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A Native Son Tries to Save His Tribe

A Kawesqar returns to southern Chile to take up the traditions he left behind. He hopes to preserve his people's language and culture.

October 08, 2006|Lygia Navarro | Associated Press Writer

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 could soon go the way of other indigenous tribes in Chile, its language and culture relegated to the history books.

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

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

Tonko, the lone Kawesqar of his middle-aged generation to come home, now considers himself "the transmitter of history" for his tribe. "I feel that I have a great responsibility," the father of four said during a visit to Santiago, the Chilean capital, with his children's school.

With support from the Chilean government, Tonko and a research team are recording the few 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. Then, if the group can wrangle more funds, it 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, Selknam, Picunches, Changos and Chonos -- have been lost to the onslaught of colonialism, succumbing to disease, displacement and overuse of their 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. Because of their group's size and protests, the Mapuches get more help than smaller tribes battling 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 Chile's National Indigenous Development Corp.

At a celebration of the Mapuche New Year in June, President Michelle Bachelet promised to improve Chile's indigenous policies through dialogue with the groups.

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

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

About 80% 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.

Tonko's children and wife, 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.

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 such as fishing and basket-weaving, rather than just stopping by. 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," he 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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