For a long time in Chile, it has been difficult to insist upon the specific idea of Mapuche literature. The obstacle was not engaging in a complex discussion about the very concept of “literature” among our people, which would imply throwing oneself over the edge and learning from a different conception of the world. On the contrary, the difficulty was that the imaginative and political place of Mapuche literature had been subsumed into fields of scientific research, or its prolific existence had been displaced to the margins of Chilean literature, as one branch of that official corpus. This denied the possibility of Mapuche enunciation and, thus, of Mapuche writing.
These conditions extend to the diverse creations of other peoples who have also suffered the dispossession of their epistemes and ways of life. Considering this context, the Ayuujk/Mixe linguist and writer Yásnaya Aguilar has noted that “the internal linguistic diversity of countries destroys the idea that they are comprised of only one nation, with a glorious shared past and a single tongue.”1 This situation has resulted in the strengthening of a singular account that establishes itself as law, in the face of an immensity of tongues and narratives that have been concealed.
In this way, Mapuche literature was envisioned as a classification that could also be synonymous with other categories, and not as the experience of a people that is also in the present tense. Just as the poet and researcher Maribel Mora Curriao mentions in her prologue to Kümedungun/Kümewirin. Antología poética de mujeres mapuche (siglos XX-XXI), in which she discusses the study and compilation of literary creations by indigenous peoples: “the complexity lies in the fact that these peoples are living peoples who are not located in a remote past, nor do they remain static for and as a result of the daguerreotype or the writing of scholars from other times.”2
There is an apparent difficulty in understanding the multiplicity of horizons in these territories, as if we did not share a diverse array of histories, struggles, and aspects of daily life. For each time that we are visible as Mapuche, we have to constantly justify and explain our origin. By reaffirming our existence, we signal that we are not part of an immobilized past, but rather, to a large extent, we are creating pathways that transform, just like those of any other peoples. When we refer to a realm where there are still constant colonial violences that deny not only our existence but also our rights, to speak of “Mapuche literature” is not an aesthetic whim or a stylistic category: it is a way by which our people continue to exist in relation to multiple temporalities, not as past utopias or historical idealizations but as complex testimonies in all of their contradictions.
It is also common to reiterate the absence of writing in Mapuche culture, and that idea has cemented a conception steeped in prejudice and ignorance. For that idea does not include the vast trajectory of written or intermediated texts, compiled through the present day. Nor does it recognize a genealogy that has drawn upon orality as the power that allows Mapudungun to endure, as the poet Elicura Chihuailaf declared with the concept of “Oralitura” or “Oraliterature.” These tools are just as present in ülkantun/songs, nütram/conversations-recollections, wewpitun/stories, or in the various other works that comprise the literature of the Mapuche people.
Fundamental research projects have established a genealogy of the literature of the Mapuche people and the emergence of writing as a political task since numerous works were gathered in both Ngulumapu and in Puelmapu3 at the end of the nineteenth century and during the twentieth century. On this matter, it is impossible not to refer to the context of dispossession that gives rise to the indigenous social transformations that have taken place since the establishment of republics and their colonial structures, given that the institution of these ran parallel to the military enterprises and extermination tactics that were established under the enactment of the occupation. Therefore, when we speak of the creation and recording of these diverse works, we cannot set aside the consequences and vicissitudes that our people had to face.
Nevertheless, these materials and their heterogeneity today shine forth and call us together through the word of our ancestors. This exercise does not imply carving a path toward a certain origin without contradictions. Nor does it mean obtaining a sole response when faced with Mapuche thought and its creation. For within the existence of a people there are diverse hues, and it is precisely these mixtures and these threads or fibers that we are interested in gathering as burning vestiges in order to also weave a future of recuperation. In these tracks and traces, we arrive at the series of writings published in Revista Anales de la Universidad de Chile and Estudios Araucanos between 1895 and 1896 by Rodolfo Lenz, whose studies would come to inspire later ones, such as those by the Capuchin missionaries Fray Félix José de Augusta and Ernesto Wilhelm de Moesbach.
Lenz does not abandon the positivist vision of wanting to investigate a people that he believed to be on the verge of extinction, given that hierarchical expressions regarding the subject being studied or the so-called “informant” still took precedence. However, beyond his scientific rigor or his pejorative gaze, there was an inaugural event in the speech that he gave in 1897, which, given the context of the work and the field of study, makes this moment particularly rare. What occurs is an affirmation of a Mapuche literature, something that, until that moment, had been completely unheard of:
Although many chroniclers of the Arauco Wars speak to us of the songs and poems of the Indians of Chile, although we know that the art of the orator is highly esteemed among them, not a single document from past centuries has been preserved that gives us an example of Araucanian literature. And until now, it had never even been suspected that this group of people had popular literature!4
It is to these studies and writings that we return today in order to read them through the filter of the present, to continue reconstructing the roots that comprise our rakiduam/thought and transform our gaze when faced with these writings, to once again make them prismatic in their uses so that they can arrive at the shores of other readings, bodies, and territories.
One of the key aspects of Lenz’s studies is that, in conjunction with the categories that he analyzes, he tries to compare Mapuche literature to the materials that he had or was familiar with from other countries. He establishes a wide array of genres for the diverse productions and observes a mixture of styles. He also takes note of a sort of disguise as a tactic of reappropriation and transformation that promoted an imaginative/reflexive perspective in certain creations. Just as Mapuche culture adapted to new materials and customs, so too did it rewrite—or rather, unsettle—the original narrative, just as it did with the animals, foods, and metals introduced with colonization. Although Lenz read this aspect in the register of colonization’s civilizing capacity, we can today understand it as an imaginative power that is inseparable from thought itself: “this group of people has transformed foreign literature [. . .] they not only have possessed a particular literature in which they have conserved their ancient myths, but they also have perfectly assimilated all of the treasures of popular literature.”5
Even though Lenz’s work was important and tireless, we cannot think about this project without the authorships and compilations of those who previously appeared as informants. Because there is no Mapuche literature without the labor of Kallfün, Juan Amasa, Antonio Kiñenaw, Benito Nagin Transao, Domingo Kintupüray, among many others whose names we may never come to know. Among these authors, the one who provided extensive material and collaboration was Kallfün, who received great praise from Lenz for his intellectual capacities, which strengthened Lenz’s investigative work. Part of his autobiography shows us the importance of strengthening literature as a tool and understanding it in relation to listening, as part of literature’s task of collectively bearing witness:
I paid careful attention to words, because of that I know how to write [. . .] Because I had paid attention to words, I heard what people were going around saying; I heard it, because of that I became knowledgeable; people tell each other stories, because of that I know how to tell stories.6
Literary practices coexist in different forms of production and time periods, transforming and experimenting with their aesthetics ever since there has been a record of them. Because of this, literature is a living element that relates to all of Mapuche being, from its presence in a Rogativa Mapuche or ancestral ceremony, in a playful action, or in the plot of a witral. Its forms have been created and memorized across this ample territory, with all its flows and diasporas.
Today, there is not only one place of reading. We confront the textiles and we weave and unweave the fabric of voices, vestiges, and temporalities of which we also form part. Let’s demand to exist in that multiplicity of textures that constitutes us as a people, let’s keep tracking luminous traces as a means of memory and resistance, but also of entertainment. Let’s be capable of listening to an ül as thought, reading a poem as a political act, writing knowing that we are part of a complex common, as lamngen Liliana Ancalao reminds us:
To be an originary Mapuche poet is to be a researcher, historian, anthropologist, semiologist, linguist, celebrant. Heaven help us, now that the lamngen place within us images of their memories, histories of their families, reports of abuses! Heaven help us, now that the rivers are watching us to see how we translate them into words!7
1. Yásnara Aguilar, Ruperta Bautista, and Gloria Anzaldúa, Lo lingüístico es político (Valencia-Chiapas: Ediciones OnA, 2019), 63.↩
2. Maribel Mora and Fernanda Moraga, ed., Kümedungun/Kümewirin. Antología poética de mujeres mapuche (siglos XX-XXI), (Santiago: LOM Ediciones, 2011), 6.↩
3. Ngulumapu corresponds to the territory situated to the west of Wallmapu (the Mapuche territory) and Puelmapu corresponds to its eastern territory.↩
4. Rodolfo Lenz, Estudios Araucanos, materiales para el estudio de la lengua, la literatura i las costumbres de los indios mapuche o araucanos (Santiago: Imprenta Cervantes, 1895-1897), 18.↩
5. Rodolfo Lenz, Estudios Araucanos, materiales para el estudio de la lengua, la literatura i las costumbres de los indios mapuche o araucanos (Santiago: Imprenta Cervantes, 1895-1897), 277.↩
6. Rodolfo Lenz, Estudios Araucanos, materiales para el estudio de la lengua, la literatura i las costumbres de los indios mapuche o araucanos (Santiago: Imprenta Cervantes, 1895-1897), 138.↩
7. Liliana Ancalao, Resuello (Madrid: Editorial Marisma, 2018), 60.↩
Unless otherwise noted, translations of cited text are by this essay’s translator.
Copyright © 2023 by Daniela Catrileo. Translation © 2023 by Edith Adams. All rights reserved.
To learn more about Mapuche writing, read Liliana Ancalao’s conversation with Elisa Taber: “Living Words: An Introduction to Five Contemporary Mapuche Texts.”