Chile: indigenous people faces extinction

From Chile’s English-language Santiago Times, Oct. 14:

Second-To-Last Yagana Woman Dies Of A Heart Attack
The second-to-last member of Chile’s pre-colonial Yagán tribe, 84-year-old Emelinda Acuña, died on Wednesday, taking with her the traditions, stories, and secrets of a little-known indigenous population. The only remaining pureblooded member of the Yagán tribe is now Acuña’s sister-in-law, Cristina Calderón.

The Yagán tribe, native to southern Chile, lived off the natural resources of the ocean, gliding through the Tierra del Fuego waters in canoes and living in sealskin tents. The Yagana people, along with the Selk’nam and Alakaluf, were among the last in the world to encounter Western civilization.

When the Chilean and Argentine governments began to explore Tierra del Fuego in the late 19th century, the indigenous population numbered around 10,000. Fifty years later, due to disease, dislocation, bounties and overexploitation of their traditional food sources, only 350 indigenous people remained (ST, April 13).

Emelinda Acuña, who died of a heart attack, was one of the last remaining links to the pre-colonial tribe. Culturally, very little is known about Acuña’s tribe. Living her last years in Puerto Williams on the Isla Navarino, she wove traditional baskets out of reeds and attempted to relate the “treasures” of her nearly extinct culture.

“She always tried to demonstrate and show our culture,” said Acuña’s sister-in-law, Calderón.

In a 1999 interview with El Mercurio, Acuña told stories of a difficult childhood, highly influenced by the collapse of her culture. After working as a maid for a wealthy family, she went on to marry twice and bear 10 children.

Acuña’s death comes on the heels of Columbus Day (Día de la Raza, in Chile), which marks the anniversary of the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in 1492. The arrival brought the onslaught of what Argentine journalist Marta Gordillo recently classified as “the worst genocide in history.”

“With the arrival of the conquistadores began the extermination of 90 million natives of South America and destruction of all cultures on this side of the Atlantic,” said Gordillo. “There is nothing to celebrate on Oct. 12, unless you want to celebrate the death and cultural destruction of the conquest.”

This declaration, which caused quite a stir in Argentina, suggests that even though the conquistadors arrived 513 years ago, the cruelty they committed is more than just a chapter in history; rather, it is an ongoing legacy. Chile’s indigenous populations continue to be victims of widespread prejudice and racism, as do those of Argentina and other South American nations.

Bolivia – a nation where indigenous people have long been in the majority — may elect its first indigenous president this December, should Evo Morales maintain the lead he now has in the polls. But in Chile, a recent presidential bid by indigenous leader Aucán Huilcamán was nipped in the bud by strict election law procedures demanded of presidential candidates (ST, Oct. 6).

Chile’s largest indigenous group, the Mapuche, express their discontent with current laws and past infractions against their people every year with a march through downtown Santiago.

This year’s march was held last Monday, coinciding with the Día de la Raza (Columbus Day). Thousands of Chileans marched in solidarity with Chile’s indigenous Mapuche population, calling for the end of repression and occupation of indigenous land (ST, Oct. 12).

Last March, a Mapuche delegation asked the Organization of American States (OAS) to take action against the “systematic violation” of human rights being committed against the Mapuche people in Chile. The delegation included reports of political detentions, lack of due process, police brutality and inhumane prison conditions (ST, March 9).

The Mapuche were incorporated into the Chilean Republic during the period of “pacification” between 1866 and 1881, during which thousands of Mapuches died and 95 percent of their land was seized for the central, Santiago-based government. The tribe’s numbers total approximately 928,000 people. Other significant native populations in Chile include the Aymara and Rapa Nui.

By Jackie Hailey (

See our last post on indigenous struggles in Chile.