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Chile’s indigenous peoples

When talking about Chile’s indigenous peoples, the question is usually reduced to the Mapuche, emblematic people of a proud and wild land. It is however misjudging the reality since the country used to be home to a dozen of aboriginal nations before the European intrusion in the 16th century. Unfortunately, Chile was no exception to the continental rule, and the aboriginal people were exterminated over the five centuries of wars, massacres and contaminations. Today, the indigenous population only makes up 5 % of Chile’s total population. Some maintained their traditions while others are extinct or soon to be.

Here is a short presentation of each of them.

The Mapuche

The Mapuche are the most numerous group of Indians in South America (more than 1,400,000 at the turn of the 21st century) and have a long history.

They call themselves the Mapuche, a name composed of the words “mapu” (land) and “che” (people), that is literally “people of the land” or “natives”.

When the Spanish arrived in 1535, they occupied a territory stretching from the Aconcagua Valley to Chiloe Island, and were divided in different geographical sub-groups: the Picunches (people of the North), Huilliches (people of the South), Lalfunches (people of the valleys), Lafkenches (people of the coast).

The groups of the North that were living under the Inca partial domination were quickly subjected to the conquistadores. The groups living further south (that already had stood up to the Incas) put up a fierce resistance right away (fearsome warriors, they were very skillful in the handling of the bow, the javelin and the mace).

As early as 1536, a pitched battle opposed the Mapuche from Araucania (Chile’s central region) to the troops of Diego de Almagro who came down from Peru to get his hands on the El Dorado.

Here started a war that lasted more than 60 years and that ended with the establishment of a tacit border between the antagonists: north of the Biobío River, the Spanish, and south, the Mapuche. This status quo lasted almost two centuries during which this line will be more or less respected.

In 1861, the Chilean government launched an operation of “pacification of Araucania”, which actually means that the government proceeded with the large-scale expropriation of the Mapuche from the land they lived on to make it the country’s breadbasket: the grounds used for hunting and horticulture (the two principal resources of the Mapuche) were turned into haciendas for intensive farming.

This time, the Mapuche couldn’t stop the advance of the colonists. Like in North America, they were confined to communal reserves or dissolved into population.

Marginalized and acculturated, victims of racial and social discrimination, they endured a real social and cultural upheaval, which resulted in a significant rural migration (particularly among young people), so that today, the Mapuche mostly live in the cities, even though they maintain a strong link with their community of origin.

The Mapuche reaction is relatively recent. First, it is expressed, judicially, by a land claim. Supported by the 1993 Indigenous Law (which aims at protecting the land and the resources of aboriginal people), it led to the recovery of the Mapuche ancestral land. But this journey promises to be long and hard.

The answer of the Mapuche is also entrepreneurial: for a few years, certain communities have developed an ethno-tourism which allows to discover and share their traditional way of life.

The Mapuche culture, of oral transmission, is based on the admapu, a set of traditions, laws and norms governing the social and religious life.

It is perpetuated through a language (the Mapudungun), crafts (textile, among others), music and songs.

If you’re staying around Pucon (in the Lake District), make sure to visit the Quelhue community. It will be an opportunity for you do learn more about the Mapuche traditions, to meet some of them and to help them increase their incomes!

The Aymaras

Descendants of the Tiwanakotas who used to dominate the Altiplano around Lake Titicaca, they are characterized by a common language (the aymara). There are currently around 50,000 Aymaras living in the northeast of the country, near the border with Bolivia and Peru.

The Quechuas

They also share a language (the quechua) that used to be the official and diplomatic language of the Incas (even though the Aymara was probably the vernacular language of the empire). The Quechua communities of Chile remain a tiny minority (around 6,000 people) and are gathered almost exclusively in the municipality of Ollague, near the border with Bolivia, at the northeast end of the country.

The Kollas

They are assumed to have been expelled by the Incas from the shores of Lake Titicaca to take refuge in the Andes, near the border with Bolivia and Argentina. They do not have their own language, they speak Aymara or Quechua.

The Atacameños

They speak Kunza and call themselves Lican Antay (“inhabitants of the territory”). They live in the Atacama region where 21,000 members have been identified.

The Diaguitas

Diaguita is the Quechua denomination, later spread by the Spanish, for a group of independent people sharing a language, the kakán or kakan. They called themselves the Pazioca or Paccioca. Established in the valleys of Chile’s near north, they probably almost disappeared, even if the government recognizes officially their existence.

The peoples of Patagonia

Four big indigenous groups used to occupy the extreme south of the continent. None has resisted the colonization and today, they are all extinct in spite of the efforts (too recent and insufficient) to protect them and preserve their way of life.

* The Aónikenks (or Tehuelches): hunter-gatherers established along the border between Argentina and Chile.

* The Kawésqars (or Alakalufs): nomadic fishermen who used to live on canoes between the coastline and the countless islands along it.

* The Yagans (or Yámanas): also nomadic fishermen, they used to live south of the Kawésqars’ territory, in and around Tierra del Fuego.

* The Selk’nams (or Onas): hunter-gatherers, they occupied Tierra del Fuego’s biggest island.

The Rapanuis

This ethnic group lives on the Easter Island (Chilean possession since 1888). Their language is called the Rapanui and their writing the rongorongo. They are the descendants of the first Pascuans, who erected the Moais, monumental stone statues that made the island famous and are listed as World Heritage by UNESCO.

After the near-extinction of the first Pascuans (the combined consequence of tribal fighting, deportations by slave traders and diseases introduced by Europeans), the colonists had Polynesians from the Rapa Island brought in to satisfy their need for labor.

Almost 4,000 members have been identified. The majority is part of one of the twelve subsisting tribes and they try hard to keep the Pascuan traditions alive (for example during the Tapati Rapa Nui festival, resuscitated in 1968 and since then organized every year between January and February).

What about the future?

It took centuries for the Chilean government to stop considering the indigenous population as a negligible group. The 1993 law marked a real turning point, but only represents a first step towards a complete rehabilitation of those dispossessed and ostracized communities.

The ethno-tourism, through a responsible approach, opens another way. By valuing what used to be proscribed and forbidden (the practice and transmission of ancestral tradition), it encourages the young generations to reconnect with their past, to make it part of Chile’s modernity.

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