A Shaman Taunts Death... for Justice
By William Alexander Yankes
On August 11, 2020, a CNN-Chile TV caption announced an indigenous healer’s farewell to life: “Machi Celestino Envió Mensaje de Despedida: Será un orgullo dar la vida por mi pueblo.”
Healer and spiritual leader “Machi” (in native Mapudugún language) Celestino Córdova Tránsito bid his “final farewell” from his hospital jail bed just hours before the 100th day of a hunger strike he began on March 4, 2020. His voice traveled transnationally: “It will be an honor to give my life for my people.” He had resolved to lay down his life in an effort to highlight the tragic plight of Chile’s embattled and historically disenfranchised native Mapuche community. For him, the Mapuche people he serves share a kinship with both indigenous nations worldwide and with global human rights advocacy networks. The solemn missive represented Machi Celestino’s yearning for meaningful changes in indigenous rights across the world.
Since the era of conquest and colonization in the 15th century, and now exacerbated with neoliberal and neo-fascism, indigenous groups the world over have had to retrench and re-strategize their physical and cultural survival. The Chilean government’s callous disregard for the 2,500 year cultural and spiritual heritage of the largest indigenous community in Chile had obligated Machi Celestino, he said, to pursue a hunger strike to its most dire conclusion.
In October 2019, Chilean society, joined by indigenous groups, erupted into massive protests for social justice. This event culminated forty years of oppression since the Pinochet military dictatorship, which dashed socialist president Salvador Allende’s program of social equality and territorial integrity following the violent military coup d’état in 1973. This Machi’s hunger strike is the latest major effort toward social self-defense from a right-wing government impervious to its people’s democratic pleas for justice and dignity.
Machi Celestino has been imprisoned since 2013, when he was arrested and charged with arson that destroyed a home and claimed the lives of its elderly, married occupants, the Luchsinger-Mackays. Their ranch house sits on several thousand acres of rich farmland to which the couple held title since Luchsinger’s father acquired it in 1936 from the Chilean government. However, it was land widely understood to have comprised part of historic Mapuche territory (lof mapu). The land had been successfully defended by its Mapuche native people against the Inca (15th century).
The Mapuche resisted the Spanish “conquistadores” (16th century), and clashed with the Chilean republic (19th century). Once liberated from Spain, Chile constituted a “criollo” State (Chile-born people of non-indigenous ancestry), and was finally able to subjugate to the native inhabitants through the military slaughter euphemistically called “Pacification of Araucanía.” Ever since, Chilean administrations have sought to erase Mapuche cultural identity. With unwavering resilience, these indigenous ascribe to their inherited cosmogony, social structure and spiritual belief system, which asserts that earth and man are one; that the bones of the ancestors nurture the soil and secure their survival; that the ancestral spirits hover over all of our lives.
Machi Celestino had already spent seven years in prison, stripped of every freedom, cut off from affective bonds, forbidden from helping those who need him. He endured overcrowded and life-threatening conditions since Covid-19 while in penal confinement. He was accused of a double murder he claims he did not commit, while aware of thousands of social injustice protesters imprisoned without charges. The only thing Machi Celestino had left was his life. He decided to commit to the highest level of personal sacrifice.
Aware of the danger posed by Covid-19, he petitioned the government for the release of all political prisoners, Mapuche or not. He also requested a six-month leave from incarceration in order to make a pilgrimage on native soil to regain the ancestral life force, “newen.” This would enable him to renew his “rewe,” his relationship to the traditional spiritual healer’s gifts as “machi.” Several “longkos,” (Mapuche political leaders), were to join him in the vital ceremony or “geikurewen.” All of his requests were denied. Twenty-six other imprisoned Mapuche political activists joined Machi Celestino’s hunger strike.
Within 24 hours of his hunger strike’s 100th day, his vital organs failing, the Chilean government rejected Machi Celestino’s petition for a temporary furlough from prison. He then disclosed to government officials, and the international news media, that he would, as a last resort, hasten his own demise by refusing even liquids. By taking such action he stepped into the threshold between life and death.
Backed by a groundswell of popular support, Machi Celestino drew world attention to the urgency of Mapuche struggles for sovereignty, the return of ancestral lands, equal protections under the law, and cultural preservation. The blame for his death, he went on to say, would rest squarely upon President Sebastián Piñera and his increasingly authoritarian neo-liberal administration. Despite continuous discrimination, displacement, and slaughter since the country’s Independence in 1810, the Mapuche people have resisted assimilation. They struggle against recurrent illicit legal maneuvers through which their ever-diminishing lands continue to be seized.
Machi Celestino —entrusted with maintaining the delicate balance between all living things and the spirit world as tribal Machi— was found a few miles from where the blaze erupted. He was quickly tried as a domestic terrorist and declared guilty of setting fire to the couple’s home while they remained inside. Though based almost entirely on circumstantial evidence, the charges against Machi Celestino were magnified. He was prosecuted under an Anti-Terrorist law enacted during General Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship (1973-1990). This statute was designed to discourage dissent against the return of historic Mapuche lands to white settlers, acreage Mapuche squatters had taken over during the stunted Allende government. A soft-spoken man, now 33, Machi Celestino was convicted and sentenced to 18-years in prison.
Chilean professor José Bengoa, author of a definitive study on the historic, unceasing oppression of the Mapuche by the Chilean state, Historia del Pueblo Mapuche, siglos XIX y XX, notes that agricultural fields once abounded throughout Mapuche ancestral homelands. But with the unrelenting government sanctioned privatization of water sources and the seizure of vast fertile lands, Mapuche subsistence farming is virtually impossible. Subsequently, the Mapuche have developed an impoverished dependency on the very State that denies their existence. Bengoa asks “whether there is an adjective to name the expropriation of dignity.”
With the end of the Pinochet regime in 1990, a succession of “democratically” elected government administrations proved themselves incapable of pulling the country out from underneath the shadow of the Pinochet dictatorship. Chilean documentary filmmaker Patricio Guzmán narrates in his native Spanish for the trailer to his latest film, La Cordillera de los sueños, as the camera pans over the vast Andes mountains: “much of Chile is no longer its territorial sovereignty.”
Piñera wasted no time in unleashing the military against demonstrators after the “estallido” (upheaval) broke out in October 2019 when more than a million people took to the streets of Santiago, and other several thousands along the country, to protest 40 years of government abuses, corruption and unjust economic policies. His response to the massive, spontaneous protests was mercilessly swift; thousands of demonstrators were injured as a result, some fatally, in clashes with a huge deployment of government troops and federal police. Countless more were arrested and detained indefinitely—without charges or due process—as “preventive imprisonment.” Yet it was the Coronavirus pandemic—not the heavy-handed military crackdown—that ultimately curtailed the civil unrest. Unfortunately, while the street protests had ended, Chilean prisons had become overcrowded as protesters were lumped together with common criminals.
International pressure mounted. An amended petition for the commutation of Machi Celestino’s sentence, allowing him to be remanded to house arrest, was submitted to Chile’s highest judicial body. In support, the world press cited the United Nations Accord 169 reached during the 1989 Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, which forms the basis of the United Nations Charter for Human and Indigenous Rights that Chile signed in 2009. It still fell upon deaf ears with Chile’s Supreme Court.
In a stunning about face, however, the Piñera administration reversed its position just two days after Machi Celestino’s farewell message went viral on the internet. The Chilean Supreme Court was convened and voted to approve Machi Celestino’s amended petition. It is likely that the Piñera administration, still reeling from the mass protests of a year ago and cornered politically, may have determined the death of Machi Celestino due to a hunger strike would have negatively impacted its already dwindling popularity within and outside Chile.
President Piñera’s regime reserves special hatred and prejudice against the Mapuche—while simultaneously opposing public funding for education, health care, elderly sustenance and pensions, work pay equality for women, legal recognition of gay marriage and protection for transgender citizens against hate crimes for the nation as a whole. Corporate news media is subjected to editorial and financial control, and to censorship, while smaller, dissenting presses are sabotaged.
The image of Chile in the world outside of its borders is quite a different one from the reality being lived by those who still reside within the country. The literary work of renowned writers such as Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda—two Nobel laureates read by few Chileans in actuality—ironically contributes to marketing tourism. Chile’s still-magnificent natural environment, with its world-class ski resorts, hot springs and vineyards, boasts rivers and lakes in indigenous territory that is increasingly privatized. The four-thousand-mile Pacific Ocean shore is also reserved for industrial-net fishing, threatening endangered species. Indigenous and working-class Chileans are doomed to founder in indigence. Piñera refuses to acknowledge the urgency of ecological measures to protect both populations and the environment.
The Mapuche are a nature-revering people self-ruled by ancient custom including trust and loyalty, rather than by written laws. When plucking a leaf from a tree, they utter a “rogativa,” prayerful words, requesting the tree’s permission. Entire indigenous villages shudder with sorrow, bird songs go silent, the deer scurry away at the deafening roar of giant lumber company buzz saws felling two-thousand-year-old Araucaria trees that have thrived for millennia withing their natural sanctuaries.
Hyperconsumerism, the monstrous child of hypercapitalism, a market ideology, is pitted against the gentler millennia-enduring cosmovision, “kulmapu,” of the indigenous. Their plight faces a looming wasteland, stirring an urgent moral challenge.
By committing to a hunger strike risking death motivated by an irrepressible drive for social justice, Machi Celestino Córdova was willing to become a peace martyr for all Chileans, in order to protect his people and his culture. A history-making change to the Constitution was approved in the October 2020 plebiscite under great popular pressure, exactly a year after the national revolt broke out. It remains to be seen whether Pinochet’s 1980 Constitution, oppressing the poor and the indigenous, will at last be removed. A resurgence of social protest continued clashing with the military despite the still-raging Covid-19 pandemic, even after a humanist crusade enabled Machi Celestino to survive.
The legacy of his example should teach us that we must all do as the ecologically-minded Mapuche by revering the wind, the waters, the earth—because the “newen,” the life force emanating from nature, the sovereignty of the living, manifests itself in us showing us that all life forms matter.
William Alexander Yankes, PhD, is a human rights documentary filmmaker. He is editing a feature-length documentary and a TV series on the impact of Pinochet’s dictatorship on Chile’s Mapuche to the present. He is also preparing to publish a critical analysis of the XVII century chronicle Cautiverio feliz (Happy Captivity) depicting the Spanish Conquest from within Mapuche society. He is endeavoring to publish a work underscoring Sovereignty of the Self, the average man’s rights under a dictatorship. Yankes resides in Hollywood, California.