Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino

Native peoples > Yámana


The names ‘Yaghan’ and ‘Yámana’ are based on words from the tribe’s language: yámana means ‘man’ (as opposed to kipa, meaning woman), and yagán or yaghan means ´us´. By 1973 the Yaghan language was the only significant indigenous trait still surviving, and it was dwindling towards extinction.
The tribe’s first sporadic contact was with European sailors in the 16th Century. Missionary groups arrived in the following century. Thus began the transformation of the Yaghan’s traditional way of life, through evangelization and the incorporation of new patterns of living brought by the outsiders – principally a change in diet and the abandonment of their former nomadic lifestyle.
New kinds of visitor began arriving in the eighteenth century: scientific expeditions, whalers, and sea lion hunters. The fur trade was the economic driving force behind this flow of visitors, with pelts of the native otters and sea lions being particularly prized. As these animals had been a major food source for the Yaghan people for generations, the natives were experts in hunting them. The foreigners found the natives to be the easiest means of access to the region’s resources, and the fur traders either recruited them as guides and assistants or traded with them, bartering skins for items of little commercial value but highly prized by the Yaghan.
Women in Yaghan society were seen not only as sexual companions and a source of domestic labor, but also as valuable workers for their shellfish collecting and hunting abilities.
In 1843, the Government of Chile ruled over the Strait of Magellan region and began to found cities, bringing increased sea traffic through the strait and the nearby Beagle Channel. To the Yaghan people this meant unceasing contact with the outside world. Tribal groups took refuge in Puerto Remolinos, Argentina, and Bahía Mejillones, Chile. They were moved away from the latter site when it was established as a Chilean naval base, and by the 1970s most had been moved to Villa Ukika.
The government’s aim was to bring the tribal people closer to services such as healthcare, policing and education, a move that had a profound impact on Yaghan acculturation. However, in 1992 the Navarino Island Yámana Community (Comunidad Yámana de Navarino) was formed to resuscitate the tribe’s history and culture and to help this poverty-stricken and marginalized indigenous group.
With this aim, traditional handicrafts were revived, including reed basket weaving and tree bark and sea lion skin canoemaking. Other activities include the gathering and sale of seafood products such as spider crab and Chilean snow crab, and small boat building and repair.
Although most Yaghan customs have been lost through the adoption or imposition of Western culture, in 2002 a total of 1685 Chileans (0.24% of the country’s indigenous population) identified themselves as members of the group.