The Mapuche People

People of the Land

The Mapuche are Chile’s largest indigenous minority: with a population of around 1.3 million people, they account for almost 8% of the country’s inhabitants. Excluding a growing majority who has migrated to the cities to look for better living conditions and employment opportunities, they are located in the rural areas of South-Central Chile – La Araucanía, BíoBío and Los Lagos. They are grouped in five main Territorial Identities – Huenteche, Huilliche, Lafkenche, Nagche, Pehuenches – all of them sharing common social, cultural and economic arrangements.

The Mapuche patrilineal society is organized around the family, which constitutes the basic economic unit of production and consumption, as well as the main place for the transmission of traditional knowledge. Indeed, the latter is usually related to small-scale farming, food preparation, textile production and other forms of material culture, which are also the basis of the family’s economic activity.

Traditionally, families sharing common territories and ancestors made up a lof – now simply a community – under the direction of a lonko, both a political and a religious leader. Among his tasks is the organization of the ritual ceremony of the Nguillatun, led by the machi (spiritual guide) and aimed at asking for rain, fertility and good harvests. This ceremony is only one manifestation of a cosmovision which is deeply rooted in a spiritual and material equilibrium of men with nature, to be realized though the good management of forests, water, and land. The meaningful connection with the land is even testified by their own name, which indeed means “people of the land” in their native – still widely spoken – language of Mapudungun.


A Rich and Valuable Culture to Preserve

The different Mapuche communities have specialized in distinct artistic fields according to the respective natural resources available to them, enabling the examination of a craft item to reveal its place of origin and associated cultural background. They have become particularly famous for their artisan works. With their handmade metalwork, traditional textiles, and pottery they have gained a widespread reputation, including the repeated award of the “Seal of Excellence for Handicrafts” of the Chilean World Craft Council Committee, and in 2012 the nomination for the UNESCO “Award of Excellence for Handicrafts.

Their agricultural products are similarly impressing. They are made from regional and seasonal ingredients based on purely organic production practices, avoiding chemical fertilizer, and using very low levels of agricultural modernization. Treated with traditional techniques and tools, these ingredients are then further processed for gastronomic and medical purposes, or for use as natural cosmetics.

Mapuche entrepreneurs depend hugely on these goods as they are the basis of their own consumption, as well as their small scale commercial practices through which they earn an additional livelihood. When contemplating their trading activities one can discover deeply interwoven traits of solidarity and sustainability, which are again a typical characteristic of their culture.

In the Mapuche economy, cultural value is incorporated in the pursuit of “Küme Felen” – the concept of good life – as the rationale of all actions, and defined as the balance between people and their social, cultural, ecological and cosmological environment. Moreover, their religion is rooted on the relation with their native forests, biological reserves, glacial lakes, lagoons, rivers, streams, hot spring, and volcanos. This natural endowment allows for a variety of outdoor activities including hiking, rafting, and angling to name but a few. During winter the slopes of some volcanoes even offer the possibility of winter sports.

This cultural and ecological wealth has an immense potential that could help Mapuche communities to ameliorate their difficult economic situation. However, the high costs of electricity, inadequate infrastructure endowments, together with the increasing pollution and water scarcity, the severe lack of financial resources and educational opportunities, have made it difficult for Mapuche communities to harness the possibilities inherent to their culture that could eventually offer a way out of their economic vulnerability.