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Patagonian Tribe On Decline

December 11, 2008

Francisco Arroyo is among the last members of a Patagonian tribe on the verge of no longer existing. There is only an estimated 12-20 pure-blooded members of his nomadic Kawesqar tribe alive and most of them are elderly.

Arroyo remembers braving the icy channels and fjords of southern Chile’s Patagonia region with his father, tending a fire lit on dried earth on the bottom of their canoe and diving naked for giant mussels to survive.

“It ends with our generation,” Arroyo said at a tiny fishing port of Puerto Eden on an island around 1,300 miles south of the capital, Santiago.

Arroyo does not know exactly how old he is, but a state census guessed his age to be at around 66.

“We are old now. We can’t go out in the channels any more. I am not sad. Life is easier now,” he said in Spanish.

Eugenio Aspillaga, a bio-anthropologist at the University of Chile, blamed the change on poor healthcare.

“They are in decline because the historic causes (illnesses) have continued until relatively recently,” he said.

“Another factor is restrictions on their movement,” Aspillaga added, referring to a program in the 1960s to settle survivors in Puerto Eden.

“There is a lesson in survival and human adaptability that we are losing. It is a part of humanity we neither know nor understand.”

The youngest full-blooded tribe members are two brothers aged around 40, and one of them married a woman outside the tribe. 

Oscar Aguilera, an ethno-linguist and leading authority on the Kawesqar who has compiled a dictionary of their language to help preserve it, estimates there are 200 people of mixed Kawesqar descent.

“Their culture is becoming extinct, and their language is also in danger,” said Aguilera.

He has studied the tribe since 1975.

“Once the few survivors in Puerto Eden disappear, the oldest ones, then the culture will be lost and the tongue will no longer be spoken,” he added.

Puerto Eden is in the shadow of snow-encrusted Andean peaks. Many people who moved to the area in search of work in the fishing industry say they are cut off from the rest of the world.

“I never liked it,” said 32-year-old Luisa Chiay, who grew up in Puerto Eden but later moved to the town of Puerto Natales further south, where her daughter goes to school.

Chiay, who descends from Chile’s most populous indigenous group, the Mapuche, returns for weeks at a time while her brother dives for shellfish.

“It’s so isolated. There is too much silence. The education is poor. If you fall ill, there is no hospital nearby,” she added.

Image Caption: View of Villa Puerto Ed©n’s docks Courtesy Jorge Morales Piderit – Wikipedia

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