Pope John Paul II meets Mapuche leaders

By Reynaldo Mariqueo - Aukiñ - January/June 1988

Pope John Paul II and a Mapuche Machi  

On April 5th last year there was a historic meeting between His Holiness John Paul II and the Mapuche people of Chile, and a few days later this dialogue was continued with their fellow Mapuches on the other side of the Andes mountains in Viedma, Argentina. His Holiness had specifically requested a meeting with our people, which is a clear recognition of our Nation by the Holy See. In a part of his message, the Pope said: "My heart is filled with joy at being here today with the people of the Frontier (of Mapuche territory - ed.)... . Today from Temuco, the Pope encourages the Mapuche to preserve, with well-founded pride, the culture of their People, their own traditions, customs, language and values... In defending your identity, you are not only exercising a right, but you are fulfilling a duty: the obligation to transmit your culture to the generations to come, in this way enriching the whole Chilean Nation, with your well-known values: the love of the !and, the unquenchable love for freedom, and the unity of your families. Be aware of the ancestral riches of your People and allow them to bear fruit." And he concluded by recalling that in the past there were priests, especially Fray Diego de Medellin, who publicly denounced the attacks to which the indigenous people were subjected: "Also today the Church wishes to support you in your demands, with respect to your legitimate rights, so far as this does not cause you to forget your obligations."

Felipe Mai, chosen by the Church, welcomed the Pope in the name of the Mapuche people, saying: "In this hour of grief we are united in seeing the importance of the organizations which defend our rights to land and fair treatment", and he added, "We wish to be instrumental in the determination of our destiny as a people, and we are striving for our unity.we want the Law, the other Chileans and World Opinion to respect our identity." He concluded his speech of welcome by saying: "We aspire to recognition as a People by the Chilean Constitution, so that our true history can be made known, so that we will be respected and not abused, so that our people can be consulted when laws which affect us are drafted, so that our culture will be respected, starting from an adequate education system which encourages our identity and protects our land."

Three days later, in Viedma, John Paul II said: "Give thanks to the Lord, for the values and traditions of your culture, and make every effort to promote it.", and he also stated: "The Pope will always be on your side". The Bishop of Viedma, Miguel Esteban Hesayne, greeted the Pope at the local airfield with the words: "Those who were once masters of this land have been enslaved and scorned. The descendants of the Mapuche, even today, find themselves confined to inhospitable reservations or scattered in the outskirts of our big cities. We have yet to put right the wrongs committed throughout our history." And he added, addressing His Holiness: "Your visit is a light of hope which will allow our Mapuche brothers to take effective peaceful steps towards real and indisputable ownership of their land". He ended his statement by saying: "From Patagonia we want to commit ourselves to following the path of faithfulness to the Gospel", and he asked for "forgiveness because as a Church, we have not always identified ourselves with the poor, the needy and the oppressed."

For their part the Argentine Mapuches gave a letter to the Holy Father, in which they begin by stating: "The grief through which our fathers and grandfathers lived still remains in our hearts". They denounced the genocide which began with the 'Conquista del Desierto'('Conquest of the Desert') at the end of last century, when the Argentine Army occupied their territory by force, almost wiped out the indigenous population, and put an end to the independence of the Mapuche Nation: "A campaign waged by military force, in which the Church was an accomplice in the subjugation of our People; Nevertheless we feel that today, slowly, the true Church is coming into being, and is asking what the demands of our People are; For us the land is our lifeblood. The lands which were stolen from us must be returned if justice is to be done. We want to be able to teach our children to speak their own language, freely and proudly, and we want everyone to know our true history." Calling on John Paul II, the letter with about 1000 signatures ended by saying: "May your visit be a light which shines with the Spirit of God on our oppressors, so that the eyes of their hearts may be opened, and so we may live in justice and truly be brothers."

The effect retrospectively, one year later, of the visit of John Paul II can be regarded as positive, as church groups in both countries have taken a more understanding attitude towards the historical demands of the Mapuche Nation for justice and freedom. This change of heart runs parallel to the official policy of the Holy See towards the aspirations of indigenous nations world-wide, as can be concluded from the speech by the Vatican's observer Father Carlos Soria before the Working Group on Indigenous Populations of the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations in Geneva, in August 1987. The representative of the Holy See urged the Working Group to adopt the Encyclical Populorum Progresi (The Progress of the Peoples) as a basis for the Principles of the Universal Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People which will eventually be presented to the General Assembly of the United Nations for its approval. A part of Father Soria's document states: "Worldwide solidarity must allow all peoples to reach the position of being able to determine their own destiny; We look to the day when international relations are a source of mutual respect, friendship and collaboration; this call is a legitimate one." He added: "In addition, the indigenous populations, in the midst of other peoples and nations; have a right and a duty to be in control of their own destiny and to take an active role in the life of their respective human communities." This international body is in its 5th Period of Sessions, which is expected to finish in 1992, 500 years after the arrival of the first Spanish colonists on the Continent of America, which was the beginning of the destruction of complex and advanced civilizations, thousands of years old, of the occupation of their territory, and of the enslavement and killing of millions of human beings.

Many Mapuche organizations on both sides of the Andes sent information to the Holy Father, explaining their reality and their most heartfelt aspirations, and asking him to intervene in the face of so many injustices. Before his visit on February 10th, the Comite Exterior Mapuche, the organization of Mapuches in exile, also sent an open letter, which was widely commented on in five continents and was produced in English, French, German and Spanish. The full text is as follows:-

Your Holiness
Pope John Paul II
Vatican City

Bristol, 10th February 1987

Your Holiness,

We are a group of Mapuches, who are an indigenous minority from the Southern Cone of America. We have had our basic rights to an independent development and existence denied, our land has been invaded, and our cries for justice, autonomy and self-determination have been ignored. Indeed, we are denied the right to be ourselves, since we are merely considered to be "raw materials for other people's use."

We, the Mapuches living in exile in Algeria, Argentina, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Holland, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, were forced into this sad situation as a result of the 1973 Military Coup in Chile. As religious Mapuche - many of us are Roman Catholic, and others, followers of our ancestral spiritual vision - we are respectfully writing to Your Holiness in view of your intended visit to Chile and Argentina. We wish to bring to the attention of Your Holiness the terrible predicament in which we, the indigenous people of Chile, find ourselves.

In the middle of the last century, when the Republics of Chile and Argentina chose to disregard the treaties which had been made between the Mapuche Nation and the Spanish Crown, and were jointly preparing to invade our territory in Araucanía and Patagonia, the newspaper 'Catholic Review', representing the Catholic Church in Santiago, came to our defence: "... we see the press quite openly and shamelessly demanding that the Military invade the region of Araucanía and bring to its conclusion by force the odious work of conquest. This lunacy has outraged all men of conscience." Your church has condemned, and on occasion acted against, injustice, and we therefore recognize that, as ever, it holds out for us the hope of justice and freedom.

At the time of writing, the Mapuche community constitutes around 10 percent of Chile's overall population -that is to say, around one million people, and in some southern provinces such as Cautin, the rural population is 70 percent Mapuche. We represent one of the essential components of the mixing of different races experienced by the Chilean population throughout its history. The Mapuche population, ever since the colonizing invasion of the 16th Century, has been subjected to a process of integration and assimilation, first into the colonial society, and then, during the 19th Century, into the Chilean Republic.

This process of integration is riddled with injustice, discrimination, confiscation of land, and legalized atrocities (as reported by the Synod of Chilean Bishops, in 1968). A corollary of this process has been the problematic economic, social and cultural situation faced by today's Mapuche people: the gradual loss of our cultural identity, insufficient land and resources, a lack of technical and financial help, and widespread poverty as a result of this. The Mapuche have been forced to move to industrialized areas in search of subsistence. There they are subjected to inhuman conditions in shanty towns, where they are discriminated against socially, racially and culturally.

Today our people, under the Military Government, are experiencing some of the worst times this century. All their communities have been split up against their will, thwarting their means of production as well as their way of life. The law is oblivious to the existence of indigenous groups in Chile. Many of our brothers have been intimidated, arbitrarily imprisoned and murdered, or else forced into exile. In view of this unjust situation: -

Very Holy Father, we, as indians, have been oppressed and discriminated against for many centuries by a society that neither respects nor recognizes our identity, denies us our basic human rights and has condemned us to a life of poverty and degradation. We therefore ask for a word of encouragement and the prospect of a fulfilled life for our Mapuche brethren in Chile and Argentina.


Reynaldo Mariqueo
For the Comite Exterior Mapuche in Europe,
Africa and America.

Published: Aukiñ - Boletin del Comite Exterior Mapuche
Number 14 - January/June 1988

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