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Becoming Mapuche: Person and Ritual in Indigenous Chile

Becoming Mapuche: Person and Ritual in Indigenous Chile

by Magnus Course

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Magnus Course blends convincing historical analysis with sophisticated contemporary theory in this superb ethnography of the Mapuche people of southern Chile. Based on many years of ethnographic fieldwork, Becoming Mapuche takes readers to the indigenous reserves where many Mapuche have been forced to live since the beginning of the twentieth century. In addition to accounts of the intimacies of everyday kinship and friendship, Course also offers the first complete ethnographic analyses of the major social events of contemporary rural Mapuche life—eluwün funerals, the ritual sport of palin, and the great ngillatun fertility ritual. The volume includes a glossary of terms in Mapudungun.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252078231
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 11/30/2011
Series: Interp Culture New Millennium
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Magnus Course is a lecturer in social anthropology at the University of Edinburgh.

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Becoming Mapuche

Person and Ritual in Indigenous Chile


Copyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-07823-1


Marta walked through the small patch of broad beans at the side of the creek with a look of disgust on her face. Just the tall thin stalks remained; the pods were gone. Some had been taken by kamtrü, a bird notorious for raiding gardens. The rest of the beans had been stolen by Marta's socia, her partner in the mediería arrangement in which one person contributes land and the other seed, and the two then labor jointly before splitting the fruits of the eventual harvest. "If there was no necessity, there would be no society. We could all just be on our own," she spat. The "society" in question was the mediería institution itself, referred to in local Spanish as sociedad, yet Marta's comment resounded with so many others I had heard from Mapuche people, comments casting doubt on the value of social relations, and exemplifying a stubborn skepticism toward that totality of relations so often called "society." According to Mapuche people, such social relations necessarily involve various kinds of risks, many of which bear far graver consequences than the loss of a few beans. Since that conversation occurred, I have given much thought to Marta's proposition, that of a life somehow without social relations, a happy solipsism untroubled by others. I have come to think that despite its fleeting appeal such a life, even if it were possible, would not be one that Mapuche people would choose. In this book I seek to explain why.

The Focus of This Book

In this book I explore the ways rural Mapuche people in one part of southern Chile create social relations, and are in turn themselves products of such relations. Through an exploration of what it means to be che, a "true person," I seek to draw out some of the different forms underlying the social relations in which Mapuche persons engage and through which persons are created. I refer to these forms as "modes of sociality," a deliberately vague term that goes beyond "kinship" to include the symbolic value of all kinds of relations: those between kin, those between nonkin, those between persons and animals, and those between persons and spirits. This analysis of the Mapuche person and its concomitant modes of sociality allows for a reconceptualization, not only of the major social events of rural Mapuche life—funerals, the ritual sport of palin, and the ngillatun fertility ritual—but also of the nature of social aggregates or groups and the role they play in the rapidly changing relations Mapuche people have with the Chilean state. In this book I therefore aim to address rural Mapuche life in both singular and plural forms, to say something about the dialectic of "person" and "people" that lies at the very heart of Mapuche lived worlds.

In some ways, then, my primary focus corresponds to the relation between what have often been called the "individual" and "society." Debates about the conceptualization of this relation clearly have a long history in anthropology and the other social sciences, and I would like to pause briefly to outline the position I take in this book. I do not intend to offer critiques either of Western thought or of the branch of Western thought we call anthropology. Nevertheless, I believe that certain assumptions underlying Mapuche ideas concerning social relationships are distinct from those underlying the implicit theoretical framework of much anthropological writing.

An eminent British anthropologist once commented to me: "The problem with American cultural anthropology is that they haven't read enough Durkheim." It struck me that one could equally say that the problem with many exponents of British and European social anthropology is that they have read too much Durkheim. Either way, it seems clear that Durkheim's influence on anthropology has been profound. In particular, anthropology has moved further and further away from the notion of presocial "individuals" freely entering into society in a way once envisioned in the writings of Hobbes (1991 [1651]) and Rousseau (1968 [1762]). Indeed, the inheritance of Durkheim's emphasis on the fundamentally social nature of human existence is one of anthropology's greatest strengths. But it can also lead us to make certain assumptions concerning the a priori existence of some strange thing called "society." I suggest that the problem with the approach first formulated by Durkheim is not so much that it is necessarily wrong but that it assumes the very thing we need to explain. Sahlins notes of the Durkheimian "society" that "this greater harmony is realized in spite of any human knowledge, will, or reason—but rather mysteriously and mechanically, as if by an Invisible Hand" (1996: 407). By positing such entities as "collective conscience" and "mechanical solidarity" as necessarily prior, the question of how such objects (if indeed such objects exist at all) come about disappears.

In this book I attempt to reverse the traditional Durkheimian anthropological paradigm, so rather than starting from the social collective and proceeding to describe its influence on the person, I start my analysis with the person and proceed to explore its influence on the collective. At first glance this might appear a simple return to a naïve "individualism" of an earlier era, an individualism with its roots in a very particular Western understanding of the person. But I hope to demonstrate through the course of this book that this resemblance is but superficial. My reason for proceeding in such a manner is that it comes closer to the understandings of the rural Mapuche people with whom I lived, who initially struck me as militantly "Hobbesian." Mapuche people speak of themselves as entering freely into social relations as autonomous agents free of prior relations and thereby being the conscious authors of the totality of social relations. There are of course many aspects of Mapuche practice that contradict this stated position, aspects that stress preexisting social forms and identities; but this is not what Mapuche people choose to emphasize. Following Mapuche people's own logic, their own "secondary rationalizations," allows me to explore the nature of Mapuche social aggregates, such as patrilineages for example, without endowing them with an a priori analytical naturalness and primacy not shared by the people with whom I worked.

Much of the problem clearly depends on the perspective taken. From an external point of view, Mapuche sociality is clearly constituted by social beings acting through preordained social forms. From the point of view of Mapuche subjects—that is, from the perspective of the ideas people hold regarding sociality—things look quite different. My aim here, however, is to construct a dialogue between these two possibilities. Thus just as this book is based on data obtained through conversation, I perceive the book itself to be a "conversation" of sorts. By this I mean that I foreground Mapuche concepts and seek to understand such concepts in their own terms rather than simply translating them into the conventional analytical terms of academic anthropology. Such a position implies that native concepts always possess a certain quality of irreducibility in that they cannot simply be reduced to something else. For example, the Mapuche concept of küpal that I describe in chapter 2 is in many ways reminiscent of the anthropological concept of "descent." Yet in my approach, while I use the literature surrounding "descent" to interrogate and think about küpal, I do so in the hope of describing and elucidating the concept without ever reducing it to "descent." The flip side of this is that, although I seek to retain the integrity and unity of Mapuche concepts, I also seek to go beyond them. I therefore put forward my own understandings of these Mapuche concepts, seeking to place them in a wider analytical framework perhaps not always visible to Mapuche people themselves. I do not want the voice of my anthropological training, enmeshed as it is in the history of anthropological thought, to be absent. It is, I hope, a valid interlocutor in the conversation of which this book is a record.

The Place of Mapuche Ethnography

One of things I hope to achieve in this book is to make a contribution to the existing ethnographic literature on the Mapuche, and furthermore to suggest some ways this body of ethnography might be more usefully brought into dialogue with the ethnography of other indigenous American peoples; bodies of ethnography from which, for the most part, Mapuche ethnography has been isolated. Writing on the Mapuche, sometimes referred to as "Araucanians" in earlier literature, dates back to the sixteenth century, when large numbers of documents were produced by priests, soldiers, and various Spanish officials. The advent of the twentieth century marked a new phase in studies of the Mapuche, as anthropologists such as Tomás Guevara (1908, 1925), Eulogio Robles (1942), and Ricardo Latcham (1924) attempted to ascertain the historical origins of the Mapuche through an analysis of contemporary cultural traits; later works, such as those by Titiev (1951), Faron (1961b, 1964) and Stuchlik (1976), form the core of what could be called "modern" Mapuche ethnography. It is significant that all of these later studies deal in some way or another with the mechanisms by which individuals are integrated into society, a point to which I return in more detail in chapter 2. None of these works made any serious attempt to draw any connections with studies of indigenous peoples in other parts of South America, a lacuna from which I suggest Mapuche studies are still suffering.

Innumerable works have been published relating to almost every aspect of Mapuche life, but nothing resembling a coherent body of literature—or, in other words, a shared set of problems to be addressed with a common analytical vocabulary—has yet emerged. The scarcity of ethnographic studies of contemporary Mapuche people has exacerbated this problem. It is frequently assumed, at least within Chile, that "It's all already been done"—that the possibilities of Mapuche ethnography have already been exhausted. I hope to suggest the opposite in this book: anthropological attempts at understanding Mapuche people's lives have barely got off the ground.

The reason for the isolation of Mapuche studies from studies of other indigenous American peoples is partly that the Mapuche fit into neither the "Andean" nor "Amazonian" cultural areas, into which most studies of indigenous peoples in South America are divided. This lack of fit seems to have its roots both in the specific historical development of academic research and in some objective differences between the Mapuche and other indigenous peoples, especially in terms of Mapuche people's mode of production and their historical relation to European colonialism. Moreover, anthropological approaches to the Andean highlands and Amazonian lowlands have themselves developed in relative isolation from each other.

It is perhaps not surprising then that writers on the Mapuche have tended to consider it unnecessary to engage wholeheartedly with these two distinct bodies of literature. This reluctance is perhaps made worse by the Mapuche's presumed linguistic isolation, by the fact that their economy up until well into the twentieth century was based almost entirely on raising huge herds of animals, a mode of production unique in indigenous South America, and by their unique historical relation with European colonialism. Over the years, however, I have become convinced that at the level of ideas and symbolic practice, there are indeed features of Mapuche life that resonate clearly with the practices of indigenous peoples in both Amazonia and the Andes. I hope that some of these resonances will become apparent in the body of the book.

In addition to making a contribution to Mapuche ethnography and its place within the ethnography of indigenous South America as a whole, I also hope that this book might provide an additional ethnographic instance of a theme that has, in different guises, been central to anthropological theory since its beginning: the way both anthropologists and the peoples they study conceptualize and categorize different forms of relatedness. This theme appears in this book as the relation between "consanguinity" and "affinity." Over the years this relation has been subject to much disagreement and controversy; the long-standing debate between descent theory and alliance theory springs to mind (Fortes 1953, 1959; Leach 1957, 1973). Yet anthropologists have now moved on from prioritizing of one form of relatedness over the other to instead focusing on how affinity and consanguinity are mutually constitutive as symbolic values (Wagner 1977; Viveiros de Castro 2001). The ethnography presented here suggests that symbolic values of affinity and consanguinity are indeed concepts underlying much of Mapuche practice. Yet there is no neat categorization of these two forms of relatedness, and much of Mapuche sociality involves the working out of these ambiguities. I suggest that the relation between these values constitutes just as much of an intellectual puzzle for the Mapuche as it has for generations of anthropologists; and I hope that some of the solutions they offer may be of interest to those exploring the constitution of sociality in other geographical and theoretical contexts.

Methodological Concerns

I stated earlier that I envisage this book as a conversation between two interlocutors, one being myself and the anthropological project of which I am part and the other being my rural Mapuche friends and their understandings of life. As the vast majority of what is written in these pages is about the latter, it is only right that I pause briefly to say something of the first interlocutor, myself, and of how this conversation arose.

I first went to Chile in 1997 having recently finished an undergraduate degree in anthropology. Through a Mexican friend I had been able to arrange for some work experience with a Chilean NGO in the regional capital Temuco, Sociedad de Desarrollo Campesino Mapuche (SODECAM). At this time SODECAM managed a wide variety of projects funded by various European development agencies, most of which were aimed at improving systems of agricultural and horticultural production. I would frequently accompany team members on trips out to the various Mapuche communities in which SODECAM worked. At this time SODECAM was hoping to extend its activities to the Lago Budi area on the Pacific coast, as it had recently been declared an Indigenous Development Area (Area de Desarrollo Indígena) and hence the focus of various government development initiatives. In particular, SODECAM had been given money to run a project of "sociocultural development," a rather bizarre euphemism for what is more commonly referred to as bilingual education. The idea was to provide a couple of hours of education in the Mapuche language, Mapudungun, each week at schools within the Lago Budi area. Materials would be developed, teachers would be trained, community leaders would be consulted, and pupils would be enlightened. As it happened, the project was more difficult than I had anticipated. This was in large part because, for local people, schools are where children go to learn to become like white people (winka), not to become Mapuche, thus the concept of learning Mapudungun in school was anathema to them. Nevertheless, the project allowed me to spend more and more time away from Temuco and in the rural communities of the Lago Budi basin, in particular in Conoco Budi, within the sector known as Piedra Alta, the place where my subsequent fieldwork was to be carried out.


Excerpted from Becoming Mapuche by MAGNUS COURSE Copyright © 2011 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations....................ix
1. Che: The Sociality of Exchange....................25
2. Küpal: The Sociality of Descent....................44
3. Ngillanwen: The Sociality of Affinity....................68
4. Eluwün: The End of Sociality....................92
5. Palin: The Construction of Difference....................117
6. Ngillatun: The Construction of Similarity....................138
Glossary of Terms in Mapudungun....................177

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