Q&A: Juan Huenupan, defender of a dying language

By Charlotte Karrlsson-Willis
Published On : Sun, Mar 9th, 2014

One of the few speakers of the indigenous Williche-Mapuche language Chezungun on what needs to be done to protect a rich and endangered tradition.

Juan Huenupan

Juan Huenupan in front of his home in San Juan de la Costa. Photo by Mario Mendoza

Just a 30 minute drive outside of the southern city of Osorno is San Juan de la Costa, the poorest municipality in the Los Lagos Region. Although 90 percent of the population here identifies as indigenous Mapuche-Williche, much of the culture and language faces extinction as younger generations grow up with modern Chilean and Western cultures in their schools, on television and increasingly in their homes.

The Santiago Times spoke with Juan Huenupan, a member of the local Williche community who is one of the area’s few remaining fluent speakers of Chezungun, the Williche language.

Huenupan actively works to preserve the language and the culture and traditions it carries with it, through projects with the local municipality and beyond. He is passionate about keeping his language, history and culture alive.

Can you share with us a bit about your history?

I was born and raised here, in Arken Mapu, by the sea. We worked together in the streets. Our “peñi,” our Williche brothers, lived together in a community. We would all respect the playing of the “trutruca” [a traditional horn]. If the “ulmen (leader)” — who played the “trutruca” — sounded it, the people would come together for any reason or need.

What was the area’s original name?

It was called Fostri-Fostri. By 1800 priests arrived here — they brought a statue called San Juan and they named the area San Juan de la Costa because of its location by the sea.

Fostri-Fostri means “the place of the cinnamon trees,” that were once pervasive here. It also used to be called Woki after the name of a material used to make baskets, which was also once abundant. The weaving process also used huille, a plant widely used by Mapuches to preserve beans and potatoes.

What can be done to save the Chezungun language and what can the new generation gain from it?

We have been losing our language because of foreign people’s ideas. The Catholic Church arrived with other ideas and took away our language, starting with our children. They began teaching Spanish to our children, so when they were 16 or 17 years old, they turned against their fathers because they had different thoughts and ideas, and Mapuche ways were forgotten.

And it continued like this. Schools soon arrived — not Mapuche schools, but Spanish ones. When I was younger I wore different clothes, made from yarn, and they punished me and put me at the front of the class because I didn’t speak Spanish well.

Today, as a consequence, people have forgotten so many things because of these new ideas. We are losing language and beliefs. In the past, Mapuche people lived through dreams and customs, that was their only calendar. They studied the sun for sowing or the moon for counting months and days. Mapuche people knew when summer came by looking at the sun, and so on. Our people are losing those customs.

What is it like being one of the few individuals working beyond your community to preserve the Mapuche-Williche culture, language and tradition?

I feel good about my work because it’s essential that we reclaim our tradition. The most important part of this is language, because that is the way that people identify themselves as Mapuche. Language is how we identify our roots, our origins, and the rights that we inherit from our ancestors, and so we cannot lose this.

We know that the world is divided by many languages and each “world” has its own customs, a way of living, and we are losing ours. … I would like to help in rescuing our traditions. I believe the situation can improve. We must start in our schools, teaching our history to young people. We must rescue our beliefs and dreams, our “peuma” and work with them.

I’m working on this at the moment. In many places I’ve been hired to investigate the language and I have seen that it is alive. I have been in Lanco, in Panguipulli and, in the North, Calafquén. I have worked with speakers and non-speakers.

I like teaching language because through this you can access people’s history, their foundation. We must know the function and the designated tasks of an “ulmen” — we must know everything about our culture.

Can you share some of that history with us?

Our roots are unique to us and they define who we are. I was born here, my grandparents — who were proud of their culture — were born here and died here as well.

A large cultural tradition for Mapuches is “guiñatul,” which means working as a community — working hard because we had nothing.

At one point there was a great drought, I don’t remember exactly when, around 1950 or 1951. There was no wheat, potatoes or peas … flowers died too. How did it all grow again? When “nguillatún,” ceremonies where we plead to the gods, were held by members from all over the community.

We held these ceremonies through October, November and December. Rain fell on Jan. 5 of that year. … When our ancestors felt sadness or they were in trouble they held “nguillatúns” too.

Do you think the Williche people look at their history with sadness?

Right now we are living in a pretty sad moment. There are things designed to deceive us, for example, there are laws written against Mapuches, and [some] Mapuches ignorantly operate under these laws … . Mapuche people who are aware of this are sad, sad to see what we are losing.

Do you think Williche traditions should be bound by Chilean law?

We should not be. When we were given the vote we had no one to vote for. We do not have the right to have our own police or military — how can we defend ourselves, our own communities?

Laws are made against the Mapuche people though we have never been given a place in the Constitution. When the Spanish left and gave the country to Chileans, the Chileans did not want to include the Mapuche in the creation of the Constitution. We are excluded from the Constitution and that is why we have no representation.

Should traditional leaders work within or apart from the state as political authorities?

They should work within it, together as brothers, but the “huinca (non-Mapuche)” have never received them, integrated them. We cannot participate in the Chilean state.

So you want to be integrated into the Chilean state?

Of course — we are a part of the country. The state integrates foreigners — from Turks to Germans — but we are isolated.

What do you expect from President-elect Michelle Bachelet’s government?

We are waiting for things to unfold. We must negotiate with legislators and senators to integrate a Mapuche nation into the Constitution. When foreigners came here they found no one else, only Mapuches. There was a rich Mapuche culture and community that has been deprived of its lands and farms.

Are you afraid that your culture and language will disappear?

Yes. I am afraid of the loss of our customs. I am afraid that our situation will not change.

There have been some changes, for example the Indigenous Law which has its positive aspects but it is not what we are looking for, it does not favor us as we want. Mapuches want the Chilean state to recognize us as a nation.

We are not immigrants, we are native and rightful land owners. [The National Indigenous Development Service] Conadi is giving certificates to Mapuches and as a result we are labeled immigrants. …

I want to teach young people about this situation — teach them how we have been deceived from the beginning.

After the earthquake in the 1980s occurred they told us: “If you do not use the land, we will take it.” I saw land auctions during 1988 and 1989. I headed the committee and we fought against it. At least we won this. We traveled to Santiago and spoke to radio and television stations — we made our voices heard.

During this time I saw what the Mapuche are capable of, while the Chilean state looked at us as if we were nothing. The state created laws to protect pumas and foxes — no one can kill these animals. But there is no law for the Mapuche.

I pray that now, with the incoming government, that we are protected, because right now we are not represented and they are doing nothing for us. We feel isolated from the state.

Source: The Santiago Times

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