26 ene 2010

Aboriginal Peoples: A Comparative Analysis Between North and South America

This class has certainly taught me a lot about Aboriginal people’s conscience. I realize that even though I came from a country with Aboriginal peoples, I did not know very much about them. Because of this, I did some personal research about this subject and then I thought that it will be a good idea to compare it with some of the Aboriginal peoples we have studied in this curse. In Chile, there still exits around eight Aboriginal peoples. Most of them only represent a 0.01% of the population. I assume that this was the reason I did not know much about them with the exception of the Mapuche (In Spanish they are known as mapuches or araucanos; araucano was the name given by the Spanish in the colonial period ). The Mapuche, one of the indigenous inhabitants of Central and Southern Chile and Southern Argentina, represents the 4% of the population. This is the indigenous peoples I would like to comment and compare with the Aboriginal peoples of Canada.

Certainly, after my first reading of Aboriginal Peoples and Canada’s Conscience by Russel Barsh, there was a constant feeling of déjà vu going through my mind. It was as though I had met those arguments before, and in fact, I had. It is striking how so many similarities can be found between Canadian ambivalence towards Aboriginal peoples and the ambivalence towards the Aboriginal peoples of Chile. Canada and Chile are the northernmost and the southernmost countries of the American continent, yet I will attempt to prove the similar treatment that the Aboriginal peoples of Canada and Chile have received throughout the last centuries.

Just as in contemporary Canada, the Mapuche question is still open in Chilean society and the Mapuche feel quite neglected by the central government. Today this is called the Mapuche Conflict. They request for more autonomy and the devolution of their lands. The public opinion is quite indifferent though, and little progress has been made in the last two centuries. They still are at the bottom of the society. Only in this last decade there have been some small gestures from the government towards the restitution of their Aboriginal status. Many Mapuche organizations seek similar rights as those gained by the Inuit people in Canada, the recognition of indigenous peoples in the constitution, and recognition of autonomous regional administrations and languages as in Spain.

Numerous incidents such as land occupations and demonstrations have occurred in Araucania, the region where most of the Mapuche live. Over the last decades, their ancestral territories have been taken by multinationals, and their forests have been destroyed. Throughout history, the Mapuche were known for being a warrior tribe, in fact, the conquistadores never managed to occupy their territory. It was finally taken in 1883 by the Chilean army. Today, their reaction about this has also been violent in some cases which have caused many conflicts and deaths in the region.

However, just as in Canada, the aboriginal element is at the heart of the Chilean identity. This ambivalence is in fact very similar to the one that Barsh described. There is a extract on this article which it could be easily applied to the Mapuche and Chile: “Many of the national symbols are Aboriginal handycrafts […] Images of Aboriginal peoples still dominate Canada’s souvenir market; ‘Native aesthetics serves as a resource pool for Canadian Identity”. In Chile, souvenirs with native handicrafts are sold everywhere, theatres, streets and even cities are named after famous Mapuche heroes from La Araucana.

La Araucana is an epic poem written in 1556 by the Spanish poet Alonso de Ercilla y Zúñiga. Ercilla went to Chile in the 1540s and participates in the campaign against the Mapuche for some years. Back in Madrid, he wrote an epic poem of 30.000 lines which has become the national poem of Chile. The poem has inspired the future generations of poets in Chile and even Pablo Neruda recognizes his influence.

However, this work also helped to create this ambivalent relationship with the Mapuche. This can be exemplified with an event that it happened towards the end of the Nineteenth Century.

“La última batalla de las guerras de Arauco, librada en 1883, culminó con la derrota de los indígenas […] Entre los vencedores de la jornada aparece el nombre de "Caupolicán". No se trata, evidentemente, del célebre héroe araucano, ni tampoco de algún jefe mapuche que descendiera de él, sino de un batallón del ejército de la República de Chile, […] El batallón "Caupolicán" no era, ni mucho menos, el único cuerpo armado chileno bautizado en homenaje a los héroes del poema de Ercilla.” (Castillo Sandoval 1995)

At this time the Chilean government was also talking aggressive measures towards the Mapuche (this actually happened around the same time that the Canadian government was taking Aboriginals kids away from home to boarding schools). The Government led a series of military actions to incorporate that territory to the Republic. It was known as the "The Pacification of Araucanía" (Today known as the Occupation of Araucanía).

The conclusions I have reached are in fact very similar to the ones we came up in our practical exercise about multiculturalism. This is a very complex situation just as it is in the United States and Canada. I think that many of the Canadian measures should be imitated in my country and many others. I think the fundamental question is about respect and also about acknowledging the wounds from the past.

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© Pablo Camus
Maira Gall