July 2013
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Rukmini Becerra, University of Washington, Seattle, USA

Indigenous Populations and Indigenous Languages in Latin America

Though it is beyond the scope of this study to provide a complete history of indigenous groups in Latin America in order to contextualize the development of intercultural and bilingual education (IBE) in the continent, some significant events in language, history, and policy will better orient the discussion surrounding the impact of educational and legal language policies on IBE.

Latin America is a heterogeneous and multicultural region where indigenous people make up 10% of the total population (López, 2001). Indigenous groups are the majority in countries such as Bolivia and Guatemala, and have an important presence in other countries such as Peru, where 40% of the population is indigenous (Mauria & Suxo, 2011).In countries such as Venezuela, Colombia, and Chile, “the demographic relevance of indigenous populations is regional rather than national, [but] their presence is felt nationwide due to the attention that indigenous political and social leaders have managed to attract, even in mainstream culture and society” (López, 2001, p. 202). Of these countries, Chile is the most homogenous and “modern” one (López, 2001), with 6.6% of the total population of indigenous descent.

Historically, indigenous people in Latin America have been oppressed and marginalized, largely as a result of their high poverty and low literacy rates (UNICEF, 2011). This situation has also had an impact on their languages, many of the 450 they speak have been forbidden in the schools for decades (López, 2001). Although no longer banned, they do not have the same prestige as Spanish (the majority language). Yet over the last few decades, important political, legal, and educational changes have occurred aimed at their revitalization. Thus, in 1975, Peru declared Quechua a co-official language alongside Spanish and a new constitutional legislation in 1993 conferred the same status to all indigenous languages. In Colombia, all indigenous languages have been official since 1991. Although no overarching policy exists in Bolivia, the country’s 35 indigenous languages benefit from official status in certain contexts. Along these lines, legal policies in Chile, Ecuador, and Venezuela have recognized the right of indigenous peoples to educate their children using their ancestral languages (López, 2001). In the next section, I briefly address the situation of one such particular group of indigenous people, the Mapuche people in Chile.

From Colonial Times to the 20th Century in Chile

Although Chile has a proportionally smaller indigenous population than other neighboring countries (e.g., Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru), it is home to one of the four largest indigenous language groups in the continent (McEwan, 2008). According to the governmental report about the socioeconomic situation of indigenous peoples in the country (Ministerio de Planificación, 2006), the total indigenous population amounts to 1,060,786 individuals, 6.6% of the total population of Chile. Of this figure, 87.2% identified themselves as Mapuche. Therefore, Mapuche constitutes the largest indigenous group in Chile (Ministerio de Planificación, 2006).

In 1492, upon the arrival of the Spaniards, more than one million Mapuche people lived in the Chilean territory between Coquimbo and Chiloe (Salas, 1992). During the 15th century, the Spanish conquerors invaded Mapuche territory, moving from the north toward the south, encountering significant resistance in Bío-Bío. After several battles, an agreement (Parliament of Quilin) reached in 1641 determined the frontier to be established in the Bío-Bío region and allowed for the independence of the Mapuche (Ortiz, 2008).

Nevertheless, Mapuche autonomy ended with the independence of Chile and the subsequent innumerable battles that followed. In the 19th century, the Chilean government began efforts to occupy the Mapuche territory (Bengoa, 2004) under what was known as the Pacification of Araucanía (Araucanos was the term used by the Spaniards to name the Mapuche people). The ensuing war, which lasted almost 100 years, was by far the bloodiest one on the continent. The Pacification of Araucanía ended in 1882 with the occupation, both territorially and culturally, of the Mapuche territory by Chileans and Europeans (Bengoa, 2004; Ortiz, 2008). The Chilean government used the Christian-Catholic religious and educational systems as agents of “civilization” for the Mapuche in order to integrate them into Chilean society, a process of assimilation that was bolstered again during the 1973–1991 dictatorship (Ortiz, 2008). It is worth noting that the massive expropriation of Mapuche territory during the Pacification of Araucanía, the subsequent migration to urban cities (Abarca, 2002), and the systematic policy of assimilation of the Mapuche population living in the territory have been perceived as the main explanations for the fact that, currently, Mapudungun has high vitality only in southern Chile, specifically in 3 of the 15 regions of the country (Riedemann, 2008), being spoken predominantly by older adults (Gundermann, Canihuan, Clavería, & Faúndez, 2008; Gundermann et al., 2009; Zuñiga, 2007). The return of democracy in 1992 brought hope to Mapuche people (Ortiz, 2008), because it entailed the development and implementation of several policies aimed at improving the education of indigenous students (Riedemann, 2008).

Policies for Inclusion of Indigenous Languages in the Educational System: National Educational Policies and IBE in Chile

As a result of indigenous demands and the democratization of Chilean society, the Chilean government began to create and implement policies to improve the education of indigenous students. This section addresses both national educational policies related to IBE and the creation of the Intercultural and Bilingual Education Program in Chile. It is important to note that IBE is not part of the national curriculum; that is, there is one curriculum for the majority of Chilean students and another curriculum for indigenous students in intercultural and bilingual schools.

In 1993, the Chilean National Congress passed Indigenous Law 19.253, which was sustained by other laws, such as the Organic Constitutional Law of Teaching (Ley Orgánica Institucional de Educación) and the International Convention of Children’s Rights (Riedemann, 2008). The Indigenous Law established rules about the protection, promotion, and development of indigenous populations and also created the National Corporation of Indigenous Development in 1993 (Corporación Nacional de Desarrollo Indígena; CONADI), one of whose goals was to “develop in the country a system of intercultural and bilingual education in coordination with the Ministry of Education (Art. 32, Law 19.253)” (Relmuan, 2001, p. 11). The Indigenous Law describes the purpose of the National Corporation of Indigenous Development as follows:

The Corporation of Indigenous Development, or CONADI, in areas with high population of indigenous people and in coordination with state departments or other agencies, will develop a system of intercultural and bilingual education to prepare indigenous students to function properly as in their home society as in the global society. (Gobierno de Chile, 1993, Law 19.253, Article 32)

After the promulgation of the Indigenous Law, the Ministry of Education created the Intercultural and Bilingual Education Program (1996) within the Rural and Elementary Education Program (2000), which attempts to “contribute to improving students’ achievement by strengthening the ethnic identity of girls and boys attending primary schools located in contexts of cultural and linguistic diversity” (Ministerio de Educación, 2005, p. 3). In addition, IBE is understood as a type of education that promotes respect for and revitalization of indigenous cultures and works to overcome cultural inequalities and conflict as well as to open a productive dialogue among cultures. However, it has been pointed out that, at the time the program was implemented, Chilean society did not seem to be adequately prepared to take on IBE’s new requirements and responsibilities. Thus, curricula for indigenous education, teaching materials, bilingual teachers, or teaching methodologies were absent; additionally, much of Chilean society was not even aware of the presence of indigenous groups in the country (Ministerio de Educación, 2011).

Another important policy for the implementation of IBE is Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization, an international law that guarantees the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples. With the ratification of this agreement on September 15, 2009, Chile began to participate in the international dialogue about indigenous rights (Loncon, Ministerio de Educación, & Programa de Educación Intercultural Bilingüe, 2011).

Regarding educational and linguistic rights, Convention 169 indicated that governments should implement viable measures to protect and increase the use of indigenous languages. In order to achieve this goal, the Ministry of Education also approved in September 2009 the implementation of indigenous language classes (known as Areas of Indigenous Languages) as part of the national mandatory objectives for elementary and middle education. Since 2010, schools with an enrollment of 50% or more indigenous students are obligated to include an indigenous language in their school curriculum, and since 2012, schools with at least a 20% indigenous enrollment are subjected to the same mandate (Loncon et al., 2011).

Two decades after the passage of these policies, there have been few systematic investigations in Chile on their impact and that of IBE on indigenous languages’ revitalization and/or maintenance (Ministerio de Educación, 2011). Therefore, the next section of this article examines the extent to which these educational policies have fostered the use of indigenous languages in the country, with a special emphasis on Mapudungun.

Impact of Adopted Policies

A consequence of the implementation of these laws in the last two decades in Chile is that schools can potentially develop their own curricula, plans, and teaching programs. Specifically, the Organic and Constitutional Law of Teaching (No. 18.944) establishes that educational institutions are free to set those plans and programs considered appropriate for the fulfillment of mandated objectives. This decentralization constitutes an opportunity to incorporate indigenous knowledge and culture into the educational system (Loncon, 1998; Relmuan, 2001) and, particularly, revitalize Mapudungun (Opazo & Huentecura, 1998).

The Organic and Constitutional Law of Teaching and IBE also provide an opportunity to tap into students’ experiences, culture, and knowledge (Opazo & Huentecura, 1998). Furthermore, additional educational reform efforts have created the Educative Institutional Project (Projecto Educativo Institucional) as a space to include all the stakeholders involved in the educational process.

The Educative Institutional Project is a planning tool to organize schools. As such, both the project and IBE are regarded as significant opportunities to reach parents, teachers, and Mapuche communities and incorporate their demands, culture, and knowledge. In particular, the Indigenous Law has encouraged the participation in schools of Mapuche Traditional Educators (Loncon, 1998), indigenous wise elders who can teach Mapuche language and culture, and facilitate relationships among parents, communities, and schools.

Nonetheless, a negative consequence of the educational policies surrounding IBE is the implementation of the Intercultural and Bilingual Education Program within the Rural and Elementary Education Program. This has meant the interpretation of IBE as special education for indigenous students, which has resulted in deficit-thinking perspectives for the latter. In addition, IBE has focused on students living in rural areas, and thereby has not included indigenous students living in urban cities. Finally, IBE has been developed mostly at the elementary levels, which has resulted in students learning Mapudungun only for their first 2 or 3 years of formal education. After that, schools do not usually take into account their previous learning (Reidemann, 2008), and this has caused increased marginalization among indigenous students, who have learned to speak Mapudungun, but cannot speak it with other classmates who do not have to learn the language.

The decision to implement IBE within rural and elementary education has brought up other types of challenges. First, IBE is not part of the national curriculum. Therefore, IBE curricula are added to schools without modifying or transforming the national curriculum (Cañulef, 1998). As a result, IBE does not have its own pedagogical methodology and Mapuche culture and knowledge are translated and delivered in the curriculum using Western pedagogy devoid of local schools’ needs (Cañulef, 1998; Reulman, 2001). Moreover, Mapudungun is frequently taught only once a week for 2 hours, clearly an insufficient amount of time to master the language (Cañulef, 1998). Hence, in light of the fact that national educational policies and IBE are really providing indigenous students with intercultural and bilingual education to live in a monocultural and monolingual country, scholars have proposed that all students in the Chilean educational system receive intercultural and bilingual education (Díaz, 2004; Montecinos, 2004; Reidemann, 2008; Williamson, 2004).


The political, legal, and educational changes that have taken place in Chile in regard to the promotion of IBE and revitalization of indigenous languages have produced conflicting outcomes. Over the last decades, Chilean educational reforms have favored the inclusion of students’ indigenous languages and knowledge in schools and the incorporation of parents and indigenous communities in school decision-making issues. On the other hand, these policies have also limited the development of IBE to rural areas and primary levels, while favoring the primacy of western pedagogical methodologies over indigenous ways of teaching. The resulting disconnect between IBE and the national curriculum was an additive yet not transformative force in the IBE curriculum. It would be desirable for future policies in Chile to take into account these challenges in order to improve the education of both indigenous and nonindigenous students in the country.


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Rukmini Becerra is a PhD student at the University of Washington. Her focus is language, literacy, and culture, and her research interest is bilingual and intercultural education for indigenous and nonindigenous groups in South America.

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