Cristina Calderón, the last of the line of the Yaghan people, died on February 16, 2022, aged 93.
The Yaghan were an amphibious people living half on the sea, and half on the land of Tierra del Fuego. They caught otters and fish from the frigid seas of the Southern Ocean, and worked as sheep shearers on the land when the weather was too bad to venture out in their bark canoes, which was often.
Cristina’s parents were Akacexanincis and his wife Lanixweliskipa, who changed their names to Juan Calderón and Carmen Harban to stop people laughing at their indigenous names. Among the 50 or 60 Yaghans now surviving, Cristina was the last of pure Yaghan blood – the last of the line.
I am telling this story because the death of a culture is always a sad occurrence but, for some reason, this one affected me more than all the National Geographic articles I have consumed over the years. It just struck me as sad.
Cristina was the last person who could remember men going out in bark canoes to row south through the Beagle Channel (named after Charles Darwin’s ship), their naked torsos coated with seal fat against the freezing cold. She remembered going hunting herself in a boat, learning to stone seagull chicks without feeling sorry for them, because God, Watauineiwa, had made them to be eaten. Sailing past the ice flows, she either avoided looking at the chicks, or painted her face black, out of respect, for the Yaghan believed they were as wise as human beings. On land, in the woods, she ran fast because of Hannus, the giant ape-man who lived there. She wore shoes made of fur from the Guanaco, a creature like a llama, and ate berries cooked in seal oil, which were a treat – the last of the line.
The reason we know all this, and a great deal more about the Yaghan people, is that Cristina and her granddaughter devoted years of their lives to documenting Yaghan history, language and legends. They built on the work of Thomas Bridges who, in the nineteenth century catalogued the Yaghan language for the first time; in all 32,400 words. However, the two Cristinas went much further, by making many recordings of the complicated language, and producing a Yaghan/Spanish dictionary: The language is unusual in that it not only has normal descriptive words but, also words that portray complicated emotions, like mamihlapinatapai, which means “a look between two people”. In 2005 the older Cristina published a book of Yaghan legends.
The Chilean Government did not treat the Yaghan well in the years after independence from Spain, moving them to smaller and smaller living areas. However, eventually they recognized the Yaghan for what they were, and designated them a National Treasure. UNESCO followed by declaring Cristina herself a treasure for the whole of humanity – the last of the line. Unfortunately, none of these recognitions did anything to halt the decline of the Yaghan people.
Cristina left her language on recordings, and her books in libraries. There was nothing more she could do. She had been orphaned at six, worked hard throughout her life, brought up nine children, took three partners and left the Yaghan legacy for the future. She had doe more than her share.
In very old age, she would sit knitting, amid a pile of crochet cushions in the fine wooden house she had been given by the Chilean Government, as recognition of her status as the last of the line of Yaghans. As she gazed from her window out across the Beagle Channel, she still saw the distant shapes of bark canoes setting out to fish…….I hope.