Earlier this month, on September 8th, the Kawashkar people of Chile signed an agreement with CONADI (Chile’s Indigenous development corporation) and the Universidad de Magallanes with the goal of saving their culture from extinction. According to the 2002 Chilean Census, there are approximately 2,600 individuals who identify as Kawashkar in Chile, but of those only 24 are considered full-blooded Kawashkar and only 9 are fluent in their traditional language. According to the reports, the idea for the agreement originated with the Kawashkar people who feared their culture, language and traditions would be lost forever if action was not taken quickly.
The agreement that was signed on September 8th, is a comprehensive plan with three main objectives:
- To promote sustainable development of the Kawashkar people.
- To generate and record information about the Kawashkar people.
- To preserve the culture and language of the Kawashkar people.
According to Jorge Retamal, the National Director of CONADI, “The significance of this agreement comes from the complete participation of the Kawashkar community as it is an initiative they brought to our offices in Magellan, and in which we will address numerous topics such as cultural rescue, language rescue, health, and current issues such as energy and the socio-economic model needed to preserve an ethnic group on the brink of extinction.”
Members of the Kawashkar community also commented on the events of the day. Juan Carlo Tonko, a community member, said, “It’s the first time that the Government is recognizing that we have something extremely valuable for the country.” Carlo also noted that it was very meaningful to have the National Director of CONADI come personally and sign the agreement about the future of the Kawashkar people.
Another community member, Gabriela Paterito, summed up the importance and urgency of the moment by expressing that there is a need for young people to learn the Kawashkar language. “I do not want to lose my language and I don’t know if my grandchildren want to learn, but I’m not going to forget until I die and I’ll never stop talking.” Paterito has acted on this concern and recorded hours and hours of her Native tongue for CONADI and the rest of the world.
Traditionally, the Kawashkar people were a nomadic people who lived near the ocean — predominantly between the Gulf of Penas to the Magellan Strait. Today, those who identify as Kawashkar are concentrated primarily in the city of Puerto Edén, but with significant numbers in Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas as well.