Chilean school children write e-book in Mapuche language

New electronic book written in Mapudungun by children and for children aims to protect an ancient culture through modern means.

The Mapudungun language of Chile’s indigenous people is a linguistic heritage shrouded in mystery. While it bears small similarities to other indigenous languages in southern South America, it is very much its own distinct tongue, inextricably linked to a culture whose history reaches for centuries beyond colonial rule.

Of the population in Chile that identify as Mapuche (approximations vary widely from 600,000 to 1.5 million people) it is estimated that only 20 percent speak the language fluently. Schools in several regions of southern Chile have started programs in Mapudungun to slow the retreat of the language, and a new initiative has joined the fight by combining technology and youth education.

The new bilingual e-book, called “Epew Pichikeche ñi Rakizuam” (The Thoughts of Children), is in Mapudungun and Spanish, and written by young students from six schools in the southern cities of Puerto Saavedra and Carahue. The project was funded by Chile’s National Foundation of Art and Culture (FONDART).

Both cities have a strong Mapuche population, and the children were asked to speak in Mapudungun when coming up with their stories, though they were encouraged to be as creative as possible with their narratives and were not restricted to retelling their culture’s folklore.

“The most important thing is that it is focused on the children’s work,” Carolina Isla, project coordinator of the e-book, told The Santiago Times. “The kids made the story without their families or teachers, they independently created the story.”

Acclaimed Mapuche poet Lorenzo Aillapan – also known as üñümche or Hombre Pájaro  (Birdman) – gave workshops at each of the schools in 2011 at the start of the project. The whole process, which cost US$ 172,000 (CLP 8.1 million), is set to be turned into a documentary funded by FONDART.

“Much remains to be done, and we will continue working,” Isla said at the launch of the e-book. “But from the very joy expressed by the children, we believe that the path has already being forged for a new vision and new dreams. We thank each and every person involved.”