Courage Tastes of Blood: Florencia Mallon

Florencia Mallon’s 2005 book, Courage Tastes of Blood: The Mapuche Community of Nicolás Ailío and the Chilean State, 1906-2001, examines the history of a Mapuche indigenous community in southern Chile, focusing on their defense of land and culture in the face of State colonization from 1906 to 2001. Her monograph places archival documents in dialogue with oral histories to argue that even as the Chilean government’s policy towards Mapuche people has been and continues to be hostile, these indigenous groups have appropriated the tools and discourse of the Liberal nation-state to “reconstitute the relations of territoriality and solidarity that had been destroyed by repression” (240). While focused on a subaltern group in a regional periphery, Mallon’s work contributes to wider debates in Latin American historiography by shedding light on the formation of power and cultural hegemony in colonized societies, indigenous resistance through migration, ethnogenesis, and direct action; as well as the role of class and culture in the revolutionary struggles and dictatorship in the last decades of the century.

Beginning with the early twentieth-century reducción of a Mapuche community, known as Nicolás Ailío, in the southern Araucanía region near the city of Temuco, Mallon details how territories were parceled out to indigenous groups under the guise of protecting their ancestral holdings while simultaneously isolating them and encroaching on their best land (39). Even as the resulting impoverishment of the Ailío community devastated families for two subsequent generations, members resisted by insisting on their land rights in the courts for decades, an ultimately failed effort that Mallon argues contributed to the use of direct action to occupy and recover the land in the 1970s.

Part of the community’s impoverishment resulted from shifts from earlier indigenous systems of livestock grazing and agriculture to systems of subsistence farming after incorporation into the nation-state. In the first half of the twentieth century, families increasingly turned to day labor or sent members to Santiago and nearby cities to temper their growing pauperization, a process that strengthened community resilience, raised political consciousness, and fostered alliances with non-indigenous groups. These alliances would later become the basis for the class-based peasant associations that formed during the Frei Montalvo administration of the 1960s (82).

Understanding this process of radicalization in Nicolás Ailío helps to understand the wider hopes and fears that greeted the victory of Salvador Allende and the Unidad Popular in 1970. After decades of frustration and inaction from the courts, community members invaded and recovered their land a month after Allende took office. Backed by armed members of the Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria (MIR), the Mapuche land invasion showed what many large landowners feared from the new government. Yet Mallon argues that the heady days of revolution and relative prosperity that followed the recovery of their land represent an exception in historic community-state relations. Allende was the anomaly, Pinochet the norm.

With many community leaders in jail and families experiencing hunger at home, Mallon argues that the intimate violence waged against the community during the military dictatorship, what she refers to as the “time when the hearths went out,” contributed to an acceptance of settlers’ claims to the land and a wider belief that land occupations were misguided (182, 237).  Although Mallon does not make this explicit, alongside the community’s earlier use of courts to press claims against the state, we see the formation of Gramscian hegemony, in which a subjugated people begins to accept the terms of their oppression.

The plan to divide up and privatize Mapuche lands in the late 1970s sparked a broad movement of “ethnic renewal” to preserve Mapuche culture (174). Although restricted by state repression during the dictatorship, with the return to democracy in the early 1990s, members of the Nicolás Ailío community renewed their struggle to secure communal  land. Taking advantage of the Aylwin administration’s plans to resettle indigenous communities in new territories, a smaller group decided to apply for a land grant and engage with the political process once again. This is a fascinating example of subaltern resistance and negotiation, which marked Indian-state relations across the Americas while highlighting the historical agency of the Mapuche people in shaping contemporary Chile society.

Mallon uses the re-foundation of the community in the 1990s to shed light on the process of ethnogenesis in areas where groups sought to reconstitute the critical mass of members necessary to support an agricultural subsistence economy. The persistence of Mapuche gillatun festivals and the participation in them of non-indigenous people also provides insight into the process of transculturation, while her discussion of the adoption of outsiders (read forasteros) into the community emphasizes the continued importance of culture in Chilean history (198-99).

Given how successful the Mapuche were in holding off state encroachment until the late nineteenth century, their history provides a unique window into the wider experience of cultural destruction and regeneration that affected other indigenous communities across the hemisphere in earlier times. Mallon’s innovative and well-written examination of power and hegemony, ethnogenesis, and indigenous strategies of resistance would interest Latin American and Andean specialists of both the colonial and national periods. The book’s clear prose and engaging narrative style, as well as its intriguing personal stories, would also make this an easy read for non-specialists interested in Chilean and Latin American history as seen from below.

Florencia E. Mallon, Courage Tastes of Blood: The Mapuche Community of Nicolás Ailío and the Chilean State, 1906-2001, Radical Perspectives (Durham, N.C: Duke University Press, 2005)

By N. H. Gill
Chapel Hill, 2019

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