Thunder Shaman

Making History with Mapuche Spirits in Chile and Patagonia

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Ana Mariella Bacigalupo
  • Austin, TX: 
    University of Texas Press
    , May
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This book is both an ethnographic text and a product of shamanic historical consciousness. Its academic focus and spiritual inspiration are one: the “wild thunder shaman” named Francisca Kolipi Kurin. The author, Ana Mariella Bacigalupo, lived and worked with Francisca between 1991 and 1996, when the machi (shaman) died at age 74. But the book’s histories range widely—from mythical Mapuche origins, to the Pinochet regime, to the present day. As locals actively “disremembered” machi Francisca in the decade after her death, her Mapuche relatives and friends in the southern Chilean village of Millali discouraged Bacigalupo from writing Thunder Shaman. Since then, townspeople have revived the machi’s spirit and blended her characteristics with the primordial beings of the “before time.” This book brings Francisca’s shamanic history to bear on the present and future of her community and beyond.

Bacigalupo makes an important contribution to Indigenous Studies with her deft conceptualization of the Mapuche experience of time. She provides us with living shamanic histories and techniques that collapse the past, present, and future in order to “obliterate” positivist Chilean narratives. Applying this multitemporality herself, Bacigalupo eschews chronological progression, and instead, focuses on the techniques that “Francisca and other Mapuche in the Quepe area used to create a shamanic historical consciousness” (28). The malleability of Mapuche temporality is most evident in the telling of koyang, or shamanic histories that conflate the individual with a multiplicity of identities in disparate historical moments. Francisca, for example, inherited her machi spirt from a shaman named Rosa who played an important role in the defense of the Mapuche during the War of Pacification (1881-1883). After being struck by lightning during a 1960 earthquake, Francisca’s own life story became forever entwined with that of machi Rosa. Through such shamanic histories, along with personal anecdotes and collective rituals, the reader learns—or re-learns—Chilean history from the vantage point of this small Mapuche village.

The author uses a large but practical selection of Mapudungun (Mapuche language) vocabulary to populate the Mapuche cosmovision with features of the sacred landscape, ancestor spirits, dwarfs, and other active social forces. For generations, the Mapuche have mobilized these shamanic cosmologies for practical gains, but Chilean and European settlers relegated Mapuche to “the realm of unreason and spirituality,” subordinating them to the dominant society (134). In laying out this fraught relationship, the author occasionally makes the Mapuche seem passive in the face of hegemonic social encroachment. For instance, Bacigalupo describes how aspects of foreign belief systems “seep into machi practice” (107), and she defines certain appropriations as examples of Gramscian ideological hegemony (134). On the other hand, we learn that alterity and self-redefinition in relation to the “other” have long been keys to the maintenance of Mapuche culture, as evidenced through the author’s description of Francisca’s mixed Mapuche-German heritage. This ambiguity is not so much a weakness in the book, as it is a reflection of the ubiquitous tensions between traditional “purity” on the one hand, and active cultural survivance on the other. Francisca was both a traditionalist and an innovator, and she garnered respect and hatred in equal measure during her life as a thunder machi.

“You will write a bible about me and I will never die,” said Francisca to the author when they first met (6). Textuality, as Bacigalupo shows, has played an important role in both shamanic and positivist histories of the Mapuche. Francisca was non-literate, and did not speak English. Yet she asked the author to write her “bible”—a text containing her shamanic power—in this hegemonic world language so that the “gringos” could “understand the thunder machi” (25). In chapter 5, “Shamanizing Documents and Bibles,” Bacigalupo maps out the conflict between the Chilean state and the Mapuche over the power of orality and the written word. She shows “how Francisca and other Mapuche engaged the colonialist power embedded in official documents and Bibles by avoiding, subverting, and exceeding the limits of the state archive in ritual and political ways” (132). Some Mapuche have avoided census takers, or claimed others’ children as their own for tax purposes. In ritual settings, machi like Francisca pray and smoke over the Christian Bible. Through these examples, Bacigalupo shows us how the Mapuche find power beyond Global Northern concepts of textuality.

Scholars of religion may note some parallels with Karen McCarthy Brown’s award winning 1991 ethnography Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn (University of California Press). Both books introduce readers to powerful female healers and reflect on the spiritual sisterhood that develops between scholar and subject. Both authors have a keen eye for the importance of spiritual lineages as well. However, the positionality of the scholars differentiates the two texts. A representative of the reflexive turn in anthropology, McCarthy Brown spent significant time theorizing her own role as an outsider/insider in relation to her subject. Bacigalupo and Francisca, on the other hand, “coproduced” their book in a way that keeps the author’s voice within the academic sphere and locates the shaman’s voice as authority on the spiritual realm. The result is a well balanced and unique text. Readers interested in religion, memory, indigeneity, or modern Latin America will find themselves pushed in new and challenging directions.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthew Peter Casey is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of history at the University of California, Davis.

Date of Review: 
February 20, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ana Mariella Bacigalupo is a professor of anthropology at SUNY Buffalo. She is the author of Shamans of the Foye Tree: Gender, Power, and Healing among Chilean Mapuche.



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