In Chile, U.S. Adoptee Founds Non-Profit ‘Project Odakniwa’

Temuco, Chile.  In 2011, while conducting research and volunteering at the Chol-Chol Foundation in Temuco, Chile, I found myself immersed in Mapuche culture. It was a homecoming of sorts, because I was born to Mapuche parents and adopted to the U.S. when I was six months old.

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Two worlds, separated by traditions, language, economic conditions and geography suddenly converged when I met my biological mother that July. Slowly, I am beginning to understand what it is to be Mapuche. This new phase of education is continuing well beyond my graduation from the College of Wooster. My personal struggle to integrate two often divergent worldviews is not unlike my Mapuche family’s search for identity confronted by the pressure of Chilean assimilation policies and a legacy of discrimination.

Drawing on experiences from a study abroad semester exploring indigenous peoples and globalization in Peru in 2011, I saw the important role that international organizations play in supporting communities struggling to maintain their culture while trying to participate in an increasingly global economy. As a final thesis project, I conducted research on the migration of students from surrounding rural communities to the urban center of Cusco in search of greater educational opportunities and the effect this had on their cultural identity.

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In 2012 I spoke with a cohort of Mapuche also completing their formal education and felt the tension between the draw of jobs in the urban center of Temuco and the commitment to family and life in the rural countryside known as “el campo.” In speaking with members of the Mapuche community I began to appreciate their determination for progress and deeply empathized with them in their often painful decision in choosing between a traditional life and the modern world. Project Odakniwa (pronounced “Oh-dock-knee-wah”) is a response to that tension. Odakniwa is the mirror image of the word Awinkado, which is a hybrid Spanish-Mapuche term used to describe Mapuches who are seen to be like the foreigners.

The root word Winka, means Foreigner, and over the 500 years of conflict between the Mapuche culture and the Chilean government, the word has gained a strong negative connotation, and in some contexts it means enemy. Odakniwa then, is the word we use to shift away from this existing mentality of “us and them” as well as escape the categorization of a “traditional” or “modern” existence. I firmly believe that culture exists hybridly, and I found a unique strength in the members of the Mapuche community who wanted to create a workforce with a specialty in energy efficiency and renewable energy in an area that is one of the poorest in Chile. I was inspired to join that effort by supporting them through collaborations with Project Odakniwa.


Project Odakniwa is a non-profit organization that empowers Mapuche Communities to implement sustainable development practices through multicultural collaboration. Our philosophy is to work intensely with one community at a time, to be a catalyst for the community to organize itself, develop leadership and create plans for sustainable development. With the community, Project Odakniwa develops a network of local, national and international resources. Matching community needs with higher education programs to engage students and professors in community development and multicultural dialogue is an important component of implementing the community’s plans.


Since its founding in August of 2012, Project Odakinwa has partnered with Paillao Mapu, a Mapuche community located approximately 5 miles east of Temuco, Chile. With community leaders, we developed the first ever community census which had a 92.5% return rate and serves as important tool for assessing community needs. Project Odakniwa also conducted two planning charrettes with the community to discuss community needs and programs that might meet those needs. A Five Year Plan was developed from the charrettes with five impact areas: Sustainable Agriculture, Sustainable Construction and Appropriate Technology, Cultural Arts Preservation and Promotion, Language Preservation and Promotion, Intercultural Education and Collaboration, and Community Health Education and Outreach.


Our first collaboration is with a large private university, La Universidad Mayor Temuco and its Health Department. Nursing students went door to door in pairs conducting interviews with community members and produced a communitywide health assessment. Nursing students identified health risks and challenges faced by the community and discussed potential solutions. As a result the community began a workout program, and recycling projects are being developed to limit unhealthy waste disposal. The university’s veterinary school also conducted pet vaccinations in October to address animal health. Additionally, we have started a small library in the community center and conducted reading workshops.

Two major projects are planned for 2014. The first project is to enhance the existing community center of Paillao Mapu. Windows, doors, floors, lighting, and overall construction enhancements such as insulation and roofing will be installed by a team of volunteers composed of the Paillao Mapu community, University Mayor students, and volunteers from the United States. The design for the enhancements includes a first aid station/multi-use room for the community and university health students and professionals to utilize.

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The second project is a Native Tree Program developed to enhance the presence of native Chilean trees in the Paillao Mapu community and combat species brought in by international foresting companies. The grant from The Chapman Forestry Foundation will allow for the purchase of 300 native tree species. We will work with agricultural and community experts to identify and develop a catalog of trees available for each member of Paillao Mapu.

Readers interested in learning more about the project can visit our website at, which has links to our social networking sites, for viewing the latest photos, videos, and status updates. As I head back to Paillao Mapu for a second stint, I will be updating our sites regularly, sharing our progress and providing information about how our supporters can contribute to specific projects. I plan on developing a platform for supporters to directly engage with Project and community members through regular video conferences. Please feel free to visit our website and donate through our 501(c) 3 fiscal sponsor, The Appropriate Technology Collaborative. Any contribution is greatly appreciated and 100% of proceeds go directly towards supporting the Mapuche community of southern Chile and a sustainable future.



About Christopher Marcos Culbertson

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