The Kaweskars are an indigenous group of nomadic Patagonian inhabitants. Their numbers originally totalled between 2,500 and 3,000 but by the 1930’s they had almost become extinct due to prolonged contact with European explorers and nowadays it is estimated that fewer than 10 pure-blooded Kaweskars remain. Kaweskars, whose name means 'human being' in their native language, are also sometimes referred to as as Alacalufes or Kawésqars.
There are two theories regarding their arrival in modern day Chilean Patagonia - one suggesting they came south from the islands of Chiloé and the other suggesting they came up from the south, populating the islands in the Strait of Magellan en route. Either way, it is accepted that they covered a vast amount of territory, ranging all the way from the Guaitecas Islands just south of Chiloé to Clarence island in the Strait of Magellan, in their quest for iron pyrite to make fire in order to keep warm.
Families travelled together by canoe and when on land constructed igloo-shaped domes made from oak or winter’s bark which they covered with seal or otter skins after eating the meat. Ocassionally families would join together to eat whale meat. Tools like bows and arrows were made from wood, stone, whale bones, shells and animal skins, and were used to construct canoes and domes.
Kaweskar communities had no hierarchy and were formed by self-sufficient, independent families who married for love and practiced monogamy. They had an established moral and ethical code which involved a deep, spiritual relationship with God. Happiness wasn't determined by material goods but the freedom of movement and nature's well-being.
Their first contact with European explorers came in the 16th century and, in a tale repeated across much of Latin America, by 1880 Europeans had settled in Patagonia in their quest for gold, furs and wool and had displaced, slaughtered and brought disease to the Kaweskars who became almost completely extinct by the 1920’s.
In the 1930s the few remaining Kaweskars settled on Wellington Island in the Magellanes region of Chile. Today the small tribe of Kaweskers still live on the island in a hamlet named Villa Puerto Eden. The remote, road-less hamlet is only accessible by boat from towns Puerto Montt and Puerto Natales and coastal village Caleta Tortel. In 2002 the population census was 176, with just twenty Kaweskar speakers remaining, and in 2008 the death of the oldest surviving Kaweskar brought a lot of media attention to the fact that the group are on the brink of extinction.
We asked renowned Chilean ethno-linguist Oscar Aguilera Faúndez for his unique insight into the lives of Chilean Patagonia’s indigenous Kaweskar people: