Transnational meetings & meals of resistance: Palestinian-Chileans show solidarity with the Mapuche, an indigenous nation of South America in active struggle for self-determination 

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I, Devin Atallah, Ph.D., a Palestinian-Chilean psychologist and social conflict and disaster researcher, recently participated in the “First Session of the Mapuche Constituent Assembly” (La Primera Sesión Asamblea Constituyente Mapuche) which took place on November 30, 2016. A “Constituent Assembly”, according to Wikipedia, is a “body or assembly of representatives composed for the purpose of drafting or adopting a constitution”. This first session of the Mapuche Constituent Assembly occurred on top of the Ñielol hill, just outside of the city of Temuco, in southern Chile.

The Mapuche are the largest first nation and the most populous indigenous group in Chile. According to the Chilean census of 2012, over 1.4 million people (approximately 8.7 percent of the total population of Chile) self-identify as Mapuche (Instituto Nacional de Estadísticas, 2012). Currently, most Mapuche reside either in the capital of Chile, Santiago, or in the Araucanía region, which is Chile’s poorest region at the national level (Instituto Nacional de Estadísticas, 2012). Temuco, where this first session of the Mapuche Constituent Assembly occurred, is the capital of this Araucanía region.

I was invited to travel to Temuco and visit the top of the Ñielol hill to attend this historic initial meeting by several participants in one of my ongoing investigations on Indigenous resilience processes in Mapuche communities who are exposed to historical trauma, ongoing racism, and environmental challenges and disasters. I had met these research participants within my role as a consultant and psychology researcher with RUCADUNGUN – “El Centro de Documentacion e Investigacion Indigena” (English Translation: The Center for Indigenous Investigation and Documentation).

These research participants invited me to attend the Constituent Assembly only a few days ago, and explained details of the encounter as a historic and official nonviolent indigenous decolonization process, with the goal of moving towards developing a strong proposal for self-determination with real support from diverse Mapuche social bases, in a context of increased political strife embedded in the long-lasting Mapuche-Chile conflict.

The day I traveled south to participate in this Constituent Assembly, as an invited outsider, observer, and guest, happened to be on November 29th – the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People (resolution 32/40 B). As a multinational, multicultural Palestinian-Chilean United Statesian, the interwoven meanings and opportunities to act with solidarity for decolonization of Mapuche communities and for justice and social healing, overlapped in profound ways, beginning with my journey south.

10:15 p.m. November 29, 2016, International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, Santiago, Chile

I met two colleagues of mine at the Santiago Central Bus Station who were also interested in showing solidarity and participating in the Mapuche Constituent Assembly: (1) Lorena Albornoz, a practicing human rights lawyer and graduate student in anthropology and also researcher with RUCADUNGUN; and (2) Elizabeth Pilquil, director and co-founder of the “La Casa de Salud Ancestral Mapuche KVME FELEN” (English Translation: The House of Traditional Mapuche Health and Healing).

Lorena, Elizabeth, and I took the evening bus, which departed at 10:30 p.m. from Santiago heading to Temuco. During the bus ride we discussed our participation in an event at the “Museo de la Memoria y Derechos Humanos” (English Translation: The Museum of Memory and Human Rights) for the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, and how intense it was to be going from one event focused on showing support and solidarity with Palestinians, to an event showing solidarity with Mapuche. We reflected how meaningful and interconnected our bonds and commitments were to each community in the active struggle for dignity and self-determination.

Elizabeth is a member of the Mapuche community herself, in many ways living in a diaspora-type condition in urban Santiago. Sitting side by side was me, a member of the Palestinian diaspora, and with Lorena, a Chilean lawyer identifying as Mestiza and as an ally to both struggles, yet in very unique ways. Sharing family stories of displacement and migration, healing with herbal secrets, and preserving sacred family recipes, we took advantage of our time together on the bus to plan the menu for a meal and cultural event at the The House of Traditional Mapuche Health and Healing—a meal of resistance which I will share more about at the end of this personal narrative. 

Thus, after discussing how we would outreach to community members and share our beautiful tickets to invite members of the Palestinian-Chilean community and the Mapuche community to come together and feast. We settled on serving mansaf, a traditional a Palestinian dish of lamb, rice, almonds, and yogurt, alongside Mapuche treats such as fried dough with roasted and smoked red hot peppers.

Eventually, we fell asleep.

Cover of the ticket for our “Meals of Resistance” event Devin Atallah and Elizabeth Pilquil were planning to serve Palestinian and Mapuche foods.
(Photo: Ivan Antilef)

7:00 a.m, morning of November 30, 2016, day of the first session of the Mapuche Constituent Assembly, Temuco, Wallmapu, Chile

We arrived into Temuco with the sun emerging from the horizon, just rising over silhouettes of volcanos, so ancient, like messages in a dream. When Lorena, Elizabeth and I got off the bus, we headed straight to the open fruit and vegetable market where there were stands serving out quick breakfast. We enjoyed coffee, fresh eggs, and yerba mate, while meeting our contact there. Our guide showed us through the city streets of Temuco, then we made our way to the base of the Ñielol hill, hoping to reach the top by 8 a.m. when a Mapuche spiritual ceremony was scheduled to begin – a collective blessing and offering for the Mapuche Constituent Assembly to move forward with newen, a Mapuche word and spiritual concept that means “strength”, yet also connotes meanings mapping onto ideas of harmony between the land, people, life, and all things in the universe.

Entrance to Ñielol hill trailhead.
(Photo: Devin Atallah)

We stopped just at the entrance of the trailhead leading up to the top of the Ñielol hill, because we noticed three large military vehicles fully armored and with a clear capacity to break up protests and to even hold numerous potential prisoners. We also passed various parked cars with undercover police stake-out operatives taking pictures of us as we walked by.  As we hiked to the top of the hill, tired from lack of sleep on the bus all night, we tried to avoid feelings of intimidation by the presence of the Chilean military. Instead, we hiked upwards and nourished our excitement from the rise in altitude and our encounters with ancient trees and dense bamboo forest.

Walking up Ñielol. (L) Devin Atallah, (R) Elizabeth Pilquil, and (C) Lorena Albornoz
(Photo: Ivan Antilef)

We made it to the top of Ñielol, just before the Mapuche spiritual ceremony began, which occurred below four statues representing the four generations of Mapuche society: an elder or grandparent, a parent or adult, a youth, and a child. These symbols of transgenerational resilience began our day, where we were invited to participate in the collective spiritual activity (without taking photographs).

10 a.m., Morning of the November 30, 2016, day of the first session of the Mapuche Constituent Assembly, Temuco, Wallmapu, Chile

After the ceremony, we drank more yerba mate, shared snacks and collectively set up a common space for the Mapuche Constituent Assembly to occur, organizing rows of chairs and putting up a large black cloth to shield the participants from the sun. Banners and flags waved in the wind. Finally, the event began, as the leader of the Consejo de Todas las Tierras (English Translation: Mapuche Council of All Lands), Aucán Huilcamán, welcomed all the participants, highlighting that in the spirit of the Coyan – the Mapuche traditional government gathering as a system of sovereignty, participants came voluntarily and of their own individual will yet collective convictions.

Aucán Huilcamán speaking during his opening address to the community.
(Photo: Ivan Antilef)

Aucán addressed the hundreds of Mapuche leaders who were present, young and old, women and men, altogether dedicated to moving forward in achieving the right to self-determination.Aucán addressed allies from other indigenous groups who were present, such as the Aymara from Northern Chile, and also, international observers from Argentina, and national allies fromChile.

In his address, Aucán highlighted the importance of recognizing the Mapuche right to self-determination, which is already formally guaranteed at the international level in the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted on September 13, 2007. Aucán also underscored the importance of recognizing the genocide and theft of Mapuche lives, lands, and livelihoods by the Chilean military in the conquest of the Araucanía at the end of the 19th century. Also, Aucán, and may other Mapuche leaders who stood and spoke, emphasized the importance of international recognition of Mapuche treaties (Coyan) with the Chilean government that dates back hundreds of years and supported in demands that lands are returned and Mapuche laws and traditions can be honored and practiced with dignity.

As one of the leaders said, this day is about being equal in dignity, but different in law (“Igual en dignidad, pero distincto en derecho…”). When elaborating, he explained: Mapuche society requires different tribal laws that protect unique ways of life and relationships with the land, in terms of health, education, conflict resolution, leadership, and even how we organize our leadership and sovereignty, as evidenced in the processes of collective dialogues today itself during this Constituent Assembly.

(Photo: Ivan Antilef)

Elders stood up, took to the center of the circle, and expressed their vision for a free Mapuche identity and lands with respect and dignity. Throughout the dialogues, from the elders to the youth, and from the break-out conversations passing yerbe mate from hand to hand on the sidelines… drinking muday (a ceremonial Mapuche alcoholic drink) from fermented quinoa, I reflected with others on connections between Palestinian geographies of colonization, historical trauma, and collective resilience, and intersections with experiences of the Mapuche. In this very gathering protecting basic human rights, memory, and dignity, I reflected on the defenders of water and dignity of the Standing Rock Sioux, thousands of miles away in North America yet perhaps so near in moments of heart.

(Photo: Ivan Antilef)

Throughout the day, hour upon hour, leaders, families, community members of different generations and genders gathered together and told their stories and shared commitments and their visions for a free and autonomous Mapuche society. An important social political structure in Mapuche communities has been historically, and continues to be today, organized around the Lof, which in Mapudungun (the main language of the Mapuche) means ‘community’ or ‘extended family’ and corresponds to a territorial unit inhabited by a group with kinship relations and lead by a Lonko, or the chief of the Lof.

Mapuche intellectual Dr. Carlos Contreras Pineal, speaking about the importance of Palestinian and Mapuche solidarity.
(Photo: Ivan Antilef)

It is important to highlight that from the 1600s to the 1900s, a long list of Coyan occurred, which were the government meetings of the Mapuche. Many of these Coyan were nation-to-nation agreements, negotiated between the Spanish crown and various Mapuche Lonkos, then later between the Chileans and the Mapuche. These Coyan recognized the independent sovereignty of the Mapuche and even set agreements for trade and are still have validity even today (Contreras, 2002).

Many of the Lofs that spoke in the circle during this Mapuche Constituent Assembly underscored the importance of past Coyan and the need to recognize them as applicable today. Representatives from Mapuche communities across Chile were together, sharing space and words, stories and sentiments, highlighting the need for the Chilean state to formally acknowledge the history of genocide and ethnic cleansing that rendered current Mapuche being as displaced at home, as a mere “ethnic group”, or even worse, as foreigners in their own lands—marginalized in several domains including education, health care, and across Chilean state institutions. These histories of colonialism and ongoing racism creates disasters of everyday life for many Mapuche Lofs (Atallah, 2016).

After diverse members of Mapuche Lofs spoke, Chilean nationals and international observers were invited to share their perspectives.

(Photo: Devin Atallah)

I was moved and impressed with how many of the Chilean nationals expressed their allyship to the Mapuche with acknowledgment of their relative power and privilege and their hope to contribute to the manifestation of Mapuche self-determination, even if it meant giving up some of their own privileges. For example, some observers spoke out from positions as lawyers in elite Chilean universities, as willing to work toward legal pathways and legislative policies such as indigenous land reform, reconstituting Mapuche autonomy over historically colonized territories, and exploring further how past treaties could serve as guides in these type of processes.

Many observers also spoke of how they identified as both Chileans and as Mapuche, with mixed Indigenous and European family heritage as Mestizos, and that they often felt “in-between” worlds, yet wanted to ensure the dignity and rights of their indigenous brothers and sisters.  Other observers spoke of the importance of increased solidarity with Palestinian-Chileans, who often keep themselves out of the dialogue, avoiding the topic, yet they could play an important allyship role noting that they are connected to Palestine as a land and as a people threatened by historical and ongoing settler colonization.

At this point in the day, now late into the afternoon, the two participants in my research project, the Mapuche community members who had reached out and invited Elizabeth Pilquil and me to the event, requested that I take to the circle and speak.  So, I approached the microphone, building off what the previous observer had shared, and stated that, as a member of the Palestinian-Chilean community, and as a mental health professional and healer, I believed that we, as members of the Palestinian diaspora, could and should do more to support historically-colonized groups locally in Chile, and worldwide, perhaps most importantly – the Mapuche, especially seeing that so many Palestinians moved to southern territories and contributed, in the beginning of the 20th century, to the colonization of Mapuche lands. I shared that I was passionate about issues of the connections between health, wellness, and human rights, and decolonization in particular, as rooted in expressions of social healing.

Devin Atallah speaking toward the end of the Mapuche Constituent Assembly.
(Photo: Devin Atallah)

I voiced my inspiration and deep honor at being invited and to bear witness to this First Session of the Mapuche Constituent Assembly, which was perhaps, one of the most powerful and meaningful collective manifestations of decolonization that I had witnessed. I pledged to share my experience and hope to further support Mapuche journeys for human rights, social health, with dignity equal to all peoples of the world, yet with laws tailored to their society, history, imaginations of a future free of unjust colonial rule–dreams as ancient as the rising sun, but fresh with nascent newen, spirit and strength.

A few weeks after returning to Santiago, central Chile, Elizabeth Pilquil and I finished organizing our “Meals of Resistance” event, which we finally celebrated this past weekend on Saturday, December 17, 2017 at the Casa de Salud Ancestral Mapuche KVME FELEN (the House of Mapuche Traditional Health and Healing) in Quinta Normal neighborhood of Santiago. In total, about 60-70 people arrived, and included members of the Mapuche indigenous group, Chilean allies, and members of the Palestinian-Chilean community, who all came together to share freedom foods and stories of resistance and resilience – showing support and solidarity. As I mentioned at the beginning of the narrative, the main dish was mansaf, which is a traditional Palestinian meal consisting of lamb with yogurt, rice, bread, nuts, etc…which I cooked for this event. The mansaf requires that the Lamb is cooked in laban jameed, Arabic for “dried yogurt”. For this event, I used laban jameed made by the hands of the mother of a dear friend of mine in Palestine, which I had brought into Chile in my luggage when returning from a recent trip.

The laban jameed that Devin Atallah brought from Palestine.
(Photo: Devin Atallah)

Alongside the mansaf, members of the House of Mapuche Traditional Health and Healing cooked Mapuche foods including sopaipias with merken (fried dough with smoked hot peppers) and many other dishes including mijokiñ, charkan, catutos, yiwiñ kofke, and a variety of salads.

Getting ready to serve the mansef. Cooking with a team of Mapuche and Palestinian-Chileans.
(Photo: Devin Atallah)

Once the food was ready, the event began with a Mapuche spiritual ceremony, blessing the gathering and community members.

In front, Lawentuchefe (meaning “Herbal Medicine Woman” in Mapuche) Giovanna Tafilu, and members of the House of Mapuche Traditional Health and Healing gathering to prepare for the spiritual ceremony to begin. Photos during the ceremony were not taken out of respect for the sacred space.
(Photo: Devin Atallah)

In front, Lawentuchefe (“Herbal Medicine Woman” in Mapuche) Giovanna Tafilu, and members of the House of Mapuche Traditional Health and Healing gathering to prepare for the spiritual ceremony to begin. Photos during ceremony were not taken out of respect for the sacred space

As soon as the sun went down we began the feasting together—Palestinian and Mapuche dishes, followed by slideshows which were projected onto a white sheet hung outside in front of the center’s beautiful mural. Discussions about connections between the Palestinian and Mapuche struggles for self-determination unfolded.

Elders in the Mapuche community expressed deeply appreciating the opportunity to eat foods brought with love and care from Palestine, and asked many questions to the Palestinian-Chileans[.] [The group’s] discussions focused on how Palestinian youth and families, in particular, living in the Israeli-occupied territories, face and respond with resilience, steadfastness and hope for returning to their lands and to dignity. [Palestinians resist] the devastating oppression and state-sponsored violence sanctioned by the government of Israel, and pathways toward raising children within such toxic manifestations of racism and settler colonialism.

[The] Palestinian-Chileans present often spoke from places of relative privilege. [W]ithin Chilean contexts, Palestinians in Chile often directly contribute to colonial projects impacting [the] Mapuche journeys for dignity, language and land rights, spiritual freedoms, and of course, self-determination. [This was] profoundly expressed just weeks before in the First Session of the Mapuche Constituent Assembly, where only one person from the Palestinian-Chilean community was represented, out of nearly one million Palestinian-Chileans in total nationwide.

Moved by these discussions, at the end of the meal, two members of the Palestinian-Chilean community spoke spontaneously expressing that they felt that this was a really meaningful action for them—breaking bread and showing support to the Mapuche who, like Palestinians, are members of a colonized group.  They shared that they had lived in Chile all their lives, and yet had never expressed their solidarity to Mapuche in this way before—through meals of resistance—where though their struggles may be continents apart—they felt united in quests for justice and healing from colonial trauma and ongoing racist social structures. However, as Palestinian-Chileans, they felt their social positionally was turned upside down—transformed into members of a colonial group in their relation to the Mapuche. Therefore, as both the colonized and the colonizer, do Palestinian-Chileans have a unique opportunity and responsibility to be allies to the Mapuche? What are the ways this allyship can unfold?

The importance of responding to these questions are highlighted in December 2016 when this meal transpired while sharing foods and solidarity, a 17-year-old Mapuche youth, Brandon Hernández Huentecol, was shot in the back by Chilean military police while he intervened to try to protect his 13-year-old brother at a police patrol stop in southern Chile. Similar to Palestinian youth in protest of the Israeli military occupation, many Mapuche youths have been injured and detained over the years, even killed by Chilean military police.

What is the role of Palestinian-Chileans to speak out and mobilize against the racist militarization of Mapuche communities and targeting of youth such as Brandon this weekend?

What about contesting Chile’s use of anti-terrorism laws to criminalize Mapuche activism? Many Palestinian-Chileans may in fact have ties to communities in struggle oceans away in occupied Palestine, perhaps cousins in Bethlehem throwing stones at Israeli soldiers and military police during the current building of the Israeli Wall through Beit Jala’s Cremisan Valley? One thing that is for sure, whether such solidarity unfolds at future hilltop Constituent Assemblies for Mapuche Self-Determination, or during powerful and delicious cross-community meals of resistance in traditional Mapuche health centers, my hope is that these connections are only just beginning.

Works Cited:

Atallah, D.G. (2016). Toward a decolonial turn in resilience thinking in multifaceted disasters: Example of the Mapuche from southern Chile on the frontlines and faultlines. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, 19, pp. 92-100. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2016.08.027

Contreras, C.P. (Ed.) (2002). Actas del primer congreso internacional de historia mapuche. Siegen, Germany: Universitat Siegen Press.

Instituto Nacional de Estadísticas (2012). Resultados Censo 2012. Retrieved from:  http://www.censo.cl/ .

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Thank you, Devin! You’re a trailblazer and humanist. Forging solidarity is the way forward. “Transnational meetings & meals of resistance” is a beautiful thing, indeed. I really appreciated this: “…I pledged to share my experience and hope to further support Mapuche journeys for human rights, social health, with dignity equal to all peoples of the world, yet with laws tailored to their society, history, imaginations of a future free of unjust colonial rule–dreams as ancient… Read more »

Great story reminds of a ceremony I attended at hanging rock with the wak wak jungi.great day of song,dance and mushrooms


I happened to spend several days in Bariloche, Argentina last week and attended a lecture featuring a Mapuche activist who informed us of their tragic past experiences with the Spanish colonizers and subsequent abuses by the Argentine and Chilean government and military. It is encouraging that their movement is gaining traction and are joining forces with the Palestinians. Their goals are similar in seeking land reclamation and a restoration and preservation of their culture. We… Read more »