In­dige­nous cul­ture of Ma­puche thriv­ing both in Chile and abroad


Nes­tled be­tween high-rise build­ings on a busy street in Chile’s mod­ern cap­i­tal is a straw hut that’s a sign of grow­ing re­spect for the An­dean coun­try’s long-dis­dained in­dige­nous past.

Ail­ing pa­tients, many re­ferred by a hos­pi­tal across the street, line up to see the Ma­puche herbal­ist in­side as part of a gov­ern­ment ini­tia­tive to in­cor­po­rate pre-His­panic knowl­edge into Chile’s public health sys­tem.

Ma­puche cul­ture, long looked down upon in Chile, is slowly be­com­ing chic.

“I’m not Ma­puche but I be­lieve in their cul­ture,” said Elba Soto, 56, who of­ten comes to the ruka — a tra­di­tional Ma­puche thatched home — look­ing for herbs and oint­ments to ease the pain in her bones. “And I love all of it.”

The ge­o­met­ri­cal de­signs of the Ma­puche have made their way into fash­ion shows from New York to Paris, their food is in­spir­ing high-end cui­sine and pop­u­lar singer Ana Ti­joux waves the mul­ti­col­ored Ma­puche flag dur­ing her con­certs and raps about their strug­gle in her Gram­mynom­i­nated al­bums. Tele­vi­sion sta­tions even com­pete for rat­ings with shows about the coun­try’s largest in­dige­nous group.

“The Ma­puche to­day are not just folk­lore. The Ma­puche to­day are a cul­tural icon and a pop-cul­tural icon,” said Pe­dro Cayuqueo, a Ma­puche au­thor and host of “KulMapu,” a pop­u­lar TV show pro­fil­ing ev­ery­thing Ma­puche that is broad­cast on CNN Chile. “It makes peo­ple in rock, film and gas­tron­omy be­come in­ter­ested and stop look­ing at the Ma­puche in a pa­ter­nal­is­tic way, but as some­thing that’s cool.”

The Ma­puche, a name that means “peo­ple of the land” in their orig­i­nal lan­guage, re­sisted in­vaders for cen­turies — first the mighty In­can em­pire, then the Span­ish con­quis­ta­dors who ar­rived five cen­turies ago in the area now known as Chile.

Treaties Set and Broke

The Ma­puche ul­ti­mately won treaties with the Chilean state rec­og­niz­ing their right to ev­ery­thing south of the Bio Bio river, or roughly the en­tire south­ern half of the long, thin coun­try.

But in the late 19th cen­tury, a new wave of Euro­pean set­tlers ar­rived, and the treaties were bro­ken, with Ma­puche lands seized in vi­o­lent takeovers. The sur­vivors were pushed to the fringes of set­tled lands.

To­day, most of the more than 1 mil­lion Ma­puche live in San­ti­ago’s metropoli­tan area and in their an­ces­tral home in south­cen­tral Arau­ca­nia, the coun­try’s poor­est re­gion.

As group, they are far poorer and less ed­u­cated than other Chileans, more prone to suf­fer ill­ness, malnutrition and dis­crim­i­na­tion.

Even with the re­turn of some lands in re­cent decades, the Ma­puche hold a small frac­tion of what they con­trolled un­til the late 19th cen­tury.

A rad­i­cal fac­tion of the Ma­puche in Arau­ca­nia has oc­cu­pied and burned farms and lum­ber trucks to de­mand the re­turn of lands. Po­lice have been ac­cused of vi­o­lent abuses, in­clud­ing storm­ing into Ma­puche homes dur­ing raids and shoot­ing rub­ber bul­lets in­dis­crim­i­nately at women and chil­dren.

While most Chileans, and most Ma­puche, re­ject the vi­o­lence, the con­flict has drawn at­ten­tion to in­dige­nous de­mands and in­ter­est in their cul­ture.

Cayuqueo said young Ma­puche are cu­ri­ous about ex­plor­ing their roots and no longer deny their ori­gins the way their an­ces­tors did to avoid dis­crim­i­na­tion.

Author­i­ties in Chile also are tak­ing some steps to en­cour­age the cul­ture of na­tive peo­ples. Last month, the gov­ern­ment hosted the first tour­na­ment of in­dige­nous soc­cer play­ers from all over Latin Amer­ica. This month, it launched a pi­lot pro­gram to train pro­fes­sors to teach the orig­i­nal Ma­puche tongue, Ma­pudun­gun, which is still spo­ken by many.

At the hut in San­ti­ago, herbal­ist Natalia Ojeda Hueitra said she sees im­prove­ment in how Ma­puches are treated.

“Be­fore there was a lot of dis­crim­i­na­tion, lots of peo­ple look­ing down at us and many saw the Ma­puche as the low- est of the low,” said Hueitra, who wears the tra­di­tional “trapelacucha,” a large sil­ver col­lar that spreads to the chest. “Not any­more. To­day, it’s about em­pow­er­ment.”

You’ll find Ma­puche in­flu­ence on the menu at Bor­ago res­tau­rant, re­cently named in the pres­ti­gious San Pel­le­grino World’s 50 Best Restau­rants list. It em­ploys tra­di­tional cook­ing meth­ods, such cook­ing in the ground with live em­bers, and uses in­gre­di­ents such as maqui, a berry that comes from a tree that is sa­cred to the in­dige­nous group.

‘The con­tin­u­a­tion of the Ma­puche’

“We’re cook­ing the na­tive cui­sine of Chile.” said Rodolfo Guz­man, Bor­ago’s chef and owner. “We’re the con­tin­u­a­tion of the Ma­puche.”

VOZ, a New York fash­ion de­sign com­pany, works with Ma­puche ar­ti­sans in Chile and sells their hand-wo­ven de­signs as far away as Asia and the Mid­dle East. They’ve been dis­played in Los An­ge­les and Paris and dur­ing New York Fash­ion Week.

The Ma­puche work “is so beau­ti­ful and so ex­pertly crafted,” said VOZ founder Jas­mine Aarons. “And the sto­ries that the Ma­puche ar­ti­sans tell in their art­work is so pow­er­ful, like their cul­ture.”

Chilean state tele­vi­sion re­cently be­gan broad­cast­ing a his­tor­i­cal drama called “Be­sieged: The Other Side of the Con­quest,” which fo­cuses on the bat­tle of Cu­ral­aba in 1598, a fa­mous vic­tory by the Ma­puche against Span­ish col­o­niz­ers. The show has been so pop­u­lar that some lo­cal crit­ics re­fer to it as the Ma­puche “Game of Thrones.”


Ma­puche healer Natalia Ojeda Hueitra, poses for a photo, in San­ti­ago, Chile, Wed­nes­day, July 29.

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