The Mapuche People

The Mapuche are an Amerindian people of the Araucan language family who inhabit various areas of central and southern Chile and western Argentina. Their name in quechua is ‘auca’ and in their own Araucan language they call themselves ‘Mapuche’ which means ‘people of the earth’.

Their language is called mapudungun, and has various dialects. The principal surviving Araucan peoples are the Picunche, Mapuche, Huillinche and Cunco. In the 16th century the Araucans lived in small settlements and survived exclusively by hunting and fishing. They scarcely practiced agriculture, cultivating only maize, potatoes, beans and calabashes.

Today, their main occupations are arable farming and cattle-raising. They are skilful craftsmen, making silver jewellery, saddles and saddlery of all kinds, and pottery, as well as weaving blankets and cloaks such as the traditional poncho. Some of them serve in the armed forces, as teachers or in politics.

For over 300 years the Araucans were involved in an interminable war in defence of their lands, expelling the Spaniards time and time again. Their capacity to resist began to weaken at the end of the 18th century; however they did not finally yield until 1881, after the pacification of La Araucanía by a Chilean armed force and the signature of a treaty in the town of Temuco. The first phase of their struggle against the Spanish conquistadors was immortalized in La Araucana (1569-1589), an epic poem which describes the feats of the mapuche chief Caupolicán and the araucan leader Lautaro, written by the Spanish soldier and poet Alonso de Ercilla y Zúñiga.

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