early l6th century explorers such as Magellan sailed through the narrow and treacherous
Chilean channels looking for a way across South America to the spice islands of
the Pacific, they entered the territories of several groups of indigenous people.
The main tribes were the Selknam, the Haush, the Tehuelches and, the most southerly,
In the early l9th century, when Captain Robert Fitzroy steered
the Beagle through the straits (today called the Beagle Channel) for the second
time, Darwin was on board, and he saw naked Yamana who covered themselves with
pungent sea lion grease as protection from the elements. His European sensibility
was offended. He and Captain Fitzroy took four of the natives back to England,
and their mission was to educate and convert them.
The most famous of the
four indigenous men was 16-year-old Jemmy Button (his name derived from the fact
that we was bought from the tribe's leader for a box of buttons). As the Beagle
sailed, Darwin and Jemmy Button spent a lot of time together, and Darwin was impressed
by the latter's intelligence and adaptability and the speed with which he learned
English. When he arrived in England, Jemmy sported British threads, learned English
customs and was introduced to the king and queen. One of the four Yamana died
in England, and Captain Fitzroy brought the other three back to their tribal land.
There, Jemmy Button reverted to his native lifestyle. Darwin concluded it was
almost impossible to civilize the Indians, but one can only guess at the complexity
of the cross-cultural experiment.
In the late l800s, Silesian priests
and nuns went to Patagonia as missionaries and collected artifacts as well as
stories from the natives they encountered. In the early 20th century, Father Alberto
de Agostini arrived as a Christian educator, and for almost four decades, he documented,
in remarkable black-and-white photographs and films, the life of the disappearing
Indians. Their language, it turned out, was complex and sophisticated, their customs
and ceremonies were powerful, and they had great knowledge of adaptive techniques
to harsh and inhospitable conditions.
At the time of contact with the
Europeans, Patagonia had an estimated 5,000 natives. Today, only a few hundred
are still living, a result of European infectious diseases (for which the Indians
had no immunity) and colonial cruelty and displacement. The story of the Chilean
Indians is a fascinating, moving and sad account, and, on a recent cruise in Patagonia,
my husband Paul and I had several opportunities to learn more about these vanished
and vanishing cultures.
We booked a trip on the spanking-new Mare Australis,
because it is an expedition cruise ship--and the word "expedition" means that
the emphasis is on learning, hiking and exploring rather than dressing up, eating
and fidgeting through glitzy shows every evening. The Mare Australis's itinerary
includes onboard lectures, a screening of de Agostini's rare film footage, archaeologically-oriented
land tours and visits to remote islands where the natives once lived.
In Punta Arenas, before boarding the ship, we saw the Silesian priests' collection
of native artifacts at the fascinating Borgatello Museum. A few children who were
running through the museum stopped, mesmerized, at the tzanzas, or shrunken heads,
that were displayed in glass cases. I have to admit that we were gawking too.
The museum's exhibits are a good introduction to how the Indians lived, hunted,
and worshipped. Boleadoras, weapons made with three stones suspended from animal
sinews, were especially effective for catching guanacos while on horseback. Fishing
nets were made from guanaco nerves. Native clothing, fashioned from animal pelts,
incorporated woven bark elements. Early photographs show the body painting used
by the natives in now-extinct ceremonies. A replica of a Patagonian cave with
petroglyph art goes back to the first known inhabitants of the area - 12,000 years
ago. And the rooms of stuffed animals have their own charm. Even though the taxidermy
is pretty terrible, it gives visitors an idea of the area's magnificent wildlife,
and what the natives had as choices for dinner.
Once we boarded the ship,
we began to attend talks about the flora and fauna of Patagonia, and we were outfitted
in waterproof canary-yellow suits for shore excursions in rubber zodiac boats.
When we landed at remote Port Williams, which is the last town at the bottom of
the world, we divided up into groups: some people opted for helicopter rides or
treks through the town, but we chose the indigenous tour, led by a young American
woman entomologist who lives in the town.
Port Williams has 2,000 inhabitants
and approximately 100 of them are Yamanas. According to a our guide, only two
pure-blood women are left, and the rest are impoverished mestizos.
live in two areas of Port Williams - Villa Ukika and Mejillones. In Villa Ukika,
Yamanas reside in poor but colorful wooden houses with corrugated roofs. At the
entrance to the village are a wooden swing and a fairytalelike hut where women
sell baskets (starting at $3) woven from local junco fiber and miniature canoes
made from bark. A small sign informs visitors that they should not take pictures
of the women without asking.
Inside the village, a Yamana man waved to
us, and showed off his garden of brilliantly colored flowers. A jaunty 17-year-old
boy walked by a grazing cow and told us he went to secondary school, which is
One of the basket makers quietly told us that our ship is the
only one that stops in Port Williams, and the Yamanas have little or no income
besides selling baskets to the passengers. Of course we purchased a small basket
and, when we asked, the woman had no objection to our taking her picture. As she
talked to us, she looked out over the struggling village, which is a stark contrast
to the magnificent and majestic snow-capped peaks which we saw across the water.
In the town of Port Williams , our guide took us to the small but intriguing
Museo Martin Gusinde, named after a priest who studied the Indians in the l920s.
Among the highlights are renderings of the natives by an artist on the Beagle;
at that time, most drawings of Indians were done by Europeans whose imaginations
were fired by the tales of sailors who returned from distant lands. Their renderings
looked like Europeans in native clothes. But the artist who sailed with Darwin
drew from life, and his sketches have a simple, beautiful authenticity.
museum collection includes photos of young Yamana boys whose bodies are painted
with vertical stripes, and information about the Chieshaus initiation ceremony
where the youth learned about survival, society and the supreme being called Watauineiwa.
A photo shows them in a circle, naked, their heads covered with foliage.
women in our group were intrigued when they read the wall panel describing the
Yamana ceremony (now extinct) called the Kina. According to Yamana legend, women
once ruled the community. The men wrested control by killing all of the women
except the young girls. The event was recalled during the Kina rites.
The walls of the small museum are lined with huge, haunting photographs of the
Yamana as they once were - proud, resourceful, mysterious.
Port Williams, our guide led us to an archaeological site where the Yamana once
came ashore with their canoes in foul weather. They lived in temporary huts with
a fire pit in the middle, ate mussels and discarded the shells outside the hut.
Today, visitors can see a fire pit ringed by a grass-covered midden (refuse) heap
of mussel shells six to twelve feet high. When the Indians went back to their
canoes, the huts were left for others to occupy. Archeologists and anthropologists
are trying to determine whether the natives lived communally or in small family
units; our guide told us that they think the latter was the case.
days later, the Mare Australis stopped at Cape Horn (a remarkable feat, considering
how many ships sank and sailors died trying to get there). Bundled up and braced
against the wind, we climbed up 120 creaky wooden steps, and there we were, at
the top of the bottom of the world. On one side, we saw the Atlantic, and on the
other side, the Pacific. Back on board the ship, warm and cozy, we attended a
detailed lecture given by crew members about the tribes that populated the area.
(Crew members go through an extensive training period where they learn about nature,
tribal people, and the geology of the land. They also told us that they read and
study on their own, so they are prepared for the questions of eager passengers.)
Most exciting for us were the parts of the lecture that included early footage
from the de Agostini films.
According to the lecturer, the Teheulches lived
on the Patagonian mainland and wore guanaco moccasins that left big tracks. This
might be the origin of the word Patagonia, which is a corruption of pata grande,
or big foot. The Tehuelches wore guanaco skins with the fur facing inward. Their
tepees were also made of guanaco skin, and they were transported on their backs
when they moved. In l899, their cacique met with the president of Chile to get
help for his tribe. His mission was successful, but he caught an infection, spread
it to his tribe, and most of them perished.
The lecturer went on to talk
about the other tribes. The Selknam, nomadic hunters who lived in the flat area
of Tierra del Fuego, wore guanaco skins with the fur outside. When asked why they
did this, they replied: "Because that's what the guanaco did." The women also
wore fur hats and necklaces.
The Selknam were less nomadic than the Tehuelches.
They held initiation ceremonies where participants wore vertical stripes painted
on their bodies; according to the lecturer, similar figures have been found painted
in caves in Brazil. The Selknam medicine men (one can be seen performing a healing
ceremony in de Agostini's film) prepared for ceremonies by painting their faces.
They used powerful massages on ailing tribe members and screamed to the heavens
to get rid of the bad spirits thought to cause illness.
Their weapons were
prepared in a fire (the bow was heated), and the bowstrings were made from guanaco
tendons, which were worked with the Selknam's teeth. Their arrow points were made
of glass (introduced by the Europeans), and sometimes goose feathers decorated
The lecturer showed us rare footage and talked about the small
Kaweshkar tribe. De Agostini found them impoverished, dressed in old European
clothes and begging for food. Tribe members lived in huts made of branches and
leaves and shaped like a loaf of bread. Today only about 50 mestizos and one person
of pure blood remain.
The Yamanas built canoes from notafagus trees and
hunted sea lions with detachable-point harpoons for survival. When they traveled,
the women navigated, the men fished, and, in the film, we saw children tending
a fire in the middle of the canoe. When fishing close to shore, the Yamana used
no hooks: instead, they baited their lines and hauled in the fish by hand.
Most ships that sail to Patagonia make a stop in the Argentinian port city of
Ushuaia, and we had ample time to visit the Yamana museum, El Museo Mundo Yamana.
Besides large, detailed maps with proven as well as hypothesized waves of migration
and trade, the museum's miniatures depict the Yamana lifestyle, and informative
panels deal with fascinating native customs and ceremonies.
tourists go to Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego for its barren, remote and beautiful
natural environment, learning about the natives made our trip to the bottom of
the world a deeper and more personal experience. Long before the Beagle ever navigated
the treacherous narrow straits, long before our expedition ship sailed past pristine
glaciers and icebergs, native people learned to live in those harsh climes, and
they have much to teach us about culture, natural resources, ecology and, ultimately,
IF YOU GO:
Recommended airline: LanChile