Yagan people’s fight to revive their language at Americas’ southern tip

By Iñaki Martinez Azpiroz

Puerto Williams, Chile, May 29 (EFE).- The Yagan people, who have lived in far southern tip of the Americas, are fighting to keep their language and identity alive after decades of stigmatization, once again using their original place names and promoting language learning within their community.

In Villa Ukika, a town on the outskirts of the city of Puerto Williams, 3,600 kilometers (about 2,230 miles) south of Santiago, the Yagans – also known as the Yahgans or the Yaghans – are carefully keeping a huge map at their community offices showing the region with the place names used by their ancestors.

Every bay, every water channel, every spot on the landscape overlooking the sea has its own original name, reflecting the fact that the Yagans – one of Chile’s nine indigenous peoples – historically have navigated among the dozens of islands comprising this zone of winds, snowy peaks and frigid waters that forms the gateway to Antarctica.

“With the arrival of people from the rest of Chile, the Yagan people became invisible. We grew up learning in school that our people had become extinct,” David Alday told EFE, after introducing himself in Yagan and proudly displaying the map.

“Little by little, seeing the grandmothers making indigenous crafts, you get the idea that you belong to something, but the language has been lost over the generations,” he said.

The death in 2022 of Cristina Calderon, the last person who knew how to speak the Yagan language fluently and known as “the Yagan grandmother,” filled not only her people but also all of Puerto Williams with sorrow.

Her granddaughter, Cristina Zarraga, is leading the resurrection of the Yagan language and the creation of content so that it can be taught and learned informally among members of the community as well as more formally in school in Puerto Williams, and now – for the first time – taking a class in the Yagan language is an option for students there.

“I grew up far from Puerto Williams, but at age 20 I started to spend long periods with my grandmother, because she asked me to write about her life. I began to record everything that she told me, and so I learned a lot about her form of oral expression, the language, the stories and traditional medicine. There was a connection between us,” Zarraga told EFE.

“The central aspect of my work has been (gathering) the knowledge of the grandmothers, the oral transmission from the last generation who spoke the language,” she added from Germany, where she lives.

With about 2,000 residents, most of them relatives of sailors, Puerto Williams developed starting in the 1960s as a naval enclave designed to reaffirm Chilean sovereignty over Cape Horn vis-a-vis Argentina, the border of which is just three kilometers (just under two miles) away on the other side of the Beagle Channel, the strait in the Tierra del Fuego archipelago that divides the two countries.

The Chilean naval culture “monopolized” life in Puerto Williams and the Yagan community, which has fewer than 1,700 members, according to the latest census, recalls that they were stigmatized on many occasions.

“Discrimination was complete when I was young. They called us Indians, and nobody wanted to practice the language in my family,” said Chinguay, 61.

Zarraga agreed, saying: “The grandmothers stopped transmitting (the) Yagan (language) to protect the family. The Yagan children suffered discrimination from the sailors or the Chileans who came from outside. They were laughed at.”

Now, along with incentivizing learning the language, the Yagan community wants to foster its social use and bring it into the public space, renaming streets, bays and water channels.

“Making the vocabulary public not only makes our people visible, but makes learning the Yagan language more natural for the new generations,” said the president of the Yagan community, Luis Gomez.

In Villa Ukika, Alday and Chinguay examined the map, where the Beagle Channel is called “Onashaga,” Navarino Island, the largest in the region, is “Wala,” and Puerto Williams is “Hupuswea.”

“Nowadays you see the channels in this ancient archipelago and they’ve all got completely foreign names,” said Chinguay. “It’s a job that we’re pushing forward with, and it’ll be really nice in the future to see if it continues. We believe we’re going to get there.”

EFE ima/bp

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