Friday, June 18

Puerto Williams: The coronavirus reached the southernmost town in the world and, paradoxically, revitalized its culture and economy | Science


On March 21, 2020, the first coronavirus contagion was registered in Puerto Williams, a small Chilean city known for being the southernmost urban center in the world and where the Yagan indigenous people have lived for 7,000 years. Two days later, the authorities closed the maritime and air borders, reduced economic activity to the essentials and ordered strict confinements. The restrictions helped revitalize some indigenous cultural practices that had long been in danger of disappearing, such as crafts and the native language. The quarantine also helped strengthen intergenerational ties so that children and young people re-identified as indigenous. This has been revealed by an investigation recently published in Maritime Studies, one of the most important scientific journals in the world in the field of social sciences and humanities.

Map of the southernmost city in the world
Map of the southernmost city in the world

The study documented the lifestyles of the 94 members of the Yagan community in Puerto Williams during the harshest months of the pandemic. Gustavo Blanco, a professor at the Institute of History and Social Sciences of the Austral University of Chile and main author of the work, says that the confinement strengthened the relationship between the oldest leaders of the community and the new generations. This communication helped “to resume fiber and palm handicraft practices that were about to die,” says Blanco. “When you have to stay locked up at home for months, you have the opportunity to get to know parts of your culture that are being lost and see how you recover them.”

María Luisa Muñoz, president of one of the associations of the Yagan people in Puerto Williams, agrees with Blanco. His own experience is an example of the success of these revitalization processes: “In our quarantine we went back to living a bit like our ancestors, we recovered our relationship with animals, with nature and with our roots,” says Muñoz. And he continues: “I was able to teach my grandchildren the art of basket weaving. We would go out to collect the reeds and return home to weave the baskets as our ancestors did ”.

Images of the baskets made by the Yagán indigenous people
Images of the baskets made by the Yagán indigenous people Yagan Community

The recovery of ancestral handicraft techniques has become a form of employment that, in addition to protecting the cultural legacy, guarantees certain economic resources for the survival of the families who lost their jobs during confinement, many related to tourism. In fact, in March 2021, a year after the first covid case in Puerto Williams, the Yagan community organized intensive workshops for more children to perfect their reed weaving techniques. “For a month, they were able to learn from the most experienced mothers and grandmothers all the steps of craftsmanship, from the search for the palm, the preparation of vegetable fiber in the fire, to the use of baskets for the collection of shellfish and other seafood ”, says another community leader in a statement posted on social networks.

As in the rest of the world, the confinement in Puerto Williams also accelerated the forms of digital communication that made it possible to forge ties with other indigenous peoples of America and with people from the Yagan community living abroad. Out of those conversations by Zoom and Meet, which before the pandemic were infrequent, emerged the language recovery project. Muñoz says that before the Spanish colonization, the Yagan people were made up of 4,000 people who spoke five different dialects. Today only a language survives that very few speak. “Some grandmothers know the language and the pandemic served to teach it to their children and grandchildren. We don’t want to let it die. That is why we are working with a Yagan linguist who lives in Europe to create an alphabet and a manual to help us write in our language and teach it in community schools ”, says Muñoz.

“Some grandmothers know the language and the pandemic served to teach it to their children and grandchildren. We don’t want to let it die. That is why we are working with a Yagan linguist who lives in Europe to create an alphabet “

With the same purpose of preserving the ancestral culture, the community leaders had already collected at the end of 2019 the testimonies and experiences of all the elders of the community in the book My grandparents told me, which they launched with the support of the Catholic University of Chile. The pandemic put the book presentation events on hold, but as restrictions were relaxed, the Yagán were able to organize events.

These ways of revitalizing culture, says Professor Blanco, show that “when it seems that everything is paralyzed in times of quarantine and social withdrawal, in reality there are issues that multiply and others that accelerate, unleashing new experiences of knowledge.” In the conclusions of the work, which was done in alliance between the Center for Dynamic Research of Marine Ecosystems of High Latitudes (IDEAL) the Austral University of Chile (UACh) and the Martín Gusinde Anthropological Museum in Puerto Williams, it reads: “If there is Some lesson to learn in these difficult times is that there is no single, linear way of understanding the effects of the virus; although it brings restrictions, threats and death, it is also ushering in new forms of political action, new forms of communication and new stories for the future.

Muñoz qualifies the conclusions of the study a bit. Fortunately, the coronavirus has only caused one death in the community, but it was that of one of its most beloved leaders: “The virus has hurt us, we would never have wanted it to reach our community, we are very sorry for the death of the artisan Martín González” , Explain. But he adds: “You have to get the positive side out of the pandemic. It has been a way of revitalizing our culture and has allowed actions of cooperation and solidarity ”.

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