Francisca Kolipi prays to the spirits of the upper skies. Photo courtesy Ana Mariella Bacigalupo

This month’s column features an interview with SAR member Ana Mariella Bacigalupo (U Buffalo) about her work among the indigenous Mapuche of south-central Chile. Bacigalupo spent 2012-2013 as a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University completing a book manuscript for University of Texas Press that considers how Mapuche shamans experience history and how shamanic biographical mythohistories play central roles in the creation of indigenous historical consciousness and the production of an indigenous history. In this interview, she shares the genesis and politics of the project.

Jennifer Selby (JS): Ana Mariella, can you tell us how you became interested in this project?

Francisca Kolipi prays to the spirits of the upper skies. Photo courtesy Ana Mariella Bacigalupo

Francisca Kolipi prays to the spirits of the upper skies. Photo courtesy Ana Mariella Bacigalupo

Ana Mariella Bacigalupo (AMB): I became interested in Mapuche notions of time and history through a shamanic lens through my interaction with Francisca Kolipi Kurin, a mestiza Mapuche shaman or machi from Southern Chile.  I first met Mapuche people at the age of five, when I began harvesting apples with them on my maternal grandparents’ farm in Argentine Patagonia. Many of these Mapuche were seasonal workers from Southern Chile who knew Francisca. I was born in Peru and moved to Chile in 1978 where I maintained contact with Chilean Mapuche. The Mapuche original homeland or Wallmapu in the Southern Cone of Latin America included the Southern territories of Chile and Argentina known as the Pampas and Patagonia.  Mapuche have been moving back and forth between Chile and Argentina since at least the 16th century to gain wealth, seasonal work, look for spouses, and visit relatives. My grandparents’ farm was next to the birthplace of Rosa Kurin, machi Francisca’s shamanic predecessor and a significant place for many of the Mapuche. In 1988 I left Chile to begin graduate studies at UCLA and returned to do fieldwork with Mapuche as a PhD student.

JS: How did you meet Francisca?

AMB: A patient of Francisca’s introduced her to me. Our first meeting took place in 1991, at the shaman’s home. Francisca told me, “I will teach you about machi practice and you will help me heal. And then you will write a bible about me, and I will never die.” Francisca demanded that I accept the responsibility of participating in and perpetuating her shamanic practice through dreaming and rituals. And she called my ethnography about her a “bible”—a potent shamanic object with a performative function—that would store her power, circulate it through time and space, and enable communication between the living and the dead. For Francisca, the “bible” I would write about her was a ritual object with inherent force and the ability to speak to an audience in the future.

Between 1991 and Francisca’s death in 1996 I recorded Francisca talking about her life, her family, her relationship with her community, and her powers and ritual practices. I participated in her everyday life and served as her ritual assistant. Between 1991 and 2013 other Mapuche people within and outside the community talked to me about their collective memory and the role of shamanic biographies in the construction of Mapuche history.  I also conducted archival research in Santiago and Temuco, Chile.

JS: How did Francisca use her “powers”?

AMB: Like other machi in southern Chile and Argentina, Francisca embodied spirits of the past to divine the causes of illnesses and the future. She healed her patients with the help of spirits and a variety of herbal remedies. But Francisca also used her shamanic power in oppositional ways.  She sometimes served collective Mapuche interests and at other times dominated neighbors in local community conflicts. Francisca’s thunder-based kinship with machi Rosa, her narrative about saving the world from destruction by earthquake, and her dream of Catholic support legitimated her performance-based rituals. Francisca invoked ancestral spirits to challenge power inequalities and resist state agents and to heal suffering individuals, families and groups.  Francisca also sought personal gain. She took sides in conflicts among factions within Millali and was said to hex her enemies, including the longko, or community head. Some viewed this wealthy mestiza widow as an awingkada (meaning “like a wingka,” or non-Mapuche). They questioned her legitimacy as a machi because she was initiated late in life and had no formal training.  Others envied Francisca’s wealth and power and called her a witch because she had not redistributed sufficient favors to the community.

JS: Your personal engagement with Francisca is fascinating. How did the historical element gain precedence in your work?

AMB: Over time I learned that oral shamanic biographies are central to rural Mapuche history-making because they are testimonies about historical processes themselves. They narrate stories about past shamans and call the spirits of deceased shamans back. Shamanic biographies also express ideological changes occurring in the community and illustrate how Mapuche perceptions of personhood shift at different moments in the shaman’s cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Machi mediate between other times, worlds, and beings, including Mapuche and non-Mapuche realities.  In Francisca’s case, my writing her biography as a bible would likewise call the spirits of deceased shamans back and give community members a sense of their position and hers within large social and historical processes and the cosmological cycle of life, death, and rebirth.

Through my experiences with Francisca I began to understand that the differing ways in which people and cultures experience time and history. And that this appreciation is something we must contemplate and incorporate into our theorizing. Just as people’s experiences of time and history can differ, so too can their understandings of what constitutes agency. I asked myself, what counts as time, agency, and history for Mapuche without their own system of alphabetic writing? Anthropologists have addressed this question by analyzing native narratives, rituals, landscapes, and kinship systems. But indigenous people may also value written documents as objects infused with power and agency independent of the Western way of reading and understanding the alphabet. What kind of historical consciousness lingers in the tobacco smoke that Francisca puffed over the community’s land title to extract its power? And how could Francisca use my written biography about her, to effect her rebirth and produce indigenous history? In the book I am currently writing about Francisca I explore how Mapuche shamans and their communities experience history through embodiment, narrative, biography and the written word. And how these play central roles in the creation of indigenous historical consciousness and the production of indigenous history.

I also challenge the distinction between orality and literacy and explore the role textual objects and writing as systems of inscription may play in history making. For Mapuche shamans, writing and reading are technologies of inscription similar to other existing graphic designs systems such as those inscribed on textiles, on silver jewelry and on trees.

JS: And biography?

AMB: Mapuche people in southern Chile use biographical mythohistories to challenge Western-style, Chilean history—the history of their subordination—and to express their past in terms of their own historical consciousness. Mapuche biographical mythohistories are simultaneously linear and cyclical: historical personages become mythical characters, and mythical happenings re-manifest themselves in historical events. Because Mapuche shamans and their actions are central to these mythohistories, I focused on the life, death, and potential rebirth of Francisca.

Immediately after Francisca’s death in 1996, the community asked me not to write her biography because remembering her would not allow her spirit to leave this world and become fused with the collective generic spirit of all machi, the filew. After machi die, their communities sometimes mythologize and depersonalize them by stripping them of individual thought and emotion, merging their actions with those of earlier important machi, and remembering them, for example, for having saved the community from a disaster such as an earthquake or a flood. Later, machi may be reindividualized and rehistoricized through rebirth. Shamanic spirits thus are “recycled” and transformed as social realities in the community shift at different historical-political moments in linear time. Memory is, in fact, a complex, heterogeneous process, and for the Mapuche, cycles of memory are conditioned by local political circumstances, cosmic events, shamanic transformations, and anthropological texts. By contextualizing local histories within larger, mythical, cyclical processes, Mapuche challenge Chilean linear historical narratives, erase their traumatic legacy of subordination to powerful Chilean and German-immigrant outsiders, and recover a historical place for themselves through spiritual means. People in Millali first willfully erased Francisca’s memory after her death in 1996, because her life story reflected uncomfortable realities of factionalism and accusations of witchcraft in the community.

JS: How has this silencing affected your work?

AMB: I waited for 16 years until the community entered into a new cycle of remembering when the family asked to write Francisca’s bible after all as they awaited the possibility of her rebirth. In the meantimeI wrote two other books. One focused on machi hybrid healing practices [La Voz Del Kultrun en la Modernidad: Tradición y Cambio en La Terapéutica de Siete Machi Mapuche (The Voice of the Drum in Modernity: Tradition and Change in the Healing Therapies of Seven Mapuche Shamans) 2001] and the other on machi’s shifting gendered identities and performances [Shamans of the Foye Tree: Gender, Power, and Healing among the Chilean Mapuche, 2007].

By 2008, factionalism had eased, and people in Millali re-remembered Francisca in an altered form, recasting her as the benevolent shaman who brought peace and prosperity to Millali. Several people in Millali remembered Francisca in a positive light conflating her identity with that of Rosa, her shamanic predecessor. By mythologizing Francisca as the restorer of cosmic order, Mapuche in Millali re-create their community’s place in a new historical context. The community was ready for a new cycle of remembering where the process of Francisca’s mythologization could be reversed, and Francisca’s spirit could be rehistoricized through remembering and by embodying a new shaman. Francisca’s family then hoped to recover her history and make her spirit return in a new machi by asking me to write her biography. For the family, my book would do what oral biographies do: call shamanic spirits back and allow community members to gain a sense of their position within larger social and historical processes and the cosmological cycle of life and death. For Mapuche, remembering and disremembering coexist and play equal roles in the development of a shamanic historical consciousness that combines myth and history in creative ways.

JS: What does Francisca mean for Mapuche communities now?

AMB: The history of Francisca and her community offers a new way in which to rethink pan-Mapuche notions of history and this people’s complex relationship with the non-Mapuche, with whom they have now intermarried for generations. Francisca herself had mixed Mapuche and Chilean ancestry. When I first began working with Francisca, her community alternatively legitimated her as a conservative Catholic woman and powerful lightning shaman and condemned her as a manly widow and mestiza witch. Her contested identity and practices and her relations with people and spirits within and outside the community illuminate the internal divisions of native communities. Her biography offers a lens through which to see how Mapuche shamanic historical consciousness is produced and mobilized, how shamanic narratives of the past construct the present and rewrite local history, how change and its agents are conceived of in shamanic practice, and how Mapuche make sense of their mestizaje, or “mestizoness.”

My aim is to advance current debates over the dynamic relationship between history and myth and between indigenous and national history. Mapuche shamanic mythohistories are not another example of a Lévi-Straussian “cold” society’s seeking to negate history and minimize change in order to reestablish equilibrium and continuity. Indigenous memories are not timeless myths subordinate to linear narratives of conquest and nationalization; they are culturally contextualized forms of historical consciousness that connect past, present, and future in novel ways.

JS: And how do you relate these histories to the broader Chilean context?

AMB: I argue that rural Mapuche use shamanic biographical narratives to challenge conventional Chilean history—the history of their subordination—and to express their past in terms of their own shamanic historical consciousness that incorporates and furthers phenomenological, structuralist and historical approaches. Mapuche combine linear histories and cyclical mythic histories. Machi embody the spirits of the past to heal people in the present and divine the future. And spirits of deceased machi are reborn in the bodies of new machi. Shamanic biographies mythologize shamans and historical outsiders and historicize and politicize myths in new contexts. Francisca and her community are constituted by historical-political events that take place in their lives, yet they actively and imaginatively reconstitute those events through shamanic temporalities to create shamanic biographical “mythohistories.” These narratives prioritize the agency of spirits and shamans over the state. They reverse the Mapuche subordination to the Chilean and Argentine states by presenting themselves in their narratives as the spiritual victors of history.

My focus on Francisca’s bible offers a new understanding of the role of the written word and shamanic biography in the creation of indigenous historical consciousness and the production of history. Francisca Kolipi’s life and death show that we can expand our notions of agency and historical consciousness if we dissolve the conceptual barriers between the living and the dead, between human and spirit actors. Spirits can become effective historical agents if we allow for multiple worlds and experiences that exceed the limits of the archive and that acknowledge new forms of mystical engagement between spirits and texts. Non-Mapuche often see spiritual agency as an irrational belief and Mapuche bibles as premodern fetishized objects. But if we challenge the dichotomy of orality and literacy, define writing as a form of inscription with a performative function rather than as alphabetic text, and view texts as ritual objects, another picture emerges.

The belief in the rebirth of shamanic spirits provided Francisca’s community with structural continuity and transformation—in other words, with history. After death and forgetting, shamanic spirits are transformed again both as they are re-remembered and “recycled” in the bodies of new machi, and as social realities in the community shift at significant historical-political moments in linear time. Likewise, Francisca and her family understood state documents and bibles as objects that once belonged to a specific time and place but were now bits of the past that could be ritually brought to life. My bible about Francisca would materialize her spirit through text in the same way that the physicality of altars, relics, and scriptures brings forth the presence of the divine. Francisca’s being is situated in the otherworld and in the past, while my text is of this world and the present. The transformation of her oral shamanic power into text, however, did not diminish the force of Francisca’s words, which would continue to exert Francisca’s agency even in her absence. The potency of Francisca’s written words made her bible a ritual object that could reinforce her authority by offering her an apparently transcendental position from which to speak.

JS: Do you separate the personal from the academic?

AMB: For Francisca’s family, the value of her bible was experiential, not academic. It was a means by which her disembodied powers could be stored and circulate through time. When shamans smoked and chanted over it, the powers it held could be extracted, transformed, and utilized for a variety of ends. Francisca’s bible could also singularize and historicize Francisca by again distinguishing her from the filew, the generic spirit of all machi–which she became part after her death. The recovery of Francisca’s story in my text can also be read as the first stage in a rite of passage that could end with the rebirth of Francisca’s spirit into a new shaman and with the reincorporation of Francisca’s story into Millali’s history.

By using these powerful texts in this way, machi like Francisca evoke a shamanic mythohistorical temporality that takes precedence over the rational, secular epistemological assumptions that underlie Western historiography. As Dipesh Chakrabarty argues, a rational historical consciousness limits the lived relationship between the observing subject and other historic or ethnographic times, whereas machi seek to maintain a lived relationship with the past.

Ultimately, Francisca’s life, death, and potential rebirth gave members of the community a narrative that erased past conflict and justified the positive changes taking place in the community. By remembering Francisca and telling her story through shamanic temporalities, people of Millali attempt to gain control over their present and future. By challenging their traumatic history through reference to Mapuche superior spiritual powers, they hope to achieve equality and immortality. The way Francisca is being remembered and reintegrated into her community transcends both her life and her death and illuminates the ways in which people in Millali imagine and rewrite the past and the present for future generations.

JS: We appreciate this vivid account of your decades-long field site and work, Ana Mariella. I also take this occasion, after six years as contributing editor, to welcome Christian Hammons as new SAR contributing editor with Anthropology News for the October/November print and online issues. Please send column ideas to Thanks for reading!

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