A question of Reconciliation – Mapuches, the Chilean State and the Jesuits

September 29th, 2017

A question of Reconciliation – Mapuches, the Chilean State and the Jesuits

The Mapuches are an indigenous group that has lived in the Chilean south since before the Spanish conquerors arrived. Even when the Inca Empire tried to colonize the South of Chile, they couldn’t manage to enter the Araucanía, where the Mapuches were settled. They didn’t want any foreign culture or power to disrupt their own way of life and culture. In the XVI century, as soon as the Spanish arrived and started dominating the territory, they too encounter the fierce resistance of the Mapuches. Since that very moment and with varying degrees of intensity and levels of conflict, the Mapuches have been defending their land, their dignity and their way of life. After a confrontation between the Mapuches and Spaniards that lasted more than 250 years, the Chilean State continued with let’s say, the same confrontation. In the XIX century and as soon as we were an independent country, the State came up with the idea of “Pacifying the Araucanía”, this was in summary not a pacification strategy but a system of giving the Mapuche’s land to German immigrants and colonisers. The State bought land to the Mapuche’s leaders but with very dubious and in transparent terms. They weren’t fair negotiations, considering the Mapuche leaders could barely read or understand the terms of the agreements. At the end, the Araucanía was not pacified and the conflict continued, and it still does now.

In my own view and analysis, the problem has always been that we, as Chileans, and I am sure it was the same with the Spaniards, have been ‘othering’ the Mapuches for a long time. We have seen them with Western or ethnocentric eyes. However, this gives room to a deeper analysis and what I wanted to write about today is how the Jesuits have been involved with the issue. Their involvement brings a light of hope to a very old and complex conflict. It was in fact, already in the beginning of the XVII Century, that the Jesuits starred in one of the strategies to stop the conflict, the famous “Defensive War”. Father Luis de Valdivia, a Jesuit, proposed a new way, non-violent. He planned a static frontier, separating the Spanish zone from the Indigenous zone, permitting none but missionaries to enter the south from the Spanish side. His idea was to stop the ‘Encomienda’ of Mapuches (their forced labour) and to evangelize the people. Although some successful meetings and periods of peace followed, due to a number of factors, the conflict and war continued after some years. Nevertheless, 400 years later, the Jesuits haven’t stopped in their efforts to end the conflict.

Last week, Felipe Berrios SJ, a charismatic and influential Jesuit in the Chilean province, for some a little rebellious, was asked to intermediate between the Chilean State and some Mapuches. We need to bear in mind that during the last few years the violence from some Mapuche extremists has reached unprecedented levels. Meanwhile, people now and more than ever perceive that extremist violence comes from the whole Mapuche group, thus confusing this violence with the Mapuche’s genuine demand for recognition as a culture and indigenous group. As a result, their demands are undermined and social division, inequality and discrimination towards the ethnic group is deepened.
The news that Fr Berrios was going to intermediate is still polemic, and there is indeed a big part of the Chilean society criticising his involvement in the conflict. Let me tell you why. It is a sensitive issue. The group he was asked to start a dialogue with, is a group of Mapuches detainees that have been more than 100 days on a hunger strike, and that is accused of setting fire to a Church while there was a mass being said inside. It certainly touches our very core.

However, I still stand with Fr Berrios and his willingness to dialogue. First of all, we must remember that we are all innocent until proven guilty. The detainees are in prison while the investigations are underway. They are striking for their release and for their freedom until the case against them is proved. Although the accusations are shocking and for a person that attends mass certainly scary, we can’t forget that everyone deserves justice and an equal treatment under the law. The detainees, through the hunger strike, are demanding social justice. And even in the case the detainees were to be found guilty, as Catholics we need to be open to reconciliation and forgiveness.
The second reason that I stand with Fr Berrios and his intermediation, is that I believe Jesuits can provide invaluable help in the in the reconciliation process between the detainees and the State, but even more, between the Mapuches and the Chilean society. I am a believer that the Jesuits example in intercultural dialogue, reconciliation and promotion of social justice can help us in repairing the wounds that a division that shouldn’t even exist has caused.

Clarisa Reichhard
29th September 2017