JIT DESTRUCTION of a language, a culture and the independence of a people can be done quickly, with an adventurous raid or virus. Most often it is a process of slow decline, over decades or centuries, caused by miscegenation and indifference. Foreign and modern manners prove more attractive; old traditions come to seem primitive, even shameful; children refuse to learn or say complicated words. Thus culture disappears, and with it a world that no other people knew.
Cristina Calderón was the last representative of her world, the Yaghan people of Tierra del Fuego, at the stormy southern tip of South America. She was the last person who remembered men going out in bark canoes to row south through the Beagle Channel, their bare chests smeared with seal grease against the freezing cold. She remembered going hunting herself in a boat, learning how to stone gull chicks without feeling sorry for them; because God, Watauineiwa, had made them to be eaten, just as he had decided to take his grandfather when he was struck in the stomach by a “Spaniard”. Passing in front of the ice floes, she avoided looking at them or painted her face black, out of respect, because they were as wise as human beings. In the woods, she ran fast because of Hanus, the giant ape-man who lived there. She wore shoes made of guanaco fur, a llama-like creature, and ate berries cooked in seal oil, which was a treat.
The Yaghan were an amphibious people, living half on the sea, fishing otters and fish, and half on land, working as sheep shearers, akalis or huts made of boards and corrugated iron. She was born in such a hut of Lanixweliskipa and her husband Akacexanincis, Yaghans who had already changed their names to Carmen Harban and Juan Calderón. White people wouldn’t laugh at them then. When Charles Darwin passed in the mid-19th century, the Yaghans numbered about 3,000. By the time she was born in 1928, there were about 100, still clinging to the old ways. Gradually, however, they began to move to a more sedentary life in Bahía Mejillones, the bay of mussels, where she grew up and where they could earn a living by catching shellfish. In the waters beyond the Beagle Channel, gliding between fjords and glaciers, they had known freedom, harsh as it was. But to settle permanently was to die little by little.
During her long life – during which she was orphaned at six, took on three partners, lost the best of them to lung disease and had nine children, two of whom died prematurely – his people were squeezed by the Chilean government into a small space, possibly Villa Ukika near Puerto Williams. There they lived in better homes, but as a residual people. Of the fifty or so surviving Yaghans, “Abuela Cristina” was the last pure-blooded Yaghan.
As such, she was an object of affectionate curiosity to the world. Reporters searched for her, dragging the stocky figure in her chunky woolen leggings and cardigans as she knitted socks, her main source of income, or struggled against the endless wind to pluck rushes to weave into traditional baskets . She seemed vulnerable at times in her loneliness, the last of the line. But appearances were deceiving. Just as she fiercely resisted the elements, she fought to pass on her language and culture.
For her first nine years, she had only spoken Yaghan. It was a vast language, cataloged by Thomas Bridges in the 19th century at 32,400 words. Many offered a small snapshot of Yaghan’s life: Ilan Tashata for the fierce southern winter storm, carrying snow, which blew on the night of its birth; Tuock Ollafor the act of hiring a man to carve bone to make spearheads. Some were extraordinarily concise or picked up nuances that other languages didn’t even try: mamiehlapinatapai meant “a gaze between two people, each expecting the other to do something they both want but neither dares to begin”. His own favorite words were two of the simplest: Januarythe moon and lampthe sun.
Until Bridges, no one had tried to write them; it was not a literate society. And until she accepted the task, no one did anything more to save her. She and her granddaughter, Cristina Zárraga, spent years compiling a Yaghan-Spanish dictionary, leading language workshops and making recordings on which she spoke the melodious words. In 2005 she also published a book of legends Yaghan. Although her family was of mixed race and the younger members had no interest in learning the language, they encouraged her as she was still the heart of the community, carrying the Yaghan fire.
She didn’t pretend that the past had been perfect. Life had been hard, so far south they almost touched Antarctica. It was also socially primitive. Men and women were supposed to be equal, but she was forced at age 15 to marry a man several years her senior, whom she did not know. When she protested, she was told that marriage was the only thing that could guarantee her food, clothes and a peaceful life; and she took this to be true, as she remembered an unmarried aunt and sister who regularly went naked.
Yet Yaghan society was democratic, in a way. There were no leaders. Nor was there education except at the feet of the shamans, and little entertainment except the round of initiations and burials. She treasured a photograph of her father as a handsome young man in mourning, with his face painted and his pure white headdress made of wild goose feathers. Such things had not been seen for a very long time.
At a very old age, she was knitting amidst a pile of crocheted cushions in the beautiful white wooden house given to her by the Chilean government. After years of suppressing the Yaghans, he had now declared it a national treasure. UNESCO proclaimed it a treasure for all mankind. She was always weaving her baskets, to show how it was done. She had left her language on recordings and her books in libraries. There was hardly anything more she could do. As she gazed out of her windows across the Beagle Channel, she could still see the distant shapes of bark canoes resting on the water. ■
This article appeared in the Obituaries section of the print edition under the headline “Last of the Line”