Because the Mapuche were not conquered, the Catholic Church had little success converting them. Even today, it is rare to see churches in Mapuche communities, which are scattered from the Andes mountains to the Pacific coast in Chile, as well as in parts of western Argentina.
After Chilean independence in 1818, the tribe fended off soldiers for decades. In the 1860s, the military won. The Mapuche's ancestral lands shrunk from 24 million acres to 1.2 million as the government signed over property to the military, arriving European immigrants and the Catholic Church.
How far the pope goes in expressing support for the Mapuche will be closely watched. The tribe's leaders and Chilean officials have both said they hope he can help moderate the conflict, which experts worry could worsen.
"It's a sore spot that could potentially grow," said Tom Dillehay, an anthropologist at Vanderbilt University who has studied the tribe.
The possibility of the Mapuche taking up arms like the Zapatista indigenous group in southern Mexico is not out of the question, Dillehay said.
In certain aspects, life has improved in recent years for the Mapuche, who make up about 8 percent of Chile's population.
Since the return of democracy to Chile in the 1990s, successive governments have purchased land to give back to the Mapuche. Scholarships have been created for Mapuche students. The government also created the National Corporation for Indigenous Development, which addresses issues related to Chile's indigenous people.
But many tribe members believe the changes are not enough. The Araucania region, where many Mapuche eke out livings farming subsistence crops of potatoes and wheat, is the poorest in Chile. And Mapuche complain of abuse at the hands of authorities.
This month, some Mapuche clashed with security forces at a protest marking the 10-year anniversary of the killing of an activist by police.
"Like indigenous groups everywhere, they are subject to racism and discrimination," Dillehay said. "They're a force to be dealt with. Chile's got to be careful."
(Times staff writer Linthicum reported from Mexico City and special correspondent Poblete from Santiago.)
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