A Mapuche indigenous woman walks in the little town of Temucuicui, in Temuco, Chile.

Mapuche Students Fight for an Indigenous University in Chile

Rick Kearns
8/10/11

Mapuche students in Chile have brought the issue of a Mapuche University with a focus on indigenous knowledge and history to the attention of the entire nation, and garnered support from certain Chilean leaders and government officials.

Activists from the Mapuche Federation of Students (FEMAE) occupied an abandoned school building in the city of Temuco on two occasions in mid-July and were removed by soldiers within a day of each occupation, but their publicized action led them to meetings with some of the top officials of the Chilean government.

The approximately 70 indigenous student activists were holding their protests for a nationally funded university while thousands of Chilean university students held strikes throughout the country against the privatization of higher education. The leaders of the larger strike, the national Federation of Students of Chile (CONFECH), have stated their support for the Mapuche University.

So far, however, the most concrete result is a mention of “promoting interculturalism in higher education” in the Chilean Governments Plan for Education, published on August 1st. By August 9, the FEMAE students had rejoined the larger national protest, after CONFECH leaders and their allies rejected the plan presented by the Chilean government.

The struggle for the Mapuche University however, did make headlines along with the national strike.

“We are maintaining our position for a Mapuche University,” said FEMAE leader Yonatan Cayulao on July 25th, a week after the second occupation, “and the recuperation of spaces for our Mapuche people.”

Cayulao was with both groups in mid-July, the first bunch of more than a dozen students on July 13th and then close to 50 students on July 16th that occupied the former Anibal Pinto Lyceum in the city of Temuco, located in the heart of Mapuche territory in southern Chile.

The FEMAE leader, during the two occupations, explained the history of the Mapuche University idea in various press statements.

“This will be developed in the context of a Mapuche curricula,” Cayulao said. “This is a very old project of Mapuche society, a demand that was born in 1910, with the Caupolican Society and was renewed in the 1940s with the Araucana Corporation, in the ’70s with the Federation of Indigenous Students, in the ’90s with Indigenous Homes and now with the Federation of Mapuche Students.”

“During 100 years,” he continued, “we have been ignored by the curriculum of Chilean education, we did not exist within it…this education, over 100 years, at least within the Mapuche community, has served as a homogenizing force, negating the possibility of a heterogeneous society. Here there is an intercultural post-war society, and that is the Arawakan society. Chilean education has ignored that and obliged us to forget that we are Mapuche, that we are a different people.”

While the FEMAE activists have yet not received the cooperation they were seeking from the Chilean government, there were national and local leaders who did support the Mapuche students in public forums.

One of these sympathetic officials is Representative Gonzalo Arena, the federal congressperson from that region who met with the FEMAE activists during their occupation of the Pinto Lyceum. Rep. Arena wrote an op-ed piece on his meeting with the student activists which was published in various newspapers.

“These Mapuche students have a very interesting proposal about the necessity of a truly intercultural education and the idea of forming an institutional dialogue between the Mapuche world and the State,” wrote Arena. “These Mapuche youth have “discovered,” at its roots, one of the major problems with public policies that emanate from the State towards the Mapuche, this is, the absence of institutional channels of dialogue that may be recognized by the majority of Mapuche communities and also the leaders that serve as technical counterparts in public policy.”

“…they are showing that their demands are not for land or subsidies, but intellectual discussion, cultural recognition, recuperation of their language, which will help on top of everything else to have the topic of Mapuches to go beyond the topic of poverty (which is a big mistake in public policy) and involves the complexity of Mapuche issues in all their dimensions,” Arena asserted.

In the last week of July Cayalao and Pablo Millalen (another FEMAE activist) wrote that they were going to meet with Chile’s Minister of Education, Felipe Bulnes, along with student leaders involved in the national strike. After the meeting FEMAE announced their support of the continued national strike but did not comment on any further developments involving a Mapuche University.

The national student strike was slated to continue through mid-August.

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