In mid-October, Chile erupted with protests against hiked Metro fares. President Sebastián Piñera’s center-right administration had imposed this increase, which disproportionately hurt working and middle-class Chileans. The protest wave started with young people jumping Santiago’s subway turnstiles. Within a week, 1.5 million people had taken to the streets in eight cities, with some chanting, “It’s not about 30 pesos. It’s about 30 years.” Labor unions, health-care workers, high school and university students, gender and feminist advocacy groups, and indigenous peoples joined in the biggest popular mobilization since 1980s protests against Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship.

As others have observed both here at TMC and in the international media, the protests emerge from deep social frustrations. Despite the country’s record economic growth, inequality is pervasive.

Perhaps one of the most visible symbols of this outrage was captured in an iconic image in which a pyramid of protesters wave a Mapuche flag from the top of the statue in Plaza Baquedano in Santiago. Indigenous Chileans, especially the Mapuche, wave this flag to insist on their historical claim to ancestral territory that they call Wallmapu. This territory extends from the Limarí River north of Santiago, to the Chiloé archipelago at the Pacific coast, to the southwest tip of Chile on the Atlantic, including Patagonia.

What does the Mapuche flag symbolize?

In an interview with Mapuche author Pedro Cayuqueo in 2018, Mapuche leader from the Koz Koz Mapuche Parliament, the flag’s creator Jorke Weke Katrikir explained its symbolism. The Mapuche flag’s colors, stripes and symbols represent aspects of an indigenous cosmovision and indigenous liberation. The yellow drumlike center includes symbols like the sun, moon and stars, all of which represent knowledge. Blue symbolizes the purity of the universe and the sacred. Red represents blood, memorializing the usurpation of native lands by conquerors and the Chilean government — while also announcing indigenous power and historical resistance. Green stands for earth and wisdom. White alludes to the Mapuche territory’s snowcapped mountains, and it contrasts with the black stripes to indicate dualities, like night and day, and rain and sunshine. At top and bottom are the kons, or the four points of difference and the adversaries in the ancestral game of palín.

Protesters waving the Mapuche flag above the statue are doing so to reveal indigenous people’s defiance against how, since the 1540s, early colonizers and more recent corporate plunderers, as they see it, have dominated Chilean politics and markets. In particular, they’re angry that since the 1973 coup, both Pinochet’s administration and its democratic successor governments have used both constitutional prohibitions and military force to exclude grass-roots organizations from power and public discussion.

A recent history of indigenous resistance to ancestral land usurpation

During the 1960s and 1970s, the administrations of Eduardo Frei and Salvador Allende implemented agrarian reform laws that redistributed portions of large landowners’ unused land to indigenous and non-indigenous small farmers. This included returning lands that had historically belonged to Mapuche groups, some of which became protected communal settlements. Pinochet rolled back these reforms. In 1979, he imposed Law 2.568, which allowed communal titles to be divided into individual properties — and stripped of their designation as indigenous lands. Similarly, their owners would no longer be classified as indigenous, and therefore the land could be more easily commercialized by private owners. The military regime gave timber companies use of the land through generous land concessions, subsidies, tax breaks and favorable terms of investment.

My research with colleague Christian Martínez Neira found indigenous movements continued to organize and construct proposals for territorial, cultural and political autonomy. They did so first under the banner of the Mapuche Cultural Centers (CCM) in 1978, and then in 1980 with the formation of a uniquely indigenous organization called Admapu. We drew on archival data and interviews with indigenous leaders and authorities in Santiago and Temuco to show that, despite being attacked and jailed, these groups came together and continued to publicly call for the return of their communal lands.

Some of the groups organized under Admapu intensified efforts to shore up a collective indigenous identity. Youth leaders organized Mapuche (Mapudungun) linguistics workshop, theater groups, and other cultural events aimed at strengthening relationships in the communities and planning a more autonomous Mapuche future. However, not all indigenous leaders wanted to pursue this path; some preferred to ally themselves with national political parties opposed to Pinochet. These internal divisions weakened Admapu.

Once Pinochet had been removed and democracy restored, Chile’s new political party elites continued promoting forestry concessions and energy infrastructure projects in the region. In the late 1990s, the government approved Spanish consortium Endesa’s plan to raze forests and uproot entire ecosystems to build the Ralco hydroelectric dam in the heart of Mapuche territory in southern Chile.

In response, many Mapuche groups forged strategic alliances with national human rights and environmental movements like the Bio Bio Action Group (GABB) to try to halt Ralco’s construction, organizing marches, sit-ins, legal challenges and more. Indigenous groups at times occupied corporate and private lands and burned forestry machinery. The government jailed these Mapuche protesters under state anti-terrorism and internal security laws.

My research with David Carruthers drew on interviews in the 1990s and early 2000s with grass-roots movement leaders and authorities. We found these alliances did not stop the governments’ projects, but did alert Chileans at large about ongoing environmental damage and human rights violations against indigenous peoples.

Indigenous resistance in the current protests

The Mapuche groups are among those in Chile’s streets today, pushing back against the policies of the past 30 years that, they charge, have devastated lands, impoverished many and left others behind. Many citizens understand that anti-austerity concessions by Piñera are not enough to break away from the political legacy of the dictatorship.

Will there be a united indigenous coalition with common demands? That’s not clear. On Nov. 6, indigenous protesters destroyed statues of colonial-era political and military authorities in the southern city of Temuco. Land rights and calls for autonomy to make their own decisions in Mapuche territory will probably continue to be part of demands by indigenous peoples.

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Patricia Rodríguez is associate professor of politics at Ithaca College in New York.