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