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The brighter side of the indigenous renaissance

The brighter side of the indigenous renaissance (Part 1)

Guillaume Boccara

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1This paper explores the ways in which Mapuche1 public thinkers (intellectuals, activists, artists) who live in Chile have been deploying transnational political and epistemological strategies in order to thwart state internal colonialism and the liberalization pressures exercised by the global economy. Drawing on several examples of recent Mapuche knowledge production, cultural innovation and political action, I shall focus on indigenous peoples' attempts at denationalizing Chilean and Argentinean histories and re-signifying their homeland within a supranational space. I shall examine how Pan-Mapuche activism (i.e. new forms of knowledge production and organizing transnational mobilization) contributes to create Mapucheness, that is, a renovated indigenous consciousness and a standardized indigenous culture within a redemarcated indigenous territory.

2In order to do so, I shall highlight the critical role mapping, painting and writing are playing in the de-colonizing and re-appropriating of space and time2. Looking at the territory both as possession and conceptualization of space3, I shall emphasize that Mapuche people's struggle for the recuperation of their land and reactivation/reinvention of their territoriality takes place both at a material and symbolic level. I shall focus on the extent to which representation actually works as enactment as well as performative utterance. I shall show that the indigenous intellectuals' radical critic of the nation-state paradigm and response to global capitalism develop through a double dynamic of transnationalizing / renationalizing and deterritorializing / reterritorializing. Throughout this paper, the concept of Wallmapu (wall: whole, mapu: land or country, i.e. Mapuche territory sensu lato) will be given special attention because of its significance as a critical notion in the re-building of indigenous peoples' nationality, polity and cultural nationalism within the transnational scene. We shall see how land as the cornerstone of former «Araucanian» agrarian agenda has been given way to concern with territory or Wallmapu as the central project of Pan-Mapuche Activism.

3In the first section of this article I will examine how, by means of mapping, Mapuche intellectuals have been contesting the nation-state centric perspective and the naturalized geographies of Chile and Argentina. I will present how indigenous cartographers have been symbolically taken over national territories through the rewriting and indigenizing of toponyms. In the second section of this work, I shall analyze the ways indigenous painting and writing contribute to the imagining of an alternative (Alter and Native) vision of the universe and the humanity that contrasts with the commodified version of land and human resources put forward by the culture of neoliberalism. In the third section of this essay, I shall focus on the critical role the production of Mapuche news has been playing in the construction of the Wallmapu as political unit and I shall finally give some insight on the Mapuche transnational symbolic politics through direct action.

1/ Denaturalizing national geography

4As far as Spanish colonial sources recorded it, conquistadors and colonizers had always conceived of the Andes as the eastern natural border of what came to be called the kingdom of Chile. Stunned by the immensity of this chain of mountains and unable to grasp the specific geopolitical and cultural realities of the New World's southern confines, the Spaniards hastily erected the Andes as an impregnable wall. Directly connected with this early perception was the representation of Chile as a long and narrow land stuck between the Pacific Ocean and the majestic Cordillera. This spatial representation, product of the colonial chroniclers' and officials' accounts4, persisted during the early republican period (1810-1880) through the newly freed Creoles' diplomatic work, historical production and geographical inquiries5. On the other side of the mountain, in the Río de la Plata Gobernación, the dynamic was similar in many points6. Even though during most of the sixteenth century the inhabitants of the Buenos Aires jurisdiction looked northward at Asunción del Paraguay, they rapidly fixed their gaze on the southern border. The Straight of Magellan and the gigantic Pampas and Patagonia that gives way to the snow-capped mountains of the Andes thus became the natural southwestern limits of the Argentinean land. Nineteenth century diplomatic negotiations and legal controversies between the young Chilean and Argentinean states regarding the delimitation of their national territories definitely stabilized the Andes as a natural border. Needless to say, indigenous populations were not invited to join this great «butcher business». Conceived of as part of the wilderness that needed to be tamed as well as barbarians who were to be civilized or eliminated, the indigenous peoples were excluded, both de facto and de jure, from this process of territorialization of the Chilean and Argentinean nations. Even though there were still at that time sovereign peoples living within unconquered territories, they were evicted from the political and legal scenes before being smashed through military conquest.

5The idea according to which the Andes were and had always been a natural political and cultural border had become so evident to twentieth-century Chilean and Argentinean people, that the diffusion of the first indigenous maps contesting this representational order either came as a shock or was not taken very seriously. Uncovering the sociohistorical arbitrariness of the inculcation of this nationalistic geopolitical arbitrary, recent Mapuche cartography offers indeed an alternative view of the southern confines. Building on academic ethnological and historical research as well as on elders' testimonies and memories, it stresses the existence of indigenous networks that crisscrossed the Araucanía, the Pampas and northern Patagonia7. It also emphasizes the existence of a transcontinental pan-Mapuche web that used to articulate both sides of the Andes through multiple political, economical and matrimonial alliances. According to this alternative view of the Southern Cone, there was no other limit to the indigenous territory but the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. But there is more. For some of these new cartographers and topographers went far beyond what cautious ethno-historians had been able to reconstruct regarding the formation of indigenous web as a consequence of Spanish conquest and Creole colonization. For some maps not only reestablish connections between both sides of the Andes. They also considerably reduce the height of the so-called impregnable wall and, in some cases, erase it. The Andes are missing from at least two recent maps published by indigenous communication agencies (Maps 1 & 2).

Map 1 (Azkintuwe, Mapuche Magazine)

Map 1 (Azkintuwe, Mapuche Magazine)

Map 2

6The flattening of the Andes produces a powerful effect by pointing to the existence of an indigenous continuum. It contributes to create an indigenous territory without roughness, cracks or obstacles. Looking at this part of the world from this particular perspective of a kind «fantastic Mapuche land» has at least a triple impact. First of all, it gives indigenous peoples a sense of the power and wealth they had and of what they have been deprived of. Second of all, by opening up to a transnational vision of the world, it allows people to stop «seeing like a nation-state». It offers an opportunity to realize that the nation-state centric perspective penetrates people's mind through the imposition of a double arbitrary, namely: the arbitrary of the inculcation and the inculcation of the arbitrary. Last but not least, it shows to what extent geography is a political move or, in other words, a continuation of war by other means.

7Besides redrawing and erasing part of the Chilean and Argentinean national borders through the demarcating of indigenous territory, those new cartographers cut across internal administrative districts. According to the Nag-Che map (Map 3), Mapuche territory embraces the Araucanía in its entirety as well as part of the eighth and tenth regions. The Lafkenche representation of their traditional territory (Map 4) stretches from the eighth to the tenth regions of Chile. As for the one published by the Mapuche Magazine Azkintuwe (Map 1), it embraces or claims part of nothing less than six out of thirteen Chilean regions and eight out of twenty-three Argentinean provinces.

Map 3 (Map elaborated by the Nag-Che Territorial Entity)

Map 3 (Map elaborated by the Nag-Che Territorial Entity)

Map 4 (Map elaborated by the Lafkenche Territorial Entity)

8Marking the boundaries of a Mapuche ancestral territory of approximately 380,000 square miles represents undoubtedly a radical (as well as hazardous) political statement. It aims at calling into question the authoritativeness of national geographies that have systematically swept aside the indigenous presence and agency. It is thus unsurprising that besides delineating the (real or imaginary) former Mapuche territory indigenous cartographers have also been undertaking a complete overhaul of the Chilean and Argentinean toponymy. According to them, the spelling of towns and places as defined and ratified by the very official State Borders and Frontiers Institute of Chile and Geographical and Military Institute of Argentina shows a complete lack of understanding of Mapuche culture and language. Hence the necessity to correct those (political) «mistakes». Hispanized Indigenous toponyms recover their Mapuche phonetics and meaning as, for instance, in the case of the Argentinean town of Bariloche that becomes Furi-lof-che. In other cases, Mapuche toponyms are substituted for Creole ones. An emblematic example is the town of General Roca in the Río Negro Province that Mapuche people now called Fisku Menuko. Sometimes, it is the Spanish spelling that is rectified. Temuco, the capital of the ninth region of Chile, systematically appears as Temuko in Mapuche publications. This straightening out of maps' toponyms is conceived of as an operation of de-colonizing. The "K" in Temuko stands chiefly as a political statement. Even though by pointing to the common misspelling of Mapuche words indigenous intellectuals evoke valid linguistic reasons, we know that there is more than just a question of phonetics and semantics in this spelling issue. For by re-writing the whole map, indigenous peoples are re-signifying it and by the same token taking it over. Just like, in the early 1980s, they started to regain control of their history and fate by publicly rejecting the heteronym Araucanian as well as the derogatory term «Indian», insisting on being called by their real ethnonym, namely: Mapuche. This re-indigenizing of spaces and places appears to be crucial for, as I already mentioned above, territory functions both as possession and conceptualization. Therefore, the arts of indigenous resistance and the production of counter-hegemonic geographies are made out of innumerable acts of symbolic rebellion. Those maps, as alternative narratives, work both as political statements and performative utterances. They not only seek to describe and delineate the shape and size of Mapuche territory but also to do things. They are conceived of as intellectuals and political weapons to be disseminated and incorporated into peoples' mental geography. They are meant to play a critical role in the re-creation and resurgence of those invisibilized and silenced Americas. Insofar as social struggles are also struggles of representations, this new indigenous cartography locates itself at the core of the building of an alternative representational machine.

9But there is more. For indigenous intellectuals are not only redrawing Chilean and Argentinean maps, flattening the Andes and correcting common misspelling. They are also putting indigenous labels on those new indigenous territories. Let us take a look at a recent paper by Mapuche historian and activist Victor Naguil that condenses the latest Mapuche knowledge production regarding this particular aspect. Significantly entitled Ta iñ kizügunewün Wallmapu (Self-determination in our Country), this political essay on Mapuche autonomy includes a thorough description of Mapuche Territory8. According to Naguil's geopolitical vision, the Mapuche homeland (País Mapuche or Wallmapu) stretches from Chile's south central regions to Argentina's Pampas and North Patagonia. Wallmapu is made out of two parts, Naguil argues: the Ngulumapu or East side, presently occupied by Chile, and the Puelmapu or West side, occupied by Argentina. He thus refers to the existence of two sections within the Ngulumapu, namely: the southern part called Futahuillimapu, home of the Mapuche-Huilliche people, and the central part inhabited by the Mapuche people properly speaking. But there is more. For, according to Naguil, there is a Mapuche Diaspora that dwells in big cities. Indeed, 74% of the Mapuche population is urban and thus lives out of its historical territory. In order to reinforce the demographic weight of the indigenous peoples in the Wallmapu, this Mapuche Diaspora should go back to its roots, Naguil goes on arguing. He even proposes the creation of an office for returnees that would facilitate and foster the return of around 250,000 persons to the cradle of Mapuche civilization. Regarding the process of re-signifying of places and spaces, Naguil emphasizes the fact that it is indispensable to revitalize Mapuche toponymy. Besides obliterating Argentina and Chile when referring to the Wallmapu, Ngulumapu and Puelmapu, Naguil systematically changes Spanish toponyms. Seeking to re-appropriate, by his discourse, the Mapuche territory that had been confiscated by the Chilean and Argentinean nation-states since late nineteenth-century indigenous defeats, Naguil is obviously highly aware of the weigh of the words. Therefore, the process of semantic re-appropriating appears as an indispensable move towards political and administrative appropriation9. Insofar as there is an intimate relation between writing, territoriality and colonization10, it not surprising that Mapuche people are re-baptizing places and spaces. Looking at national territorial conceptions not as true representations of territory but as instrument of power, control and colonization, Naguil and other indigenous intellectuals set in movement a powerful cultural and political critic of the nation-state centric perspective. Like other indigenous activists, Mapuche intellectuals, fully aware of the power of naming, contest the representation of Mapuche in national culture and imagine a Mapuche-centric geography11. Just as the Incas had their Cuzco and the Mexica their Tenochtitlan, the Mapuche people, long considered as a «people without history and culture», now have their Wallmapu. Adapting Mignolo's idea, I would say that Indigenous peoples' maps are performances of de-colonization12. They represent a heliocentric revolution in the Clastresian sense of the term13. Therefore, by denaturalizing national geographies, the Mapuche intellectual production on historical presence and geographic specificity has had a powerful impact on domestic struggles.

10 With reference to that matter, I would add that the denaturalizing of national territorial divisions and borders is concomitant with a process of indigenous space renaturalizing. In recent Mapuche documentation, Wallmapu often appears as though it had always been out there. Insofar as Chilean and Argentinean national cartography has always been silent about Mapuche territorial conceptualizations and assumes that it is not maps that create territorial divisions but nature itself14, indigenous intellectuals have been constrained to produce an alternative knowledge that emphasizes spatial continuities, flattens geographical obstacles, and freezes indigenous geopolitics. Since Creole states' legal and political claim to indigenous resources and lands has been based on a doctrine of uninhabited territory15, indigenous intellectuals have had to document and display the historical existence and presence in radical and essentialist terms.  In order both to counteract national and international amnesia and to build a new national imaginary and agenda, some indigenous intellectuals have indulged in naturalized representations of their country. In other words, and adapting anthropologists A. Gupta and J. Ferguson idea, I would say that in many cases Wallmapu functions «more as a narrative device than as an objectively-present historical truth»16. It both creates boundedness and produced a coherent setting for the Mapuche transnational community-to-come.

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1 The Mapuche people, better known in colonial documentation as «Araucanians», are famous for their military resistance to the Spanish conquest. Upon the arrival of the Europeans, the Reche (which is the proper ethnonym) inhabited the central and south-central part of Chile between the Aconcagua River to the north and the Chiloé Archipelago to the south. Given the impossibility of conquering the Reche by force, the colonial authority implemented two fundamental devices that contributed to the formation of the frontier zone around the Bío-Bío River - the mission and the parlamento or political meeting during which treaties were signed. This colonial pact was to last until the early nineteenth century. During this first period of contact, the Mapuche society experienced a whole process of restructuring through the adoption of the horse, the concentration of political structures, the re-organization of the economic sphere around trade in the frontiers post, raids in the Chilean and Argentinean estancias, cattle breeding, and the extension towards the Argentinean Pampas. From the time Chile gained its independence from Spain (1810-1818), the relationship between the still sovereign Mapuche people and Creole authority started to change dramatically. After a period of so-called spontaneous colonization by foreign migrants (1840-1860) and after having decreed through multiple laws that the Mapuche lands were from then on part and parcel of the national territory, the Chilean state eventually undertook the so-called «pacification of Araucanía» (1860-1884). The defeat of the Mapuche people at the end of the nineteenth century opened a new era in their history and relationship with the Wingka (non-Mapuche people). In the wake of the Mapuche defeat, the indigenous territorial and sociopolitical organization were dismantled and their lands greatly reduced. Between 1884 and 1927, around 3,000 reservations that represented approximately 500,000 hectares were created in south-center Chile. From that date on, one of the goals of the successive Chilean governments would be to divide the communal lands to fully integrate the Mapuche into Chilean society. It was the military junta (1973-1990) that eventually put an end to the reservation system. The return of democracy in 1990 seemed to open up a new era in the relationship between the Chilean State and the indigenous peoples. In 1993, after two years of harsh negotiations, a new Indigenous Law (19.253) was voted that recognized the existence of cultural pluralism within the national territory and established the basis for the social participation of «Chilean ethnic groups». Between 1994 and 2002, more than 170,000 hectares of lands were incorporated into the Mapuche patrimony through legal transfer. After a series of regional meetings called the «Communal Dialogues» were held in 1999 between members of the government and indigenous peoples, a special $ 133 million ethnodevelopment program called Orígenes was set up that aimed at «better integrate the rural indigenous communities» (Programa Orígenes, Finally, as part of the Chilean State new indigenism, a Truth and New Deal Commission (hereafter TNDC) was created in 2001.There are currently between 700,000 and 1million Mapuche People in Chile and approximately 100,000 Mapuche People in Argentina.
2 In his now classical book on the European colonization of indigenous languages, memories and space, Walter Mignolo explores «the distinctive role that writing and mapping played in the colonization of space» (1995: 283). Here, I shall fundamentally address the relationship between discourse and power from the perspective of indigenous peoples' acts of resistance.
3 Mignolo, op. cit.: 332-333.
4 See Lacoste 2003: 75-79 and 115-126.
5 See Lacoste 199-206.
6 See Lacoste 78, 265-275
7 On this particular topic see the works of the following scholars: Martha Bechis, José Bengoa, Guillaume Boccara, Kristine Jones, Leonardo León, Raúl Mandrini, and Sara Ortelli.
8 Naguil 2005a. In the second part of his paper on Mapuche Selfdetermination, Naguil (2005b) proceeds to a complete revision of the Chilean toponyms: Kollerewe is substituted for Padre Las Casas, Chollcholl for Cholchol, Traytrayko for Nueva Imperial, Ralko for Alto Bíobío, Mayulafken for Villarrica, Pukon for Pucón, Mariküna for Mariquina, Kurarewe for Curarehue, Mewin for Mehuin, Likanray for Licanray, Longkoche for Loncoche, and Konarüpü for Coñaripe.
9 Mignolo, op. cit.: 288.
10 Mignolo, op. cit.: 291.
11 See Warren, 1998, chap. 7. As in other parts of the Americas, the Indian rights movement appears to be «struggling for linguistic, historical and aesthetic recognition, asserting the right to control their own names» (Brysk 2000: 62).
12 Mignolo, op. cit.: 313.
13 Clastres 1989.
14 Mignolo, op. cit.: 285.
15 Brysk 2000: 61
16 Quoted by Kearney 1995: 556.
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Table des illustrations

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Titre Map 1 (Azkintuwe, Mapuche Magazine)
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Titre Map 3 (Map elaborated by the Nag-Che Territorial Entity)
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Guillaume Boccara, « The brighter side of the indigenous renaissance (Part 1) »Nuevo Mundo Mundos Nuevos [En ligne], Débats, mis en ligne le 16 juin 2006, consulté le 08 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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