Chile’s Mapuche population continues the centuries-long struggle against colonial violence and the insistence that “we are all Chilean.”
Saturday marked the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People. In the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s futile rhetoric, “The interests of the indigenous people must be part of the new development agenda in order for it to succeed … Together, let us recognize and celebrate the valuable and distinctive identities of indigenous people around the world. Let us work even harder to empower them and support their aspirations.”
As in all imperialist discourse, the U.N. continues to impose external, hegemonic interpretations and decisions upon indigenous communities in a manner that derides any possibility of forthcoming recognition.
The imperialist concept of empowerment never moves beyond a conglomeration of redundant statements emphasizing the obvious, with the intention of allowing violent historical processes to continue unobstructed.
Circumventing the ramifications of subjugation and land appropriation allows governments and the U.N. to promote further oblivion, thus diverting attention away from the conditions that created indigenous resistance against colonial and neoliberal violence, as in the case of the Mapuche, the indigenous people of Chile.
In 2007, Mapuche leader Aucán Huilcamán stated, “There are three factors which determine the activities of human rights defenders in Chile. The first relates to the judicial doctrine of denial which the Chilean state has established against the Mapuche community; the second refers to the policy of criminalization of the movement for collective rights; and the third is the government’s failure to comply with international legislation and to adhere to recommendations outlined by human rights mechanisms.”
Huilcamán’s statement provides a departure point for discussing the main culprits behind the deterioration of indigenous rights: impunity and oblivion. While the Mapuche struggle against colonization, the years of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship and the alleged democratic era commencing with the Concertación governments have contributed to the marginalization and criminalization of Mapuche resistance.
Speaking of oppressive historical vestiges, therefore, undermines the perfected violence that the Mapuche have endured since their resistance against Spanish colonialism started in 1541 — resistance that eventually resulted in recognition of Mapuche territory. Furthermore, this allowed the population to reconstruct the dynamics of resilience against subsequent governments that marginalized the indigenous population. Following the declared independence of the Chilean state, the colonization of Mapuche territory through land purchase and expropriation led to the so-called “Pacification of Araucania” between 1860 and 1865, which, in reality, constituted a genocide of the indigenous population.
The reservations incarcerating Mapuche communities were a step toward attempting restriction and assimilation of the indigenous population, thus eliminating any references to territorial reclamation.
Additionally, Pinochet’s brutal, U.S.-backed military dictatorship went a step further in the attempt to obliterate references to the indigenous population. While Salvador Allende’s government embarked upon the restoration of Mapuche territory, Pinochet furthered the division of land by denying the existence of the Mapuche population in 1979: “The Mapuche do not exist because we are all Chileans.”
Oblivion has been further enforced by the Chilean state through repressive laws capitulating to the proven violence of neoliberalism — a relic of Pinochet’s dictatorship endorsed by subsequent governments of the center-left known as the Concertación. The anti-terror legislation has been manipulated and utilized, in particular, by Michelle Bachelet’s government as the means to criminalize Mapuche resistance.
The official divestment of indigenous identity requires a rethinking of Mapuche resistance from within with regards to territorial reclamation — hence the importance of preserving the indigenous subaltern memory of a community whose ancestral ties to land have been severed by colonialism, the emergence of the Chilean state and the application of Pinochet’s anti-terror laws. Despite the emphasis placed upon collective memory, as is especially evident in Mapuche literature, the struggle remains marginalized within the dominant narrative that continuously strives to obscure the identity of a community that refuses to relinquish its definition of nationhood.
It is pertinent, therefore, to assert that Chilean governments are committed to obliterating indigenous identity through several oppressive means in order to rebrand the struggle for recognition as terrorism. Within the wider framework, this should be construed as willfully upholding historical injustices while ignoring the atrocities committed by the state upon Mapuche activists and communities, who have had to contend with several forms of violence. These include the lack of political participation, restriction of access to basic services such as health and education, and, in court cases, the approval of “faceless witnesses” to testify during trial, thus ensuring a swift condemnation without the possibility of transparency.
Returning to international complicity through legislation, the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples fails to explicitly mention colonialism as the main culprit behind the massacre and dispossession of indigenous communities. Article 10 of the declaration informs — without acknowledging historical repercussions — that “Indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or their territories.” Article 28 partly states that indigenous people are entitled to “restitution or, when this is not possible, just, fair and equitable compensation, for the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned.”
However, a major omission provides the omnipresent actors of the state and the international community with ultimate impunity and jurisdiction over past acts of violence. Indigenous claims remain constricted by interpretations of law and the persistent efforts to retain the spoils of colonialism. Thus, despite the articulated “rights,” indigenous people remain subjugated to the restricted benevolence of their oppressors, making legal claims to territory and resorting to international treaties and recommendations an illusory practice.
Resistance to various forms of violence implemented by the state is therefore imperative for sustaining the indigenous struggle for land reclamation. While Chilean state policy attempts to diminish violence against the Mapuche by distorting the dynamics of force to create illusions of “conflict,” the history of genocide, land appropriation and forced displacement must remain at the focus of resistance, if the indigenous population is to assert its relevance within the wider social and political struggle.