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Who are the Kaweskar? An Interview - Part 2

In celebration of the United Nation’s International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples, we’re publishing part two of our interview with Chilean ethno-linguist Oscar Aguilera Faúndez on the Kaweskar people of Chilean Patagonia. If you’ve not yet read part one of the interview, you can check it out here. Otherwise, read ahead for a more in-depth look at the Kaweskar language, their spiritual beliefs and what remains of Kaweskar culture today.

We’ve heard them called Kaweskar, Kawésqar, Kawashkar, Alacalufes, Halakwulup etc. Why do they have so many names?
Over time, many different names have been given to the Kaweskar. This is partly due to the large size of their territory, since early explorers often thought that the groups they met in one area were different from those that they’d previously met somewhere further north or further south. Other explorers gathered together the accounts of those who had crossed these seas before and repeated the information from these sources in their own chronicles. On top of that, since the explorers came from many different European countries, the names and vocabularies were noted down using the spelling of the languages they used. So for example, those of French origin wrote “pecherais”, the English “pecheray” and if we transliterate this into Spanish we get “pecheré”. Each person wrote the name as it sounded to them in their language.
magellan straitRobert Fitz-Roy, during his hydrographic exploration of Tierra del Fuego, which is best known because Darwin was also along for the voyage, was the first to describe a group of indigenous people who lived to the west of the Beagle Channel and the Strait of Magellan with the name Alikhoolip:
“To the westward, between the western part of the Beagle Channel and the Strait of Magalhaens, is a tribe now called alikhoolip (which may be the poy-yus), whose number amount perhaps to four hundred.” (Fitz-Roy, 1839)
From this name given by Fitz-Roy, various different spellings evolved: alikulip, halikulip, halakwulup, alakulof, alikkolif, alakaluf and, in Spanish, alacalufe, the latter being the name that was most often used to describe those who lived in the channels and that you might still hear today, although the members of the ethnic group themselves don’t accept it.
People have attempted to explain the names alakaluf or alacalufe in various ways. Some researchers note that this is a derogatory name used by the Yaghan people to describe the Kaweskar. In his book, “The Nomads of the Sea” Joseph Emperaire even theorised that it might be a deformation of the Spanish spoken by the Kaweskar:
“A term that sounds strangely close to the word alakaluf was heard twice in 1946. We were in a hut attaching hooks to a fishing line, when a woman asked if we could alakala takso (give her one) and that in exchange she would “alakala” a basket. After various explanations we realised that the word “alakala” was a deformation of the Spanish word regalar (to give as a gift). Perhaps this holds the explanation for the term alacalufe, which recalls that not too distant era during which the kaweskar of the archipelagos would climb aboard ships to ask for iron and clothing.” (Emperaire, 1963: 213)
The mysterious name alikhoolip (using English transliteration, in Spanish it would be alikulip), can be explained by the Kaweskar’s own language. What Fitz-Roy actually heard was halí ku(o) halíp, which means “down here, down here”. This is what the people would shout from their canoes at the waterline, much lower down than the deck of the ships. It was a shout to get themselves noticed and was often an invitation to barter and trade.
Do we know much about their religion?
When it comes to religion, the Kaweskar are animistic, they don’t have a supreme deity, as Martin Gusinde stated. Other writers state the inexistence of a god and express opinions that Gusinde considers to be “impudent and categorical” (Gusinde, 1974: 445); however he does accept the more moderate position of Scottsberg, who says that: “As far as the religious beliefs of these people are concerned, our research only generated negative results. We don’t know of any ceremony - perhaps they existed, although we don’t know, but probably, as is the case with Yaghan people, they are not naturally religious” (Skottsberg 1913 : 595).
If the Kaweskar were to have had a supreme god, that belief would have been preserved. It is difficult to accept that after a few decades thier belief would have disappeared without any external influence. In western Patagonia there was no missionary effort. The only representative of the Roman Catholic church was the priest Father Torres, who made several journeys to Puerto Eden in the 1940s, baptised the Kawesqar he came across, brought gifts and made them repeat prayers that they didn’t understand, with nobody to replace him once he stopped visiting Puerto Eden. This evangelisation did not prosper among the Kaweskar of Puerto Eden and fell to the same fate as other beliefs such as Baha'ism, Evangelicals and others.
For the Kaweskar, there was a natural order to things, a harmony in nature, any rupture of this order was caused by a spirit, and that spirit was the ajajéma. How was the order of nature broken? Illness, for example, was an event where this state had been broken. Normally a footprintperson would be well, in a state of harmony, but if this state were broken, it must have been caused by some outside agent. If the weather turned bad and stayed bad, if a person had nightmares, all of these events were disturbances of the natural harmony. But the ajajéma didn’t bring about these upsets because he wanted to hurt or punish humans, it was just that his footsteps caused these disturbances as he passed through a place. Perhaps he wasn’t even aware that the humans were there, but he was attracted by the noises that they made. That’s why the Kaweskars forbade their children from playing once night had fallen, because the noise could attract the ajajéma and someone could become ill or die, since his presence could also be an omen of death. He could take away the os, the person’s soul, and leave only the aksǽmhar, or life force, behind. This would become weaker and weaker and lead to death. On death, the person would be transformed into a jeksólok (spirit) which would go to hótk'a álowe (beyond the horizon). The ajajéma was also sometimes called jeksólok.
It’s not true, as Emperaire states, that the Kaweskar were afraid of the dark and never dared to leave their at (dwellings) at night. On the contrary, there were various nighttime activities, such as hunting cormorants by torchlight, which was only carried out under complete darkness. They also had to regularly check that their canoes were well secured when the wind began to blow, so that they didn’t get blown away. If they had been so afraid of the dark they wouldn’t have been able to carry out these activities.
They were however afraid of nightmares since they indicated the presence of a jeksólok. People could communicate with the world of the dead through sleep; that was the bridge or link with those that had died. If someone was going through a difficult time or needed to resolve a problem, they would remember somebody they had been close to, and who had died, like their mother, their father or another relative they were close to. Then they might dream of this person who could advise them on how to overcome their issues or they might warn them of something. But these dreams were different to nightmares; nightmares are not calm dreams and what one “sees” in them is unpleasant, that’s why they must have been produced by a negative spirit. If someone had a nightmare they could try to get the jeksólok to leave, so they would make a lot of noise, they shouted and banged pots etc. With all of this uproar they could “frighten away” the jeksólok and could go back to sleep.
According to the 2002 census, 2,622 people in Chile identified themselves as Kaweskar. Is it true that there are so many of them? Do they still maintain their language and culture?
This is not a real figure. It seems that what happened was that the question in the census was badly worded. “Identify with” can allude to a puerto eden from the seafeeling of affection or affinity with something and that’s why we think that a lot of people “identified” themselves as Kaweskar even though they aren’t. Today, the last representatives of the ethnic group that conserve the language (and speak it every day) and that know the ancient culture live in Puerto Eden. There are just five of them. There are also third generation descendants living there that don’t speak the language and don’t know the traditions of the past, so the full Kaweskar group in Puerto Eden numbers around 15 individuals.
Then there are what’s called “urban Kaweskar” who live in Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas and add up to around 200 people. These people, descendents of the channel Kaweskar, don’t speak the language and don’t know their ancestral customs. There are some Kaweskar from Puerto Eden that also live in the city and speak the language, but they are few and far between. The rest of the urban Kaweskar are descended from mixed unions between Kaweskar and Chilote (Mapuche-Huilliche) people.
The last Kaweskar in Puerto Eden who speak the language and know the culture well are making great efforts today to ensure that this knowledge is not lost. To that end they are actively participating in research projects aimed at cultural preservation.
We wish the last Kaweskar the best of luck with their efforts to document and save their culture. Thanks again to Oscar Aguilera Faúndez from the university of Chile for opening our eyes to the lives of the Kaweskar people of Chilean Patagonia!