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CHILE: Preserving the Kaweshkar Language – In the Nick of Time

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Sep 30 2009 (IPS) - Sound files containing recordings of spoken Kaweshkar – a nearly extinct indigenous language of southern Chile – have been put together thanks to the work of ethnolinguist Óscar Aguilera and anthropologist José Tonko, and donated to national and foreign institutions with the aim of preserving the culture of one of Chile’s nine native groups.

Kaweshkar is on the verge of joining hundreds of native languages that have disappeared over the past 500 years in South America, a process many blame on colonialism and the imposition of a dominant language, while others attribute it to the natural evolution of languages.

Whatever the reason, the reality is that the vast majority of the 600 to 800 languages that were spoken when the Europeans arrived in the continent have disappeared.

In recent years international agencies and language experts have agreed on the need to work towards preserving languages regardless of the number of speakers, because of their importance to cultural identity and diversity, and a series of legal instruments have been adopted towards that end.

The Kaweshkar – also known as Alacaluf – are one of the nine indigenous ethnic groups legally recognised by the Chilean government.

A nomadic sea-faring people, in the early twentieth century they finally settled down on the Island of Wellington, some 3,000 kilometres south of Santiago, in the Chilean fjords.

Today, only seven speakers of Kaweshkar are left in Puerto Edén, the island’s small port village, which is considered one of the country’s most isolated inhabited places.

There are other Kaweshkar people in the more remote cities of Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas who understand the language. But they’re scattered individuals, so they don’t have a chance to speak it, Aguilera explained to IPS.

On Sept. 15, Aguilera and Tonko formally donated copies of the files containing the digital audio recordings in Kaweshkar to Chile’s public Bureau of Libraries, Archives and Museums (DIBAM).

Other copies were sent to three different university language centres in different parts of the world, which are devoted to preserving and studying native languages, namely the Archive of the Indigenous Languages of Latin America (AILLA) at the University of Texas at Austin, in the United States, the Cairns Institute of James Cook University, Australia, and the Centro de Estudios del Hombre Austral of the University of Magallanes in southern Chile.

The initiative to preserve the Kaweshkar language was started by Aguilera and Tonko – a member of the ethnic group – and implemented by a regional development foundation, Fundación para el Desarrollo de la XII Región. But it is now in the hands of the National Indigenous Development Board (CONADI) – the government agency responsible for indigenous affairs – which along with the regional government of Magallanes and the Chilean Antartic, which provides funding, will be the depositaries of the files.

Preserving the language is not the only aim of the Kaweshkar project, as it ultimately seeks to safeguard the cultural heritage of this ethnic group, in line with the administration of President Michelle Bachelet’s policy on indigenous peoples.

According to Aguilera the files are more than just a collection of audio recordings: they form a linguistic, historical and ethnographic body of information, with audio recordings of spoken Kaweshkar, music, photographs, videos, drawings, maps and diagrams, organised according to a metadata catalogue.

They include accounts of myths and travels, autobiographical texts, descriptions of animal and plant life, narratives of ancient and modern life, and information on production activities and religious rituals, among other aspects of Kaweshkar culture.

The files were built with information gathered from a Kaweshkar woman, Gabriela Paterito Caac, and two Kaweshkar men, Francisco Arroyo Sotomayor and Raúl Edén Ullos. The recordings were made in 2006 and 2007.

“We chose them because they are the three persons who know the most about the traditions” of the Kaweshkar people, Aguilera told IPS.

The ethnolinguist has spent three decades studying this ethnic group and publishing numerous books and articles on Kaweshkar literature and culture and the lexical, phonological and grammatical aspects of the language, and regularly travels abroad as a visiting scholar to different foreign universities.

Aguilera has been working with the Kaweshkar since 1975. At the time, the language of this ethnic group “was already on the verge of extinction and very little was known about its speakers, except for some relatively ‘new’ data available because of the great deal of vocabulary that was documented,” he recalled.

“The image people had of the Kaweshkar back then was that they still had not evolved past the upper Palaeolithic stage. What I found was a wholly different reality. There were few speakers, but their way of life was similar to that of the Chilote people, native to the Chiloé archipelago. They had already left their traditional way of life behind, but continued to speak the language,” Aguilera said.

According to the 2006 Socioeconomic Survey (CASEN) by the Ministry of Development and Planning, the Kaweshkar number around 2,000, representing 0.2 percent of Chile’s one million plus native peoples.

But Aguilera said only 200 descendants of this ethnic group actually remain, most of whom live in urban areas and “are monolingual Spanish speakers with no knowledge of their ancestral culture.”

The word Kaweshkar itself is the term used by this ethnic group to designate “men” in general.

The Kaweshkar hunted sea lions and otters and caught fish and shellfish for their livelihood, moving around the islands and channels between the Gulf of Penas and the Strait of Magellan in wooden canoes. They practised shamanism, and one of their most important ceremonies was the Kálakai, the initiation of boys and girls into adult life.

The men built canoes, hunted and fished, while the women wove baskets, made nets, processed animal hides and gathered shellfish.

Around 1930, the Kaweshkar started coming into contact with people of European descent more or less regularly, and gradually abandoned their traditional ways, according to a 2003 Report by the Commission for Historical Truth and New Treatment (or Deal) for Indigenous Peoples.

“The sound files are very important for our national heritage because this ethnic group is disappearing. The researchers have done a very diligent and thorough job of preserving the language,” Soledad Abarca, who directs DIBAM’s Archive of Oral Literature and Popular Traditions, told IPS.

“Our aim is to try to replicate this experience with other native groups and popular traditions,” Abarca said. The databank created by Aguilera, Tonko and two assistants is the first of its kind in the country.

For Aguilera, the work is far from finished. “The body of information still needs to be processed. It’s in Kaweshkar. It has to be transcribed and translated so that it can be used by people who don’t speak the language. José and I have published some work on the information gathered, but it only covers a tiny part of it,” Aguilera said.

Of the Kaweshkar Cultural Heritage collection they mean to put out, so far they have only been able to launch “The Story of the Woodpecker and His Wife, the Tiuque Woman” and “Kalau and Neighbouring Territories. A Study of Kaweshkar Geography”.

“By March we will have a third volume, consisting of a selection of Kaweshkar Travel Accounts. We’re halfway through another work on taboos, of which most people know nothing about, because nothing has been published on the subject yet,” he said.

In any case, all the transcriptions, translations and graphic material that is generated, including their scanned manuscripts, will be sent to the depositary institutions to update the archive.

Aguilera describes the efforts to preserve the linguistic heritage of native ethnic groups in Chile as “mediocre,” because all the information available is “scattered.” For anyone who’s not a specialist “it’s like diving into an ocean.”

The digitalisation of the works in the libraries has only just begun, and the publications written abroad on Chilean native languages – such as Ineke Smeets’ meticulous book “A Grammar of Mapuche”, on the language of Chile’s largest indigenous group – are not available in national libraries, he said.

As for the Kaweshkar culture, Aguilera also pointed to the need to compile a toponymy, as recording the names used by indigenous peoples to describe geographical places “would give us a detailed description of western Patagonia.”

“Unfortunately we don’t have financing for that. The worst thing is that this knowledge is very fragile, because once the people who hold it disappear, it will be lost forever,” he said.

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