Chile’s Mapuche: Rituals and Facebook

Chilean volcano

Rituals and Facebook: How the Indigenous Mapuche Community in Chile Goes Touristy

By Marinela Potor

Mapuches have figured out how to draw tourists using modern techniques.
Mapuches have figured out how to draw tourists using modern techniques.

Attracting “gringos” for money, enacting rituals for tourists, selling the culture for survival? Of course! In the small southern Chilean town of Nueva Imperial, the indigenous community from the Mapuche tribe has learned fast how modern marketing works: culture sells.

So here they are all gathered for this one purpose. The medicine woman, the sorcerer, the storyteller, the ritual organizer – they are all juggling with Facebook in the left hand and their rituals in the right hand trying to do the trick: combining modern tourism and ancient traditions.

Gloria Seallo is at the heart of this project. Gloria describes herself as a woman of big dreams. Those who know her, say she is also a woman of big plans. So nobody was really surprised when she decided to pick up University at age 54 and study tourism in Chile‘s capital Santiago. There, 800 km north from her country home in Nueva Imperial, during a seminar it just hit her!

Trying it Back Home

Why not just take these theories and apply them outside the lecture hall? Thought and done. „As soon as I had the idea, I knew I wanted to try it back home. Many people look down upon the Araucanía region as Chile’s poor and underdeveloped indigenous territory.

But I am proud to be Mapuche, I cherish our rituals and I love every stone and tree in Nueva Imperial and most of all, I thought it was time to tell the entire world about it!“ Since Gloria is also a woman of big deeds, she got together right away with Paola Aguilera from the municipality of Nueva Imperial to work out a marketing strategy.

A pot of tea later, the new tourism concept for Nueva Imperial was born: “We had two main objectives,” says Aguilera, “We wanted to attract tourists who would really appreciate our thousand-year-old culture and include as many members of the Mapuche community as possible.” Those have indeed come together to now form an enthusiastic tourism team, each one showing the visitor different aspects of “their” Mapuche culture:

The lady and the land:

Of course, Gloria was the first to join that team. Together with her husband, they built snugly cabanas surrounded only by flowery fields to accommodate the coming visitors: But of course, Gloria would not be Gloria if she just offered shelter.

Faster than you can say “thanks”, you find yourself in her living room, drinking coffee, nibbling Sopaipillas (the Chilean version of a pancake) and talking about life, culture, and the best cake recipes. It’s the perfect place to start discovering the Mapuche culture. Actually, you have already experienced its core feature: it’s all about sharing.

The Sorcerer:

Inside a Mapuche hut, tourists mix with natives.
Inside a Mapuche hut, tourists mix with natives.

As soon as guests step over the threshold of Mercedes Coña’s Ruka (the typical Mapuche straw hut of), they enter a new world: Chunks of meat are hanging from the ceiling, a scent of delicious spices fills the air and in the middle of this sits Mercedes at her spinning wheel making purses and clothes.

It’s an atmosphere of fairy tales and magic and as a matter of fact, Coña is an expert in both. As the ritual woman of the town, she knows everything from legends about evil ghosts to the thanksgiving rituals of the community. And if you are lucky, she might even invite you to participate in one.

The Medicine Woman:

Eris Coronado is a master of appearances. Her Mapuche dress and the headscarf might say traditional but her Facebook account (Ruka Lelfun) with more than 200 friends clearly shouts modern. Her humble ways hide the fact that Santiago’s most famous chefs come pilgrimage to her cooking seminars. And her old-fashion fireplace let nobody suspect the high-tech kitchen she hides behind the sliding door.

For visitors, she offers a variety of delicatessens such as home-made marmalade or vegetable lasagne. Since she takes all the ingredients from her own garden, you cannot get much more organic than that. Ah, and don’t forget to ask her about that headache you have recently, she will have just the right herb in her garden for you.

The Story Teller:

Pine forest in Chile.
Pine forest on Mapuche lands.

Naked Women everywhere. At first sight, German Grandon’s museum seems more like a Hugh Hefner memorial than a highly-respected place of Mapuche culture. “I get a bit lonely here with all these coins and arms, so I decided to sculpture myself some nice female company”, explains Grandon with a smirk on his face.

And over the last decades, the ladies have been great company – since he spends most of his days researching the history of the Mapuche artifacts he gathers and preserves in his museum.

Asked why he started this collection, Grandon replies: “How could I not? To the untrained eye these things might just seem that, simple, things without meaning but to us, the Mapuche, they carry our entire past, present and future.” This is why everybody calls him the (hi)story collector.

And sure enough, he can tell the visitor the story behind every coin, every piece of jewelry and every picture in his museum. Grandon takes the visitors on a tour to the past back to the times where the Mapuche were still fighting the Spanish conquerors. Fascinated by the time travel, the visitor forgets time and space – and even the provocative ladies around him.

The Architect:

Rodrigo Santibañez is a man full of surprises. He studied and lived half of his life in Santiago, then got tired of the buzz of the city and decided to go back to his roots: “Yes, I had everything in Santiago, a great job, a nice apartment, money but at one point I could not resist the calling of the blood anymore and I came back.”

With his wife and little son, they live in two Rukas he has built with his own hands. Without question, he is the construction specialist of the community. Sitting down with him, he will share his food, his knowledge, and his wisdom with you. Meanwhile, his six-year-old son will share his newest playlist from his iPod with you.

In Nueva Imperial, this is not perceived as a contrast. The Mapuche are not stuck in the past, they have embraced the present. Their project would be unthinkable without modern means of communication. Even more so, they have learned how to use it to their advantage.

Yes, the Mapuche are still proud of their culture of soil and their history as a warrior tribe. But instead of burning down villages, they have decided to fight for the preservation of their culture. And luckily, they have decided to share it with us!

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