PRONUNCIATION: arr-oww-KAH-nee-ens

LOCATION: Chile; Argentina

POPULATION: About 800,000

LANGUAGE: Araucanian

RELIGION: Roman Catholicism with indigenous religious beliefs


Historically, the Araucanian Indians lived in southern, central, and northern areas of Chile and in present-day Argentina. They were divided into three main groups: the Picunche in the north, the Mapuche in the central area, and the Huilliche in the south. The Araucanians fought Inca invaders from Peru in the fifteenth century and Spanish conquerors in the seventeenth century.

The northern Picunche, who lived in the pleasant farming areas of Chile's Central Valley, were a relatively peaceful people. They were easily overcome by the Incas, and were later subdued and assimilated by the Spaniards. The Mapuche and the Hulliche, however, established a reputation as fierce warriors. Both groups bravely defended their lands and their way of life. They continued to resist the Spaniards for hundreds of years. The Mapuche finally lost their independence in the War of 1880–1882. After this defeat they were forced to settle further south on small reservations called reducciones. About half the Mapuche family groups still live there today,


The main group of Araucanians that still remain in Chile today are the Mapuche, numbering some 800,000 people. Initially they lived between the Itata and Toltén rivers. Today many live in the vicinity of towns such as Temuco, Villarica, Pucón, Valdivia, and Osorno, as well as in the southern island region of Chiloé. Some 400,000 Mapuche have had to migrate to the cities and now live the life of poor, urban workers

There are still a few Mapuche reservations in Argentina, particularly on the shores of Lake Rucachoroi and Lake Quillén. However, most Mapuche Araucanians today continue to live in Chile.


Most Mapuche in Chile and the small number living in Argentina speak the Araucanian language. Called Mapudungu , it also survives in many place names: quen means "place," as in the town of Vichiquen, while che means "people," and mapu means "land." (Mapuche, therefore, translates as "people of the land.")

The Mapuche leader in times of war was called a Toqui, while the peacetime leader was called an Ulmen. Messengers were called huerquenes.


Araucanian folklore survives today, perpetuated by the surviving Mapuche people.

One Mapuche legend involves the southern islands of the Chiloé region: The evil serpent Cai Cai rises furiously from the sea to flood the earth. Her good twin Tren Tren , slumbers in her fortress among mountain peaks. The Mapuche try unsuccessfully to wake Tren Tren. Cai Cai's friends, the pillars of Thunder, Wind, and Fire, pile up the clouds to make rain, thunder, and water. Finally, a little girl dances with her reflection in Tren Tren's eye and her laughter awakens Tren Tren, who also begins to laugh. Deeply insulted, the evil Cai Cai and her friends fall down the hill…

But Cai Cai is angry and shatters the earth, scattering islands all over the sea. The water climbs higher and higher, trying to flood the mountain peaks where Tren Tren lives. But Tren Tren manages to raise the mountain up toward the sky and the sun. Finally the evil serpent Cai Cai and the Pillars of Thunder, Wind, and Fire fall from the mountain peak into the deep pit below, where they are silenced.


The Mapuche believe in an ultimate balance between the forces of creation (Ngenechen) and destruction (Wakufu). Reverence for nature and acknowledgment of the forces of good and evil are also part of their belief system. Traditional prayer meetings called machitunes invoke the help of the gods and goddesses for rain and good crops. Another type of meeting, called a malón, involves listening to dreams and prophecies.

Roman Catholicism has coexisted alongside the original religious beliefs of the Araucanians. In some cases the two have merged.


Mapuche who live in cities celebrate the major Chilean national holidays together with the rest of the population, including Independence Day and the discovery of America by Columbus on October 12, 1492.

The Mapuche who live on reservations have maintained some of their traditional celebrations. One of the best-known festivals is the nquillatún, which lasts for three days and dedicates the lands and the harvest to the gods and goddesses.


All major stages in the life cycle, such as birth, puberty, marriage, and death, are marked by special ceremonies. Important members of the tribe, such as lonkos ( chieftains), play special roles. They are accompanied by music and also include elements of the Araucanians' oral tradition, such as poetry and legends.


Greetings have well-defined levels of formality and informality. Strangers can only come into a traditional Mapuche environment with the utmost care. Those who are accompanied by a Mapuche may be welcomed with elaborate feasting and great hospitality. However, those who come alone could just as easily be met with hostility and silence.


Some Mapuche continue to live in a fairly traditional style, but many have migrated to towns where they share the lot of other poor urban workers as pobladores living in shantytowns with poor housing and health conditions. The housing in shantytowns is basic. Shelters can be of adobe and bits of other materials. In remote country areas the traditional thatched-roof huts known as rucas provide shelter.


The Mapuche group of Araucanians who still live on reducciones, or reservations, have tried to maintain the traditional family structures. These include the extended family unit and a clan-like structure with a clan head or chief.

Traditionally, each extended family was headed by a lonko, or chief, who had several wives and many children. The sense of family identity extended to grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and relatives by marriage. This type of social structure is gradually being undermined by efforts to Christianize the Mapuche and by government attempts to assimilate them into mainstream society.

Because the male family members come into contact with white society through their work, it is they who are influenced by mainstream culture. Women often take the most active role in maintaining the group's traditions.


Men in towns wear Western-style shirts and trousers. Women are sometimes dressed more traditionally, with long skirts and colorful, embroidered aprons. They may also wear head scarves, sometimes decorated with gold coins.

Younger Mapuche girls often wear Western-style clothing such as sweaters and skirts. Boys wear shirts or sweaters and trousers.

12 • FOOD

Traditional hunting and fishing, as well as crops such as corn and various fruits, ensure a varied, traditional diet for the Araucanians. The distinctive curanto oven is still used by some Mapuche on the island of Chiloé. It allows meat and vegetables wrapped in leaves to steam for hours. A recipe for humitas, steamed corn wrapped in leaves, follows. Traditional feasting on special occasions can last for several days.


The Mapuche who lost their lands and had to emigrate to the towns now try to offer their children opportunities to attend school. On the reservations many still try to educate their children about their traditional way of life.




  • 24 to 30 ears of corn
  • ¼ cup butter
  • 1 medium onion, peeled and chopped
  • 1 large tomato, seeded and finely chopped
  • 1 Tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 cup corn meal
  • ⅓ cup grated cheese (Parmesan or Jarlsberg), optional


  1. Carefully peel back the husks from the corn. Using a sharp knife, cut the husks off the corn cob. Peel away the husks, one at a time, and save three or four husks of the inner husks without tears.
  2. Using a grater set over a bowl, grate the corn kernels off the cobs. There should be about 7 cups of corn.
  3. In a large skillet, melt the butter. Add the onion and cook over medium heat until the onion is soft.
  4. Add the chopped tomato and cook for about 4 minutes more, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon.
  5. Remove the pan from the heat and add the corn. Sprinkle the mixture with the corn flour and mix. Add the grated cheese, if desired, and mix thoroughly.
  6. Allow the mixture to rest for about 30 minutes, but stir every few minutes.
  7. Assemble the humitas: Place 2 corn husks, one overlapping the other, on the work surface. The pointed ends should be facing away from each other. Place a third husk in the center.
  8. Place 1 generous tablespoon of the corn mixture in the center of the stack of husks. Wrap the corn mixture completely with the husks. (Fold the sides in first, and then fold up each pointed end. The result should be a neat rectangle.) Tie the package with strips of corn husk or kitchen string.
  9. Place a steamer rack in a large saucepan with about an inch of water. Stack the humitas in the steamer, cover the pan tightly, and steam for about 45 minutes.

Cool until the humitas can be handled. Cut and discard the tie, open the package, and serve the contents warm. Cooked humitas may be refrigerated for up to one week. To serve, steam for about 10 minutes to heat through.

Adapted from Rojas-Lombardi, Felipe. The Art of South American Cooking. New-York: HarperCollins, 1991.


The music of the Araucanians is played on special instruments. There are whistles made of wood, a type of flute called the trutruca, and various percussion instruments such as the cultrun. Music and dancing traditionally accompany important rituals. A type of poetic singing (mapudungu) in the Araucanian language includes the reciting of legends, special invocations and prayers, and stories associated with the forces of life and death.


The Mapuche who still live on reservations engage in farming and fishing. They also produce handicrafts. A majority of Mapuche town dwellers live as urban workers. Since the 1930s, the Mapuche in towns have been active in trade union movements. During the period of military rule in the 1970s and 1980s, employment opportunities and working conditions were closely linked to the Mapuches' struggle to preserve their ethnic identity.

Women often contribute to the family's earnings by selling their wares at markets and fairs.


Many of the younger Mapuche are enthusiastic soccer fans. Some Mapuche from the island of Chiloé are skilled boaters.


Mapuche who live in or near towns enjoy the many fiestas (celebrations) loved by Chileans. Some of these are religious feast days. Others are linked to the agricultural cycle or to cultural events.


The Mapuche are skilled jewelry-makers, potters, and weavers of cloth and baskets.

The ethnic Mapuche who live on the island of Chiloé still use a traditional loom to weave sweaters and ponchos from sheep wool. The women prepare dyes made from herbs.

There are several important craft fairs in Chile that display Araucanian arts and crafts.


The social problems of the Mapuche are related to economic hardship as well as to the struggle to preserve their traditions and identity. Many inhabitants of the reservations ( reducciones) are primarily concerned with preserving the traditions and beliefs of their culture. On the other hand, those who have emigrated to the towns often see the struggle for workers' rights as their primary cause.


Dwyer, Christopher. Chile, Major World Nations. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1997.

Gavin, Irene Flum. Chile: Journey to Freedom. Parsippany, N.Y.: Dillon Press, 1997.

Hintz, Martin. Chile, Enchantment of the World. Chicago: Children's Press, 1993.

Rojas-Lombardi, Felipe. The Art of South American Cooking. NewYork: HarperCollins, 1991.


Interknowledge Corporation. Chile. [Online] Available , 1998.

World Travel Guide. Chile. [Online] Available , 1998.

User Contributions:

Tianna Nixon
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May 28, 2008 @ 11:11 am
this article is very interesting it is an amazing story.
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Oct 15, 2008 @ 11:11 am
This is very helpful because there really isnt a lot of information about the Arucanians like there is in this article

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