Blog Post for Hugo Campbell Sills

If one imagines a book as a net cast to capture readers, then Hugo is one of the best “netted” by my novel.  Had I known him while writing it, the Mapudungun of Arauco would have been far, far better.  Hugo is a man I admire, not only as a polyglot, a consummate linguist and student of Mapudungun, but also as a defender of that remarkable tongue and, above all, the Mapuche people. It was an honor that he asked to be a guest in his blog, which focuses precisely on these, his passions.  So, what I wrote for Hugo was how–improbable as it seems–I came to write about the Mapuche.  Those who read Spanish can go my post on his blog: Novela histórica de ambientación Mapuche: Arauco, de John Caviglia.  For readers of English I translate that post, as what it covers has not previously appeared in these pages.

How I came to write about the Mapuche.  I am now an admirer, student and friend of the Mapuche, but I did not begin that way. Born of a Chilean father and North American mother, I spent most of my first eight years in Santiago and Iquique, Chile, before coming with my family to the United States. I do not recall if I knew little, or nothing, about the Mapuche then, for I remember nothing about them from these early years.

The photo of two innocents below (taken in 1950) is of myself and my brother, MarioJuanito and Mario, dressed for a festival in Iquique. We represent—I must suppose—a Spaniard (myself) and a Mapuche (Mario). One does not have to be a historian, or an anthropologist, to realize immediately that our costumes have almost nothing to do with the clash of cultures that—many years later—I attempted to bring to life in my novel. Rather, we seem modeled after the Hollywood of that era.

My family came to the United States the very year this photo was taken, and for many years thereafter I remained ignorant of the conflict between the invading Spaniards and the indigenous Mapuche which created (and continues to create) the country now called Chile…. I’ve been a gringo for many years, and I continue to be one, but always a Chilean gringo, for the earliest roots are deepest.  Because of that, in my northern life I’ve always been troubled by the fact that my natal land is essentially ignored in the United States—much less known than Mexico, for example, or Colombia (with its drugs and oil), or the Central American countries whose desperate citizens “migrate” to the United States. Likewise here, where many know about Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro—as well as something about the “conquests” of Mexico and Peru—very few have heard about Pedro de Valdivia, and a tiny percentage of these knows that the army of this “conquistador” was annihilated by the Mapuche at the battle of Tucapel.   Neither do they know that this battle began a three hundred year war, and that until the latter 19th century the Bio Bio river was the southern boundary of Chile. Once I learned about this as an adult, our northern ignorance seemed to me both incredible and lamentable, especially if one contrasts the defeat of Valdivia with the lightning victories of Cortés and Pizarro. And so it is that when the time came for me to write a novel I decided to narrate the Spanish invasion of the land of the Mapuche. In English, there are a few books which feature (or include) Valdivia and Inés de Suárez, but not a single historical novel, and so I set about to write the first. I read everything there was (this was before the internet), and the more I read the more I was fascinated by the Mapuche side of the conflict.  Eventually I felt myself compelled to narrate this story from both points of view—Spanish and Mapuche—attempting to recreate faithfully the world and perspective of both peoples.

Recreating the Spanish invasion required much research and much time (thank God for the Library of Congress!), but in the end it was not difficult. For example, the novel begins in Sevilla, from where all the Spanish fleets sailed to the Indies, and there is much written about that city at that time. There are also many images, like the one below. Sevilla_siglo_XVI

Equally, there are enormous quantities of information that allow us to understand the Spaniards of the sixteenth century: Catholicism
(basis of
their world view), their customs and daily life, their food, their hygiene (or lack thereof, from our perspective), etc. And images of all this abound.

More, there are recreations of the invaders…. In Bradenton, Florida, where Hernán de Soto began his catastrophic odyssey, there is a national monument which reconstructs the dwellings erected by the Spaniards where they landed, examples of the clothing they wore, and—among many other Juan, conquistadorthings—their arms (spears, swords, crossbows, an arquebus that they fire for tourists), and of course, the metal that they wore. In the photo, I am the “conquistador” on the right.

Also, there is much written about the principal Spanish characters: Valdivia himself, Inés de Suárez and—among many others—Juan de Cardeña, the secretary to Valdivia whom I chose as an important perspective on the action.

Despite all this information there are many voids in what is documented … so much, and of so many kinds, that I will limit myself to one example–the use of dogs of war by the Spanish.War dogsThere is an entire book (at once grotesque, horrific and fascinating) which dedicates itself to this—Dogs of Conquest, by John Grier Varner—and at the left I offer an illustration of what these armored dogs were like. The use of such dogs by Columbus, Balboa and many others has been thoroughly attested to and illustrated—in the Caribbean, in Mexico, in Central America—in war, to “hunt” humans, and in torture … but never (to my knowledge) against the Mapuche. Nonetheless, in my novel I presuppose that they were taken to Chile, simply because the use of war dogs by the Spanish was so ubiquitous in this “new world.”

Recreating 16th century Mapuche was far more difficult. First, because as they had no writing, the encounter between these two cultures was documented by their antagonists—the Spanish—who depicted them through lenses distorted by presupposition and deep prejudice. Nonetheless, much of what it was to be Mapuche “antes de la peluca y la casaca” (“before the wig and cassock,” in the words of Pablo Neruda) lives on essentially unchanged outside of books. Mapu, the earth itself—which the Mapuche took into their name, as people of the earth—still grows and blooms essentially unchanged, although in endangered refugia.

NahuelbutaThe virgin forest of the Mapuche can yet be admired in a few places like Nahuelbuta, with its enormous peweñ, its coihues, its bamboos, a landscape like no other on earth.

Lago y montaña


Not to mention the lakes, and the volcanos, sacred to the Mapuche.


Building rukaAlso, much Mapuche culture survives, little changed by the centuries—one example is the traditional dwelling, the ruka, which is still being built, as in the photo on the right, which I took near Lake Budi.  And the rich tradition of the Mapuche also lives on—the ngillatun and  machitun being  examples of this. For these traditional ceremonies I drew on anthropological resources. Of the many, one that stands out is Araucanian Child Life and its Cultural Background, by M. Inez Hilge. Shamans of the Foye Tree, by Ana Mariella Bacigalupo, is another.

I also was fortunate enough to be present at a celebration of wetripantu (the Mapuche New Year)—with a ruka, the machi and her kultrun, trutrukas, the foye tree, and dancing Mapuche … captured in the photos below, the second showing the machi from closer.

Dancing Mapuche
Machi ceremony:1








The essence of Mapuche culture is still alive, but of course modern elements have insinuated themselves into the picture—for example (besides the obvious: watches, glasses, shoes, modern dress, modern cloth and modern dyes, and etc.) we notice that the trutruka are tipped with a cow’s horn (an animal introduced by the Spanish). And the machi is dressed in “modern” style, compared to these three machi photographed many years before, themselves more “modern” than the aboriginal Mapuche machi.


Returning to 16th century Mapuche culture involves in many cases, a peeling away of layers of modernity superimposed over tradition.

Palin For example the Mapuche I photographed while  playing their ancient game, palin, by Lake Icalma are barefoot and speaking Mapudungun, but dressed in contemporary clothing.

Another example of this would be Mapuche food. Cocina Mapuche, by Amanda Ibacache, includes many ingredients introduced by the Spanish—wheat, lemons, apples, rice, lentils, as well as beef, horsemeat and mutton (among others)—but there are recipes that without a doubt approximate what the Mapuche ate three centuries ago, based on potatoes, corn, native mushrooms, chicken, llama and etcetera….

But, in the end, there is no Mapuche cultural element that even begins to equal the importance of their language, Mapudungun. Years ago, when I began to research Arauco, I hardly knew a word. So I acquired all the books I 1962 - Moesbach - Gramáticacould, and read them. The Mapudungun of my novel ended up being based largely on two: Idioma Mapuche, by Father Ernesto de Moesbach, and Diccionario Araucano, by Fray Félix José de Augusta. But I must confess that, as there are so many orthographies of Mapudungun, I decided to create my own simplified version, beginning by eliminating Spanish orthography as much as possible, and making the language more immediately accessible to readers of English (presumed to know nothing about the Mapuche and their language).

Arauco is the first novel in English to narrate the incredible story of the invasion of the mapu of Mapuche by the Spanish, and the first in any language which gives equal weight to the Mapuche—to their culture, and their historical figures (such as Lautaro and Michimalongko), as well as to Mapuche that necessarily had to be invented, because the historians were Spanish, and they named few. The novel ends with the extraordinary victory of the Mapuche at the battle of Tucapel. But, as history has revealed, this victory was not an end, but the beginning of a struggle that still continues….

Thanks, Hugo, for giving me the opportunity of participaing in your blog—a celebration of the Mapuche people and of Mapudungun.

Marichi wew!