Calling themselves the people (che) of the earth (Mapu), the Mapuche were, before the arrival of the Spanish in the sixteenth century, a loose confederation of tribal groups who lived exclusively on the Chilean side of the cordillera. The aspiring conquistadors knew them as Araucanos, and so feared their reputation as indomitable and resourceful warriors that they abandoned attempts to subjugate them and opted instead for a policy of containment. Encroachments into Araucania sparked a series of Mapuche migrations eastwards into territory that is now Argentina, and they soon became the dominant force in the whole region, their cultural and linguistic influence spreading far beyond their territories.
By the eighteenth century, four major Mapuche tribes had established territories in Argentina: the Picunche, or “the people of the north”, who lived near the arid cordillera in the far north of Neuquén; the Pehuenche, or “the people of the monkey puzzle trees”, dominant in the central cordillera; the Huilliche, or “the people of the south” of the southern cordillera region based around Lago Nahuel Huapi; and the Puelche, or “the people of the east”, who inhabited the river valleys of the steppe. These groups spoke different dialects of Mapudungun, a tongue that belongs to the Arawak group of languages. Lifestyles were based around nomadic hunter-gathering, rearing livestock and the cultivation of small plots around settlements of rucas (family homes that were thatched, usually with reeds). Communities were headed by a lonco, or cacique, but the “medicine-men”, or machis, also played an influential role.
The arrival of the Spanish influenced Mapuche culture most significantly with the introduction of horses and cattle. Horses enabled tribes to be vastly more mobile, and hunting techniques changed, with the Mapuche adopting their trademark lances in lieu of the bow and arrow. As importantly, the herds of wild horses and cattle that spread across the Argentine pampas became a vital trading commodity.
Relations between the Mapuche and the Hispanic criollos in both Chile and Argentina varied: periods of warfare and indigenous raids on white settlements were interspersed with times of relatively peaceful coexistence. By the end of the eighteenth century, the relationship had matured into a surprisingly symbiotic one, with the two groups meeting at joint parlamentos where grievances would be aired and terms of trade regulated. Tensions increased after Argentina gained its independence from Spain, and the Mapuche resisted a military campaign organized against them by the dictator Rosas in the early 1830s, but they were finally crushed by Roca’s Campaign of the Desert in 1879. Mapuche communities were split up and forcibly relocated onto reservations, often on marginal lands.
The Mapuche today
The Mapuche remain one of Argentina’s principal indigenous peoples, with a population of some forty thousand divided among communities dotted around the provinces of Buenos Aires, La Pampa, Chubut, Río Negro and, above all, Neuquén. Most families still earn their livelihood from mixed animal farming, but increasingly, Mapuche communities are embarking on tourist-related ventures. These include opening campsites; establishing points of sale for home-made cheese or artesanía such as their fine woven goods, distinctive silver jewellery, ceramics and woodcarvings; offering guided excursions; or receiving small tour groups. Mapuche culture is not as visibly distinct or politically active in Argentina as it is in Chile; nevertheless, the Mapuche are one of Argentina’s best-organized indigenous groups.