A Chilean indigenous language vanishes as last native speaker dies

FILE PHOTO: The last woman from a tribe Yagan and speaker of this language, Cristina Calderon, 91, speaks during an interview with Reuters at her house in Ukika village, Puerto Williams, Chile May 17, 2019. Picture taken May 17, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Vega/File Photo

SANTIAGO (Reuters) – An indigenous language from South America’s extreme south has all but vanished after the death of its last living speaker and guardian of its ancestral culture.

Cristina Calderon died on Wednesday, aged 93. She had mastered the Yamana language of the Yagan community and after the death of her sister in 2003 was the last person in the world who could speak it. She worked to save her knowledge by creating a dictionary of the language with translations to Spanish.

“With her an important part of the cultural memory of our people is gone,” said Lidia Gonzalez, Calderon’s daughter, on Twitter. Gonzalez is one of the representatives currently drafting a new constitution in Chile.

The dictionary, however, meant there was hope of preserving the language in some form, she said.

“Although with her departure a wealth of especially valuable empirical knowledge is lost in linguistic terms, the possibility of rescuing and systematizing the language remain open,” she said.

Although there are still a few dozen Yagans left, over the generations people from the community stopped learning the language, which was considered “isolated” since it was difficult to determine the origin of its words.

Calderon lived in a simple house and made a living selling knitted socks in the Chilean town of Villa Ukika, a town created by the Yagan people on the outskirts of Puerto Williams.

The ancestral ethnic group used to populate the archipelagos of South America’s extreme south, now Chile and Argentina, an area which nudges towards the frozen Antarctic.

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