History, Education, and “Mapuche Terrorist Conflict” in Chile

by Cristobal Madero and Daniel Cano

In August 2015, a telephone rings in the history department of an elite high school in Santiago, Chile. After several unanswered calls, Marcela, one of the history teachers, finally picks up the phone. It only takes us a few minutes to convince her to participate in a program on conflict resolution that the authors of this article designed to educate the misinformed Chilean upper class about the so-called “Mapuche terrorist conflict” in the Araucanía Region of southern Chile.

We named the program Kuykuitin, which means “building bridges” in Mapudungun, the language of the Mapuche people. Kuykuitin is a pilot project to provide history teachers from the wealthiest 5 percent of the country with a cross-cultural learning experience at a school inside the conflict zone. “An intercultural experience with the Mapuche for history teachers?” Marcela asked from the other side of the phone. “Where do I sign up?”

The Conflict

Today, the Mapuche people are fighting to recover their territorial rights in the Araucanía Region. In these efforts, they confront forestry companies as well as the military. The consequences of the conflict are dramatic. Levels of poverty, unemployment, domestic violence, and illiteracy in this region are the highest in the country.

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The Quebrada de Cura coastline in Southern Chile. (Photo by Cristobal Madero.)

Moreover, the mass media labels Mapuche protests as “terrorist,” misleading the general public and encouraging the spread of violence. The economic consortiums that control the forestry industry in the region also own the national mass media. This relationship fuels the conflict, protects specific economic interests, and validates military intervention against the Mapuche.

The roots of this problem run much deeper, however. Experts in the social sciences agree that the current conflict in the Araucanía Region is an expression of ongoing colonialism that favors national development over indigenous rights, thereby increasing violence in Mapuche territory.

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Mapuche ritual tools. (Photo by Sebastian Tuma.)

 The Project

Against this backdrop, we considered how Chilean history is taught and the role the Mapuche people play as “invisible actors.” We questioned history teachers’ relevance in the public debate as vectors of national narratives that fail to explain the historic roots of the current Mapuche conflict. We also reflected on the fact that young students from the Chilean elite have the limited exposure to the conflict in their day-to-day lives.

Based on these questions, we designed Kuykuitin to bring history teachers from elite high schools together with their teaching peers in areas of the Araucanía Region affected by the violence. The teachers from Santiago also lived with Mapuche families who hosted them during the seven-day program.

Thanks to support from the Center for Latin American Studies at UC Berkeley and a grant from the Tinker Foundation, as well as the enthusiastic participation of families from the Mapuche communities of Ranquilhue, Ponotro, and Primer Agua, the schools in the Municipality of Tirúa, and Jesuit missionaries working in the region, we invited more than 10 elite high schools from Santiago to participate in the Kuykuitin program. In the end, we selected six teachers from four different schools.

The participating teachers shared “as equals” with the Mapuche families who hosted them. The families’ composition varied: some families were entirely Mapuche, while others were not. They also held diverse opinions about the political situation of their people: some maintained close connections with more radical groups, and others were critical about these groups. Likewise, some of the Mapuche families sought to preserve and honor indigenous values and ways of life, while others rejected tradition. The participating teachers reflected on these differences in our daily debrief meetings, but they agreed unanimously that these encounters had made them truly mindful of the complexity of the so-called “Mapuche conflict” that exists today in our country.


The town of Tirua, in the Bío Bío Region of Chile. (Photo by Sebastian Tuma.)

The experience of sharing every school day with peers and students for an entire week expanded the visiting teachers’ vision of the conflict. Like the host families, the school settings also varied: some of the schools were large, others were small; a few of the schools were in rural environments and others were in the heart of the village. Some of the staff and students welcomed the teachers from Santiago with open arms, while others were more reluctant. At the end of the week, the teachers in the program agreed that the experience had helped them to better understand the importance of their role as educators. They viewed themselves as potential channels to transmit a more nuanced understanding of the Chilean–Mapuche conflict to their students, from the perspective of history as well as their personal experiences as participants in the Kuykuitin program.

Outside the classrooms, we held meetings with different parties who have some relation to the conflict in the local territory. They included Mapuche staff working in the municipal government of Tirúa, beginning with the indigenous mayor, Adolfo Millabur. We also introduced the teachers to Mapuche intellectuals, like Juanita Paillalef, a Mapuche activist and director of the Mapuche Museum in the town of Cañete, the historian Fernando Pairican, and the poet Leonel Lienlaf. We also met with Relmu Witral, the Mapuche Association of Artisan Weavers, and with Jesuit priests who have worked in Tirúa for 20 years. These encounters took the form of intensive conversations — nutram in Mapudungun — that encouraged the teachers to collaborate with those communities, thereby offering various perspectives on the ongoing conflict. As Marcela (our original contact who became a Kuykuitin participant) explained, the nutram gave the teachers an opportunity to engage with the Mapuche communities in a “less paternalistic and more horizontal fashion.”

The participating teachers all taught students belonging to a specific population, both in terms of their age and socioeconomic status: 10th-grade students attending elite high schools whose families belong to the country’s top 5-percent income group. In Chile, 10th-grade history curriculum includes the most material on Mapuche culture and society, yet their proximity to economic and cultural power is likely to expose these young people to a one-dimensional view of the conflict. In addition, students of this social class tend to have more negative perceptions about the Mapuche people. A 2014 study from the Instituto Nacional de la Juventud (INJUV, National Youth Institute) entitled “Percepciones de un Conflicto” (Perceptions of a Conflict) shows that young people from the highest socioeconomic level consider the conflict as less relevant compared to those from lower socioeconomic levels. Our own data reveals that upper-class students associate the Mapuche people first with the concept of “conflict” (37 percent), followed by “our origins” (35 percent), and “discrimination” (15 percent). Twenty percent say that they have discriminated against Mapuche people, but 29 percent disagree or strongly disagree with the assertion that the Mapuche are violent people.


The school Escuela Pichi Lafquenche. (Photo by Sebastian Tuma.)

 The Impact

The impact of the program can be measured in many ways. Here, we present an impact assessment that looks at the perception of the conflict held by elite high school students of the participating teachers. Under the supervision of a teacher, 601 students answered a self-administered survey that was given twice: first in March 2016 (Sample 1) and then in November 2016 (Sample 2), immediately before and after we implemented Kuykuitin in April 2016. We divided the group in two sub-groups: a test group made up of students of the teachers participating in Kuykuitin (54 percent of the total sample) and a control group of students from the same high schools whose teachers did not participate in Kuykuitin (46 percent of the sample).

We asked all the students about their opinions and perceptions concerning different elements of the conflict. The evidence of our study revealed statistically significant changes in the opinions and perceptions of the students in three areas before and after Kuykuitin: 1) the relationship between the Mapuche people and the Chilean government; 2) the Mapuche people; and 3) history classes and their importance for reflecting on the conflict.

Regarding the relationship between the Mapuche people and the Chilean government, 43 percent of the test group agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “The Mapuche people deserve to be acknowledged in a special way by the Chilean government” in Sample 1 (see Figure 1). This percentage increased to 50 percent in Sample 2. More interestingly, when we compared the test group with the control group, the significance of the change was greater. In other words, when we compared the group with itself and with the control group, the results showed that Kuykuitin could have been the key element producing the change in the students’ opinions and perceptions. This trend applies for all the findings that follow.

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Three statements were related to opinions about the Mapuche people (see Figure 2). One reads “The Mapuche people are responsible for the conflict.” Students in the treatment group who agreed or strongly agreed with the statement decreased from 32 percent to 24 percent between the intervals. With regards to the statement “The Mapuche people take advantage of the Chilean government,” students showed an almost 50-percent decrease in agreement before and after Kuykuitin (from 22 percent to 12 percent). Finally, 50-percent fewer students in the treatment group agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “The Mapuche people are, generally speaking, a violent people,” (from 29 percent to 15 percent) from Sample 1 to Sample 2.

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We stated earlier that history classes, curriculum, and teachers are all essential for transferring knowledge of history from one generation to another. For this reason, we included a question in the survey about how much students valued their history classes as a means of reflecting on the conflict in the south of Chile. Students in the test group showed an increase of 150 percent (24 percent to 67 percent) from Sample 1 to Sample 2, with regards to their opinion about how much their history classes helped them reflect on the conflict (see Figure 3).

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The Future

Chile can certainly develop first-rate plans in favor of intercultural education. It can even design the best public policies for teaching history at the high school level or a curriculum that addresses the Chilean–Mapuche conflict in detail. These are all worthwhile, and indeed urgent, goals. Yet nothing can replace what a history teacher can gain through an immersion experience like Kuykuitin, which allows teachers to understand firsthand the complexity of the Chilean­–Mapuche conflict.

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Marcela Salazar, a teacher from Santiago (center), with a student group in Tirua. (Photo by Sebastian Tuma.)

When the classroom door closes and instruction begins, only the students and their teachers remain inside. In the hands of these teachers lies the future of the next generations of students. If these students become wise, empowered citizens, it will be thanks, in part, to the encouragement of wise, empowered teachers. Kuykuitin seeks to promote opportunities of empowerment for those teachers and through them, their students. Therefore, we believe that Kuykuitin might be a way to change the course of the Chilean–Mapuche conflict.

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Cristobal Madero is a Ph.D. candidate in Education Policy and Organizations at UC Berkeley. He researches the changing meaning and possibilities of the teaching profession at the secondary level. Cristobal received a 2016 Tinker Summer Research Grant, awarded by the Center for Latin American Studies. 


Daniel Cano photo

Daniel Cano is a Ph.D. candidate in History at Georgetown University. His research has focused in the history of Latin America and indigenous communities.

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