The Mapuche successfully resisted many attempts by the Inca Empire to subjugate them, despite the lack of nationwide organization. They fought against the Spaniards for over 300 years. Initial conquests of land by the Spanish in the late 16th century were thoroughly repulsed by the Mapuche, such that there were areas where Europeans did not return to until late in the 19th century. One of the main geographical delineation was the Bío-Bío River, which the Mapuche used as a natural frontier of resistance to Spanish and Chilean incursion.
In a six-year campaign with an army that eventually rose to 50,000 men, the Inca general Sinchiruca had subdued the regions of northern Chile, Copiapo, Coquimbo, Aconcagua and the Maipo Valley around what is now Santiago. After securing the Maipo Valley Sinchiruca sent 20,000 men down to the valley of the Maule River. The territory of the Picunche people inhabiting this last region south of Maipo Valley extended further to the south to the Itata River and these people the south of the Maipo Valley had refused to submit to the rule of the Inca and called on their allies south of the Maule; the Antalli, Pincu, and Cauqui to join in opposing these invaders. This defiance was to gave them their distinctive name of Purumaucas from the quechua puruma auca meaning those not under the rule of the Inca. The Spanish later corrupted the name into Promaucaes.
The Incas crossed the Maule River, and keeping their old custom, they sent messengers to require these Purumaucas to submit to the rule of the Inca or resort to arms. The Purumaucas had determined to die before losing their freedom, and responded that the victors would be masters of the defeated and that the Incas would quickly see how the Purumaucas obeyed. Three or four days after this answer, the Purumaucas and their allies arrived and camped in front of the Incas’ camp with 18,000 – 20,000 warriors. The Incas tried diplomacy, offering peace and friendship, claiming they were not going to take their land and property but to give them a way to live as men. The Purumaucas responded saying that they came not to waste time in vain words and reasoning, but to fight until they won or died. The Incas promised battle the next day.
The following day both armies left their camps and fought all day without either gaining an advantage, and both suffering many wounded and dead. At night they both retired to their positions. On the second and third day they fought with the same results. At the end of the third day of battle the Inca saw that they had lost more than half their number in dead, and the living were almost all wounded. On the fourth day, although the Purumaucas were put in their formations, the Inca did not leave their camp, which they had fortified, hoping to defend it if their enemy attacked them. The Inca remained in their camp all that day and the two following days. At the end of that time the Inca army retired to the Maipo Valley. The Purumaucas and their allies returned home claiming victory.
Finally, partially on the pretext of crushing a French filibusterer, Orelie-Antoine de Tounens, who had declared himself King of Araucania, the Chilean state overwhelmed the Mapuche lands in the mid- to late-1880s during the so called “pacification of the Araucanía”. Significant factors leading to this conquest were increased Chilean population pressures on the Mapuche borders, and the fact that by the 1880s Chile consisted of territory to the north and south of the Mapuche heartlands. In essence, the Mapuche were being demografically squeezed from the North and the South, and were militarily so-squeezed during the war of conquest. Further, Chile in the 1880s, as a result of its preparation for and its victory in the War of the Pacific against Bolivia and Peru, found itself with a large standing army and a relatively modern arsenal for the period (most concretely seen and felt in the repeating rifle). These were turned upon the Mapuche.
The Machi performs ceremonies for curing diseases, warding off evil, influencing weather, harvests, social interactions and dreamwork. Machis often have extensive knowledge of Chilean medicinal herbs, though as biodiversity in the Chilean countryside has declined due to commercial agriculture and forestry, the dissemination of such knowledge has also declined but is in revival. Machis, also, have an extensive knowledge of sacred stones and the sacred animals.
The most important beliefs of the Mapuche are expressed in the tale Trentren Vilu y Caicai Vilu, and manifest in the Ngens and Pillans spirits, the Kalku and Wekufe (evil/illness) spirits, the Chonchon, the Piuchen, the Nguruvilu) and La Calchona.
An equally important part of Mapuche belief and society is the remembered history of independence and resistance from 1540 (Spanish and then Chileans) and of the treaty with the Chilean government in the 1870s. In that perception, it is important to include not exclude Mapuches in the Chilean culture. Having said that, memories, stories, and beliefs, often very local and particularized, are a significant part of the Mapuche traditional culture. To varying degrees, this history of resistance continues to this day amongst the Mapuche, though at the same time a large majority in Chile would also strongly include themselves as Chilean similarly to a large majority in Argentina including themselves as Argentines.
Neighboring peoples with whom the Ona traded and intermarried were the Alacaluf and the Yagan. The Ona are often referred to in the literature as “Foot Indians,” because they had neither canoes nor horses.
About 10.000 years ago when the last glacial age was finished, Tierra del Fuego was joined to the South American continent. and the Ona Indians (Selknam etnia) were able to cross over to Tierra Del Fuego.
They were hunters of birds and guanacos. More than 4000 Ona Indians inhabited the area, a tall race ( 6’2″ average male height) and very good with the sling bow, arrow. They repelled the penetration of white man for almost half a century. (The average European in these times was about 5″6″)
The Ona were divided into two main groups called Haush and Selk’nam, each of whom was distinct both dialectically and culturally. The Selk’nam were further subdivided into a northern and a southern branch. Both of these groups again differed somewhat in language and culture, and were not on the best of terms. There may have been an ecological basis for their differentiation, since the northern group occupied the treeless prairies north of the Rio de Fuego and the Rio Grande, whereas the southern group occupied the parklands and forest regions south of that line (Cooper, 1946: 108).
The language of the Ona has been classified by Greenberg (1966) within a linguistic group that includes Yagan, Alacaluf, Tehuelche, Puelche, and Araucanian. This group constitutes a branch of the Andean subfamily of the Andean-Equatorial language family (Steward and Faron 1959: 22). The previously mentioned linguistic differences between the Selk’nam and the Haush were quite pronounced, and it has been said that a Selk’nam could understand a Haush only with a great deal of difficulty.
Since the first European contacts, the Ona population has diminished disastrously. Lothrop (1928) estimates that around 1850 the Selk’nam population numbered about 3,600, and that there were approximately 300 Haush. Seventy-five years later, at the time of Lothrop’s fieldwork (1924-25), he reports that there were only 60 to 70 Selk’nam and 2 or 3 Haush. Gusinde (1931) claims, however, that Lothrop was “inaccurately informed,” for in Gusinde’s census of 1919, he counted 279 full-blooded Indians and 15 Indian-White mixtures. By 1930, when Gusinde was writing up his field data, there were only about 100 full-blooded Indians left. It is likely that by the middle of the twentieth century, the Ona had ceased to exist as a distinct ethnic-cultural group.
The reasons for the rapid decline and evident extinction of the Ona population are no mystery. They are clearly etched in the history of Ona-White relations, and range from the introduction of new diseases to deliberate campaigns of extermination against the Indians. Ona subsistence was based primarily on hunting, particularly of guanaco, which was the basic staple in their diet. They also hunted fox, small rodents called tuco tucos, wild fowl, and marine animals. Other subsistence activities included the gathering of edible fungi, plants, and berries, the collecting of shellfish and other marine products and, to a limited extent, fishing. Men did the hunting and fishing, while the women did the gathering. The Ona had no knowledge of agriculture, and their only domesticated animal was the dog.
The Ona country was divided into 39 distinct territories, each of which was held exclusively by a different migratory band ranging in size from 40 to 120 individuals. Exploitative trespass in a territory by outsiders was deeply resented and often led to bloodshed and war. Hunters from other bands were received as guests, however, and were allowed the use of the land. Property in things, such as clothing, adornments, weapons, tools, baskets, and playthings, was owned individually. Generally, property was acquired through labor, gift, or barter. Acquisition by inheritance was lacking, since an individual’s personal belongings were burned at his death (Cooper 1946: 119). Because of the nomadic nature of the Ona, there were no permanent settlements. Instead, families traveled after game animals, settled for a few days at the spot where the game fell, and then traveled on. Huts were of two kinds; the ones used in the open, treeless, northern region were merely windscreens, while in the wooded south where timber was available, conical-shaped true huts were constructed.
Descent among the Ona was bilateral. Eskimo cousin terminology was employed, with all cousins being equated with each other and distinguished from siblings. The basic social unit was the independent nuclear family. Real authority among the Ona was vested in the male head of the family who recognized no higher authoritative head, and did not accept orders from any other man. The next and highest level of organization consisted of the patriarchal, exogamous band, with the nuclear families grouped into 39 such bands. Each band was independent, had its own separate, well-defined territory, and recognized the moral leadership of an elder in the group, who was not actually called a chief and had no real authority. His office was not hereditary and his influence was persuasive rather than coercive. In addition to the absence of chiefs, there also were no social castes or classes, no sibs or moieties, and no other organized group or secret society.
Gusinde states that, with the exception of band exogamy and a prohibition against consanguineous relatives, the Ona had complete freedom of choice in selecting a mate. Ideally, the farther away a bride lived the more suitable she became as a wife. After a temporary period of matriarchal residence, the couple, almost without exception, moved to live permanently with the husband’s band. Although monogamy was the general rule, sororal polygamy did take place on occasion. But only a small minority of the older men had two wives and it was even more rare to have three. Sometimes a man would marry a woman and her daughter by a previous marriage. Public opinion, however, generally disapproved of polygamous unions. The average age of marriage was 20 years for a man and 15-19 for a girl. However, a man first had to be tested in the secret ceremonies of the kloketen before he was permitted to marry and a girl must have had her first menses. Divorce was relatively rare.
From the available accounts, Ona religion may have been monotheistic in nature with a belief in a supreme being called Temaukel. Prayers were addressed to Temaukel at the time of grave illness and two simple, almost non religious, sacrifices were made to this deity on particular occasions. Other elements of the religion involved mythological ancestors, forest spirits, and the kloketen spirits. The Ona also conceived of the existence of a human soul (kaspi) and its continuance after death in the realm of the supreme being. Ceremonialism was primarily confined to the kloketen celebration in which young men were initiated into manhood. Shamanism was well-developed among the Ona, the shaman being called xon or yohon. The call to office came through a dream in which the spirit of a deceased shaman appeared to a person, invited him to seek the vocation, and finally bestowed upon him its own special songs and power. Training for this office took two to three years. Since there was no shaman society or organization, each shaman worked independently, frequently in deadly rivalry with other shamans. The shaman cured, controlled the weather and hunting, and helped his group in warfare. He also functioned as a sorcerer and was often called on to bring harm to his own or his clients’ enemies. – Gusinde (1931), is considered a classic in anthropological literature and provides a good summary of Ona ethnography.
Lautaro escaped from Spanish captivity and rejoined the mapuches as a young adult. With the knowledge he had acquired, he introduced use of horses to the Mapuche, and designed improved tactics for combat against the Spanish. He attracted a large number of otherwise dispersed Mapuche warriors and formed a native army that could fight successfully against the Spanish conquerors.
He is considered an icon of the War of Arauco and the first Chilean General, for his revolutionary strategies and the responsibility in uniting the dispersed Mapuche people.
His name was used by Francisco de Miranda when he founded the Logia Lautaro, an American independence society of the end of 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century. Lautaro became a key protagonist in the epic poem La Araucana by Alonso de Ercilla, a major piece of literature about the Spanish conquest of America. In addition, he is also the subject of a poem by Chilean Nobel Literature Prize laureate Pablo Neruda. He appears as an important character in the historical novel Ines del Alma Mia by Isabel Allende. According to Allende, Lautaro deliberately allowed himself to be captured by the Spanish in order to learn their secrets, and made no attempt to escape before he felt he had learned enough.
In 1553 the Mapuches held a parliament in which, given the growing Spanish forces and their decision to remain in the territory, it was decided that war was needed to expel them. They chose him as Toqui (wartime chief) because he had served as an assistant for the Spanish cavalry, and was assumed he would know how to fight the conquistadors.
With 6,000 warriors under his command, Lautaro attacked Fort Tucapel. The Spanish garrison couldn’t resist the assault and retreated to Purén. Lautaro seized the fort, sure that the Spaniards would attempt to retake it. This was exactly what Valdivia tried to do with a reduced force, which was quickly surrounded and massacred by the Mapuches. The Battle of Tucapel would be Pedro de Valdivia’s last, as he was captured and then killed.
After the defeat at Tucapel, the Spanish hurriedly reorganized their forces, reinforcing fort Imperial for its defence and abandoning Confines and Arauco in order to strengthen Concepción. However, Araucanian tradition dictated a lengthy victory celebration, which kept Lautaro from exploiting the weakness of the Spanish position as he desired. It was only in February of 1554 that he succeeded in putting together an army of 8,000 men, just in time to confront a punitive expedition under the command of Francisco de Villagra.
Lautaro chose the hill of Marihueño to fight the Spanish, and subsequently organized his forces in four divisions: two had the mission of containing and wearing down the enemy, another would be held in reserve to launch a fresh attack as the Spanish were about to crumble, and the last would work to cut off their retreat. Additionally, a small group was sent to destroy the reed bridge the Spanish had erected across the Bío-Bío River, which would disrupt even more the attempted retreat of Villagra.
The Spanish attack broke the first Mapuche lines, but the quick action of the third group maintained the Indian position. Later, the wings of this division began to attack the Spanish flanks, and the fourth division attacked from behind. After hours of battle, only a small group of Spanish were able to retreat.
Despite this new victory, Lautaro was again unable to pursue the opportunity due to the celebrations and beliefs of his people. By the time he arrived at Concepción, it was already abandoned. After burning it, he could not continue the offensive with his remaining forces, and the campaign came to an end as the warriors demobilized.
In Santiago, Villagra reorganized his forces, and that same year of 1554, he departed again for Arauco and reinforced the strongholds of Imperial and Valdivia, without any interference from the Mapuches, who were dealing with their first epidemic of smallpox, which was brought by the Spanish. In 1555, the Real Audiencia in Lima, ordered him to reconstruct Concepción, which was done under the command of Capitan Alvarado.
Lautaro attacked Concepción when he learned that it was being rebuilt, with 4,000 warriors. He put the town under siege, which Alvarado attempted to break unsuccessfully. Only 38 Spaniards managed to escape by sea the second destruction of the city.
After this action, Lautaro planned an assault on Santiago, for which he drew scant support from his troops, who soon dwindled to only 600. In October of 1556 he reached in his northward march the river Mataquito, where he destroyed a fortified camp at Peteroa. In Peteroa he repulsed small attacking Spanish forces, first under the command of Diego Cano and later Francisco de Villagra himself. Lautaro retreated towards the river Itata, with the Spaniards in pursuit. From there he launched feelers towards Santiago and instead of confronting them, he gave them the slip and left for the city to attack it.
Despite the stealth under which the Mapuches moved, the city leaders knew of the advance, and sent a small expedition to detain them, buying time for word to be sent to Villagra to return to the city. The Spanish forces met in the field, and, presumably by the treason of a fellow Araucano, found out about the disposition of Lautaro’s camp. On April 29, 1557 the conquistadors launched a surprise attack from the hills of Caune, obtaining a decisive victory in which Lautaro was killed.