Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino

Native peoples > Yámana

Social organization

The fundamental unit of Yaghan society was the family, which consisted of parents and children. The family was a closed, independent structure and the only clearly determined social grouping. It was the parents’ duty to educate their children in the ways of the tribe and according to its traditional social aims. Boys and girls were raised together up to the age of seven; after that, they were taught the special skills they required to fulfill their role in society.
The Yaghan society was primarily patrilocal; that is, a family usually lived near the husbands’ parents. Young men and women wishing to marry had to have undergone the Ciexaus initiation ceremony at least one week previously.
Yaghan marriage was based on affection and mutual respect. When a married woman died, her widower would take her sister as wife; conversely, a widow became the wife of her husband’s eldest brother upon his death. Yaghan society was generally monogamous, and most couples came from the same dialect group.
In marriage, men held the authority and were responsible for decisions affecting the whole family; but the women of the tribe governed their own activities and enjoyed equal rights. With no hierarchies, the community had no leader or chief; rather, the entire tribe was in charge of safeguarding their traditions.
The Yaghan were divided into local groups. Relations between them were generally peaceful, but violence did sometimes erupt when resources were limited. Differences were settled by force or through vengeance. Neighboring groups exchanged goods with each other and later with the Europeans who visited their region. Items such as weapons, clothing and baskets were considered personal property, while food and household items were collectively owned.