We’ve been living in Chile for about 16 years now and no matter how long that seems there are still so many things left to learn. One such thing is the Mapuche culture.
When I first heard about them I thought about how amazing it would be to belong to that specific tribe. I invisioned Lautaro, a Mapuche leader that was brutally killed by the Spaniards, and thought about how incredible it would be to have a warrior like him as part of my family, after all, who doesn’t want to belong to a real live superhero lineage?
When I finally got the chance to see the Mapuches up-and-personal I discovered that they didn’t wear their ancestry as proudly as I thought they would, as a matter of fact, most Mapuches (the ones living in modern times) will never mention their indigenous background, even when asked. However, not everyone is like that, but the majority rules.
A little Mapuche background
“Mapu” = land + “che” = people >> Mapuche
The Spanish invasion destroyed most indigenous cultures in South America, but The Mapuche of Chile and western Argentina continued fighting for more than 100 years. In 1641 a treaty was finally signed by the Spanish government confirming Mapuche independence and their land rights. All seemed well until more than 100 years later a new independent Chile and Argentina began their personal little war against the Mapuches.
Mapuche people have a great love and respect for the land and their natural environment. According to Mapuche belief, it is from these elements that the divine family emanates to create and sustain man and Nature. This deep respect is expressed in their clothing and jewelry, and can be fully enjoyed in the woven clothing made by the Mapuche women.
After Spanish invasion, many indigenous tribes were forced to use hats, pants, and other clothing to dress more “civilized”.
Weaving symbols into Mapuche Clothing
Among one of the most beautiful customs that lives on in Chilean culture is Mapuche weaving. It goes back to colonial times when women would weave symbols into clothing used a large upright loom. They’d incorporate these woven symbols into hand-woven blankets, woven ponchos, and woven bags. Weaving is to date, an exclusively feminine task done by expert female weavers. Before Spanish settlers invaded their lands, Mapuches would use llama wool or guanaco wool to weave ponchos for the men and create other woven clothing for themselves, but once Spaniards introduced the sheep into Chilean landscape, its wool became the more widely used.
The patterns that are woven into Mapuche clothing were made by dyeing the yarn indigo before weaving. Wherever white was desired, yarns were tightly covered to resist the dye. This way the piece of clothing that they were weaving would have the colors they expected. Mapuche women would use vegetables and minerals to dye wool and were even known to have used fermented urine to fix colors.
Woven Mapuche Symbols
Mapuche clothing is covered in geometrical symbols that represent specific objects
Here are 2 common symbols woven into Mapuche clothing.