Indigenous People’s Day

Chris Saenz
July 8, 2013

In Chile the largest indigenous group is the Mapuche.

Mapuche means “People of the Earth” [Mapu=earth, Che=people]. In recent years there has been a growing conflict between some Mapuche communities and the government over land rights. The granting of permits for lumber companies to cut down forests and the construction of interstate roads has provoked armed conflicts with police in some areas. Also, old disputes with the Catholic Church over the ownership of certain tribal lands have caused more tensions. There are some Mapuche organizations that advocate an autonomous Mapuche state, the expulsion of Chileans and all Christian churches from Mapuche lands. The Columbans worked in the parish of Puerto Saavedra, which is a heavily populated Mapuche area, from 1991-2007. I had lived and worked in that parish for six years. In my final two years, I moved from the small town of Puerto Saavedra to a more rural sector known as Wapi [Mapuche for “island”]. Wapi is regarded as one of the traditional Mapuche areas where the native language and customs are strongly maintained. In John’s Gospel (John 6:60-69), we hear Peter’s words to Jesus, “You have the message of eternal life.” Peter’s words paint Jesus’ message as attractive, but the majority of Jesus’ disciples complained against Jesus’ message and many “left Him and stopped going to Him” because Jesus’ message was “intolerable language.” What was the challenge of Jesus’ message?

When I was a child I loved watching the old western movies. I dreamed of becoming a cowboy like most kids of my generation. Of course, today I imagine the heroes are Spiderman and Batman. But for me it was to become a cowboy like John Wayne, the greatest cowboy icon in Hollywood history. John Wayne was the image of the brave, strong adventurer who went into the Wild West to conquer the savage peoples. And he never surrendered.

Years later, I entered the seminary and had a pastoral experience on a Native American reservation in South Dakota. The tribe was the Lakota Sioux. Maybe many are familiar with the movie “Dances with Wolves,” which is the tribe portrayed in the movie. The experience profoundly challenged my preconceived notions of United States history and Hollywood images. From the Lakota people I learned of the painful history of the “taming of the West” and the negative impact of forced Christianity. It was there that I learned that Native Peoples of the United States only gained their religious freedom to practice their native rites in 1978 with the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

Also, I was able to witness and participate in several Lakota rituals such as the sweat lodge and the sun dance. The Lakota concept of mitakuye oyasin, which means “all my relatives,” taught me an ecological vision that all of naturehuman beings, animals and plantsare relatives. It was impressive to witness a dignified people with long ancient rituals and customs much older than Christianity itself. These were not the wild savages of Hollywood fame. The message of the Lakota people challenged me to change my preconceived ideas and recognize the truth. From that moment on, some 20 years ago, I stopped watching John Wayne westerns. I could not watch those movies knowing how much damage the fabricated images have caused to a dignified people.

When I returned from South Dakota I was asked to share my experience to a Biblical reflection group in a parish. A young woman commented on how admirable my testimony was but declared that she would never do such an experience herself. I asked her why. She said, “Because I fear that the experience would demand such a powerful conversion in my life that I would not be able to do it. I prefer to be ignorant.” I recall the challenge of the Gospel, “intolerable language.” Like the disciples of Jesus, the young woman was a good person and did what is good. Yet, it is not enough to be good and do what is good. Jesus also asks for a complete conversion of the spirit. We have to go beyond what we know and believe. Jesus does not ask us to be ignorant. He asks us to seek the truth.

Now looking to our current Chilean reality, I recall my six years in Puerto Saavedra and Wapi where I worked with the Mapuche people. The moment I decided to move from the small town to a Mapuche sector in the country, I told a Chilean person of confidence of my new mission. The person looked at me with intense eyes and said directly to my face, “I hate the Mapuche people!” As Christians we cannot be ignorant to reality, we have to recognize that racism and discrimination against indigenous peoples like the Mapuches is in our society. And sometimes the television images paint all the Mapuches as aggressive terrorists in the current conflicts. I lived in the middle of various different Mapuche ideologies including the most radical Mapuches that demanded a separate Mapuche state with no Chileans and Catholic Church. I knew those people and I tell you, they are not terrorists! In all of my time living there I never once was threatened or attacked. In fact, in various moments I shared the same table with them. I broke the same bread with them. I was always shown great respect. I know many Mapuches who fight for their lands without arms or aggression. And I have to recognize the truth, when one policeman is harmed in a conflict it is broadcasted all over the news. However, if hundreds of Mapuches are harmed or attacked, we hear nothing at all. We cannot be ignorant of this reality!

When I left Wapi, I left with a heavy heart. I did not want to go. I realize I did not improve the lives of the Mapuches. But, that was not the mission. The mission was to share life and know the truth. In reality, my life was improved because of them. In my farewell celebration, the Mapuches told me, “Father wherever you go, take us with you. Tell them about us.” And that is the message of eternal life.