The Lake District’s most prevalent indigenous group, the Mapuche, originally came from Chilean territory. They resisted several attempts at subjugation by the Inca and fought against Spanish domination for nearly 300 years. Their move into Argentina began slowly. Chilean Mapuche were making frequent voyages across the Andes in search of trade as far back as the 17th century. Some chose to stay. In the 1880s the exodus became more pronounced as the Chilean government moved into Mapuche land, forcing them out.
Another theory for the widespread move is that, for the Mapuche, the puelmapu (eastern land) holds a special meaning, as it is believed that all good things (such as the sun) come from the east.
Apart from trade, the Mapuche (whose name means ‘people of the land’ in Mapudungun, their language) have traditionally survived as small-scale farmers and hunter-gatherers. There is no central government – each extended family has a lonko (chief) and in times of war families would unite to elect a toqui (axe-bearer) to lead them.
The role of the machi (shaman) was and still is an important one in Mapuche society. It is usually filled by a woman, whose responsibilities included performing ceremonies for curing diseases, warding off evil, dreamwork, and influencing weather, harvests and social interactions. The machi was also well schooled in the use of medicinal herbs but, as Mapuche access to land and general biodiversity in the region has decreased, this knowledge is being lost.
Estimates of how many Mapuche live in Argentina vary according to the source. The official census puts the number at around 300,000, while the Mapuche claim that the real figure is closer to 500,000.
Both in Chile and Argentina, the Mapuche live in humble circumstances in rural settings, or leave the land to find work in big cities. It is estimated that there are still 200,000 fluent Mapudungun speakers in Chile, where nominal efforts are made to revive the language in the education system. No such official program has been instituted in Argentina and, while exact numbers are not known, it is feared that the language here may soon become extinct.
Apart from loss of language, the greatest threat to Mapuche culture is the loss of land, a process that has been under way ever since their lands were ‘redistributed’ after the Conquest of the Desert and many Mapuche were relocated to reserves – often the lowest-quality land, without any spiritual significance to them. As with many indigenous peoples, the Mapuche have a special spiritual relationship with the land, believing that certain rocks, mountains, lakes and so on have a particular spiritual meaning.
Despite a relatively well-organized land-rights campaign, the relocation continues today, as Mapuche lands are routinely reassigned to large commercial interests in the oil, cattle and forestry industries. Defiant to the end, the Mapuche don’t look like fading away any time soon. They see their cultural survival as intrinsically linked to economic independence and Mapuche-owned and -operated businesses are scattered throughout the Lake District.