Los Mapuche: A Native Culture Struggling for Survival in Chile

By: Sarah Baran

May 13, 2013

My program’s focus is on comparative education and thus we have spent time in various regions and cities throughout Chile and Argentina, observing classrooms, speaking with students, professors, and administrators of schools that cover the entire range: public, private, municipal, primary, basic, high school, technical, special needs, all-girls, all-boys, even schools that have been recuperated from abandoned factories. Recently, we spent a week living and learning among the Mapuche, an indigenous community that is concentrated mostly in the south of Chile, to learn about intercultural education and its efforts to preserve more than just an identity, but also a lifestyle.

Our first lecture in Chapod, the community where we were staying, explained the traditional philosophy and religious beliefs of the Mapuche. Within this religious philosophy, Mapun, the cosmic force that has both a positive and negative spirit, created the world and all of its living creatures in such a manner that everything would contain the same dual spirituality. Mapun appointed Negin Mapun, an energy that has both a positive and negative spirit as well as both male and female sexualities, as administrator of all of nature.

In the wrinkled waves of creation, Chen, a female spirit, emerged to prepare the conditions for the Mapuche, for humankind. Here, woman were the first human creations, and after men were given life to complement them. From the early times of creation there were also people that had both sexualities and those who were attracted to the same sexuality. Negin Chen was then appointed to be in charge of the spirits of the humans.

For the Mapuche, all of life followed a cyclical pattern: the wind and the sun orbited around the earth, allowing it to hover balanced in the vat of unnamed and characterless space. The human spirit too followed a cyclical pattern. There are four realms for the human soul, the first being earth, Nakmapu. After death, the soul travels to the next the realm, Puimapu, where it waits for the rest of its family before traveling to the third realm. Finally, in the fourth realm it is reunited with itself—for every human there are two hearts, two minds, and two souls. One part of this being is always waiting in the fourth realm. Once it is united, it chooses a new family and then is reincarnated as a new person in Nakmapu, the first realm of earth.

It is beautiful to see how these religious beliefs reflected and reinforced the traditional life of the Mapuche, who have always tied their identity to the earth, appreciating the land that they take from and give back to, a pattern of working the earth and then replenishing it. However, these traditional views and lifestyle have been radically altered given the forces of time and external influences. Now the conditions and life of the Mapuche tell a very different story.

The Mapuche compose 10 percent of the population of Chile, and 95 percent of them live below the national poverty line, with alarmingly high rates of alcoholism and inter-family violence. The Mapuche, although officially autonomous as their own nation, granted by the state of Chile, are still incredibly dependent on the state, which funds their schools and medical needs. Lamentably, there is a long history of conflict between the Mapuche and the state of Chile that has recently resurged in the past few years. For example, in 2011, there were a number of hunger strikes in protest to reclaiming land that had either been taken by the government or was corruptly sold in contracts that only benefited certain political leaders of the Mapuche communities.

Given this context, it was both sad and strange to witness the forces of globalization at work, but not yet complete. The home I stayed in did not have running water or plumbing, but there was a TV. The traditional language Mapundungun is spoken, but only by the elders, the grandparents. It is taught in many schools, but it is hard for the children to find value in it, given that they don’t speak it in their homes. Many of the traditional holidays have faded within the past couple of years, and their music replaced by Green Day and Red Hot Chili Peppers. As for their labor, many are still small farmers, although more and more are migrating to the cities, looking for better opportunities and an escape from poverty. When I asked my family about their aspirations for their son, they told me they hope that he’ll be a professional and work in Santiago.

All cultures change with time, but the goal of intercultural education is to preserve the values and many traditional aspects of the Mapuche lifestyle within a Chilean, and even an American, context. While there are many fruitful benefits from intercultural exchange, the goal of this curriculum and these schools is to instill a pride in their students for their own heritage. Chol Chol, the high school we visited, hopes that by graduation the students will be able to recognize what it means to be part of their own culture and the beauty that is also in cultures distinct from their own. While these schools dedicated to intercultural exchange are rare, there are clearly signs of success, in instilling pride for the Mapuche heritage. For example, I asked my younger brother if he knew how to do the cueca, the traditional dance of Chile. He looked at me and said “No, I am not Chilean. I am Mapuche. We are a different culture.”

While many traditional aspects of their culture are struggling for life, others remain very vibrant, and I am optimistic their revival given the potential of these schools dedicated to intercultural education for both the Mapuche and Chileans. I hope that the beautiful cycle can be re-bound, not in the same way it once was, but in a way that allows for intercultural dialogue and political decisions that respect the differences without repression.

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