|SANTIAGO, Chile, Oct. 8, 2006
Chile Indigenous Tribe Fights Extinction.
One of Chile's indigenous tribes battles extinction near bottom
of the world
By LYGIA NAVARRO Associated Press Writer (AP)
AP) 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
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
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
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."