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Chile Indigenous Tribe Fights Extinction

October 9, 2006

SANTIAGO, Chile — A once-nomadic tribe of hunters and fishermen living in the frigid channels near the bottom of the world is nearing extinction.

Down to just 15 full-blooded members, the Kawesqar people could soon go the way of other indigenous tribes in Chile, its language and culture disappearing to all but the history books.

Juan Carlos Tonko, however, is doing all he can to stop the Kawesqar’s slow march to oblivion.

Six months ago, the 40-year-old left the comforts of the capital, Santiago, to return to Puerto Eden on Wellington Island in southern Chile and re-embrace the traditions of the people he left 25 years before.

Tonko is the lone Kawesqar of his middle-aged generation to come home, and now considers himself “the transmitter of history” for his tribe.

“I feel that I have a great responsibility,” the soft-spoken father of four said during a visit to Santiago with his children’s school, a trip that took two days by boat and a third by bus.

With support from the Chilean government, Tonko and a research team are recording the handful of Kawesqar speakers left in Puerto Eden, most of whom are in their 70s and 80s. “The immediacy is urgent,” Tonko said.

The plan is to produce materials to teach the language in schools nationwide as an optional subject to those interested. Then, if they can wrangle more funds, they will complete a cultural and historical survey of the Kawesqars, to correct the errors in the few existing texts written by outsiders.

Over the years, five of Chile’s original 14 indigenous tribes – the Aonikenk, Selk’nam, Pikunches, Changos and Chonos – have been lost to the onslaught of colonialism, succumbing to disease, displacement and overuse of their traditional sources of food.

The 600,000-strong Mapuche tribe is the largest and most vocal indigenous group in Chile, a country with a population of 16 million.

Tonko says that because of the Mapuches’ size and protests, their group gets more help than smaller tribes struggling against extinction.

The federal government spends a total of $15.7 million on legal, social and land programs for indigenous groups, said Evelyn Miller, a spokeswoman for the government’s National Indigenous Development Corporation.

At a celebration of the Mapuche New Year in June, President Michelle Bachelet promised to improve Chile’s indigenous policies by speaking with the groups, which often suffer discrimination, poor environmental protection, poverty and schools that separate them from their traditions.

Chile passed its first law offering protection, formal recognition and development aid to indigenous groups only in 1993.

But in Puerto Eden, the damage to the Kawesqars has already been done, said Pedro Torres, principal at the town’s only school. “The arrival of Western culture is eliminating them,” he said.

About 80 percent of the 19,000 people in Puerto Eden have some relationship to indigenous groups, mostly Mapuche. So the school, which teaches children up to the eighth grade, makes lessons on Kawesqar and Mapuche culture part of the core curriculum.

In art class they fashion harpoons from whale bone and miniature boats from wolf skins. Ask them how to say “mother,”"father” or “dog,” and they rattle off the words in Kawesqar, whose whistling tones are reminiscent of Mandarin Chinese.

“My grandmother teaches me words, and I write them down,” Tonko’s 9-year-old niece, Susan Vargas, said during the school trip to Santiago. She girl is half Mapuche but lives with her Kawesqar grandparents.

Tonko’s four children and wife, herself a Mapuche, speak just a few words of Kawesqar so far. He is relearning words he had forgotten after leaving Puerto Eden at age 15.

And as important as learning Kawesqar is to life in the town, Puerto Eden also must make way for a new language: In the summer, cruise ships stop by once a week, and the children will need to converse with English-speaking tourists, said Torres, the school principal.

Tonko said townspeople would like tourists to share in daily Kawesqar activities like fishing and basket-weaving, rather than just stopping by for an hour. Someday it will happen, he said, his aim fixed firmly on the future – a concept not traditionally embraced by the Kawesqar.

“In the Kawesqar concept, the future doesn’t exist,” Tonko said.

But now, he added, Kawesqars are working to “see how we can project ourselves toward the future while remembering the past.”




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