Mapuche Indians hold a banner during a rally in Angol town, near Temuco city south of Santiago, October 7, 2012. The rally was held in support of Daniel Levinao and Paulino Levipan, two indigenous Mapuche inmates who have been on a hunger strike for 42 days to protest against charges of the supposed attempted murder of a policeman and illegal possession of weapons. The banner reads, "Freedom For Mapuche Political Prisoners." REUTERS/Jose Luis Saavedra

TEMUCO, Chile -- Temuco is a city of people who move slowly and drive fast, where houses are low and wild roses bloom to buxom beauty on sidewalks and front yards. In this country at the end of the world, wedged between the Andes mountains and the Pacific Ocean, it’s also the unlikely stage of the 500-year war the Mapuche natives have been waging, first against the Spanish colonial armies and now the Chilean state.

During a visit in late January, a hawk circled over the large, old house that serves as headquarters for the Consejo de Todas las Tierras, the Council of All the Lands, an organization at the forefront of the campaign to reassert the rights of the Mapuche over their ancestral land. The natives, numbering 1.4 million and clustered in Chile's Central Valley, are claiming the land back from large estates and forestry companies. They demand negotiations with the government on Mapuche self-determination south of the Bío Bío River, as recognized in the more than 30 treaties this indigenous nation has signed with the Spanish kingdom and its successor, Chile.

Inside the house, the council's leader, Aucán Huilcamán, showed himself to be a man of easy rapport and sharp discourse. Upon learning that his interviewer was born in Aleppo, Syria, he proved to be conversant on that country's civil war, as distant as it could get from his corner of South America.

When Chile gets headlines in the international press, the Mapuche conflict is usually not among them. Coverage of this strangely shaped country, a thin ribbon on the Pacific stretching 2,650 miles (4,270 km) with an average width of only 110 miles (180 km), tends to be about its fine wines, its peaceful transition to democracy in the 1990s, and, lately, its economic success. Chile's 18 million inhabitants enjoy the highest GDP per capita in Latin America: $14,400 in 2011, according to the country's central bank.

But the Mapuche don't share in that wealth: Their average income is half of non-indigenous Chileans, according to a study by the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization.

Yet, what they don’t have in wealth they have in history and pride.

"We are the only original nation to have treaties as a sovereign entity and, as such, we are exceptional in South America,” Huilcamán said. But those treaties haven't ended the simmering conflict that began in the 16th century, when the Spaniards landed in Chile but couldn’t quite defeat the Mapuche, and wouldn't for hundreds of years.

“It is a 500-year war," Huilcamán said. Even longer, Mapuche Catholic activist Isolde Reuque would correct me in a later interview, with restrained pride: “The Incas came before the Spaniards, and couldn’t conquer us either,” she said. But they left a legacy. "Chau Inti," she said with a smile: the word for Father Sun in the Mapuche's Mapudungun language. It's a hybrid of the Mapudungun word for father, chau, and the Inca word for sun, inti.

As far as wars go, the Mapuche’s has been largely bloodless, at least in recent decades. It is now, in fact, a war in name only, no longer pitting armies against each other. It involves police and settlers, or huincas as the Mapuche call them, on one side and indigenous peasants on the other. Still, people do die.

One particular incident involved a couple of elderly landowners in the town of Vilcún. In what may have been an attempt to drive them out, they were killed in a Jan. 4 arson attack. Their deaths brought the Mapuche conflict to the fore. A young Mapuche community activist has been arrested as a suspect in the deaths of Werner Luchsinger and his wife, Vivian Mackay. And while Mapuche leaders have disowned the act, and others like it, they also expressed suspicions about incidents that serve, they said, as an excuse for the government to come down with a heavy hand on their people.

Some might see a morbid parallel in the fire. In his memoirs, Pablo Neruda, the poet, local hero and god of Chilean literature, recalled that during his childhood in Temuco in the early years of the 20th century, driving out the Mapuche by arson was common practice.

The deaths triggered a debate in Chile and galvanized the Mapuche into collective action, prompting Huilcamán to call to a summit 200 Mapuche leaders in January at Cerro Ñielol. The government agreed only to send observers, which Huilcamán sees as an implicit recognition of its illegitimacy in the area.

“They don’t feel they belong in here, that’s why they didn’t dare to send in representatives even though we invited them; they just sent observers,” he said. The response by President Sebastián Piñera’s government has been confusing. Social Development Minister Joaquín Lavín called for the “Mapuchization” of Chilean society, urging his fellow citizens to embrace the aboriginal nation and its past. (Mapuchization, whatever it is, may already be a fact: By some accounts, more than 80 percent of Chileans are thought to have Mapuche ancestors.) Mostly, however, the government has erred on the side of repression, applying anti-terrorism laws dating back to the military dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet to prosecute Mapuche activists. Many Mapuche caught in incidents that would otherwise be considered common felonies have harsher anti-terrorism laws applied against them. The Cerro Ñielol summit on Jan. 16, Huilcamán said, was the first step toward self-determination, which may or may not lead to a Mapuche independent state.

“We are now on the road to Mapuche government,” he said. “We are telling our people, ‘Let us work together, join efforts in our collective will, and let us form a government.’”

In a country where overt expressions of dissent are uncommon, such demands have caught many Chileans by surprise.

“The Mapuche are here but at the same time they aren’t; it’s as if they spoke Russian,” said a Temuco teacher who is not of Mapuche descent and who declined to give her name. “Nobody had noticed them, and they have been left out of the wealth being created on Mapuche lands.”

Just how left out became clear one day in Temucuycuy, an hour’s drive from Temuco, where a telling scene depicted the wealth disparity between the indigenous people and the landowners. There, a community of 150 Mapuche families has peacefully occupied lands belonging, they said, to a settler named Martin Ruff. In the heat of the southern hemisphere's summer, they were sitting outside a shack, sharing homemade bread and drinking water, amid pines and eucalypti, trees not native to Chile and planted by the company for paper pulp production.

At the approaching clatter of a helicopter, all faces turned up as birds disturbed by the rotors flew off. The aircraft hovered for a few minutes over the shack, then moved on toward the hills. “They are guarding the company’s lands,” said Jaime Huenchullán, the community’s werkén, or spokesperson, “and these alien trees, these eucalypti and pines, that are destroying our soil, drying it up, draining our water we need for corn.”

Huenchullán does not know if his people will attain independence. They do not want to expel non-Mapuche, he said, and they will not touch Temuco, “a foreign city." But they do want their land: “We need our land. Mapuche means ‘man of the land’. Without our land we are not a people, we are not che,” he said, uncannily evoking Argentine-Cuban revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara, named after the Argentine custom of employing the “che” vocative to address each other in informal speech.

Back in Temuco, Mapuche leader Huilcamán isn't agitating for a sovereign state -- yet. He has pinned his hopes on the self-government consensus reached at Cerro Ñielol, summed up in 10 conclusions:

1. Mapuche communities’ willingness to engage in a dialogue with the Chilean government.

2. Mapuche self-government demand south of the Bío Bío River.

3. Setting up a committee to revise treaties.

4. Constitutional recognition only if it is the result of an agreement between both governments.

5. Request reparations from the state, not only in money but also in lands.

6. Urge officials to apologize for the damages caused.

7. Reject the region’s military occupation.

8. Police forces’ withdrawal from communities in conflict.

9. Reject the application of the Antiterrorist Law.

10. Reject the application of the State’s Interior Security Law.

Huilcamán also seeks legal support for Mapuche demands in the September 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“This declaration establishes the aboriginal peoples’ right to self-determination,” he said. “And a concrete manner of exercising self-determination is establishing a government or self-government system, which doesn’t mean denying the Chilean state but neither accepting the domestication and domination that exists to this day.”

What that means to him is that indigenous nations can adopt their own government system, “be that around the state, outside the state or even against the state.” And what if it is the last? Would that mean an uprising against the Chilean government? The Mapuche reject armed struggle, Huilcamán answered, and never consider it as an option. “But what we have announced at Cerro Ñielol to Chilean society is that we have embarked on the road to self-government… There are matters we need to address with the Chilean state and matters that pertain only to Mapuche, which have nothing to do with Chile.”

But Chile refuses to go away, as a physical presence as well as a cultural influence on the descendants of the warriors who fought it. On the bus to Temucuycuy, a precocious child of about 10, with the poise and haircut of a little soldier, was reciting poems, over and over, and teaching them to his aunt, whose diction he was also correcting. They both had the features and dark complexion of the Mapuche.

Chile es largo y bonito, Chile está en mi corazón, Por eso le canto a Chile Esta bonita canción.

“Chile is long and pretty / Chile is in my heart / That’s why I sing to Chile / This pretty song,” recited the kid. With patriotic vigor, he started into another poem, “Nahuel, flor de mi patria…” (Nahuel, flower of my homeland) but soon got bored, and went back to his first love: Chile es largo y bonito/ Chile está en mi corazón…