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The contested rewe: sacred

sites, misunderstandings, and

ontological pluralism in
Mapuche land negotiations
Pi ergi orgi o Di Gi mi ni ani Ponticia Universidad Catlica de Chile
Sacred sites lie at the core of indigenous peoples land claims and negotiations with the state. These
sites are often subject to accusations of inauthenticity by state actors, which potentially lead to the
delegitimization of claims over ancestral land. This article argues that misunderstandings in Mapuche
land negotiations in Chile do not originate as strategic refusals to understand, but rather in a form of
understanding which aims to make radical differences commensurable within the logics of statecraft
and national society. In the process of cultural translation, the ontological principles that make
certain places sacred in the Mapuche lived world are not recognized, resulting in the transformation
of these sites into symbols of identity strategically employed for political ends.
Can sacred sites evoked in land negotiations between indigenous claimants and state
ofcials be more than a performance? Questions such as this reverberate in govern-
mental ofces around the world, where indigenous communities and state actors
participate in exhausting negotiations over the restitution of lands of which indigenous
communities have been historically dispossessed. The supposedly strategic use of
sacred sites, and their role in strengthening claims over ancestral territories, has been
observed in most national contexts in which indigenous groups have entered negotia-
tions with the state within the legal framework of land restitution programmes (see Fay
and James :oo,; Fontein :oo,; James :oo,). Chile is no exception, as many Mapuche
communities have begun demanding compensation for loss of land suffered in the last
I,o years. Critics are often sceptical of what seems to be the sudden appearance of new
sacred sites around the Chilean countryside. Are they just a show, as many function-
aries and observers consider them to be?
This article focuses on the origins and implications of misunderstandings by state
ofcials concerning both the presence and the role of sacred sites in Mapuche land
claims. In ethnographic research, linguistic and cultural misunderstandings have come
to be understood as potential sources of valuable information, revealing conditions of
understanding (Fabian I,,,: ), while simultaneously pointing towards the mutual
incommensurability of different notions of common sense (Herzfeld :ooI: :). Outside
the eld of ethnographic research, however, misunderstandings in indigenous-state
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relations are far from being constructive. When sacred sites and their use are misun-
derstood as inauthentic by state ofcials, they can ultimately be used to delegitimize
indigenous demands. This article will show that misunderstandings concerning sacred
places in land negotiations originate in a failure to recognize radical differences in the
understanding of Mapuche sacred sites by state actors. By interpreting these features as
symbols of identity employed for political purposes, state ofcials ignore the inherent
ontological principles that make these sites sacred in Mapuche society. Their sacredness
is predicated upon their status as agential objects involved in a complex network of
mutuality and exchange with the people around them, both members of the associated
ritual congregations and their potential enemies.
While Mapuche claimants can intentionally employ sacred sites in a strategic sense,
these sites are more than mere symbols of identity. In fact they reveal the conditions of
possibility for multiple ontologies: in other words, the emergence of divergent ways in
which the world can be considered to exist (Henare, Holbraad & Wastell :oo,;
Holbraad :oo,; Pedersen :ooI; Viveiros de Castro I,,8). Misunderstandings thus
cannot be explained by simply presupposing the impossibility of mutual communica-
tion between state actors and Mapuche claimants, a scenario far from the complex
forms in which Mapuche and winka, the canonical other, interact day by day in
contemporary Southern Chile. Rather, they originate in the extension of familiar
meanings and expectations onto homonymic phenomena: that is, those concepts, such
as sacred sites, which might look or sound the same, but point to divergent ontological
principles in different societies (Viveiros de Castro :oo).
Misunderstandings ultimately originate not from a refusal to understand, but from
a form of understanding that aims to annul radical difference. In land negotiations they
emerge as a reection of late liberal ideologies of public reason and multiculturalism,
which aim to domesticate radical difference by making incommensurable worlds
appear unremarkably similar (Povinelli :ooI; :oo:). Liberal strategies of commensu-
ration are inspired by the ideal of mutual agreement among negotiating parties, which
masks the profoundly asymmetrical ways in which indigenous desires and demands are
addressed by the state. The failure to recognize the possibility of radical difference
allows state actors to think about difference such that it is commensurable with the
principles of standardization and public reason inherent in the liberal state. By illus-
trating the manner in which ontological difference is disregarded in indigenous-state
relations, this article will suggest that the anthropological analysis of political pluralism
is incomplete unless we take seriously the possibility of ontological pluralism. After
introducing the reader to the national and local context of indigenous land claims in
Chile, this article will show the ontological premises behind the sacredness of Mapuche
sites, to later show how difference is misunderstood and played down by state ofcials
within the broader context of statecraft and liberal ideologies of multiculturalism.
Mapuche land claims
The Mapuche population is concentrated in the south-central regions of Argentina and
Chile, where the majority of Mapuche reside. According to the latest census (INE :oI,),
I,,o8,,:: Chileans are Mapuche, a number corresponding to roughly ,.I per cent of the
national population. Previous studies indicate that the majority of Mapuche people,
roughly o, per cent, live in urban areas such as the Chilean capital, Santiago (Terwindt
:oo,). The high concentration of Mapuche in urban areas can be explained by large
migratory uxes from rural communities in the south since the beginning of the
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twentieth century. Migration was primarily a response to the spiralling effects of land
shortage, which emerged as a consequence of the military invasion of the Mapuche
territory by the Chilean army known as the Pacication of Araucania (I8oI-8,)
(Bengoa :ooo). The Mapuche people successfully resisted the Spanish army, a fairly rare
occurrence in the colonial history of the continent, and nally lost their independence
only to the recently founded Chilean and Argentinean republics.
Following the end of the Chilean military invasion in I88,, collective land titles
(Titulos de Merced) were instituted and a member of each newly founded reservation
(reduccin) was appointed as a local delegate (cacique). Fluency in Spanish was a
determining factor in the appointment of caciques, and accordingly they did not
necessarily correspond to the customary authority of the lonko, the headman of a
local lineage. Land assigned to the Mapuche covered approximately ,,,ooo hectares
a remarkably small amount in comparison with the ,,,oo,ooo hectares of the pre-
war sovereign Mapuche territory (Marimn :ooo). Land loss continued throughout
the rst half of the nineteenth century, when state-owned land was redistributed
among European settlers. In many cases, non-indigenous landowners annexed large
sections of Mapuche reservations into their own properties through unintelligible
contracts in Spanish and the arbitrary extension of property boundaries. As a conse-
quence of land shortage, subsistence farming and husbandry became economically
unsustainable, and most Mapuche residents had no options other than working in
nearby agricultural estates (fundos) under exploitative conditions or migrating to the
Although legal disputes over land were common throughout the twentieth century,
Mapuche land loss was not a major issue on the political agenda until the I,,os
(Mallon :oo,). In I,,,, under the pressure of a growing social movement, the Chilean
Senate approved the Indigenous Law I,.:,,, which, among its various objectives,
aimed to tackle land shortage among indigenous people in two ways. This law intro-
duced land subsidies for Mapuche residents aficted by high levels of poverty, and
also provided mechanisms for the settlement of disputes between landowners and
registered Comunidades indgenas (Indigenous Communities) through the mediation
of the state agency CONADI (Corporacin Nacional de Desarrollo Indgena). Accord-
ing to the current law, arrogated land can be transferred to claimants only if the
current owners are willing to sell their properties to the Chilean state. Since I,,,, only
a minority of Indigenous Communities have secured the restitution of demanded
land. In some cases, their various claims were not approved; in others, those commu-
nities with proven cases of land dispossession were compensated with alternative
properties (predio alternativo) away from their original settlement areas. Over the
years, failures in negotiations have led to mounting frustration among Mapuche
rural residents. Mobilizations, such as land seizures, aimed at pressuring the Chilean
state for a resolution to land demands, have, however, been largely met with police
Soon after my arrival in Chile in :oo,, I had the chance to follow the process of land
negotiation of one community, Comunidad Manuel Osses,
an Indigenous Commu-
nity of roughly oo inhabitants located in the Araucana region. Like virtually all
Mapuche settlements in Chile, Comunidad Osses is characterized by dispersed home-
steads that encompass privately owned lots, rarely exceeding ve hectares per house-
hold. This community is engulfed by agricultural estates standing in tracts of land
acknowledged as ancestral by the local population. In :ooo, after collecting evidence for
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land dispossession, such as colonial cartography, titles of property, and archaeological
data proving ancestral occupancy, the members of Comunidad Osses presented their
claim. A few months later, CONADI recognized the legitimacy of their claim over El
Roble estate, and soon after, negotiation with the current owners of the demanded
property began. A positive resolution to the demands of the Osses seemed at hand, as
the owners of El Roble agreed to sell their property. However, at the end of :oo8,
CONADI assigned this property to Comunidad Pichico, an Indigenous Community
located ,o kilometres from El Roble. Comunidad Osses reacted against this controver-
sial decision by mobilization, setting up road blockades and protests in the nearby city
of Temuco. Simultaneously, the board of Comunidad Osses had been meeting with
state functionaries and intermediaries from NGOs in Temuco in order to revert the
allocation of El Roble estate. For the members of Comunidad Osses, the relocation of
the Pichicos was a mess caused by the state, and a solution to the legal dispute could
only come from them.
Tension between Comunidad Osses and Comunidad Pichico rapidly escalated. On
two different occasions, members of both communities were involved in physical
confrontations. These episodes revolved around the presence of a sacred site, a rewe,
erected by the residents of Comunidad Osses in the disputed property. Rewe is
a polysemantic term, as it refers to both the sacred site standing in the middle of a
ceremonial ground (ngillatuwe) where rituals are ofciated, and the ritual congregation
celebrating this collective rite. The rewe as a sacred site consists of a step-notched tree
trunk of laurel, or triwe in Mapudundun (the Mapuche language), which is adorned
with branches of maki (Aristotelia Chilensis) and cinnamon tree (Drymis Winteri),
known as foye or canelo. In my area of study, this site may occasionally be referred to as
altar in Spanish. The rewe located in El Roble was installed by the members of
Comunidad Osses at the end of :ooo in a ritual known as amunrewe,
a term roughly
translatable as the making of the rewe, ofciated by a local machi (shaman-healer).
Confrontations between members of the two communities began when a few Pichicos
attacked the rewe by setting it on re and removing it by truck from its original
location. For them, this sacred site represented a potential threat to their ownership of
El Roble estate, since it could further motivate the members of Comunidad Osses in
their demands over the property.
The history of the rewe in El Roble estate leaves several questions open. How could
the members of Comunidad Osses care so much about it, while explicitly acknowledg-
ing it as part of their political strategy to attain land? How can this site be truly sacred
if it is attacked by other Mapuche people? And howcan the site, which has been recently
installed in a tract of land claimed as ancestral in negotiations with the state, be truly
sacred? These questions are not only of interest to the anthropologist; they were also
being asked by state actors involved in the negotiation over the El Roble dispute. Their
reservations ultimately led them to the conclusion that this site was a mere show
(demostracin) to attain land benets. Before exploring the reasons why functionaries
misunderstood the rewe in El Roble as inauthentic, we can attempt to answer these
questions by focusing on the premises and actions that make rewe sites sacred in the
Mapuche lived world.
The rewe as sacred site: agency and exchange
The most common Mapuche sacred places are ancient burial grounds known as eltun,
where no rituals take place, and rewe, the main focus of the present ethnographic
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analysis. Rewe sites stand in the middle of the ngillatuwe ceremonial grounds, where
ngillatun rituals are ofciated. The ngillatun ritual is particularly complex and charac-
terized by numerous regional variations. The number of participants may vary from a
few dozens to hundreds. It generally lasts between two and three days and encompasses
several activities, including dances and collective incantations known as llellipun
(Bacigalupo :oo,; Casamiquela I,o; Foerster I,,,; Grebe, Pacheco & Segura I,,:;
Pereda & Perrotta I,,; Schindler :ooo). In accordance with the meaning of the term
nguillan, to ask for and to elevate (Alonqueo I,,,: :,), ngillatun can be taken as a
ritualistic action aimed at the fullment of a vast array of appeals. As explained by my
informants, it also serves to express gratitude (dar la gracia) towards the main deity,
Chao Ngenechen, or Chao Dios, as it is often referred to in my area of study. With the
exception of Evangelical individuals, most residents in Comunidad Osses identify Chao
Ngenechen with the Christian God, to whom prayers are offered the Mapuche way (a
la Mapuche) in ngillatun. For some scholars, ngillatun are essentially fertility rituals
(Dillehay :oo,; Faron I,o; Hassler I,8,), mainly taking place before the harvest and
only occasionally after it. However, as my informants explained, the concerns expressed
in a ngillatun also extend to the physical well-being of the participants and specic
events related to their community.
The main motivation for the members of Comunidad Osses to place a rewe in the
disputed property was to carry out ngillatun rituals, which would strengthen the
Indigenous Community in their struggle for land restitution by way of divine inter-
cession. At the same time, the specic location of this sacred site served as a symbolic
form of land occupation and a marker of identity. Antonio, a neighbour of mine at the
time, once explained to me: The rewe is necessary to show CONADI that we are
Mapuche. Is the sacredness of this particular site at odds with its strategic use? A focus
on its main features reveals that, far from being a mere show, this site emerges as a
powerful and sacred object. Its sacredness can be broadly ascribed to the role of rewe as
axis mundi, sacred centres connecting one plane of existence with another (Eliade I,oI
[I,,:]), in this case the world inhabited by humans with the spiritual world known as
wenumapu, literally the land of above. While this interpretation is instructive in estab-
lishing the symbolic value of the rewe, it is necessary to explore the reasons why this
particular site is regarded as extremely powerful by the people interacting with it. I
propose that the power of rewe and their sacredness are predicated upon one major
property, namely their engagement with the ritual congregation in exchanges of newen,
a spiritual force also referred to as fuerza in Spanish.
Newen consists of a volitional multiplicity of forces inherent within and constitutive
of the world (Course :oI:: Io). The existence of this collective force is to be traced to
the power ascribed to Chao Ngenechen. This deity is generally conceptualized as the
determinant of all occurrences and actions in the cosmos, an idea that is sustained by
the frequent utterance of sentences like it all depends on God (either dios or Chao
Ngenchen) in conversations among members of Comunidad Osses. Yet newen is not
exempt from human control, as it can be passed between people through various
modalities. In the case of the rewe, ritualistic practices, such as purrun (circular dances)
and llellipun incantations, are performed by members of the local congregation in
order togive newen to the rewe. Similarly, the rewe is thought to give force to the ritual
congregation in their land negotiations as long as it is protected from evil-doing by
potential enemies. Newen is thus an extremely uid force that can be exchanged in a
complex web of relations involving both humans and inanimate things.
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The dynamic way in which newen travels across boundaries between different beings
and entities is also reected in the possibility that evil-doing (mal) can be transferred
between people through the mediation of the rewe. As reported in numerous ethno-
graphic works (e.g. Course :oII; Faron I,o; Foerster I,,,), exposure to evil-doing by
enemies, including humans and malevolent beings, such as the wekufe spirits, is a
widespread concern in rural Mapuche society. In a manner similar to that found in the
phenomenon of assault sorcery observed in other Amerindian societies (Wright &
Whitehead :oo: I,), spiritual aggression in Mapuche society can be perpetrated
through the manipulation or physical destruction of material substances. The physical
attack on the rewe by members of Comunidad Pichico was thought to affect the
members of the ritual congregation by potentially provoking diseases and obstacles in
the process of land restoration. Residents often insisted on the need to protect their site
against possible aggressions by their rivals and thereby ensure their success in the land
The local machi shaman who ofciated the amunrewe installation of the rewe
also expressed her anxieties about the possibility that a witch (kalku) could act against
the rewe in order to inict harm on her and her family. Soon after nding out about the
aggression towards the rewe, the local machi asked local residents to remove all the
burned branches that adorned the main body of the site, since their presence could
directly harm the members of Comunidad Osses. Following specic instructions, two
volunteers gathered the burned branches in sacks and threw them into a nearby river.
The reason for this specic form of disposal is that the potential harm of the burned
parts of the rewe could only be annulled through the purifying action of running water,
a phenomenon observed in numerous religious traditions (Strang :oo: ,I). In
Mapuche society, running water (witrunko) is thought to be able to purify the human
body and protect it from diseases and evil, both in traditional healing practices per-
formed by machi and in rituals. The particular method of disposal reveals that evil-
doing, as well as newen, does not simply exist on an immaterial plane, but can be
transmitted through material substances, such as burned ashes. Rewe, however, are far
from being merely the potential object of evil-doing, as they can also actively react
against malevolent actions. Months after the assaults, the aggressors of the rewe in El
Roble suffered several misfortunes, including the emergence of internal feuds among
them, and, nally, the legal success of Comunidad Osses in attaining the disputed
property at the beginning of :oI:. For my informants, these events were consequences
of the rewe responding to the attacks made against it.
The ethnographic analysis presented so far illustrates how the agentive nature of the
rewe is predicated upon its ability to engage in exchanges of both newen and evil with
humans around it. Contrary to the universal theory of agency proposed by Latour
(:oo,), according to which agency is dispersed across a network of associations imbri-
cating both human and non-human components as actants, in most societies only a
few material objects are fully capable of embedding human action (Alberti & Bray
:oo,; Robb :oo). This is true for most Amerindian societies, where only specic
material objects are endowed with the ability to communicate with humans. For
instance, baby hammocks and shamanic stones among Urarina people in the Amazo-
nian lowlands (Walker :oo,), and carved gures known as illas among Andean
Quechua speakers (Sillar :oo,), act as intermediaries between humans and divinities.
In Mapuche society, an illustrative example comes from kltrun, drums made from
laurel wood and sheepskin, which are typically played in shamanic healing practices
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and ritualistic dances. While kltrun are ubiquitously sold to tourists in handicraft
markets throughout Southern Chile, only those built by experienced Mapuche manu-
facturers are considered to be effective in the transference of newen. Lonko Juana, the
ritual specialist of this community, once commissioned a kltrun from a renowned
Upon receiving the instrument, she was asked by the maker to pass on her
newen by breathing into the drum, a practice observable in rituals and shamanic
practices as well. Once they receive newen, kltrun drums are able to exchange it with
humans. One way to pass newen on to the rewe is, in fact, by playing kltrun drums
around it.
The relation between the rewe in El Roble and the humans around them reveals an
inherently Mapuche form of agency, which is predicated upon two ethnographically
abstracted ontological principles, namely the facility for action possessed by certain
cultural objects and the porosity of borders between those objects and human beings.
The type of agency associated with rewe reveals that these sites engage in relations
with humans from a subjective position, a point initially suggested by the twofold
indexicality of the rewe, indicating both a sacred site and its associated ritual congre-
gation. My point contrasts with interpretations of the power of sacred sites as being
centred exclusively on their symbolic signicance and the emotional attachment of
the people around them. If we follow Gells proposal regarding art objects, agency in
this case would be predicated upon the apprehension of the site by an emotionally
affected recipient (I,,8: :). It is certain that the biography (Kopytoff I,8o) of
Mapuche sacred sites and objects begins with human action in ritualistic contexts, as
in the case of the amunrewe the making of the rewe. However, as shown earlier, once
these objects are consecrated, they become autonomous and are able to engage in
exchanges of newen with human beings. Contrary to a denition of agency centred on
reception, which implies the identication of a signifying subject the social group in
this case and a signied object their sacred site, the relation between rewe as a
sacred site and rewe as a ritual congregation unfolds rather as one existing between
two subjects.
The agential nature of rewe suggests the possibility that we might be facing prin-
ciples governing these sacred sites that do not belong to a universal ontology. My use
of the term ontology is broad; it refers to the understanding and afrmation of what
exists in the world, rather than the characterization of different categories and forms
of being. Taken this way, ontology can be seen as a concern with being expressed in
different cultural contexts, such as rituals, in which the relations among deities, inani-
mate objects, and people become patent (Pedersen :ooI). The recognition of the
plural character of ontology implies a reconguration of alterity, away from a focus
on discursive articulations of identity, and towards one in which difference belongs to
the realm of those properties with which different beings are endowed. As suggested
by Holbraad, the questions that alterity poses to us anthropologists pertain to what
exists rather than what can be known. They pertain, if you like, to differences between
worlds rather than worldviews (:oo,: 8I-:). An ethnographic approach to ontol-
ogy, like the one proposed for the analysis of the rewe in El Roble estate, bears sig-
nicant implications. Firstly, it invites us to take things encountered in the eld as
they present themselves, rather than immediately assuming that they signify, repre-
sent, or stand for something else (Henare et al. :oo,: :). Secondly, it suggests more
broadly that social realities ... are analytically subordinated to ontological realities
i.e. the systems of properties that humans ascribe to beings (Descola :ooo: I,8). To say
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that the rewe gives newen and receives it from its associated ritual congregation is thus
not a discursive claim ordering reality for a group of people through a consensually
legitimated religious institution, as is the case with a Christian congregation, for
instance. Rather, the actions of the rewe and their consequences for the lives of the
people are the initial condition from which the connotation of sacred is derived.
Rewe, in other words, can be sacred only if they act as powerful and agential objects.
After seeing what makes sacred sites sacred in the Mapuche lived world, the two
major doubts expressed by state actors concerning the authenticity of the rewe in El
Roble estate can nally be shed. Firstly, how can this site be truly sacred if attacked by
other Mapuche people? While rewe are found throughout the Mapuche region with
little regional variation,
their status as sacred sites does not depend on consensual
agreement or on the ascription of their status as sacred by a central religious authority.
Rather, their power depends upon their capacity to be actively involved in a complex
web of relations involving localized human groups, such as the corresponding ritual
congregation and their potential enemies.
Secondly, how can this site, which has been recently installed in a tract of land
claimed as ancestral, be truly sacred? This question can be answered by pointing to
the fact that the power of rewe to affect people around them is predicated upon
relations and actions in the present. Rewe do not express spatial continuity with the
past, since their locations can vary according to different contingencies, such as
the preference for a at eld (more apt for the activities of the ngillatun ritual), the
willingness of a resident to offer a section of his or her landed property to host such
a ritual, and even the role of rewe as markers of land occupation, as in the case of
that installed in El Roble estate. Furthermore, rewe are not the manifestations of
ancestral spiritual forces embroiled in the land. Certain sites, such as the kuel burial
grounds, which consist of large mounds, articially levelled, are believed to be the
location of ancestral spirits (Dillehay :oo,: Io8-,). Kuel, however, represent only a
small minority of sacred sites in indigenous Southern Chile, and the assumption of
the presence of ancestral spirits cannot be automatically extended to other sacred
places, such as rewe. While the ancient ones (los antiguos) are regarded as sources of
knowledge (kimn) indispensable in ensuring appropriate behaviours towards sacred
sites (Di Giminiani :oII; :oI:), my informants do not regard them as active spiritual
forces. Having shown that sacred sites involved in land claims are more than strategic
means by which to attain governmental benets, we can now explore some of the
reasons why sites like the rewe in El Roble estate are subject to accusations of inau-
thenticity in land negotiations.
The rewe as realpolitik: analogies and misunderstandings by state actors
Negotiations concerning the legal dispute over the ownership of El Roble estate proved
particularly difcult. CONADI functionaries were, in fact, not interested in making the
legal dispute over El Roble public and thus exposing themselves to allegations of
ineptitude for the unsound relocation of Comunidad Pichico in a tract of land
demanded by another Mapuche community. A possible solution to this thorny legal
dispute came only when a newly elected council of Comunidad Pichico decided to
negotiate with the Osses over the possibility of leaving El Roble estate. The
co-operation between the two communities converged into a written agreement, in
which the Pichicos accepted relocation elsewhere in order to leave El Roble to its
ancestral owners. Not surprisingly, CONADI ofcials did little to help in reaching this
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agreement and members of both communities were to be credited for nding a solution
totheir dispute, whicheventually materializedin:oI:. For my hosts, the agreement of the
two communities represented an exemplary case for the unity of the Mapuche people,
despite tensions and divisions provoked by state policies. While Comunidad Osses were
able to achieve their goals regardless of the difculties posed by CONADI ofcials, many
negotiations inChile are destinedtoremainunresolved. Several reasons canbe foundfor
these failures. The political inuence exercised by wealthy non-indigenous landowners
and the intricate system of clientelist relations between Indigenous Communities and
state functionaries constitute considerable obstacles to the resolution of Mapuche
demands. I would like to propose one particular reason for the failed land negotiations
in Southern Chile. I am referring to the possibility that land claims are deligitimized by
state ofcials according to their judgements on the cultural signicance of ancestral
territories and sacred sites involved in land disputes.
Duringnegotiations betweenthecouncil of ComunidadOsses andstatefunctionaries,
the rewe was a major topic of conversation. When details about this site were discussed,
state functionaries consistently showedtheir doubts about the authenticity of the rewe in
El Roble estate. They were generally surprised to nd out that the rewe was installed only
in :ooo, as it appeared to them to be a contradiction that this particular sacred site was
meant to express relatedness with ancestral land, while being itself a new feature in the
landscape. The other major doubt regarding the sacrednature of this rewe concernedthe
reasons why it was possible that a sacred site could have become the object of attacks by
members of the same ethnic group. The Pichicos also erected a rewe in the disputed
property, roughly a kilometre away from that installed by the Osses. The simultaneous
presence of two newsacred sites seemed to suggest that they were both inauthentic. This
point reected the impression, which I have frequently heard during negotiations, that
thereweinEl Robleestatewas onlyashow.As is oftenobservedinLatinAmerica, conicts
betweengovernments andindigenous communities reveal howcertainphenomena, such
as natural resources, are signied in different manners (Orlove I,,I). In negotiations
betweenthemembers of ComunidadOsses andstateactors, thesameobject, therewe, was
clearly seen from very different angles. The reasons why sacred sites involved in land
negotiations might appear so differently to indigenous claimants and state functionaries
are better unfolded if we explore the possibility that the same concepts can be employed
by bothparties torefer toradically different worlds. Twonotions inparticular,Mapuche
and sacred, are subject to divergent interpretations.
For state ofcials, Mapuche is a category which encompasses an ethnic group and
a religious congregation. In accordance with this assumption, the aggression of the
Pichicos against the rewe of Comunidad Osses can only be explained by presupposing
that this sacred site is not authentic. The conceptualization of Mapuche as a rigidly
demarcated ethnic and religious group might be of little help, however, in explaining
how this ethnonym is understood in indigenous rural areas. While gurative con-
sanguinity is extended to virtually all Mapuche people through the expression people
of the same blood (gente de la misma sangre), in rural areas this category always
appears as relative, since it emerges from the particular context in which the term is
employed (Course :oIo: ,). Hence, the Mapucheness of an individual can be
judged according to his or her relative position between two poles: on the one hand,
the very Mapuche and, on the other, the awinkados, individuals who behave simi-
larly to winkas. Moreover, Mapuche is a category that can be extended to individuals
belonging to other indigenous groups, and indigenous people outside the Southern
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Cone are generally referred to as Mapuche. Mapucheness thus emerges as both a
practice-orientated form of identity (Astuti I,,,) and a form of self-determina-
tion centred on the value of autochthony. Certain practices, such as participation
in rituals, uency in Mapudungun, and involvement in formalized forms of
exchange with neighbours and friends, are constitutive elements of Mapuche identity.
Similarly, Mapuche identication with a place of origin (tuwn) is regarded as a
fundamental marker of distinction from the winkas, who in contrast are generally
represented as uprooted and unpredictable people. The open and uid character of
Mapuche identity contrasts with the assumptions of state actors, for whom
Mapuche is the conation of a clearly dened ethnic boundary with an extended
ritual congregation.
The other major source of misunderstanding concerning the rewe in El Roble
estate refers to the meaning of sacred place. While in theory all sacred sites are
characterized by the imposition of restrictions and prohibitions on human behaviour,
what makes something sacred in one society might have none of the characteristics of
things and places regarded as sacred in other cultures (Hubert I,,: Io). In cultural
translation, analogies are necessary to translate one group of basic meanings into
another, thus allowing for the understanding and objectication of alien cultures
(Wagner I,8I: ,). However, the unreective use of analogies might lead to the impo-
sition of standards of sacredness from one society on sacred sites in other social
contexts, thus contributing to misunderstanding. During my stay in Comunidad
Osses, my informants offered me analogies to dene the rewe quickly, as in the case of
Juan, who once told me: The rewe is like the church for the Mapuche people. Here,
we come to pray. The analogy between this Mapuche sacred site and the church, a
familiar image for non-indigenous Chileans and Mapuche, served immediately to
convey the sacred nature of the rewe in El Roble estate. However, accusations of
inauthenticity were also grounded on the use of this analogy, once the standards of
sacredness of Christian churches were applied to the understanding of this site. As I
was once told by a CONADI functionary, How can this rewe be sacred if other
Mapuche have attacked it?
The interpretation of Mapuche sacred sites involved in land disputes is illustrative of
the inherent limitations of cultural translation, and, in particular, of the problems
inherent in translating and interpreting terms in which profound semantic differences
may be concealed behind apparent phonic similarity (Davidson I,8: Ioo). For Viveiros
de Castro, anthropology as a form of cultural translation is inevitably exposed to the
effects of equivocation, a set of potential misinterpretations arising from the transla-
tion of the natives practical and discursive concepts into the conceptual apparatus
developed by anthropology (:oo: ,). Rather than attempting to annul it by way of
grouping ostensibly equivalent phenomena, such as sacred places, into universal cat-
egories, an ideal form of cultural translation should attempt to make the most of
equivocation by emphasizing radical difference. Controlled equivocation unfolds as an
operation of differentiation a production of difference that connects ... two dis-
courses to the precise extent to which they are not saying the same thing, in so far as
they point to discordant exteriorities beyond the equivocal homonyms between them
(:oo: :o).
An uncontrolled equivocation can be said to occur whenever differences between
discordant exteriorities are played down in order to allow them to be subsumed under
the category of a universal concept, in this case, sacred sites. This is exactly what occurs
Piergiorgio Di Giminiani 536
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in the case of state actors for whom the sacredness of Mapuche sites implicated in land
claims is questionable, owing to their apparent failure to accord with the state actors
expectations of what sacred sites should be and do. Different misunderstandings of
and reservations about the sacredness of the rewe in El Roble estate ultimately led to the
conclusion that this site could only be another example of an instrumental use of
symbols of indigenous identity, or, as commonly heard throughout eldwork, a show.
In virtually all indigenous-state relations, unambiguous perceptions of non-conictual
indigenous identity by state representatives are critical in ensuring a successful claim
(Clifford I,88; de la Cadena & Starn :oo,; Povinelli :oo:: o). In negotiations, the use of
cultural objects by indigenous people as a form symbolic capital serves as a marker of
difference, legitimizing demands in the eyes of state ofcials (Graham :oo,). The
strategic use of cultural objects, however, can prove to be a double-edged sword.
Indigenous activists often run the risk of being perceived as no longer truly living their
identity when their actions are seen as deliberate exploitations of symbolic capital
(Warren & Jackson :oo,: ,,). As seen earlier, for Mapuche claimants, these sites can be
employed instrumentally as markers of indigenous identity, as well as being powerful
places endowed with a particular form of agency. In marked contrast to this, accusa-
tions of inauthenticity made with regard to Mapuche sacred sites involved in land
claims derive from the supposition that political usefulness and sacredness are mutu-
ally exclusive.
The analysis of the interpretations of sacred sites by state actors shows that mis-
understandings emerge through the uncontrolled use of analogies and unexamined
expectations about what sacred sites are and do. This particular form of interpreta-
tion ultimately leads to the transformation of objects responding to divergent onto-
logical principles into symbols of identity employed for political purposes. This point
bears one signicant implication with regard to the power relation between national
majorities and indigenous people. A commonly held view in social science is that
conicts between national majorities and indigenous minorities can be reduced to
radical ontological misunderstanding, as the cognitive and affective worlds of domi-
nant and dominated remain unknown to one another (Clammer, Poirier &
Schwimmer :oo: 8). Such a scenario nds little correspondence in contemporary
Southern Chile. Land negotiations are carried out in Spanish, the rst language of
both parties. Many Mapuche residents regard themselves as Chileans, and identify as
Christians as most Chileans do. Furthermore, ties of friendship and kinship between
winka and Mapuche are today common and state actors have often ongoing relations
with indigenous activists. Misunderstandings in interethnic relations can thus be
conceptualized without presupposing rigid ethnic boundaries, which would make
attempts for mutual understanding impossible. Quite the contrary, it seems that
failures to recognize radical difference originate in those interethnic contexts,
where visible signs of indigenous identity are little apparent to the non-indigenous
One signicant conclusion can be drawn here. Rather than presupposing irrecon-
cilable cultural and communication differences, or state actors refusal to understand,
misunderstandings in land negotiations are inherent in a type of understanding aimed
at the abduction of radical difference. Such a form of understanding can be better
contextualized within the framework of statecraft and the liberal ideology of multicul-
turalism centred on the ideal of mutual agreement, which masks the actual asymmetry
of the relation between indigenous people and national majorities. In particular, forms
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of social power serve to commensurate disparate ethical and epistemological systems in
liberal national forms (Povinelli :ooI: ,:o), thus domesticating difference in ways that
appear more legible according to the statecraft principles of standardization (Scott
I,,8). So far in this article, misunderstandings in land negotiations have been presented
as rooted in the failure to recognize the reality of radical difference by state actors. We
can now clarify the inuence of the state and its related ideology in shaping state actors
understanding of radical difference.
Conclusion: the state and incommensurable ontologies
The expansion of indigenous social movements in recent decades is part of the global
emergence of subaltern public cultures in open conict with the ideals of national
cohesion and peaceful relations promoted by the liberal state (Povinelli :ooI: ,:o). By
challenging current systems of land tenure and property relations, indigenous demands
for land rights highlight a central concern for statecraft. Historically conictive rela-
tions between indigenous minorities and national majorities can in fact be appeased by
responding to indigenous claims. However, demands for collective rights pose a threat
to the national cohesion that multiculturalist policies aim to achieve. The demarcation
of acceptable difference is an ongoing process involving both state and indigenous
actors, whose primary outcome is the establishment of a horizon for cultural difference
shared and accepted by both indigenous and non-indigenous interlocutors (Ramos
I,,8: ,I). While the redenition of acceptable cultural differences unfolds as intercul-
tural mediations in the public sphere as well as in face-to-face encounters, such as land
negotiations, this process largely depends on the ability of the state to make difference
commensurable with the existing technologies of governability.
The principle of standardization is a determining factor in establishing what sort of
difference can be addressed by the state apparatus. Standardization refers to the his-
torical development of a metric that allows the state to translate what it knew into a
common standard necessary for a synoptic view (Scott I,,8: :). Historically, failures in
the implementation of grand schemes of governability can be traced back to the
difculties inherent in appropriately reading the complexity of divergent social phe-
nomena to be standardized. Bureaucratic apparatuses are the mechanisms through
which different social phenomena are tted into a common legal framework. In the
case of the land programme, standardization implies the translation of local notions of
land and belonging into the jural language of property (Abramson :ooo: 8). Further-
more, the state imposes the rules by which negotiations proceed (Nadasdy :oo,: 8,),
including the denition of legitimate negotiating parties according to imposed national
standards of ethnic identity (Scholtz :ooo; Sutton :oo,). The principles of standardi-
zation are patent in the Chilean land programme: negotiations are open only to those
indigenous settlements ofcially registered with CONADI and formed by members
who have been granted a certicate of indigenous status (Certicado de Calidad Ind-
gena) according to their surnames and genealogical history. Furthermore, oral evidence
is secondary, and in order to prove the loss of property they had held in the past,
claimants are forced to rely on colonial documents and property titles originally
designed to reduce their land.
While the indigenous land programme in Chile is largely shaped by the principle of
standardization, misunderstandings in land negotiations cannot be explained only by
invoking this principle. There are no guidelines concerning negotiations, and, as pre-
viously suggested, the judgements of state actors are central factors in the conclusion of
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any arbitration. Misunderstandings of indigenous phenomena by state actors are thus
better explained as the result of a form of understanding that makes standardization
possible by way of commensuration and annulment of radical difference (Povinelli
:ooI). The issue of commensuration is of central importance in the philosophy of
language. For Davidson (I,8), radical interpretation that is, the interpretation of two
or more beliefs that cannot be commensurated by way of a third system of reference
can be successful only through the employment of a theory and practice of translation
maximizing agreement between interlocutors. Agreement in this case leads to an inevi-
table paradox: [J]ust as we must maximize agreement, or risk not making sense of what
the alien is talking about, so we must maximize the self-consistency we attribute to him,
on pain of not understanding him (Davidson I,8: :,).
The dilemma of agreement at the cost of mutual understanding is central not only
to the philosophy of language, but also to liberal ideologies of multiculturalism and
public reason. The problem of understanding radical difference is in this case resolved
by communication strategies aimed at commensurating morally and epistemologically
divergent social groups by making radical worlds unremarkable (Povinelli :ooI: ,:o).
In particular, for Povinelli, liberal ideologies of multiculturalism are inspired by the
ideal that the state can accommodate difference by mimicking the self-correcting
movement of reasoned public debate (:ooI: ,:,). The main principle behind liberal
ideologies of public reason is indeed the search for a shared agreement, a value coherent
with the ideals of national cohesion and peaceful interethnic relations promoted by the
liberal state. The extent of what can be agreed on, however, is only apparently the result
of mutual agreement between state actors and indigenous claimants. The ideal of
agreement conceals the fact that the establishment of acceptable difference unfolds as
an asymmetrical relation between the state and indigenous claimants. Cultural differ-
ence that cannot be addressed as the naturalized outcome of mutual agreement
between minorities and majorities is marginalized.
In Chile, public policies targeting indigenous minorities are characterized by both
principles of standardization and liberal ideologies of multiculturalism centred on the
ideal of agreement. On the one hand, the land programme is designed as an open
competition, in which Indigenous Communities must go through approximately
thirty-two phases before they can receive land compensations. The language used by
this programme is evocative of that used by welfare systems, as land subsidies can be
offered to two types of applicants: Indigenous Communities presenting a legal claim of
property loss, or households demonstrating sufcient levels of poverty. On the other
hand, state representatives, such as cabinet members, can participate in negotiations
over land disputes, which results in agreements with indigenous claimants, as com-
monly described in the national media (see El Austral :oII).
The emergence of the indigenous land programme in Chile as simultaneously both
a standardized subsidization and a space for mutual agreements between the state and
indigenous claimants reveals the profound connection between liberal strategies of
commensuration and the principle of standardization. This point illustrates that stand-
ardization can be achieved only insofar as a form of understanding that annuls radical
difference is at work. In the liberal imagination promoted by multiculturalism, state
apparatuses, as well as its law, principles of governance, and national attitudes, need
merely to be adjusted to accommodate others (Povinelli :ooI: I8). Only once radically
different worlds are made unremarkable can they be commensurated within existing
grids and practices of governability.
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What role is played, then, by misunderstandings by state actors within the broader
framework of standardization and liberal ideologies of multiculturalism? Such misun-
derstandings are certainly useful to the state in that they help to ensure the frail balance
between preventing conicts with indigenous populations and delimiting indigenous
demands that might otherwise pose a threat to existing property relations. However,
misunderstandings do not necessarily occur as deliberate refusals to understand indig-
enous demands and sacred sites to further the ends of state actors, as failures in land
negations indeed bear them little in the way of benets. In land negotiations, the
transformation of ancestral land into property and sacred sites into evidence for
property is founded on the premise that Mapuche land and sacred sites are semantically
compatible with the meanings ascribed to land and sacred sites in the Chilean legal
While misunderstandings in land negotiations can be understood within the
logics of liberal strategies of commensuration, this article has further suggested that
accusations of inauthenticity against sacred sites originate in a more conned
process: the transformation of these sites from animate powerful objects into symbols
of identity employed for political purposes. The focus of this article on the potential
ramications of failing to recognize difference in ontological terms bears two signi-
cant implications for the ways in which the state addresses radical difference. Firstly,
the points raised by this article can be taken as invitations to reconsider state appa-
ratuses regulating indigenous land negotiations. The growing global tendency to
rely on technocratic rule and expert knowledge has largely inspired negotiation
policies (Boyer :oo8). In late liberal governability, experts have been allowed to estab-
lish enclosures within which their authority cannot be challenged or affected by
political attempts to govern them (Rose :ooo: I,,). The development of a culture of
expertise is particularly evident in Chile, a stronghold of neoliberalism in Latin
America (Silva :oo,). A handful of experts such as lawyers and economists are
responsible for the design, modication, and implementation of the land pro-
gramme. Participation of indigenous representatives is not considered in the current
system, and negotiations are carried out in the absence of indigenous voices. Recent
proposals by Chilean President Sebastin Piera aim to restructure the land pro-
gramme run by CONADI by shifting its focus from negotiations over land restitution
towards development projects aimed at fostering private initiatives among indig-
enous farmers under the supervision of experts in agriculture (El Mercurio :oI:). The
failures of land negotiations outlined in this article reveal how abandoning the ideal
of making the land programme a standardized system of land allotment might open
the possibility for negotiations to unfold as mediations more responsive to indig-
enous desires.
Secondly, by drawing attention to the ways in which the state understands and
addresses radical difference, this article has suggested that the recognition of onto-
logical pluralism is central in the debate on the political self-determination of indig-
enous groups. Conicts over the recognition of cultural difference have been
generally regarded as negotiations over meaning involving different, culturally con-
ditioned interpretations of social reality (Eriksen :oo:: I,). However, claims point
to the possibility that divergences refer not only to discordant representations of
society, but also to differences in ontological terms. As for the broader study of indig-
enous activism, land claims have been primarily interpreted through constructivist
approaches inspired by the politics of identity (see Occhipinti :oo,; Saltman :oo:).
Piergiorgio Di Giminiani 540
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In this paradigm, collective action is the form through which land is re-signied as a
symbol of a restructured collective identity. This article has shown that treating land
and sacred sites exclusively as symbols of identity can lead us to misunderstand the
ways in which these objects appear and matter to the people around them. Far from
being a mere analytical interest, the failure to recognize radical difference in land
negotiations is a critical concern for indigenous claimants. As shown in the case of
negotiations over El Roble estate, resolutions depend on judgements, such as those
concerning the authenticity of sacred sites. Within anthropology, allowing for the
conceptual recognition of the pluralist character of ontology is a political act in itself.
The question for the political self-determination of indigenous people is indeed
incomplete unless we take into account questions concerning the conceptual and
ontological self-determination of each society (Holbraad :oI:: Io; Viveiros de Castro
:oo,). To take a step further, anthropology can offer a decisive contribution to
the study of indigenous-state relations not only by taking radical difference seriously,
that is, in ontological terms, but also by showing the implications of failing to
do so.
This article is based upon fourteen months of eldwork carried out in :oo8 and :oo, in Chile. This
research was made possible with nancial assistance from the Dissertation Fieldwork Grant of the Wenner
Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, the Abbey Santander Research Award, the Sutasoma Award
of the Royal Anthropological Institute, the UCL Graduate School Research Projects Fund, the Central
Research Fund of the University of London, and the Interdisciplinary Center for Intercultural and Indig-
enous Studies ICIIS, GRANT: CONICYT/FONDAP/I,IIoooo. The Institute of Sociology at the Catholic
University of Chile also provided logistical and nancial support for the writing of this article. I would like
to thank Allen Abramson, Giovanna Bacchiddu, Mukulika Banerjee, Magnus Course, Martin Holbraad, Eric
Hirsch, and the anonymous reviewers of the JRAI for their productive comments on previous versions of this
article. Further insights came from participants in the panel Towards an Anthropology of Misunderstand-
ings at the EASA biennial conference (:oI:) held at the University of Nanterre. My profound gratitude goes
to the people of Comunidad Osses for their wholehearted hospitality and endless patience in discussing
experiences and opinions concerning their land claims.
Pseudonyms have been used throughout this article.
In other rural areas, the installation of the rewe is named rewetun.
Customarily, lonko is the headman of a dominant lineage and is in charge of organizing the activities of
the local group lof. In many Indigenous Communities, lonko are today chosen according to their ritualistic
A notable exception concerns the Pewenche regional group located in the Andean areas, among whom
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The contested REWE
Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) :p, ,:,-,,,
Royal Anthropological Institute :oI,
Le rewe contest : rites sacrs, malentendus et pluralisme ontologique dans
les ngociations pour les terres des Mapuche
Les sites sacrs sont au cur des revendications et ngociations des peuples autochtones avec les
gouvernements. Les pouvoirs publics mettent souvent en doute lauthenticit de ces sites, ce qui peut
dlgitimer les droits invoqus sur les terres des anctres. Lauteur afrme ici que les malentendus lis aux
ngociations sur les terres des Mapuche au Chili ne sont pas ns dun refus stratgique de comprendre mais
dune forme de comprhension qui tente de rendre des diffrences radicales compatibles avec la logique du
pouvoir public et de la socit nationale. La transition culturelle ne reconnat pas les principes
ontologiques qui rendent certains sites sacrs dans le monde vcu par les Mapuche, sites qui se trouvent de
ce fait transforms en symboles didentit et employs stratgiquement des ns politiques.
Piergiorgio Di Giminiani is a lecturer in anthropology at the Catholic University of Chile (Sociological
Institute, Anthropology Programme). He is the author of the book Tierras ancestrales, disputas contem-
porneas: pertenencia y demandas territoriales en la sociedad mapuche rural (Ancestral lands, current disputes:
belonging and territorial demands in rural Mapuche society) (Ediciones UC, :oI:).
Instituto de Sociologa, Ponticia Universidad Catlica de Chile, Av. Vicua Mackenna ,8oo, Macul, Chile.
Piergiorgio Di Giminiani 544
Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) :p, ,:,-,,,
Royal Anthropological Institute :oI,