The Mapuche are an ethnic group from South America with a complex organization that has persisted in their identity and presence until the modern day. In the beginning, they occupied an important extension of what nowadays is center-south Chile and Argentina. In the eyes of Occident, one of their biggest achievements relies on the fact that they are the only indigenous group who did not submit to the conquerors and in fact, killed Pedro de Valdivia; conqueror and governor, founder of Santiago and Concepción (Chile) for the Spanish Crown.
Scientific attempts to establish their origins lead to the early presence of marine hunter-gatherer groups that inhabited around the same areas from 7000 to 2000 B.C. but according to most archaeologists, it is just around 600-500 B.C. that this group might be identified as Mapuche culture itself. Later on, around the year 1.400 A.C. they resisted Inca invasions, establishing natural limits and also some alliances that among other factors might have influenced their learning about metals and its use.
When the Spaniards arrived to this part of America around 1540 commanded by Pedro de Valdivia, found a strong resistance among the Mapuche army and they fought until the Spanish Crown (Felipe IV) recognized them as a nation with delimited borders in 1643, after a long war, named Arauco War (Araucanos is the name Mapuche received from Spanish conquerors).
Catholicism is another influence received through Jesuit missions during the Arauco war and afterwards too, even during the genesis of the Chilean state, period on which some Mapuche allied with the Chileans, others just didn’t take part; but after the Countries were conformed, the persecution to take indigenous lands and establish European families on those lands, reduced their wealth to almost nothing.
Their original cosmovision has suffered some modifications especially in those points on which it didn’t match the catholic vision of binary gender and woman’s role. Currently, there is a struggle to recover their not interveined knowledge. Another thing to be addressed is that Mapuche identity has variations according to the features of the territory the different groups inhabit: Lafkenche denomination is for the seaside and water related landscapes, Pikunche on the north, Williche on the south, and Pewenche are the ones who inhabit on the east, in the Andes mountains. These variations need to be addressed being that they have an influence on the family names, ways of organizations, and minimal Mapudungun's tongue varieties.
Mapuche Silverwork, Rüxan
Before going further with the analysis of evidence and chronology of Mapuche silverwork, it must be addressed that it does not limit to the manufacture of pieces: "Although it is the work of metals, it is par excellence the fine work of metals, is the Mapuche art that is expressed in the rendering of philosophical ideas, this time, through the silver." (Painecura, 2011)
When the crew led by Pedro de Valdivia arrived to the Wallmapu (ancestral territory), they noticed the Mapuche came wearing bracelets in silver and gold, women wearing a “modified crown” shaped ornament and long earrings made of copper. Those details were written by Jerónimo de Vivar, a soldier who witnessed these encounters and wrote about them. Many chronicles along with archaeological findings confirm that there was already knowledge about the silverwork, probably learned from the Inca.
Also based on archaeological material analysis, the biggest development and transformation of silverly happened between 1540 and 1860 approximately.
The discussion about if at some point people were buried with their silverly belongings still exists due to chronicles describing how some colonists desecrated graves. Ethnographical work suggests that part of the pieces can be inherited. There is no certainty about the circulation of some pieces through time specially because of a regrettable practice known as "Huaqueo", which means looting of indigenous archaeological sites out of greed, practices that destroy the context of the pieces.
The role of the Rütrafe or Rexafe.
Rüxan (Mapuche silversmith manufacturer) is a concept and it recalls to the exercise of patience, communication, wisdom to materialize the abstract dimensions of the Mapuche philosophy into the silver pieces. To become a Rütrafe or Rexafe it is ideal to have a mentor and it is a long path. Even if it starts in a short age as how it is supposed to be, a person can become a Rütrafe/Rexafe only after there is a dominance of the social, spiritual, religious, and historical knowledge and with it, an understanding of the Mapuche philosophy.
Mapuche silverly was not only a sign of wealth accumulation during their best times, it also has ritual meaning. More than practical, silverly is a representation in coherence with their cosmovision:
Mapuche silverware is not only ornamental, they are living pieces with complex eloquence. They speak as part of a ritual and they also sing. Yes, they literally sing, and they do it for their entire lives. His first song is sung by the person who shapes it, it is the melody of the materials forged by the silversmith's (Rütrafe) hands. Its song helps to find the form and to guide the future piece in the ritual and social functions that it will have to fulfill in a community.
Usually, silverly is an indicator taken or at least considered by many authors as in a tight connection with the socioeconomic, military, and political context Mapuche were going through. In pre-state periods, the Mapuche bonanza was a consequence of the cattle raising, activity that was on top of their interest, ways of expansion, and territorial sovereignty. At these times, chronists wrote that the Leaders had a Rüxafe not only manufacturing pieces for him and his many wives, the Rüxafe also lived on the leader territory.
Based on the research made by Natascha Wever, who gathered information from Mapuche families in the early nineties (inmediately after the end of dictatorship), gave important information about the classification of the pieces along with the transformation they have suffered regarding this context of use. In most ethnographies from different times, the amount of pieces is a factor of social status among the wives of a political or war leader but women also can access silverly through maternal inheritance. Silverly was not forbidden for any Mapuche but in some moments of history, only the wealthier had a noticeable amount of them.
The silver (lieg) and the silver coins (rag) are the materials to manufacture pieces because of the spiritual protection these materials provide to their carrier. Also, one of the most known connections is between silver, women, and the moon, which can be read on most of the Chagüay (earrings).
Modification of the pieces through time
The tubular shapes existed from the early periods and persisted due to their simplicity (shaped in cold) along with flat silver foil, that later with the learning of metal melting techniques the shapes acquired a wide variety of designs. Flat pieces are often used when manufacturing Pilun chagüay (earrings), Tupu (big ornamental needle/pin), Trarilongko (diadem, with silver coins, or coin-shaped pieces hanging from it), Trapelakucha (breast ornament), and Sükill (a thinner pectoral ornament). One of the smallest elements is tiny studs over a long strip named Ngutroe. Finally, chain-shaped pieces appear in the XIX century and are the final development, used in the manufacture of Kilkai (a long necklace that hangs down until the chest). Most pieces have always been carried by women, but there is also silverly used by men, like smoking pipes (Kitra) and ornaments for their horses.
Image: Fictional illustration based on XIX century pictures of Mapuche women. Portraits the transformations in time: the first woman represents the XVIII century, the woman in the middle, the XIX century silverwork, and on the right, the XX century. Author: José Pérez de Arce. Source: book “Rostros del Chile Precolombino”, Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino, Chile.
Following the illustration, the Chagüay have decreased in size through time, and in all periods the Sükill is on the right side of the breast and the Traplakucha on their left side. Only women from the XVIII and XIX centuries carry a Tupu (the first one has a flat shape and the XIX century one is sphere-shaped (with a cross hanging from it). The woman representing the XIX century is using a Ngutroe on her head and the XX century one is using a Trarilongko.
Nowadays Mapuche silverwork has been taken and sold by many non-Mapuche people, removing all its significance and rising it like an object without the philosophical meaning it has, many of the original pieces can be found in local museums mostly because the several crisis Indigenous people have carried all along the XX century forced them to sell. Another big amount of silverly pieces can be seen in private collections or European museums, stolen in most cases. As for the Mapuche, the recent cultural recovering they are going through has increased their interest in keeping the traditions and knowledge, retaking their ritual spaces, and reproducing many aspects of their culture, including silverwork.
 Translated from “Chi Rütran Amulniei ñi Rütram/ El metal Sigue Hablando” Francisco Huichaqueo Curator. Museo Chileno de Arte precolombino, Chile.
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