On the National Day of Indigenous Peoples, we invite you learn about the ten main indigenous peoples recognized by the Chilean State.
More than two million Chileans identify as belonging to an indigenous group. Of these, 1.7 million identify as Mapuche, 156,000 as Aymara and 88,000 as Diaguita, the three most numerous indigenous peoples in Chile, according to data from the 2017 census. In accordance with Law 19.253, the Chilean State recognizes the Mapuche, Aymara, Rapanui, Atacameño or Likan Antai, Quechua, Colla, Chango, Diaguita, Kawésqar and Yagán as the main indigenous peoples of Chile. On the National Day of Indigenous Peoples, we present a brief summary with key information on each of these groups.
The Aymara are the second largest indigenous people in Chile (after the Mapuche), according to official data. Today, they are identified by their language, their Andean culture and the land on which they live in the Arica and Parinacota, Tarapacá and Antofagasta Regions. Aymara communities live in the altiplano, which spans a large zone that includes Lake Titicaca and its surrounding areas (Bolivia), Chile’s Norte Grande and northwest Argentina.
Notable in the Aymara culture are their textiles, which showcase great technical expertise and detail and are used primarily for clothing and ceremonial pieces. Music and dance are two very important cultural expressions, while the Aymara are also known for their silver jewellery and other ritual objects.
Atacameño or Likan Antai
The Atacameño or Likan Antai live in the valley, oases and gorges of the Salar de Atacama and the upper Loa River basin and its Salado River tributary, in the municipalities of Calama and San Pedro de Atacama, located in the Antofagasta Region. The Atacameño speak the Kunza language and many refer to themselves as Likan-Antai, a Kunza word meaning “inhabitants of the land”.
Atacameño culture is famous for its pottery, basket weaving, textiles, jewellery making, dance and music. The traditional Atacameño economy is based on agriculture and livestock.
The Quechua people are recognized by their language, also called Quechua. Their communities are located in the regions of Ollagüe and the San Pedro River, a tributary of the Loa River in the Antofagasta Region. The area has a historic relationship with the Salar de Ayuna (Bolivia) and economic links to the Loa River basin and the Pacific coast. Quechua communities have also been established at the Mamiña oasis and the towns of Quipisca and Miñi Miñe, in the municipality of Pozo Almonte in the Tarapacá Region. The Quechua economy is based on livestock and agriculture and the people have conserved artisan crafts such as pottery and textile arts.
The Colla currently live in a part of the Atacama Desert, in some of the gorges of the Andean foothills and along the edge of the high plateau of the Copiapó and Chañaral provinces in the Atacama Region, although some also now live in towns and cities.
Their traditional economy is based on livestock and, to a lesser extent, agriculture. Colla women practice the cultural activity of textile craftwork using looms and knitting sticks, organized either in workshops or as individual ventures.
The Chango people are keepers of a traditional maritime way of life along the coastal regions of Antofagasta, Atacama and Coquimbo. One of their most distinctive cultural symbols is a raft made of sealion skin, which is unique in the history of maritime navigation. The Chango adapted their culture to be able to prosper along a coastal strip that provided little fresh water, plants for human consumption or land animals; because of this, they did not develop agricultural or livestock practices.
Today, the Chango recognize the sea and fishing coves as key aspects of their identity, as the places where their ancestors and now they have built their lives. Beyond the resources that it provides, the ocean has a life of its own.
The Chango people were officially recognized as a Chilean indigenous ethnic group following a law that was passed in 2020. Around 4,000 people identify as a member of this group.
The Diaguita originally lived on both sides of the Andean Mountain range. On the Chilean side, prior to the arrival of the Spanish, they lived in the valleys of the Norte Chico – Copiapó, Huasco, Elqui and Limarí-Choapa in the regions of Atacama and Coquimbo.
It was in the Huasco Valley, specifically along the Tránsito River, that the Diaguita reclaimed their ethnic identity. This led to official recognition of the Diaguita in 2006 and their incorporation as an indigenous people of Chile, through the modification of the Indigenous Law Nº 19.253.
Diaguita pottery (pots and crockery) and textile production are two of their main traditional crafts.
Rapa Nui or Easter Island is located in the middle of the South Pacific, 3,700 kilometers from the South American continent. It forms part of the Valparaíso Region.
80% of the population is concentrated in Hanga Roa, a town that is the capital of both the island and the province. The island also possesses five fishing coves (Hanga Piko, Hanga Roa Tai, Hanga Ho’onu or La Perouse, Hanga Nui and Hanga Te’e en Vaihu). The remainder of the population lives throughout the island’s rural areas.
The Rapanui economy is based on agriculture, complemented by marine products such as small molluscs and fish, like tuna. Just prior to the year AD 690, monumental religious architecture appeared along the island’s coastal areas, the famous Moai, erected on ahu or rock platforms, either as single statues or in rows of up to 15.
The Mapuche are the most numerous of Chile’s indigenous peoples, representing 78% of those who identify as indigenous. Today, Mapuche communities are found in the area bordered in the north by the Biobío River and its Queuco River tributary, in the Biobío Region, and in the south by the island of Chiloé, in the Los Lagos Region.
The Mapuche worldview is rich and diverse, connected to the very order of the world through forms of material and symbolic expression that are expressed in rituals, ceremonies and nature.
The Mapuche possess a vast cultural heritage. In its intangible form, it is composed of the Mapudungún language, a deep knowledge of nature and the relationship between human beings, oral tradition and spiritual and healing processes, as well as religious beliefs and practices.
It is thought that the Kawésqar arrived in Chile’s southern canals about 6,000 years ago. Settlement theories suggest that they came from the north and arrived following routes through the canals that begin in Chiloé, before crossing the Isthmus of Ofqui. Other theories suggest that they came from the south, with origins in the hunting people of Eastern Patagonia who became seafarers.
Originally, the Kawésqar travelled by canoe and were nomadic hunter-gatherers. They lived in what is now Puerto Edén and Punta Arenas in the Magallanes and Chilean Antarctic Region. Adorned in shell and feather necklaces, they wore animal-skin cloaks, whose material varied according to territory (sealion and deer). They decorated their faces and bodies with stripes and geometric designs.
The Yámana or Yagán is the name of the world’s southernmost canoe-faring people, who lived on the islands south of Tierra del Fuego, between the Beagle Channel and Cape Horn. Today, the last Yagán families are found in Villa Ukika and Bahía Mejillones, close to Puerto Williams in the Magallanes Region.
They are recognized as a nomadic people who hunted, gathered and fished. The canoe was central to their way of life and was made from the bark of tree, which was cut and formed into a gondola shape.
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