Recovering the world’s southernmost indigenous culture in Chile

Puerto Williams, a navy town on the southern shore of Beagle Channel, is the last town before before the end of the Americas. It is also home to the last remaining descendants of the Yaghan people, who have populated this region for over 6,000 years.


Hemmed in by the jagged peaks of the Teeth of Navarino mountains and the chill water of the Beagle Channel, Puerto Williams’s population of 2,000 includes the last 70 descendants of the Yaghan people. Today, the combined efforts of the community and the National Council on Culture and the Arts are working to preserve this ancient culture for the future.
The History of the Yaghans

For at least 6,000 years the indigenous Yaghan people sailed the dark, cold waters at the tip of the Americas. The southernmost indigenous community on earth, the Yaghans had adapted their bodies to the cold, clothed in little more than loincloths and using seal fat to insulate themselves from the cold. Men hunted seals and whales for food and raw materials, while women swam and dove in the frigid water to collect shellfish. Swimming and diving were skills passed only between the generations of women.

The Yaghans lived a nomadic existence, rowing the waterways south of the Beagle Channel in canoes made either from strips of beech bark or hollowed out tree trunks. Within these canoes and in temporary settlements on land the Yaghans kept fires burning almost constantly. Ferdinand Magellan, the first European to sail through the region, saw the flames on his early 16th century voyage. They eventually lent the region its name: Tierra del Fuego, or Land of Fire.
The 19th and early 20th centuries brought European adventurers, hunters and missionaries. Charles Darwin passed here en route to the Galapagos, while others came in search of gold, sea lions and converts. The short-lived gold rush of 1890-1895 brought fortune seekers and the scrutiny of the Chilean government to the Austral Islands.

In 1855 the Yaghan population was estimated at 3,000 individuals. By 1930, the time of Chile’s first permanent settlement on Isla Navarino, the population had declined to about 70, primarily as a result of foreign diseases like consumption borne by the clothing introduced by missionaries. Though at this time many Yaghans maintained their nomadic lifestyle, over the following decades the majority would settle at the ancestral ceremonial grounds at Bahía Mejillones, or the Bay of Mussels, adapting gradually to the new cultural climate set by growing numbers of European migrants.

The current town of Puerto Williams was founded in 1953 along with the village of Villa Ukika, a plot of land reserved for descendants of the Yaghan people. In 1974 the last Yaghan resident of Mejillones moved to Villa Ukika. An estimate by the National Commission for Indigenous Development (Conadi) in 2000 counted around 90-100 Yaghan decendents. Today 78-year-old Abuela (or grandmother) Cristina Calderón is both the only living pure blooded descendant of the Yaghan people and the only speaker of the Yaghan tongue.

Resuscitating the Culture

Though the living Yaghans are no longer nomadic and few have participated in the ancient initiation ceremony of Ciéxaus, new initiatives within the community, supported by the National Council for Culture and the Arts, are working to ensure that Yaghan language and identity persist.

For visitors to Puerto Williams, the Martin Gusinde Museum, named for the Austrian scientist who documented the people of the region in his book “Indians of the Tierra del Fuego,” offers a comprehensive history of Yaghan culture. Artifacts and photos accompany displays on the culture, religion, language and history of the Yaghans, with an exceptional English-language guidebook providing translations, excerpts from historic texts and additional information.

Yaghan culture lives on in the settlement of Villa Ukika, about a 15 minute walk from the center of Puerto Williams along the coastal road and separated from town by a low hill and a small river running north from the mountains to the Channel. Most of the Yaghan community lives here and subsists on fishing, livestock, construction or other industries on the island. Patricio Chiguay, who has lived his whole life on Navarino, works as a carpenter, but says “we’re all artisans in this community, too.”

Like his ancestors, Chiguay whittles harpoons from whale bones and builds miniature canoes of wood and bark. His uncle, Segundo Navarro, who raises livestock in the area, carves spearheads from local black stone. A small wooden house at the center of the settlement sells these handicrafts to the slowly increasing stream of tourists that passes through the area.

Since August, 30 members of the community—16 adults, 14 children—have participated in a workshop designed to preserve the Yaghan language for the next generation, led by Abuela Cristina and her granddaughter, Cristina Zárraga.

María Francesca Aguilar, one of the program’s coordinators at the Council for Culture and the Arts office in Punta Arenas, says “[the workshop] teaches students phrases and words like the colors…the idea is to help familiarize the students with their heritage.”

Languages and cultures in remote corners of the world disappear daily, but here at the final point of the Americas, the Yaghan community, with support from the National Council for the Arts, is working to ensure that theirs will not be among them.
If you are thinking of visiting Puerto Williams, contact the offices of DAP Airlines or of ferry service Transbordadora Austral Broom, who both run services out of Punta Arenas. Other operators run transfers across the Channel from the Argentine city of Ushuaia.

This post is also available in Spanish