The Mapuche People 1
In the bottom of the sea lived a big snake calle CAI CAI. It ruled the water
and told it to start covering the Earth. TEN TEN, another snake as powerful
as CAI CAI, lived on top of the mountains. It told the Mapuches to climb the
mountains when the water started to rise, but many Mapuches died in the attempt
and turned into fish. The water went on growing and the Mapuches wore pitchers
on their heads to protect themselves from the rain and the sun. They said CAI
CAI CAI and answered TEN TEN TEN. They made sacrifices until the water calmed
down. Those who saved their lives came down from the mountains and lived on
the Earth. This is the way the Mapuches were born.
In the VI century, the ancestors of the Mapuches settled in the lake area. They
were small groups who lived mainly on hunting and gathering. They also cultivated
potatoes in small lots. These settlements went from the river Maullín
in Chile to the province of Neuquén in Argentina. When the Spaniards
came, the MAPUCHES (the people of the land) lived in the region between the
rivers Itata and Tolt‚n. The PICUNCHES ( the people from the North) and the
HUILICHES (the people from the South) shared their language. The Mapuche language
was spoken from the river Choapa in the North to Chilo‚ in the South. This region
was called Arauco by the conquerors, and their inhabitants Araucanians. Nevertheless,
even today they call themselves Mapuches.
Due to the Spanish persecution and the atraction of wild cattle, the Mapuches
started migrating to Argentina in the XVII century. They gradually settled on
the region formed by the provinces of San Luis, south of Córdoba, La
Pampa, Neuquén and Buenos Aires. This migration came to an end during
the military outpost at the end of the XIX century. Then they settled on the
South of the river Limay. This massive income of Mapuches into Argentina brought
about a considerable change for native cultures and for themselves. A long process
of crossbreeding and cultural exchange gave origin to the present peasant population
in the provinces of Neuquén, Río Negro and Chubut.
The environment of the Mapuches in Chile was apt for a small scale agriculture.
They cultivated maize, potatoes, beans, quinoa, marrows, peppers and other vegetables.
To enrich their diet, they gathered wild plants, hunted, breeded llamas and
other minor cattle in the North, and those who lived on the coast fished and
When they came to Argentina, the Mapuches kept practising agriculture and traditional
manufactures, mainly in the North of Neuqu‚n. Everyday utensiles were made of
wood. Their jewels, leather works and textures are outstanding. These activities
together with cattle breeding were their basic resources. At the end of the
XVIII century, the Mapuches controlled cattle rustling to Chile from the humid
pampa through the paths in Neuqu‚n. Since loose cattle gradually disappeared
and the white frontier expanded, the aborigines started to capture cattle in
farms. These 'malones' became their main resource.
Their social organization was based in the family. Several families gathered
in lineages related by masculine descendance. They settled in the same region
and had a territory for agriculture, gathering and cattle breeding. When the
territory became small, some of the men migrated with their families to form
a new lineage. As generations passed, blood kinship dissipated, but they maintained
the memory of a common mythical ancestor in their common name.. It could be
an animal, like Nahuel, the tiger, Filu, the snake, or ¥ancu, the eaglet,
or it could be an element in Nature, like Antú, the sun, or Cur, the
rock. Relatives shared this kinship name.
The oldest man was the chief (TOKI). He distributed riches in ceremonies and
executed power during war. With the incoming of the Mapuches to Argentina, the
old social organization was modified. Because of the war against white men and
the frequent 'malones', the power of the Toki grew and became permanent. In
the XIX century, they formed "Big Congregations" and controlled enormous territories
with the support of minor chiefs and leaders.
In ancient times, polyginy was allowed when the man could afford to buy several
brides. Men and women could get married as long as they belonged to different
lineages. The new couple settled in the husband's dwelling.
In each couple, although the woman is submitted to the husband's authority,
she is economically independent. She posseses her own garden lot and animals
and these can only be sold under her consent. She is also the owner of pottery
and woven products. These labours are exclusively femenine, as well as household
tasks and the breeding of children. The Mapuche mother gives birth at home,
helped by midwives. The father does not help in the delivery, but he has to
bury the placenta in a distant place. Soon after birth, the parents give a name
to the new child, but the kinship name is only given at the age of five in a
ritual called LAKUTUN.
"The baby's craddle is kept against a wall in the house. The baby stands in
the craddle and can see the mother as well as all the people going around in
If it is sleeping, they put the craddle on the bedstead. In case it cries, they
swing the craddle or drag it around so that the baby calms down. If it goes
on crying, the mother takes the baby together with the craddle and nurses it.
This is the way aboriginal offsprings are brought up." From Recollections of
a Mapuche Chief, by Pascual Coña.
The traditional Mapuche dwelling or RUCA is a big wooden hut with a thatched
roof, for one family. Before the Spanish harassment, rukas were far from one
another, but war made them gather in small villages sorrounded by a protective
foss or palisade.
When the Mapuches settled in the pampa, they adopted the Tehuelche tent, except
for permanent settlements, where they maintained their traditional dwelling.
DRESS AND ORNAMENTS
In ancient times, men wore the CHAMAL, a rectangular piece of woolen cloth covering
the body from the chest down and secured at the waist by a belt. The arms were
covered by another piece of cloth. Women wore the QUIPAN, similar to men's chamal.
It was a rectangular woven cloth pinned over one shoulder while leaving the
other bare and secured at the waist by a belt. It reached from the chest to
the feet. A shawl pinned at the breast by a silver TUPU covered their shoulders.
Women wore silver ornaments, specially for festivities. Men in general wore
no ornaments, except old chiefs, who sometimes wore a crown.
THE MAPUCHE COSMOS
According to the Mapuche, the cosmos is divided into seven levels overlapped
in space. The four upper platforms are inhabited by deities, ancestors and benefical
spirits. There is a platform for evil between the terrestrial and the four benefical
ones, where the WECUFE or malefical spirits live. On the earthly platform, the
land of the Mapuches, good and evil strengths affect human behaviour. The last
underground platform is the residence of dwarf evil men called CAFTRACHE.