Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino

Native peoples > Kawashkar


The word Kawésqar means ‘men of skin and bone’, and is the name used to refer to a subgroup of the Alacalufe people. In the mid– 1940s, most Kawésqar spoke their native tongue and were only able to communicate with Spanish speakers through interpreters. Three decades later a ‘bilingual’ system was imposed on the group that made Spanish the main language and severely restricted the use of the indigenous language. Today, Kawésqar is spoken only in private, when outsiders are not present.
The Kawesqars’ first contact with Western civilization came in 1526, when explorer Jofré de Loaysa’s expedition reached their territory. Their population remained at around 4,000 until the end of the eighteenth century. With the founding of Fuerte Bulnes in 1843, however, Chile began to exercise its possession by colonizing the area, which included the Magallanes region and the southern islands.
From that time onward the Kawésqar were in constant contact with colonists, who brought both conflict and infectious diseases to which the natives had no immunity. By the end of the century, the indigenous group’s population had dwindled to around 500 people.
By 1925, there were only 150 native Kawésqar left. In 1940, the Chilean government approved the Kawésqar Protection Law, which forced the relocation of the entire population to Puerto Edén, on Wellington Island. This made the people dependent upon assistance from the Central Government, hindering any effective process of acculturation.
The Kawésqar population continued to decline, from 100 in 1946 to just 60 in 1953; by 1971, a mere 47 had survived. The harsh living conditions in Puerto Edén prompted many of the surviving Kawésqar to move to Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas in 1995. These ‘city Kawésqar’ lived by selling handicrafts, working in fishing and shellfish-gathering collectives, and receiving state benefits.
Chile’s Indigenous Peoples Law recognizes the Kawésqar ethnicity among several groups whose cultural heritage and rights must be preserved and protected. The 2002 census registered 2622 Kawésqar people, representing 0.38% of the country’s indigenous population.