Ramay Challenges Traditional Narratives of Chilean Oppression

By Griselda Jarquin – Referred to as the “Araucanians” by conquistadores, the Mapuche in south-central Chile was one of the few indigenous groups in South America to avoid Spanish colonization. But the Mapuche people went on to be oppressed by the Chilean state, as Allison Ramay explained on January 12, 2017.

Ramay is an assistant professor of literature at the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile and a researcher at the Center for Intercultural and Indigenous Studies. In her talk, entitled “Transformative Narratives of Mapuche Sovereignty in Nineteenth-Century Chile,” she challenged traditional narratives of the Chilean state’s pacification of the Mapuche.

Those narratives claimed that pacification to be widely supported by the public and hailed as a success for its peaceful execution. Drawing on the work of journalist Pedro Ruiz Aldea, Ramay demonstrated that the occupation of the Araucania from 1861-1881, which was a military takeover that eventually resulted in the removal of Mapuche autonomy, was contested on various levels.

Re-framing a conflict

When the Mapuche resisted colonization, the Bio Bio river served as a border between them and the Spanish invaders. Everything south of the Bio Bio river was Mapuche territory, free from Spanish rule.  After independence from Spain in 1810, the Chilean state turned its attention to expanding its territory and set its sights on the Araucania. Beginning in 1861, the Chilean state sought to incorporate Mapuche territory and launched the occupation or pacification of Araucania. Newspapers at the time framed the conflict as a binary opposition between the capital, Santiago, and the south, claiming that the Chilean government enjoyed widespread support for its efforts to pacify the Mapuche. Ramay showed otherwise.

Her research focuses on Chilean national identity and representation and self-representation of the Mapuche on behalf of non-indigenous and indigenous writers in various types of public discourses (such as ethnographies, historiography, literature, and journalism) and its relationship with the political practices of the Chilean state and its Mapuche subjects from the nineteenth century to the present. Explaining how she discovered Pedro Ruiz Aldea’s published works, Ramay said that she had not found historiographies about Chileans who opposed the Occupation, and so set out to do just that.

Chilean revolutionary

Pedro Ruiz Aldea was born in southern Chile to a wealthy merchant family. In the 1850s, he protested the Chilean government but was spared any punishment due to his familial contacts. Instead, he was exiled to San Francisco. Upon his return to Chile, he wrote Diary of an Outlaw, which compared the labor conditions and treatment of Chileans during the San Francisco Gold Rush with Mapuche indigenous workers in Chile.

As a writer, Ramay said, Ruiz Aldea used satire to challenge the notion that the border between Chile and the Mapuche was a site of violence and instability, and critiqued the Chilean government’s incursions into Mapuche territory. Contemporary newspapers, such as El Mercurio, published stories that claimed that indigenous raids on Chilean towns justified the occupation of Mapuche lands. Drawing on Ruiz Aldea’s 1863 ethnographic text, Ramay demonstrated how he challenged these notions and instead drew upon the history of Mapuche resistance to Spanish colonization, and later to the Chilean state, as evidence that the Mapuche had been provoked into attacking first. Moreover, she argued, his publications contested ideas that the occupation of Mapuche lands were peaceful interactions between the Mapuche and the Chilean state.

Ultimately, in 1881 the Mapuche lost their autonomy and were left with less than five percent of their original landholdings. Ruiz Aldea’s protesting of the Chilean occupation was silenced by subsequent scholars. As Ramay explained, early historiography erroneously labeled Ruiz Aldea as a supporter of the occupation, putting him alongside figures such as General Cornelio Saavedra Rodriguez, who played an instrumental role in the submission of the Mapuche. 

Collective amnesia

Fortunately, twentieth-century historiography fixed this error. But despite these efforts to correct the historical record, dominant hegemonic discourses frame the occupation as a peaceful process. Ramay proposed that recent amnesia is also reflective of collective amnesia, which reveals complicity with hegemonic discourses. She suggested that an emphasis on conflict might help people to release and remember the traumas of the occupation.

Concluding, Ramay posed questions about the role of historical narratives for contemporary notions of healing and recognition. She wrapped up with a discussion of The New Constitution and Indigenous Peoples (2016), which calls for indigenous rights to be valued, recognized and integrated into the creation of a new Chilean constitution.

This event was co-hosted by the Department of Native American Studies and the Hemispheric Institute on the Americas.

Learn more about Allison Ramay at her Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile faculty webpage.

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