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Culture : Indians in Chile Newly Defiant : Few peoples resisted conquest more fiercely than the Mapuches. Now they are waging a campaign to get their land back.


BAJO HUERERE, Chile — The ranchers wanted the land, so they took it, throwing out the Mapuche families and torching their rucas , their rustic thatched-roof dwellings.

"They came with oxcarts to haul everything away, and those who didn't want to leave, they beat them with clubs," Juan Cole remembers. "They burned the rucas so the people wouldn't return."

It was a time of upheaval and humiliation, things an Indian boy would not forget. Cole was just 8 or 9 years old then, and the ejected families were his relatives. Now he is 78, a local Mapuche chief in ragged clothes with white stubble on his chin, and he speaks with the smoldering resentment of a dispossessed people who refuse to accept their losses.

"They cheated our grandfathers," he says. "Now we are oppressed here. The young people, our sons, don't have anywhere to work."

Few native peoples in the Western Hemisphere resisted conquest longer and more fiercely than the Mapuches did, fighting off the winkas (outsiders) until the early 1880s. The Chilean army finally prevailed, opening the way for farmers and ranchers to push into the land. But now, a movement of young Indians is rekindling Mapuche pride and defiance with a campaign that has included the peaceful occupation of winka farms--"recoveries" of ancestral homelands.

Cole says he sympathizes with members of a neighboring Mapuche community who seized a farm down the road, at the foot of the same green mountain that juts up behind his home of unpainted planks. On a cold morning in June, eight or nine Indians broke a gate, walked into the farm, built a fire and said they were "recovering" the land.

"I thought they were within their legitimate rights, because that land was owed to them," Cole says. By the day's end, police had taken the group away.

More than a dozen similar seizures in June, though temporary and symbolic, have helped focus national attention on the Mapuches at a time when the Chilean Congress is considering important legislation on Indian issues. Chile's democratic government, elected in 1989 after 16 years of military rule, drafted the new legislation and has promised other action on behalf of the Mapuches.

Cole says he hopes the government will help them recover lost land. "We want to recover it, but the right way--with the authorities, not with takeovers."

Some 40 miles west, jail guards escort a young prisoner with shoulder-length hair to greet a visitor. He is Aucan Huilcaman, 27, the founder and spokesman of the Council of All the Lands, an organization of militant Mapuches who have promoted land "recoveries." Along with five other council members, he has been in Temuco jails since late June on charges of conspiracy to usurp private property.

The Chilean interior minister has called Huilcaman a delinquent, a criminal; Huilcaman has called the minister a racist oppressor.

"The constitution says there are only Chileans, and that is a lie," says Huilcaman, whose first name means "warrior." His dark eyes shining with defiance, he adds: "I am a Mapuche. . . . I stand for ideas, not for the acquisition of someone else's property. I stand for the hope that the Mapuche communities will not die."

Most of Chile's Mapuches, estimated to number at least 500,000, live in rustic communities on scattered reservations. They still till their wheat fields with wooden plows and drive oxcarts down mud-choked roads. Their land has been passed from father to son, divided and redivided; many families are left with only an exhausted acre or two. Their land-based culture is badly eroded.

"We are being destroyed culturally," Huilcaman says, echoing the lament of Indians throughout the Americas. "Every day the language is spoken less. Every day a Mapuche migrates to the city. The Mapuche cultural fabric is falling apart, and the moment could come when it would even be irreversible."

Sitting behind a battered jailhouse desk, Huilcaman turns an interview into an eloquent denunciation of "the injustice of 500 years," the "judicial subordination" of Indian rights and the "contradiction that exists between the state and the oppressed Mapuche nation." He declares, "That contradiction is not just in this country but on a continental level--from Alaska to Mapuche territory."

He says the Council of All the Lands planned 1992 as a year to awaken Mapuche awareness and exert Mapuche rights, and he predicts that similar movements will gather steam elsewhere. "The great changes that are going to come in the world during the next decade will be made by the original peoples of America," he says.

The council is proposing a kind of autonomy for Mapuches south of the 37th Parallel in Chile. Huilcaman, who is studying law at a private university in Temuco, says a new legal structure must be created. "Our ultimate goal is to share political, economic and administrative power in this region."

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