Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino

Native peoples > Kawashkar

Beliefs and funeral rites

The Kawésqar cosmovision was based on the people’s belief in a solitary and independent supreme being, Xolás. The creator of everything, including traditions and morals, Xolás was thought to direct the lives of human beings. The people also believed in other spirits, such as Ayayema, an evil spirit present at all stages of a person’s life. Associated with stench, this spirit was thought to wander the world bringing ill fortune, disease and death. Dreams were seen as the link between this world and “the beyond”. Kawésqar morality was based on the principle that ‘each person is first of all his own neighbor’.

The Kawésqar’s ‘kalakai’ initiation rite was a coming of age ceremony for both men and women. Its aim was to complete parental education, providing intensive moral and practical instruction in the skills an adult would need to live an independent life. Initiation candidates, aged between 14 and 18, gathered with their families in a large dwelling. An individual, usually an elder, was selected to conduct the ceremony, teaching the moral codes handed down by Xolás. The event usually took place when a whale had beached on the shore, providing ample food for all participants for the duration of the ceremony, which could last between six and ten weeks. The Kawésqar also had a secret men-only ceremony, similar to the Yaghan’s Kina ceremony.

The Kawésqar tribe’s shaman, witch-doctor or medicine man was called the Owurkan. He was called upon to cure illness, to predict the weather and to provide spiritual guidance. Minor illnesses were treated within the family, with the Owurkan only being sent for when symptoms were severe.

An individual close to death was taken to a comfortable place to spend his or her final days. When the death occurred, it was met with wails and laments, and a slowing down of normal daily activities. The corpse was laid out, wrapped in leather, and buried face down near the dwelling in a grave about 20cm (8 inches) deep and covered with branches, leaves and rocks. The deceased’s belongings were burned and the burial site avoided from then on as a place of ill fortune.