Referred to as the "Araucanos" by the Spanish, a moniker thought to be rooted in their name for the region (and widely considered derogatory today), in the native language "Mapuche" means "People of the Earth," and as the indigenous inhabitants of central Chile and parts of Argentina, these resilient natives survived countless incursions and hardships over the course of their nearly 2500 year history.
As a loose collaboration of several geographically diverse groups (including the Northern Picunche, Southern Huilliche, and the Moluche of central Chile) the Mapuche were bound by their shared traditions and societal practices, only coming together when needed for the purposes of trade or to unite against outside threats.
Before the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors in the early 16th Century, these threats chiefly came from the Inca Empire in the northern reaches of Chile. Powerful and well-organized, the Inca spent years establishing settlements throughout newly captured territory in Chile.
The expansion efforts of the Inca eventually culminated in the "Battle of the Maule," meeting an army of some 20,000 Mapuche warriors at the Maule River. After a multi-day battle left neither side with a clear advantage, the Inca ultimately abandoned their push south with the Mapuche claiming victory over the invaders. As history tell us, their stalemate here marked a turning point, as the Inca made no further gains into the Mapuche territory following this pivotal battle.
When not bound by warfare, the Mapuche lived for hundreds of years in disparate farming communities throughout Chile. Despite their shared traditions and culture, at this point in time the Mapuche encompassed a great many independent villages, each ruled by their own local chief.
These early settlements were heavily reliant on basic agricultural practices, largely using slash and burn techniques to clear woodland areas for their crops (with potatoes being the staple). As time went on and the Mapuche slowly expanded their domain from Chile into Argentina, they adapted to a more nomadic lifestyle.
With the arrival of the Spanish in 1536, the Mapuche were forced not only to advance their understanding of military tactics and strategy, but their society as a whole shifted as a result of the early Spanish conquests. Faced with the atrocities of war and displacement from their homes, the Mapuche shifted from an agricultural-based subsistence and economic structure to incorporate a much greater reliance on hunting and gathering as they suffered under the Conquistadors. The Spanish were responsible for introducing a variety of non-native livestock during this period, including the first horses ever seen on the continent. The Mapuche were left with no choice but to adapt, and so they did.
Over the course of countless skirmishes fought throughout the next decade, the Spanish led by governor Pedro De Valdivia slowly made inroads against the Mapuche, seizing large portions of their territory. It was during this period that the most famous war chief of the Mapuche, Lautaro, first rose to prominence.
Captured by the Spanish and forced into servitude by Valdivia, Lautaro learned firsthand the methods and tactics of the Conquistadors, most notably becoming a skilled horseman himself. When he finally managed to escape, Lautaro returned to the Mapuche with this newfound knowledge of the Spanish, and was elevated to the position of vice-war chief soon after his return. With the Spanish continuing their growth into the Mapuche territories, they saw no alternative but assemble their forces for all-out war.
In 1553, Lautaro and another Toqui known as Caupolican attacked the Spanish fort in the town of Tucapel with some 6,000 Mapuche warriors, overrunning the settlement and razing it before the Spanish could reinforce their position. This marked the start of a conflict with the Spanish that would stretch across nearly 300 years of history, before the Chilean War of Independence eventually freed the nation of Chile from Spanish rule once and for all.
By the mid-19th century, the Mapuche were no longer faced with threats from abroad but now had an equally problematic concern with encroaching Chilean settlements. As the Chilean government sought to rebuild and expand local industries, particularly agriculture, once again the Mapuche found their territory under siege.
Unlike the Spanish conquests, the nation of Chile initially sought to incorporate the Mapuche communities "peacefully" by simply annexing their territories and forcing out the local inhabitants whenever necessary. This of course drove the displaced locals into poverty and left them with little choice but to rebel against their forced resettlement. An ongoing campaign of skirmishes greatly reduced the population of the Mapuche as the Chilean armies looted and pillaged their lands, destroying crops and seizing livestock as they progressed. Outright war continued for more than a decade as Chile slowly consolidated the nation.
By some accounts, the overall population of the Mapuche people was reduced by more than 50%, leaving less than 100,000 remaining by the dawn of the 20th century. It can be said with certainty that the Mapuche suffered greatly as a result of the government's efforts, displacing thousands from their ancestral homelands.
In the present, many among the Mapuche continue to fight for greater equality and recognition of their culture and traditions. Despite having more than 1,000,000 citizens claiming Mapuche ancestry, underrepresentation within the Chilean government has made it difficult for the Mapuche to voice their concerns. Sporadic protests since the 1990s have often resulted in violence, with the government declaring many native activists to be terrorists. Like many indigenous groups who were forced from their lands during periods of foreign and domestic development, the Mapuche mainly seek to have their territory returned to them along historical boundaries. Although public awareness of their concerns has grown in recent years, their struggle continues to this day.