Following the path of the weskel and lawen towards a Mapuche medicine law

“The proposed national law on Mapuche or indigenous peoples traditional/ancestral medicine has to do with the recognition of Mapuche medicine specialists who, despite rejection and prohibition to practice, still exist because they resist.” We invited Mapuche political scientist Verónica Azpiroz Cleñan to reflect on health, interculturality and rights within the framework of the International Day of Action for Women's Health (May 28).

Written in Spanish by Verónica Azpinoz Cleñan (*)
Translated into English by Christina Hamilton (**)

Who recorded how sexuality was experienced in the Mapuche world? What is said about conceptions about the body and persons in the Mapuche world? And what about women's bodies? Faced with so many anti-Mapuche or imaginary narratives about the modesty of the body, bodies, of Mapuche women, this article aims to review some historical investigations related to this.

The Spaniards (males) that documented in colonial times, wrote with great fear or fascination about the sexual freedom of Mapuche women because for single Mapuche women and widows, virginity was not of importance when starting a relationship or getting married. This demonstrates that sexuality for enjoyment, for pleasure, was allowed and was not frowned upon or misjudged by wenxu (men) or zomo (women). Even a pregnancy prior to becoming a couple was not a reason for conflict. In fact, in a text by Coña (2006:219), who recounted traditions of the Mapuche culture in the 19th century, wrote that "if the newlywed is already pregnant, pregnant by another man, then the husband almost always decides to adopt the unborn child”.

Sexuality linked to the pleasure of Mapuche women has been documented (Quiñimil, D: 2014, Calfío, M:2007, 2012, Millaleo, A:2014, Chihuaihuen, R: 2009). Some authors wrote about the weskel, an instrument that today could be defined as a sex toy typical of the Mapuche culture. The weskel is a kind of cloth made from horsehair that is tied to the penis so that, during penetration, it further stimulates the female sexual organs until "muscle spasms” are reached. In this way, the scribes of the old continent reported what they spied or saw as disturbance or disappointment. This means that sexual pleasure was not hidden or concealed, but that, furthermore, there were instruments to enhance enjoyment (Calfío, 2007).

A theme that is continually on the agenda for today's feminisms is sex-gender identities. In the Mapuche universe, intersex or femboy identities always existed. They were never a reason for expulsion, but rather they were highly valued people. Intersex people, those who carry two gifts, are highly regarded because in the same physical, mental, emotional and ancestral body they can understand the universe both from the feminine and the masculine. Therefore, up to here, there is nothing new for transfeminism.

Why did this article start talking about the pleasures of Mapuche women? Because it is installed in the Argentine imaginary, but also in the pwelche imaginary, that the demands for health and territory to the State or objections to white/hegemonic feminism assume a handicap, an inferior position, of loss or suffering of Mapuche women, in which pleasure and power are not central to the agenda. While in the current neocolonial period this is predominant, in the ancestral body there are memories that tell us about desire and that the focus was not defined by sex-gender identity but by pleasure. For this reason, my lamngen (sister) guluche (from the west of the mountains) Ana Millaleo affirms that Mapuche society was and is pansexual.

The proposed national law on Mapuche or indigenous peoples traditional/ancestral medicine has to do with the recognition of Mapuche medicine specialists who, despite rejection and prohibition to practice, still exist because they resist. The püñeñelchefe (midwives), lawentufe (herbalists), pelontufe (disease healers), machi (traditional doctors), gütamchefe (bonesetters) are our traditional doctors and they have their materia medica, their therapeutic resources, their ways of diagnosing, their agnosis, etc. However, they cannot attend to patients in the public health system because legally their healing knowledge is not recognised and, therefore, the complementary care model between biomedicine and indigenous medicine cannot be institutionalised or recognised in the areas of autonomy in health.

Furthermore, it is important to outline some of the many obstacles faced by Mapuche and indigenous women when accessing public health services. These include language, size and space of the clinics, orientation of hospital beds, lack of informed consent for surgical interventions or medical practices such as tubal ligation, doctor-patient confidentiality (Fordism), lack of medical training to understand other conceptualisations of the body and person for sexual and (non) reproductive health, non-vertical birthing positions, the medicalisation of childbirth, the absence of mental health care protocols for indigenous population in situations of sexual violence, the lack of knowledge of the Mapuche or indigenous medical model, among others.

The determinations of women's health, in neocolonial contexts like ours, are soil, air, water and plant contamination. The environmental determination of the health of Mapuche women has to do with the productive model and territorial dispossession. We could not minimise women's health or reduce it to a purely physical body without relating it to its context.

We are faced with the evictions, threats from transnational companies (Italians, Qataris, Americans, Argentines, etc.) for confronting their depredations. We are also exposed to academic and multiple layers of racism.

What guarantees are there so that a Mapuche woman who lives in the countryside, in Los Toldos (Buenos Aires), can work in her garden, tend to her flowers, her animals and not be sprayed with pesticides? Do the National or Provincial Ministries of Health keep a record of the Mapuche/indigenous women that have been poisoned? My sister Nancy López, from the Weenhayek people in the fields near Tartagal, knows about spraying. Is the ethnic variable of a woman registered on a clinical record? Where do we record our identity when we arrive for a consultation at a CAPS (Primary Health Care Centre) or when admitted to hospital? In births, deliveries, in the perinatal clinical record. What would a Mapuche “respected birth” be like, with a health team that does not know why we request the placenta? Doesn't the health system generate obstetric violence per se to indigenous women by not knowing our customs and speaking our languages? Is it quality care? Try to think about an Argentine woman giving birth in China. Could she feel respected while being attended to by Chinese people who don't speak Spanish? What do we call the social determinant of health that is geolocated in the structure of the public health system itself?

After 40 years of democracy, there are still many things outstanding. After 40 years of democracy, the only contradiction that we urgently need to resolve is not capital/work, but rather capital/nature because we are the ones emerging from that contradiction in the territories, defending the waters, the seeds, the forest, the mountains, the river. Without territory, there is no medicine. Without water, there is no lawen. [i]


[i] All kinds of natural remedies that are provided by nature.

(*) Verónica Azpiroz Cleñan is a Mapuche political scientist. She is part of the Epu Lafken community in Los Toldos in the province of Buenos Aires. She is a member of the organisation called Tejido de Profesionales Indígenas.

The images in this article were taken by Julieta Pollo at the last Seminario Taller Mujeres y Ciudades: (In)Justicias Territoriales (Women and Cities Workshop Seminar: Territorial (In)Justices) (Córdoba, Argentina; May 2023).  Thanks to Julieta and CISCSA for their permission to use them.