Michael B. Keegan Traveling Fellowship
Part II: A Quick Taste of the Mapuche
January 16, 2008
With a last minute contact in hand, I made the decision to extend my stay in Chile a few extra days and go down south to the lakes district and learn more about a tribe of indigenous people in Chile, the Mapuche. Since I was in Argentina, I had been hearing of these people and the tragedies that had taken place, such as the effort by the Argentine government that had all but wiped them out that side of the Andes. Apparently, indigenous relations had been a little bit better with the Chilean government in the past, so there are more Mapuche living in Chile at this point. Though I had to get back to Santiago, then Buenos Aires, before making my way up through Brazil to catch my flight, I decided it was more than worth it to see what I could before I left Chile. I caught the next night bus to Temuco in the region Araucania, home of lakes, rivers, several still active volcanoes and a large number of Mapuche communities.
After settling into a family style hostel, sunny and homey—although painted a truly unfortunate shade of bright mint green—I went to meet my host for what would be a short but sweet Mapuche experience. Hernando Silvan is a young lawyer who has recently moved down to Temuco from Santiago, to work for the Observatorio de Derechos de Los Pueblos Indígenas. The office is an interdisciplinary and international team working with Mapuche from various communities to promote awareness about the culture and prevent the government from infringing on their rights. Hernando is working right now on a project to protect the Mapuche from the efforts of the Chilean government to take their land and resources to produce energy for the rest of the country. He was extremely knowledgeable not only about current issues facing the indigenous communities, but about the social and political history of the area. Having moved recently, he was also more than happy to show me around, invite me over for lunch and join me for a beer, which was nice to have in a new city where I knew no one.
The name Mapuche reflects the strong connection that these people have with their natural environment: mapu meaning earth or land and che meaning people. Until recently, the Mapuche have always lived off of the land, and constructed what they needed from it too. One of their main livelihoods is still participation in the large produce and artisan market in Temuco, where you can get everything from fruits and wooded carved goods to horsemeat, a traditional Mapuche delicacy (skipped that one). Following late 19th century military occupation, Temuco was known in Chile as La Frontera, or the border fort city in between the state of Chile and the Mapuche state, resulting in the continuation of Mapuche communities in the area around and south of there. However, there is a lot of inherent racism against the Mapuche that still plagues the city. Perhaps better off than in Argentina, the Mapuche here have survived a pretty rough political history in Chile nonetheless. While Salvador Allende’s socialist campaigns did advance the recuperation of indigenous lands, they did not recognize the indigenous people as more than individual farmers, weakening indigenous ties. Under the authoritarian rule of Augusto Pinochet, the Mapuche fought against the division of their lands once again, which at least served as a force for the people to unite. In 1993, the Indigenous Law was put in place to officially recognize the communities and begin a housing program for the indigenous people called “Origins”. As a result, the communities are now recognized by the government, though they still lack many fundamental rights and protections, and live in a manner far from tradition.
Chile, unfortunately for the Mapuche and the environment, does not have any sources of natural gas or petroleum, and as a result is heavily dependent on surrounding countries to meet energy demands. While Chile fortunately lacks the population of China, it has a similar admiration for and desire to emulate the capitalism and resulting consumerism of the United States. In the mountainous region of Liquiñe, Hernando’s office is helping to fight an uphill battle ever since the water rights for the Mapuche land were sold by the government to hydroelectric energy companies claiming to be producing sustainable energy. In fact the companies are destroying land occupied for centuries by the indigenous people, whose lives demand little energy input on a daily basis, to build hydroelectric plants to serve the needs of the state.
Traditionally, the Mapuche lived in constructions called rucas, which really only serve symbolic functions since the government housing program began. A ruca is a roughly rectangular building, rounded at the ends, that housed a family, anywhere from a few members to 30 people. The construction starts with the placement of the center posts (pilares), which provide a main support role and border the fogón, or large fire that always sits in the middle. In a roughly elliptical ring around the posts, supporting pillars are placed, then topped with beams, or vigas, to support the roof. The roof is constructed with bamboo like wood called coligue, slatted with wood to protect from rain and then insulated and protected with a thick layer of straw. The walls are usually filled in with wood slats covered in straw, though at times adobe or bricks. The single door was placed on the long side of the building facing east, to meet the sunrise. Hernando took me out to the entrance to the Maquehue community, made up of over 40 families living in modern government housing, where they were in the midst of constructing a ruca structure as a symbol of their culture and traditions. Around the half complete structure, banners had been hung to bring awareness to the grievances being done to the Mapuche and denouncing the government for its false promises.
In the afternoon, I went over to the Institute of Indigenous Studies hoping to get a bit more information. The Center is housed in a modern interpretation of a Mapuche ruca, built with adobe walls, a solid floor, and a more elaborate configuration of space, though utilizing the same roof with cross ventilation and a traditional entryway with the fire pit replaced by a sitting area for visitors. A man there specializing in Mapuche health practices, Rodrigo Contreras, kindly sat down with me and did he best to help me, although it really emphasized the fact that I did not have time to accomplish much. He said he could give me contacts in almost any Mapuche community in the area, though I did not have time to visit this trip. He also recommended that I spend some time in their library next door, where I ended up finding several books relating to the Mapuche building culture and how that could potentially influence modern design. One of the most interesting was a book written by an architect for the Public Works Department of the Chilean government entitled Guía de Diseño Arquitectónico Mapuche Para Edificios y Espacios Públicos. The book provided a history of the Mapuche and their building culture and recommended that in the wake of globalization, it would be important for Chilean identity and culture to look to their Mapuche roots. Interestingly enough, the woman there told me that there had been a girl from the United States in there the day before looking for the same thing, which was why the books were out on the table—but she did not have any more information than that!
In two days, I managed to meet some great people, learn a bit about the Mapuche and discover wonderful resources for the future. This includes the name and contact of an architect who has been working in the field of traditional architecture and cultural identity for years, and although we did not have the time to meet, we have made contact through email. Although I am far from ready to leave Chile, or South America for that matter, it is time to get to Brazil, where I will certainly run out of time as well, judging from the contacts I have already made. It is amazing how open and helpful people have been when I have arrived out of nowhere, introducing myself as a friend of a friend of a girl I once met…Next I’ll be testing how well that works in Africa.Photos: www.vanderbilt.edu/travelfellowship/feeney