Redefining the Contours of Chilean Nationalism

Every Thursday evening I find myself in the attic of an old building in the center of Temuco. After a day baking in the sun, the attic is stuffy and the twenty or so people in the room are sweating, fidgeting with various papers, sending text messages, and lightly discussing the events of the past week. Everyone is here to partake in the Mapuzugun course offered by the Kolectivo We Newen. On the first day of the course our instructor, or Kimeltuchefe, asked us to go around and explain why we signed up for the class. The majority of the participants are Mapuche whose parents refused to teach them Mapuzugun as a way to remove the stigma of barbarity, and most recently terrorism that mainstream Chilean society has attached to Mapuche culture. The vast majority of the students take the class as a means to reassert and reclaim their cultural heritage in a society that promotes mono-culturalism, despite claims to the otherwise.

The recuperation and promulgation of Mapuzugun is part of a larger project by some parts of the heterogeneous Mapuche community to redefine the contours of state authority and nationalism in Chile’s ninth and tenth regions. On February 22, a march in Temuco called for Mapuzugun to be the official language of the ninth region. The organizers of the march demanded that Mapuzugun should not only be the official language, but that TV programs, educational materials, and bus terminals should be bilingual, while local governments should rename offensive streets and plaza names. What is at stake, however, in the process of recuperating Mapuzugun and the move to make it the official language of the Araucanía region?

One of the primary goals is to redefine Chile as pluri-national rather than multicultural. Multiculturalism is the term the Chilean government has used to define the nation since the 1990s. Anthropologist Charles Hales notes that in response to the political weight Latin American indigenous movements had in the 1980s, and particularly the 1990s, governments throughout the region reformulated their constitutions to recognize nations as “multicultural.” Under this often-menacing stance, governments “proactively endorse a substantive, if limited, version of indigenous cultural rights, as a means to resolve their own problems and advance their own political agendas.”[1] The agenda that Latin American states have generally upheld through the pre-emptive support for limited cultural rights has been neoliberalism. In essence, various Latin American governments have recognized cultural diversity as long as it does not threaten larger national goals of economic and political expansion. The politics of multiculturalism have ushered in a new era of the “indio permitido.”  Intentionally using a derogatory term to highlight paternalistic racism, Charles Hale and Mapuche scholar Rosamel Millaman argue “indios permitidos” are only those indigenous groups that support the neoliberal economic policies of the nation-state. It is within the context of the “indio-permitido” that a new good/bad Mapuche binary arose in the 1990s that continues to define the limits of acceptable Mapuche behavior within the Chilean nation.

The idea of a menacing multiculturalism came into play under the governments of the Concertación following the 1990 return to democracy. Before the 1989 Nueva Imeprial agreement that gave Mapuche support for future president Patricio Aylwin, the center-left coalition, or Concertación, issued a statement that took into account the diversity of indigenous cultural issues in Chile long ignored by the dictatorship of Pinochet. The Concertación produced a document titled “La Concertación de los Partidos por la Democracia a los Pueblos indígenas” that outlined the coalition’s dedication to supporting the diversity in indigenous demands. The most significant aspect of the document was the promise to create the Corporación Nacional de Desarrollo Indígena CONADI. The document stated that CONADI would be a decentralized organ of the Chilean government with local representatives for all of Chile’s indigenous groups. The central goal of CONADI was to grant constitutional recognition and protection for indigenous lands, education, and resources.[2]

Unfortunately, the Concertación failed to effectively implement these more representative and inclusive policies. When the Concertación enacted the 1993 Indigenous Law that legally created CONADI, the lawmakers eliminated many key aspects of the 1989 agreement, ultimately weakening the efficacy of the legislation. In particular, the Concertación removed the section that permitted indigenous participation in negotiating “private sector investments projects directly affecting” indigenous groups and their lands.[3] The ILO’s Convention 169 protected these rights, and their removal signified the Concertación commitment to neoliberal economic policies in Chile. Moreover, a substitution clause within the 1993 Indigenous Law allowed CONADI to relocate Mapuche communities to pieces of land they deemed to be equal in worth. In practice, CONADI used the substitution clause to remove the Mapuche from profitable lands that they later sold to private industries for a higher price.[4] Much like laws under Pinochet, the Concertación used the substitution clause to support neoliberal economic policies at the expense of the Mapuche. For more on the shortcomings of this piece of legislation see anything written by José Aylwin, Eduardo Mella Seguel, or Martín Corea.

The unwillingness of the Concertación to protect Mapuche lands and cultural rights came to a head between 1996 and 1998. As the 1990s came to a close, the Mapuche increasingly became depicted as a subversive group antithetical to Chilean unity. In an effort to root out international terrorism, the Chilean national government initiated raids on Mapuche communities where they noted they had confiscated “subversive materials.” Among the materials that the Chilean army confiscated were traditional musical instruments and ceremonial objects. The media also depicted the actions of the Mapuche as a violent guerilla movement, once again associating the Mapuche with a racial other who threatened the health of the Chilean family. [5] During the administration of Ricardo Lagos in the early twenty-first century, the Chilean government began to use the anti-terrorist law created under Pinochet to persecute Mapuche communities who protested the expansion of private corporations. Under this law, the Chilean government can suspend Mapuche constitutional rights, try community members in military courts, detain Mapuche indefinitely, and use anonymous witnesses, all for acts against private corporations.

Many Mapuche community leaders argue that pluri-nationalism provides a solution to the limits of multiculturalism that have led to continued raids and acts of violence in Mapuche communities. Under pluri-nationalism the Chilean state would recognize “Indigenous territoriality, organization, education, culture, medicine, and judicial systems.” The Lafkenche, or Mapuche communities residing on or near the pacific coast, have made the most gains in redefining regional autonomy in Chile. In 2008, Law 20.249, or the “Lafkenche law,” guaranteed state protection and recognition of the Lafkenche’s rights to ancestral costal lands, in accordance with the ILO’s Convention 169. Recently Lafkenche communities have taken an active role in designing a costal highway to ensure the project does not affect Mapuche access natural resources, or contaminate sacred landscapes essential to cultural reproduction. Of particular concern is that the highway does not come too close to Cerro Oncol, which not only holds a number of important natural resources, but is also part of the sacred landscape of local Mapuche communities. Currently, however, the Chilean government is threatening to overturn the Lefkenche law to appease international salmon businesses. This move ultimately demonstrates the willingness of the Chilean government to deny pluri-national projects to ensure a homogenous political, cultural, and economic model for Chile. For more on current issues in Wallmapu see

The move to recuperate Mapuzugun and promote regional autonomy is a push against the shortcomings of multiculturalism, and an attempt to redefine the role of Mapuche cultural claims and heritage before a Chilean nation that see them as inherently hostile and antithetical to national progress.


[1] Charles Hale, “Does Multiculturalism Menace? Governance, Cultural Rights and the Politics of Identity in Guatemala,” Journal of Latin American Studies, vo. 34, no. 3 (Aug, 2003): 488.

[2] “La Concertación de los Partidos por la Democracia a los Pueblos indígenas” Nutram: Edición Especial, 5 (1989): 8-9.

[3] Diane Haughney, Neoliberal economics, Democratic Transition, and Mapuche Demands for rights in Chile Tallahassee: University of Florida Press, 2006), 78-79.

[4] Martín Correa and Eduardo Mella. Las Razones del Illkun/ Enojo: Memoria, Despojo y Criminalización en el Territorio Mapuche de Malleco (Santiago de Chile: LOM Ediciones, 2010), 207.

[5] Correa and Mella. Las Razones del Illkun/ Enojo, 217-219, 234-248.

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