The only Native American country, the Mapuche Nation

The only Native American country, the Mapuche Nation

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During colonization, several different Spanish settlements on Mapuche land were overrun by the Mapuche and destroyed


MONTGOMERY VILLAGE, Md., June 26, 2011 – In 1995 I visited the city of Concepción in Chile, on business with local officials. This is the second-largest city in the country and sits along the Pacific coast at the confluence of the Bio Bio River. It was founded in 1550 by Pedro de Valdivia.

By its foundation date, it rates fairly late in the Spanish conquest of the Americas. Cities like Bogotá, Quito, Guayaquil, Cartagena and others were founded anywhere from 15 to 30 years before. One of the reasons for this late date was the war that raged for decades (actually a state of semi-war went on and on, to last about 350 years) between the invading Spaniards and the local Mapuche tribes of the area south of the Bio Bio River. For decades after its founding, the Spanish city was taken and destroyed by the Mapuche repeatedly. It has also been the victim of earth quakes and tsunamis over the years. However, each time, the city was rebuilt, and today it is still thriving.

My hotel room had a view of a small plaza with the statue of a person in the middle. I found out during a walk through the center of the city that the statue was of Alonso de Ercilla y Zúñiga. This man played a key role in the battles between the Spanish and the Mapuche. He also wrote an epic poem, “La Araucana”, chronicling these battles.

The day after discovering this, my work group drove to several paper mills in the area. On the drive, the host official expanded on Ercilla’s role in the war against the Mapuche. He also mentioned that the Mapuche had actually formed an independent sovereign nation in the South of Chile. He stated it was the only such Native American country ever to officially exist as such alongside the European-based ones. In contrast, other pre-Columbian Indian nations such as in the US existed later only on reservations, once European-based governments took over.

Alonso was one of the very few noble Spaniards (as opposed to commoners) that came to the new world during the Conquest period. He was the closest thing to a Renaissance man that the conquest produced. He was much esteemed as a warrior, a tactician, and an intellectual. His presence in the New World threatened other highly-placed Spanish conquerors and Alonso was jailed. He came close to being executed, and was finally deported back to Spain.

The Spanish came to the new world with clear goals. They came to possess lands and riches in the name of the king, and to disseminate the Catholic religion among the native tribes.

The lands south of Perú did not offer obvious mineral riches, and the powers-that-be on the Iberian Peninsula soon realized that the only option for these lands would be colonization. This was made difficult by the active opposition of the Mapuche. During colonization, several different Spanish settlements on Mapuche land were overrun by the Mapuche and destroyed. The land that is today northern Chile became mostly a military garrison engaged in constant warfare with the local Native American tribes, especially those south of the Bio Bio River. This was very costly to the Spanish crown without returning any significant monetary rewards in the form or gold or other minerals.

In 1641 the Spanish crown and the Mapuche nation signed a peace treaty that conceded the lands south of the Bio Bio to the latter. This treaty functionally conceded the Southern cone of South America to the Mapuche. For the next 2+ centuries there was a risky peace between the Native Americans and the Spanish, Creole and mestizo populations – in what is today Northern Chile. A similar situation developed in what is today Argentina.

During the first two decades of the 19th century unrest prevailed in the Spanish colonies in the new world. Taking advantage of the usurpation of the Spanish throne by the French in the person of Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother Joseph, the colonies declared independence from European power.

Chile declared independence from Spain on September 18, 1810. After an effort by Spain/France to recover the colonies, Chile finally obtained independence in 1821 when the Spanish forces were expelled from its land. Curiously, the leader of the independence movement was Bernardo O’Higgins – a Chilean of Irish descent and the son of a Spanish Viceroy.

For 39 years the boundary dividing the new liberated Chile and the Mapuche remained in place and the treaty conceding the land in the south to the Mapuche was ratified by both Chile and Argentina.

In 1860 the Mapuche nation headed by the troika of Lonkos Kilapan of Gulumapu, Kalfucura of Puelmapu, and Orélie-Antoine de Tounens (a naturalized Mapuche), established a constitutional monarchy on their lands in the Southern Cone of South America. This nation was recognized by several European nations and was for all practical purposes an independent sovereign nation. This new nation was a legitimate free country as recognized by International treaties.

In 1862 the Chilean and Argentinean governments started a war of genocide against the Mapuche nation in violation of International treaties. These treaties included the original one, and one ratified during the years of independence by both Chile and Argentina. The encounters were very bloody and one sided, with Chile and Argentinean forces using superior weapons and having the advantage of numbers. No country in the world came to the aid of the Mapuche Nation. Chile and Argentina finally prevailed in 1885, ending the Mapuche nation as an independent country.

Typical of the rhetoric used during the conflict is an example of a speech given in Argentina by a top, “liberal”, intellectual, Argentina Domingo Faustino Sarmiento. He was president of Argentina (1868 – 1874) during the campaign against the Mapuche. He addressed his enemies as “asquerosos” a word that doesn’t have a direct English translation but comes close to “dirty animals”. He also called for hanging them wherever they appeared. He didn’t see any reason to pity them and was himself partially responsible for the frequent omission of any mention of the Mapuche nation in history books thereafter.

In my trips to Chile I did notice that the treatment of the Mapuche was not proper. I saw evidence in a subway car, noticing that most of the Chileans had moved to one end of the car, while a Mapuche family was at the other end. When I questioned one of my Chilean colleagues about this he told me that the Mapuche “…smelled bad and were all thieves.” My impression was that the Mapuche are treated like second class citizens in their own land. This was reinforced by newspaper accounts I read while there.


Follow Mario on Twitter @chibcharus, Google+, LinkedIn and Facebook (Mario Salazar).

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