Three days among the Mapuche in Chile

Author:Van Laethem Benjamin , Belgium
Photos are taken by Van Laethem Benjamin
The article is the 3th prize winner of the Mladiinfo Article Contest 2012

It was in the end of March , a chain of acquaintances who I have met during my travel brought me there. I’m still half sleeping in my room, yet I can hear a huge bustle outside. In that moment I preferred to stay in my bed, firstly because it’s around 5 a.m. and secondly because the members of the community are killing a horse to feed themselves and the hosts during the following days. I would prefer avoiding this scene and enjoying better my meals later.

Today, it is the preparation day. We are going to load the trucks and cars with all the needed materials. Later on we are going to prepare by hand all the ‘kofke’ we need. ‘Kofke’ is the local name for the handmade little bread, which every family is making almost everyday to fill its household. The representative families of the community and I will collect a huge amount of branches in order to make sheds around the ceremony place. These sheds will be our living place

for the three days of the ceremony. Each shed is held by a family and each family is responsible for it. Every family is also taking care for the invited hosts. The shelters are placed around a circle of little trees, where in the middle of the trees is situated a totem, the ‘Rehue’. The ‘Rehue’ is a pole of few meters high, which is cut as a ladder shape, in order to make the connection between the physical and spiritual world. Around the sheds, there is a huge path of trodden earth, which is- I will discover it later- made by horses.

I’m in Chile in the ‘Araucanian’ region between Santiago and the Land of Fire. I’m there to make my thesis in anthropology about the local family farmers (‘mini-foundo’). My thesis is about the difference between the Mapuche, the local indigenous people, and the Chileans who have came with the migration. I would like to see the differences inside the agriculture, the commercialization and the consumption between those two peoples. I do not know how, but I have given to myself, with the help of what I can call now friends, the opportunity to participate to a Mapuche ritual called ‘Guillatun’. Although the friends who have invited me here have described me the ceremony, it would have still been a mystery to me. I have the chance to be one of the hosts, because some community opened their “Guillatun” to the tourists, while others not. In this case the only requirement they asked me is not to take picture.

The ceremony takes place in the end of the ‘Cordillera’, the mountain chain, in a village on the border with Argentina and the singing accent of one part of the people around me is proving it. The name of the village is ‘Icalma’ and the ceremony is at few kilometers of that village in the middle of the araucaria trees, a symbol of nature for the Mapuche living in that area. For this occasion they have cut a little tree to put next to the ‘Rehue’, as I will experience myself this tree is the core element of the next days.

I feel that it’s time for me to wake up, time for me to eat the ‘sopaipas’ (little fried bread) prepared in the morning by my hosts. I helped as much as I could to finish the last preparations and then we will go to the ceremony place. We are one of the first families, but little by little the families and hosts arrive.

Unfortunately one the main responsible/accountable person, who is the legal local representative of the community, the ‘lonco’ could not come for health problem, I discover during my different interviews that usually the ‘loncos’ are part of the old generation and their inter-action with the different state programs using modern way of communication as Internet, using a very specific administrative and bureaucratic method is difficult, deriving of that a difficult communication coupled with a high controversial historic issue concerning the land; the resulted situation is in some case explosive. The ceremony starts only tomorrow, but people are there, because the first ‘rogativa’ the first ritual to begin the ‘Guillatun’ starts before the sun shines or in this case, before 6 a.m. Personally, I prefer to sleep outside in good company and with a sky full of stars and avoid waking up around 5 a.m. in order to be there on time.

It’s now around, all the participants are gathering for an introduction speech in ‘Mapudungun’, local language, they try to reborn the tradition among young people, notably by the mix education (Mapuche language and Spanish). Someone will translate the speech a bit latter, it reminds to everyone the purpose of the ‘Guillatun’. The ceremony starts by an impressive stampede of about thirty horsemans going around the sheds, shouting in a cloud of dust accompanied by the traditional ‘Trutruka’, which is a very high trumpet. The purpose of this so called ‘Awün’ is to define the space of the ceremony, and keep away the malicious spirits. I could not ask without looking no respect-ful but the woman who manage this first introduction is I think a ‘Machi’, a local ‘witch’ who helps and treats people, who dispense the local medicine and is the head of the local spiritual life.

I did not expect it, but after this little earthquake created by the horses, the people are inviting me for the main event that I ignore totally . But I’m here to try and enjoy as much as possible, everything they are readyto propose me. It’s still dark, the temperature is around 10°C, there is frozen wet mist (not countable), and they ask me to dress as a rhea…Why a rhea? According to the local legend this animal was presented in the area (or at least in the area were the Mapuche were leaving because they have migrated due the Spanish colonization), and it had an important role in the everyday life as in the symbolic and ritual life.

Then I’m in underwear, with a thick colorful blanket around my waist until my knees, I have another blanket fixed to my back waist, representing the tail of the animal, I have blue mark on my legs, representing the legs of the animal, I have on my chest the symbol of the Mapuche people, which is a circle divided in four equal pieces, each lines finished when it touches the circle like a three. Each piece of the circle represents the Earth’s surface, the “Meli Witran Mapu” (the four cardinal points), each symbol, in each Earth’s surface represents a symbol; the sun, moon and stars, which are the universal symbols of wisdom. In my head I have a hat with feathers and to represent the wings with the animal I have a large colorful duvet on my shoulders and arms. We are equipped with a belt with large bells in it, each step I’m doing is accompanied by the bells sound to rhythm the dance.

We are five dancers for this first dance, I’m the third position, but since I have never seen how to practice I try as much as I can to do the same move as the person in front of me; without any doubt I look stupid, and clumsy. After making a series of breaks and detours, we are getting close of the ‘Rehue’, we start to make circle around it and we are dancing what should look like the dance of the rhea. We are accompanied in our dance by two kind of instruments, first the ‘Trutruka’ and secondly the ‘Cultrún’, the ‘Cultrún’ is in its shape a simple drum, but has for the Mapuche a strong spiritual power, it is used for all the significant moments of the everyday life; it is then normal than today it is used during almost all the period of the ceremony. During my stay over there, I have been sick for some days; the chief of the family, try with his ‘Cultrun’ to heal me. Believe it or not I was better after that.

The dance is an activity only for men, but the women are there to support by their sings, in the local language, relating the history of the culture Mapuche, the dance of the man. The dance lasts for lore than one hour, I finish exhausted. After the performance the dancers get some ‘Mudai’ a fermented drink based on the ‘Pinon’ (fruit of the araucaria three) prepared some days ago. The taste is very bitten but it fed well.

For the ‘Almuerzo’, as for all the dishes during these days (breakfast included) we are getting some rips of the horse, (the one I have already spoken about). To get along with that meat we receive some “Cazuela” soup of vegetable. One important other element of that ceremony is the “yerba mate” a kind of infusion of herbs coming from Argentina and Brazil used in almost all Latin America. This infusion is used in all the moment of socialization, I can measure my integration by seeing if people are proposing to me to join them for a ‘mate’ or not. The ceremony will last like this 3 days, 3 days during which I will live inside this ephemera community, during which I will meet a lot of new people, I will again dance two times.

4 thoughts on “Three days among the Mapuche in Chile

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