Argentina and Chile. IGWIA Copenhagen Denmark, 2008.
  • Copyright 2013 by James B. Minahan

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