The Mapuche is a group of indigenous people living in the southern as well as some central parts of Chile. Considered the biggest ethnic group in the country today, the Mapuche is said to make up around 4% of Chile’s population. The Mapuche can also be found in the southwestern areas of Argentina. The name Mapuche is a combination of two words: “Mapu” meaning land or earth and “che” meaning people. The language of Mapuche is called Mapudungun (also referred to as Mapudungu, Mapuzugun or Araucanian). “Mapu” means land and “dungun,” speech.
Although Mapudungun is part of the elementary curriculum in some schools around Temuco in Chile, the Mapudungun language belongs to a list of languages threatened by extinction. At present, Mapuche children are more exposed to Spanish than Mapudungun. The use of Mapudungun in some elementary schools is seen only as token support by the Chilean government.
In Chile, the Mapuche are considered lower class. Both the government and the church continue to implement strategies to assimilate this ethnic group into Chilean society. Their efforts in the past were not entirely successful. During the time of Chilean leader Pinochet, much of the Mapuche lands were privatized then sold to rich land owners and foreigners. New laws were introduced by Pinochet. He declared at one point that "there are no indigenous people in Chile, only Chileans." Those who lost their lands migrated to urbanized cities leaving with them their culture and their language behind. Many had problems finding employment. Those who did were mostly paid a lower wage compared to their Chilean counterparts. Some of the Mapuche who moved to the cities adopted Chilean names partly so they don’t pass on their Mapuche name to their children. This they did to give themselves and their children a chance to go up the social ladder.
Succeeding governments have enacted new laws to protect, promote and develop indigenous groups in Chile. The Indigenous Act was established as well as the Corporación Nacional de Desarollo Indígena or the CONADI. The task of the CONADI (a state authority composed of Chilean representatives as well as representatives of indigenous groups) is to make certain that the indigenous people’s cultural development is “protected, provided and respected.” Finally, Chile recognized that their society is indeed comprised of different ethnic groups.
The Mapuche people are constantly at odds with the governments of both Chile and Argentina. According to the Mapuche, the Chilean government continues to trample on their indigenous rights. The history of racial and political tension between Chilean authorities and Mapuche activists is long and hard. Land disputes continue up to this day and Mapuche activists are not backing down.
Although many still speak Mapudungun today, tomorrow, it may be a different story. There are less than a million Mapudungun speakers at the moment. Some studies say even less than 500,000. It will be a great loss to the people of Mapuche if their language continues to be unprotected and not promoted in the truest sense within their ethnic community and beyond. The Mapuche language is tied to their identity and their culture. The constant conflict over lands and the Mapuche’s indigenous rights in Chile and Argentina may one day result in the demise of Mapudungun.
A side note for movie trivia buffs: Stephenie Meyer, author of the popular Twilight Saga books, included two characters in her series from the Mapuche tribe. These two characters are Nahuel and Huilen, both human/vampire hybrids.