by Sebastian Garbe
When thinking about international solidarity from a perspective in the Global North, contemporary struggles or revolutionary movements in the Global South of stateless groups like the ones of the Zapatistas, the Kurds, or the Palestinians come to our mind. Going back to the 20th century, we might connect international solidarity with socialist and national liberation movements of the Tricont from Cuba and Nicaragua, over Algeria and Angola, to Vietnam. But the historical struggle of the Indigenous Mapuche for autonomy, self-determination and territory in today’s Chile and Argentina do not play a major role as a frame of reference.
This lack of international attention did not correspond with my own experience of having lived several years in Argentina and Chile, where the so-called “Mapuche question” is connected to some of the most pressing socio-political, cultural, and economic issues. After moving back to Germany almost 9 years ago, I was aware about some efforts in Europe and North America in making the situation and the struggle of the Mapuche internationally visible, but neither academic nor Leftist, internationalist circles did pick this up. This is the main reason I dedicated my scholarly and activist interest of the last years to these international solidarity efforts. The result of this engagement is the book, I am introducing today, which discusses the limitations and possibilities for international solidarity and transnational advocacy with and of the Mapuche in Chile from a critical race and decolonial angle.
In what follows, I first would like to introduce the broader context of the book and, second, present three core arguments that run through its 8 chapters. The book is an Open Access publication at transcript and can be downloaded here.
With aprox. 10% of the population, the Mapuche are largest Indigenous group living in Chile whose ancient territory encompassed a large area of the southern part of South America. If you would draw an imaginary line between both countries’ capitals, Santiago de Chile and Buenos Aires, you’d be able to roughly mark of the northern frontier of the ancient Mapuche territory, the Wallmapu.
The Mapuche are mostly known for as one of the few Indigenous people, who were never militarily conquered by the Spanish Crown (despite several attempts to do so). Instead, on the Western side of the Andes, today’s Chile, the Mapuche managed to successfully negotiate formal relations of independence with the Europeans, either in direct military confrontation or through bilateral agreements, the so-called parlamentos. Even after the Chilean independence, the newly founded state and the Mapuche mutually recognised their independence in the Treaty of Tapihue in 1835. This treaty was then violated by the Chilean state and European settlers throughout the 19th century (something similar happened on the Eastern side of the Andes) which resulted in the complete colonization of the Wallmapu. Today, this violation and the conquest of their territory is probably still the most important historical reference to any demands for autonomy. After a violent expulsion of the Mapuche population into reservations (something very similar to what was going on in the US and Canada), in the 1930s, from approximately ten million hectares of independent Mapuche territory south of the Bío-Bío river, only 500,000 hectares remained.
From that moment onwards the Mapuche had to live in a colonial context, organised around the notion of race within a formally independent nation state. This is what the Peruvian sociologist Aníbal Quijano (2014) famously coined “coloniality of power”. The Mapuche, nevertheless, began to participate politically within the same state structure, forming parties, voting representatives, or engaging in more direct rebellion. While they managed to achieve important political goals in the 1960s and under the government of Salvador Allende, as for the whole country, the military coup in 1973 marked a historical break for the Mapuche society. Not only were their leaders persecuted, incarcerated or disappeared, but also many Mapuche had to flee to Europe or other countries in the Global North, where they began to organise themselves as Mapuche in diaspora, making their doubled persecution as a colonised people and under a dictatorship internationally heard.
Their colonial situation is the reason, why, with the words of the Mapuche artist based in Germany, Alex Mora, for the Mapuche even in post-dictatorial Chile “the dictatorship never ended”. This is because repressive laws from the dictatorship, like the Anti-Terror Jurisdiction or laws regulating neoliberal dispossession continue to function today, serve to repress the Mapuche struggle, and to invade their territory.
But based on the efforts of the first generation of a Mapuche diaspora in Europe in the 1970s and 80s, other exiled Mapuche, non-Indigenous Chileans, and a second generation Mapuche diaspora, in support of a series of NGOs, up until today participate in weaving a transnationally active solidarity network advocating for and denouncing violations of their Indigenous and human rights beyond Chile. They support and accompany several of the dozen Mapuche political prisoners and make sure that the names of those killed by the Chilean police are internationally heard and remembered.
This was the context I entered in 2014 and where I began to participate in several Mapuche solidarity events in Europe, supported the Mapuche diaspora in various ways, conducted interviews, and became involved as a human rights observer on the ground.
Therefore, the book discusses solidarity with the Mapuche both from an in- and from an outsider perspective. The former describes my activist engagement within the solidarity network, among other things as a human rights observer visiting political prisoners, writing reports, etc.. The constant reflection and questioning of my role, by engaging in debates from critical race and whiteness studies, thus opened up new spaces of understanding solidarity from a committed standpoint. The outside perspective in the book rather tells the story of solidarity gatherings, follows campaigns in Europe back to a particular Mapuche community in Chile, or tries to disentangle the misunderstandings created by over-enthusiastic white saviours.
At the beginning of my research, I assumed that solidarity with the Mapuche is essentially advocacy by non-Indigenous supporters and NGOs (by those who are not affected). But when I started to engage more closely with those efforts, I found that international solidarity with the Mapuche was essentially solidarity carried out by Mapuche people themselves, only supported by non-Mapuche actors and organisations. Not only did this challenge my Eurocentric ignorance about an Indigenous presence in Europe, but also my own and other supporter’s white saviourism.
So at the centre of the book is the history, agency, and intellectual autonomy of the Mapuche, which I wanted the subtitle to reflect as well. This is the result of an historically and culturally embedded notion of autonomy, which is both at the core of contemporary Mapuche mobilization in Wallmapu, debates among Mapuche intellectuals and of their transnational advocacy activism. The cultural politics of autonomy help to explain central aspects of contemporary international Mapuche solidarity, such as how transnational solidarity is organised, who are its main actors, and what are their key strategies.
Privileges and Stereotpyes
Another central argument of the book takes up the suggestion of critical race and whiteness studies about the need of a thorough understanding and critical examination of privileged positionalities within interracial relations. That means that the picture about the present case would be incomplete without taking a critical look at those who declare their solidarity.
While this preoccupation runs through the whole book, it is analyses with more detail in Chapter 6, which asks what role privileges and colonial stereotypes do play in transnational solidarity. For example, since this book as a strong German accent, it also engages with the very peculiar relationship between Germans and Indigenous peoples, which is characterised by a strong romanization and idealization of Indigenous people in German literature, music, and politics. And these stereotypes still play a remarkable role in contemporary solidarity efforts, which the book analyses as “Maputhusiasm”: a scheme of representation, through which the Mapuche society is racialized and positively stereotyped. But this framework is also challenged, criticised and strategically appropriated by Mapuche actors.
Finally, ‘Weaving Solidarity’ offers a sociological reading of solidarity as a moment of encounter in which different actors come together through political activism. I neither wanted to frame solidarity normatively or morally nor exclusively in political terms. Rather, I was interested in the interpersonal and micro-level dimension of how relations of solidarity are created, negotiated, and challenged on an everyday basis.
This sociocentric perspective on solidarity is also present in Mapuche notions of keyuwvn and mingako, which mean mutual help and working together. In the words of Rayen Kvyeh, a Mapuche poet: “Because you defend the Mapuche prisoners not because of a political conception but because it’s part of life. The Western concept of solidarity is when you give something to someone. We do not give something to someone, we share.” That means that solidarity, in her view, needs first a common and communal ground, something that is being shared, in order to be put into political practice. Inspired by the cultural practices and knowledges about weaving amongst the Mapuche, this is exactly what the notion of weaving solidarity aims to describe: solidarity as critical and conflictive, but also creative and transformative moments of encounter across difference, which are without guarantees but can ultimately lead to social relations which outlast the political engagement, by which they were initiated.
I hope that this work might be relevant not only for relations of solidarity in a new Chile that is currently in construction but also for other contexts in which actors come together across and despite their differences.
Sebastian Garbe, born in 1986, lives in Frankfurt/Germany and works as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Applied Sciences Fulda, where he is the coordinator of the Fulda Graduate Centre of Social Sciences and the Junior Research Group on “Human Rights and Social Justice”. He obtained is PhD in sociology in 2021 at Justus-Liebig University Giessen, where he worked as a research associate and lecturer at the Institute of Sociology from 2013 until 2022. His teaching and research were awarded with the Dr.-Herbert-Stolzenberg-Award for the Study of Culture in 2017 and 2020 and focuses on post- and decolonial theory as well as on protest, solidarity, and social movements. In the past years, he was engaged in international solidarity and human rights activism with the Mapuche and is part of the frankfurt postkolonial collective.
Quijano, A. (2014) “Colonialidad del Poder, Eurocentrismo y América Latina,” in Quijano, A. and Assis Climaco, D. (eds) Cuestiones y horizontes: de la dependencia histórico-estructural a la colonialidad/descolonialidad del poder. Buenos Aires: CLACSO, pp. 777–832.