Indigenous peoples in Chile or Native Chileans form about 13% of the total population of Chile. According to the 2017 census, almost 2,200,000 people declare having indigenous origins.[1] Most Chileans are of partially indigenous descent; however, indigenous identification and its legal ramifications are typically reserved to those who self-identify with and are accepted within one or more indigenous groups.

The Mapuche, with their traditional lands in south-central Chile, account for approximately 80% of the total indigenous population. There are also small populations of Aymara, Quechua, Atacameño, Qulla (Kolla), Diaguita, Yahgan (Yámana), Rapa Nui and Kawésqar (Alacalufe) people in other parts of the country,[2] as well as many other groups such as Caucahue, Chango, Picunche, Chono, Tehuelche, Cunco and Selk'nam (Ona).

Geographic distribution of Indigenous Chileans


Before the Spanish arrived in the mid 16th century, Chile was home to the southernmost portion of the Inca Empire. The Inca first expanded into Chile under Túpac Inca Yupanqui who ruled from 1471 to 1493. At its peak, the empire’s southern border was the Malue River in central Chile. Shortly thereafter, Spanish conquistadors led by Francisco Pizarro started to make contact with Inca in Peru in the 1530s.[3] The combination of European diseases and internal conflicts over succession severely weakened the strength and size of the empire, which ultimately collapsed during Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire in 1532.

While the Inca Empire fell, the Mapuche people were never formally defeated by Spanish conquistadors. Instead, this indigenous population maintained a tense independence from Spain throughout the colonial period. There were several small skirmishes throughout the 1500s and in 1553 a Mapuche attack killed the regional Spanish governor.[4] The conflict between the Mapuche and the Spanish culminated in the Arauco War which ultimately ended with official recognition for the Mapuche people and their territory. The Mapuche were one of the few indigenous groups in Latin America who were formally recognized as possessing territory by the Spanish. Because of this recognition, the Mapuche did not align with Chilean nationalists during the Chilean War of Independence. Instead they chose to side with the Spanish, because the imperial power’s legal recognition of the Mapuche tribe made them more of a known quantity than the Chilean rebels.[5]

After the war, the newly-formed Chilean government forced the Mapuche onto reservations approximately 1/20th the size of the area they had previously occupied. Much of their former land was further divided up and sold, including to extractive industries such as forestry and hydropower.[6]

The flag of the Mapuche people.

Although indigenous Chileans were not allies of Chilean independence fighters, by the mid-19th century, Chilean school curriculum included depictions of indigenous warriors that claimed they were central to the development of the Chilean identity.[5] Even so, those indigenous groups were still excluded from any participation in political life, making indigenous representation purely symbolic.[7]

The Indigenous Law

Since the fall of the Pinochet regime in 1990 and subsequent return to democracy, the Chilean government has revisited indigenous peoples’ role in Chilean society. President Patricio Aylwin Azócar’s Concertación government established a Comisión Especial de Pueblos indígenas (Special Commission of Indigenous People). This commission’s report provided the intellectual framework of the 1993 "Indigenous Law" (ley indígena) or Law Nº 19.253.

The Indigenous Law established the National Corporation for Indigenous Development (CONADI), which included directly elected indigenous representatives, advised and directed government programs to assist the economic development of indigenous people.[2] Part of that cultural recognition included legalizing the Mapudungun language and providing a bilingual education in schools with indigenous populations. The Indigenous Law recognized in particular the Mapuche people, victims of the Occupation of the Araucanía from 1861 to 1883, as an inherent part of the Chilean nation. Other indigenous people officially recognized included Aymara, Atacameña, Colla, Quechua, Rapa-Nui (Polynesian inhabitants of Easter Island), Yahgan (Yámana), Kawésqar, Diaguita (since 2006), Chango (since 2020) and Selk'nam (Ona) (since 2023).

Chile is one of the twenty countries to have signed and ratified the only binding international law concerning indigenous peoples, Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989.[8] It was adopted in 1989 as the International Labour Organization Convention 169. Chile ratified the convention in 2008. In November 2009, a court decision in Chile, considered to be a landmark in indigenous rights concerns, made use of the ILO convention 169. The Supreme Court decision on Aymara water rights upholds rulings by both the Pozo Almonte tribunal and the Iquique Court of Appeals, and marks the first judicial application of ILO Convention 169 in Chile.[9]

Constitutional recognition

Despite the benefits established by Indigenous Law, it still has its limitations, spurring the emergence of organized Mapuche movements for more direct constitutional recognition. In the 1990s, the Aukin Ngulam Wallmapu or “Council of All Lands” movement began the fight towards constitutional recognition and self-determination. Recognition of plurinational status in Chile would enshrine the indigenous population as its own group deserving of political representation, autonomy, and territorial protection.[10]

As a result of indigenous mobilization and protest, Mapuche organizers encouraged constitutional reform on the national stage. In 2007, Chilean President Bachelet indicated the indigenous constitutional reform as a "high urgency act".[11] Despite Bachelet’s endorsement, the reform was relabeled as a "low urgency act", delaying the procedure of Indigenous constitutional inclusion.  

The rejected constitutional proposals would have safeguarded environmental protections, established gender parity, and extended access to education for the Mapuche people, among a host of other social and democratic provisions.[12]

The indigenous fight for independence and more direct recognition remains relevant today. Recent protests provide indigenous activists an opportunity to advocate for amending the constitution to include indigenous rights. In October 2019, there were a series of protests in Santiago, over the increased fare rates for the transportation system. These protests led to debates and discussions over the privatized Chilean social benefits system, and a call to alter the constitution to increase the efficacy of the social welfare system.[13]

These protests culminated in a constitutional draft that would have included constitutional recognition.[14] While in 2020, 78% of Chilean citizens voted in favor of rewriting the constitution,[15] in the 2022 Chilean national plebiscite, 62% of Chilean voters rejected this proposal. Across the border, indigenous people in Bolivia have constitutional recognition. This recognition respects the identities and rights of many of the same indigenous groups that live in Chile.[16] Still, Chile remains the only Latin American country that has yet to constitutionally recognize indigenous populations.[11] The lack of reform is a result of the deep rooted inequality within the Chilean government, stemming from Pinochet-era policies that favor urban elites over environmental and indigenous issues.[17] Looking forward, the Chilean Congress has granted approval for a new Constitutional process, which will draft another potential Constitution.[18]

Current issues

Social and economic status

In 2005, CONADI regularized the property titles to approximately 70,000 hectares (173,000 acres) of land that were restored to 300 Aymara families in the north. However, some observers criticized a lack of transparency in CONADI's land restoration processes and favoritism of the Mapuche over other indigenous groups.[2]

The Ministry of Education provided a package of financial aid consisting of 1,200 scholarships for indigenous elementary and high school students in the Araucania Region during 2005. The government also implemented the Indigenous Scholarship Program that benefited 36,000 low-income indigenous elementary, high school, and college students with good academic performances.[2]

Still the indigenous people in Chile face systemic poverty and discrimination. The limited representation of indigenous peoples in governmental bodies has resulted in instances of encroachment and appropriation of Mapuche territory. Limited access to education has also hindered the Mapuche people from obtaining higher-paying and skilled jobs. Moreover, the Mapuche people are considered to be on the lowest level of socio-economic livelihood in Chilean society. The poverty level for the Mapuche people is 29% compared to the 20% poverty rate of the non-Indigenous Chilean citizens.[19] Their lack of political influence is evident in their interactions with businesses such as Forestry Farms and Lumber companies that exploit Indigenous land. Dispossession of their land and their exclusion from Chilean politics create an avenue for conflict between Indigenous militias and the Chilean state.

Mapuche conflict

Main article: Mapuche conflict

Since 2009, there have been frequent instances of violent confrontations between indigenous Mapuche groups and landowners, logging companies, and local government authorities in the southern part of the country. These conflicts were a result of encroachment on indigenous land, a direct result of the continuing lack of constitutional recognition. The confrontations ranged from protests and, occasionally, instances of rock throwing, land occupations, and burning of crops or buildings. Many of these actions were initiated by the Coordinadora Arauco Malleco (CAM), an indigenous group that has been accused of terrorist acts.[20][21]

Three CAM-related Mapuches and a non-indigenous sympathizer remained imprisoned in a 2001 arson case in which antiterrorism penalties were applied. The four initiated a hunger strike in March, demanding the terrorism convictions be voided to allow their release on parole. In April the court acquitted two other individuals of all charges, criminal and terrorist, in the same case. In September the Senate rejected a proposed law to allow the release of the four imprisoned on terrorist charges. Government-sponsored legislation which would clarify the application of the antiterrorism law remained pending at year's end.[2]

The government did not act on a United Nations special rapporteur's 2003 recommendation that there be a judicial review of cases affecting Mapuche leaders. The government had not applied the antiterrorism law in Mapuche-related prosecutions since 2002.[2] However, it began again to apply this law in August, 2009, as the Mapuche conflict deepened following several acts of occupation and arson, as well as the killing of a Mapuche activist.[22]

The tensions exposed by the Mapuche Conflict of 2009 reemerged in 2017 under the Bachelet government, in which a covert operation, ‘Operation Hurricane,’ was carried out by police. As a result of the operation, eight CAM Mapchue members were wrongfully arrested for a string of arson attacks. Citing past rhetoric associated with CAM’s political demands, media and business sectors painted a violent picture of the Mapuche community members allegedly involved. However, in October 2017, Chile’s Supreme Court intervened and released the accused based on falsified evidence. As a result, both the director of the intelligence unit and head of police lost their jobs.[23] The incident exposed repeated patterns of violent associations cast on Mapuche activist groups by the press (See also: Rapa Nui police repression and Aymara mining protests).[11]

Still, these types of conflict have continued sporadically to present day with both CAM and the splinter group Weichan Auka Mapu (WAM) continuing to lead protests. Both groups have expressed a willingness to use violence, attacking and sabotaging forestry operations, infrastructural corporations, and private homes of non-indigenous civilians who live on former indigenous lands. These acts are performed with the intent to further the political goals of land redistribution.[24]


The frequent conflict and protests are mostly a result of threatened indigenous territories. Indigenous land is often at risk as the government or private organizations impact nearby ecosystems. For example, recent hydropower projects harm waterflow and local biodiversity on indigenous land, threatening indigenous spirituality and plant-based medicinal items.[25] Chile has attempted to develop hydropower projects in indigenous territory where the rivers that the energy companies hope to use are sacred to the Mapuche people.

One area impacted by hydropower development is the Puelwillimapu Territory, whose interconnected waterways are referred to as the watershed of Wenuleufu or the ‘River Above,’ giving the region spiritual value.[25] To combat this encroachment, Indigenous people have protested and pushed for more of a voice in projects that can impact their territories. However, smaller scale hydropower projects do not require indigenous consultation.

Indigenous populations have had some success in working with the government to ensure traditionally indigenous coastal areas remain under indigenous administration. Specifically, the Marine and Coastal Areas for Indigenous Peoples Policy (MCAIP) was established in 2008 to protect fisheries and increase Indigenous inclusion in decision making.[26] The government protects these areas as a means of supporting ecological development while also ensuring that indigenous groups are able to maintain control of culturally significant locations.

Indigenous women

Women are at the forefront of Mapuche protests against institutions like forestry companies and the formation of the Ralco Dam. In particular, Berta and Nicolasa Quintremin led the protests against the Dam construction.[5] Their actions marked a transitional period where indigenous movements grew in displays of non-violent  fights against  social abuses of the state against indigenous life.  Indigenous women find themselves at the intersection of the struggle for indigenous rights and the fight for women’s rights. However, indigenous women do not feel represented by the larger women’s rights movement.[5] Their concerns relate to their indigenous identity and they advocate for Mapuche women leadership, land access, collective upliftment of indigenous cultures and increased attainment of rights.

In the Spring of 2018, Emilia Nuyado and Aracely Leuquen became the first two women of the Mapuche Indigenous group to join the Chilean Congress.[27] Nuyado and Leuquen are representatives of the Araucania region, where the tensions between the state and the Indigenous peoples are brewing into a bigger conflict. Nuyado intended to increase the social welfare of Mapuches and oppose anti-terrorist legislation against Mapuche groups.


Historically, indigenous groups have little availability to basic social services, and the COVID-19 pandemic showed the disparity in access to public health services.[28] Coupled with the low-equipped hospitals and inadequate preventive sanitation measures in indigenous towns, indigenous citizens who traveled to find better health care facilities are discriminated against and language barriers prevent proper treatment. Recent studies have found that Indigenous people were much more likely to die from COVID-19 related deaths and were much more susceptible to the virus than any other group in Chile. Data suggests that in the first five months of the pandemic (August 2020), there were 17.5% more cases for cities with large numbers of Indigenous citizens than communities with smaller or no indigenous presence.[29]  

Following the Chilean government's mishandling of COVID-19, which disproportionately affected indigenous groups, Mapuche activists gathered in town squares in the Araucania and Biobio regions advocating for Mapuche prisoners.[29] When the virus spread to the prison systems, activists appealed to place Mapuche prisoners in house arrest rather than remaining in prison to avoid unnecessary health risks.

More generally, the Chilean health industry often neglects indigenous healers or other health based traditions. Government regulations prevent certain rituals such as burying the placenta after giving birth. One Intercultural Hospital, however, in the Araucania region has a wing dedicated to Mapuche healthcare and their traditional medicine. There have been several protests to increase these more inclusive practices throughout the country and improve healthcare options for indigenous peoples throughout the country.[30]


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