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Celebrating Indigenous Cultures in Chile

This week is Indigenous Peoples Week, a time for celebrating indigenous cultures from around the world, which culminates in the United Nations’ International Day of the World's Indigenous People this coming Friday 9th August. Chile has a rich and complex history involving a range of indigenous peoples, so this week we’re celebrating by taking a closer look at some of those communities.



aymaraWho were they?
Aymara is the name for a collective of various peoples of the Altiplano, a high plateau in the Andes Mountains that extends throughout Bolivia, southern Peru and northern Chile. First colonised by the Inca, the Aymara later came under the rule of the invading Spanish. They are particularly known for their rich musical tradition, which makes use of drums and different kinds of flutes and panpipes and is often accompanied by dancers dressed in vibrant costumes and masks.

Where are they now?
The Aymara culture is still going strong today, largely in Bolivia and Peru although there are said to be around 20,000 people who identify as Aymara living in Chile. Much of the time, those living in cities are indistinguishable from any other Chilean, having lost many of the cultural markers of their ancestors. In the Altiplano, however, it is still possible to encounter Aymara people living a more traditional way of life, wearing Aymara clothing and speaking the Aymara language.


mapuche celebrationWho were they?
The Mapuche are a group of indigenous peoples from south-central Chile and Argentina. The Mapuche once held much of the land in central Chile and although their lands shrank significantly with the arrival of the Inca, they were never conquered by them. They also resisted the Spanish crown and only finally became part of Chile in the 1880s. For that reason, the Mapuche religion and culture remains strong to this day.

Where are they now?
The Mapuche influence is still felt heavily throughout Chile, the Mapuche haven’t gone anywhere! Large populations of Mapuche people are still concentrated around their traditional heartlands in the Chilean Lake District. However there is also a large number of Mapuche people living in the urban environment of Santiago. The Mapuche influence can be felt especially in Chilean cooking, where a Mapuche-style boiled wheat called mote is frequently used.


kaweskarWho were they?
The Kaweskar were a seafaring nomadic people of western Patagonia at the far southern tip of the South American continent, where they travelled the channels and fjords in their wooden canoes, from the Strait of Magellan to Tierra del Fuego. The Kaweskar lived off fish, sea lions, seals and even on whale meat if they happened to find one washed up on the shore. A beached whale might attract many families to set up camp in one area together for several weeks.

Where are they now?
Sadly, you won’t find many Kaweskar in modern-day Patagonia, as most were wiped out by disease, but there is a tiny remaining population in the isolated hamlet of Puerto Edén, which is only accessible by sea. You can however stay in Kaweskar-inspired lodging at EcoCamp Patagonia, which uses a low-impact dome design based on the Kaweskars’ original dwellings.


selknamWho were they?
Also known as the Ona, the Selknam were an indigenous people of Chilean and Argentinean Patagonia. The Selknam were hardy hunters and were known for wearing few clothes even in the often harsh cold of Patagonia. They are also famed for their male initiation ceremonies where individuals would dress as spirits from their complex belief system.

Where are they now?
Although there were apparently 391 Selknam living in Tierra del Fuego according to a 2001 census, in fact the last surviving full-blood Selknam, Ángela Loij, died in 1974. However, much more is known about the Selknam than about many of Chile and Argentina’s other indigenous peoples and as such there is a wealth of material preserved in both local and national museums.

Rapa Nui

rapa nui dancingWho were they?
Rapa Nui is both the name of the indigenous people of Easter Island and the name they use for the island itself. Quite how the first Polynesian inhabitants of Easter Island arrived there using just small canoes from thousands of kilometres away is not quite understood, but once they arrived they certainly made an impression, carving out the gigantic stone statues for which the island is now famous.

Where are they now?
In spite of epidemics of tuberculosis and smallpox brought by European settlers and the mass kidnapping and enslaving of 1,500 men and women (around half the island’s population at the time!) an indigenous population still remains on Easter Island. Although considered a “special territory” of Chile, many of the indigenous inhabitants continue to fight for the right to self-determination.

Now head over to check out our map showing the heartlands of Chile's indigenous peoples. This is just a small sample of some of Chile’s indigenous peoples, there so many that we don’t have time to cover them all. Why not take a Chile tour and learn more about its human heritage first hand?

In the coming days, in continuation of our celebration of Indigenous Peoples Week, we’ll be publishing an exclusive interview on the Kaweskar people of Patagonia with renowned Chilean Ethno-linguist Oscar Aguilera Faúndez from the University of Chile. Check back soon for his in-depth insights!