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Shamans weave myth and history to rewrite story of a subjugated people

Mapuche shaman Francisca Kolipi.

Mapuche shaman Francisca Kolipi is the subject of a new book by UB anthropologist Ana Mariella Bacigalupo. Photo: Courtesy of Ana Mariella Bacigalupo.

The Mapuche of Chile manipulate memory to their own advantage

By Rachel Raimondi

Release Date: October 29, 2013

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Ana Mariella Bacigalupo

Ana Mariella Bacigalupo

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Mapuche shaman Francisca Kolipi.
“Even though Chileans hold socio-political and economic sway over the Mapuche through the nation state and the reservation system, the history told by the Mapuche describes, in powerful terms, their spiritual dominance over the Chilean colonizers.”
Ana Mariella Bacigalupo, associate professor of anthropology
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- If you ask the Mapuche people of south-central Chile, they will tell you the Chilean history books have their story all wrong.

The Spanish-dominated Chileans write the “official” histories, which define the Mapuche, the largest indigenous group in Chile, as cultural outliers, a subjugated and often hostile people living in the past, who are under their dominion but resist assimilation.

The Mapuche, on the other hand, consider the Chileans invaders and seek autonomy, recognition of rights and recovery of their stolen lands. They employ mythohistory and shamanism to preserve and protect their own self-definition in the face of its denial by powerful forces.

How they accomplish this is described in a new book by ethnologist Ana Mariella Bacigalupo, PhD, associate professor of anthropology at the University at Buffalo.

“The Lives of Francisca Kolipi: Mapuche Shamans and Mythohistory in Southern Chile” describes important aspects of Mapuche history through the story of Francisca Kolipi, a prominent Mapuche machi, or shaman, and her community, with whom Bacigalupo has worked for more than 20 years.

The book explores how Mapuche shamans experience time and history through dreams, visions, and experiences of possession and rebirth, and how their communities understand and narrate local history through shamanic biographies and mythohistories, which Bacigalupo says are simultaneously linear and cyclical.

The mythohistories weave linear-dominant Chilean history with elements of the Mapuche mythologies to produce a new story of their traditions, victories and survival in the face of colonial suppression. In this way, they redefine events that injured and marginalized them, she says. 

“What is unique about these mythohistories,” Bacigalupo says, “is that the way they challenge this dominant linear political and economic history is by prioritizing spirituality over politics.

“So, even though Chileans hold socio-political and economic sway over the Mapuche through the nation state and the reservation system,” she says, “the history told by the Mapuche describes, in powerful terms, their spiritual dominance over the Chilean colonizers.”

Bacigalupo has worked for many years among the Mapuche and written extensively about other aspects of their culture. To study this particular phenomenon, she served as a ritual assistant to Kolipi, participating in the woman’s everyday life for five years.

Kolipi, who died in 1996, referred to Bacigalupo’s book as her “bible,” as it contains the stories the anthropologist recorded about her life, family, relationship with the community and her powers and spiritual significance as a shaman. Bacigalupo says Kolipi believed that the book would “store” her power, facilitate its circulation among the Mapuche, and so enable her to communicate with them after her death.  

Bacigalupo says that to understand why Kolipi was revered, it is important to know that during her life as a machi she famously summoned ancestral spirits to challenge power inequalities, resist Chilean state agents and heal Mapuche people. She also was known for hexing enemies.

“The text materializes Kolipi’s spirit in the same way that ritual, relics and scriptures are experienced by believers as summoning divine presence, and the Mapuche believe her powers can be extracted from the book and used for healing and to bring positive change,” Bacigalupo says.

“This is accomplished,” she says, “through a ritual in which successor machi smoke and chant over the text, thus giving Kolipi a platform from which to ‘speak’ after death.”  

In order for the Mapuche to employ Kolipi’s powers, however, they had to bring her back from the oblivion to which they previously had assigned her.

“When a particular machi dies,” Bacigalupo says, “the community willfully ‘erases’ him or her from its collective memory.

“After her death, the Mapuche ‘forgot’ Kolipi,” she says, “because, although she was very powerful, her story evoked painful memories of factionalism, and accusations by some that she used her shamanic powers for personal gain.

“It was not until 2008 that the community ‘remembered’ Kolipi in an altered, mythohistorical form: that of a compassionate shaman who inspired peace and prosperity,” says Bacigalupo. “And once that was accomplished, they could use her teachings, evoke her memory and promote change by employing the spiritual power she manifested in her lifetime.

“Mapuche shamanic mythohistories are not another example of a ‘cold’ society,’ as defined by Levi-Strauss, which seeks to negate history and minimize change in an attempt to re-establish equilibrium and continuity,” Bacigalupo says.

“Rather, they are culturally contextualized forms of historical consciousness that connect past, present and future in novel ways,” she says.

“They allow the community to regain control over their present and future, and justify positive change through references to their own superior spiritual powers. By challenging traumatic histories through the creation of mythohistorical biographies like that of Kolipi,” she says, “the Mapuche reinforce their sense of immortality and equality with Chileans.”

Bacigalupo is the author of five books on Mapuche culture, including this one, and 48 journal articles and book chapters on history, religion, indigenous politics, ritual and healing, gender and sexuality.

For more information on “The Lives of Francisca Kolipi: Mapuche Shamans and Mythohistory in Southern Chile,” contact Bacigalupo at anab@buffalo.edu.

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