Highlighting indigenous cultural heritage: UoE linguist co-edits volume of indigenous oral literature of the Mapuche

University of Edinburgh linguist Ben Molineaux has co-edited a new version of a collection of oral literature of the Mapuche, an indigenous people in south-central Chile and Argentina. His co-editors are linguists Belén Villena and Elisa Loncon Antileo. Loncon Antileo is the president of Chile’s new Constitutional Commission, a native Mapuche and one of 2021’s Time Magazine 100 most influential people. The release of the book comes at a time of renewed focus on indigenous people and languages all across South-America.

In early October, “Kuyfike awkiñ dungu / Ecos de voces antigua” (The echo of ancient voices) was published, a volume chronicling the oral tradition of the Mapuche. The volume is a newly edited version of a collection of spoken texts, which were originally compiled by German linguist Rudolf Lenz in the late 19th century. The new edition aims at making the original texts more accessible to contemporary readers. It contains updated orthography, Spanish translations and phonetic transcriptions of the original pronunciations.

About the Mapuche

The Mapuche are the largest indigenous group in Chile and make up 84% of the indigenous population. Their language, Mapudungun, is the largest minority language of Chile, though nowadays less than 20% of Mapuche are fluent in it. During the colonial period, the Mapuche remained independent. But in the late 19th century, they were forcibly removed to reservations, saw their country divided and much of their land lost. Under the Pinochet dictatorship, many Mapuche leaders were murdered. Since then, many Mapuche have been politically active, demanding constitutional recognition and the return of their lands.

Preserving the Mapudungun language and Mapuche culture

From a linguistic point of view, the volume is important in terms of language preservation. The collection and codification of this oral tradition make sure that these stories, songs and personal narratives won’t get lost and can prove an important resource for studying the language as well.

Much more important, however, is the broader cultural significance of the volume:

“The book will provide resources to build on the foothold the language has gained in the national consciousness in order to help it become a full, vital part of Chileans’ lives. It also represents an opportunity for our academic work to contribute to shaping public opinion by showing the rich history, culture and language of a marginalised people and thus helping to re-evaluate their position in the nation.”

Ben Molineaux

Cultural changes in Chile

The release of the book has stimulated a lot of conversation and debate. This is due to the larger context of decolonisation efforts happening all over South America. However, it has also garnered interest due to co-editor Elisa Loncon Antileo’s broader role in these key issues. In late 2019, massive protests set the process in motion of rewriting the old dictatorship-era constitution. This process has led to the gathering of a committee to write a new constitution. Loncon Antileo, a vocal defender of indigenous rights and languages, was elected president of this constitutional committee. She gave her presidential address in both Spanish and Mapudungun. The fact that an indigenous woman was put at the head of such a committee and addresses it in an indigenous language is unprecedented and signifies the major cultural changes that Chile is undergoing.

The book is published when there is a renewed focus on indigenous people and languages, resurgent talks about minority language rights and efforts to deal with its colonial past in Chile. As such it constitutes an important piece of cultural heritage and substantially contributes to the revitalisation of the Mapuche’s language and culture.

What else to expect

The editors are also planning a series of videos based on the phonetic transcriptions of the 19th-century texts. The recordings will be by native speakers of the language. The videos also contain primary and secondary school students’ illustrations of the stories, songs and histories. The first of these is now available with subtitles in Spanish and in Mapudungun.

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