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article imageReview: 'Rosa Yagan', a Native American woman from the end of the world Special

By Igor I. Solar     Aug 18, 2014 in Entertainment
Puerto Williams - Rosa Yagan, an aboriginal woman belonging to the southernmost ethnic group on the planet, spent her infancy and youth as her nomadic ancestors, with their language and ancient customs. Her story is told in the book "Rosa Yagan, the last link".
One autumn morning 31 years ago, at Villa Ukika in the farthest edge of South America, died Rosa Milicic, known as "Grandma Rosa". Many elderly die every day around the world. But Rosa was not just any aged person. She was the only remaining representative of a pure race that populated the islands of the region at the end of the continent who lived in the manner of her ancestors, with their rites and customs, and one of the last speakers of their language.
With the death of Grandma Rosa, the lineage of the Yaghan, and a way of life according to the ancient customs prior to the loss of their cultural identity as an authentic indigenous race, became extinct.
Ethnic groups of the Chilean Patagonia and Argentina
Four ethnic groups inhabited for millennia the southernmost region of the continent. The Ona (Selk'nam) were gradually exterminated during the second half of the 19th century in "official wars" declared by settlers and ranchers against the natives of Tierra del Fuego. The last ethnic Selk'nam died in the mid-twentieth century. The Tehuelches and Alacalufes (Kawésqar) gradually intermarried and no longer exist as a pure caste. And lastly, the Yaghan, a tribe of brave canoeist seafarers who lived in the farthest reaches of the Patagonia and who battled the southern seas for over 10,000 years. At present, there is only one person left who speaks the language, but who has had a full process of transculturation.
Who were the Yaghan and where they lived?
Location of Puerto Williams on Navarino Island  Tierra del Fuego  Chile.
Location of Puerto Williams on Navarino Island, Tierra del Fuego, Chile.
The Yaghan, also known as Yámana, were an ethnic group that according to various theories migrated from Asia to the southernmost tip of South America, the islands between the Beagle Channel and Cape Horn, between 16,000 to 6,000 years ago. They were of short stature, with narrow and sunken forehead and prominent cheekbones. They adapted well to a hostile and daunting environment. They were nomadic, excellent navigators who practically lived on-board their canoes made of oak bark.
Women were competent divers who collected crabs and shellfish from the ocean bottom while men skillfully used spears and arrows to hunt sea-lions, otters and whales. In times of ocean storms they sought refuge in the islands inside conical cabins made with tree branches and covered with furs tied with leather straps. While camping inland they ate guanaco meat, penguins and other birds, as well as mushrooms, berries and eggs.
Yaghan indians on a canoe (1898).
Yaghan indians on a canoe (1898).
They preferred living on the beaches, avoiding wooded mountains full of evil spirits. They believed in one God, Watauineiwa, an intangible, gracious and righteous being who dwells in heaven, is the master of creation, and who provides food. Sometimes Watauineiwa would appear in the sky after a storm, in the shape of a semi-circle of different colors between the mountains and the sea, calming the sea to allow the natives to navigate and find their food.
Group of Yaghan (Yamana) indians. Picture taken in Ushuaia  Argentina.
Group of Yaghan (Yamana) indians. Picture taken in Ushuaia, Argentina.
The arrival of Civilization
When civilization came to Tierra del Fuego in the mid-19th century, the Yaghan were still practically living in the Stone Age. The aborigines learned many new things, but the encounter with Europeans was fatal to them. In the period of almost a century the Yaghan were decimated by measles, syphilis and alcoholism. In 1860 there were about three thousand Yaghan. In 1946 there were only 63, most of them mestizos.
Rosa Yagan, the last of her race
Rosa was born circa 1900 in Lakuta Bay, near Cape Horn. Her original name was Lakutaia le Kipa; however, Anglican missionaries baptized her with the name Rosa Yagán. Nonetheless, Rosa always felt and lived as a native Yaghan. She learned to respect her elders, she heard of Watauineiwa, understood the ancestral secrets and the legends of the evil spirits of the mountains and the forest. She lived and traveled the seas as her ancestors; she ate the meat of otters, sea lions and whales; she hunted birds and collected shellfish.
During the years in which her race was disappearing, Rosa saw fulfilled the prophecies of the elderly. The day came when men flew like birds (airplanes appeared in the Patagonian sky) and the day came when a voice spoke to the natives from a shell (they listened to the radio and watched TV).
One day she met Lanamutekensh, also a pure-blood ethnic Yaghan. When his mother died, his father gave him to a Croatian miner who called him José, and gave him his surname, Milicic. José and Rosa met, fell in love and had a relationship that lasted many years. They lived on huts between the channels, navigated as their ancestors, ate penguins and guanacos. They never had children. José Milicic died an old man in Navarino Island.
Left alone, Rosa settled in Villa Ukika, the last Yaghan hamlet near a base of the Chilean Navy in Puerto Williams. There, simply and coherently, she evoked the past and recounted memories of her long life. In the early 80's she developed a lung sickness. Although she received treatment at the hospital in Punta Arenas, her health did not improve. Rosa spent her final days at her home in Ukika “invoking prayers to the rainbow, which is like praying to God." On the morning of April 5, 1983, the death of Grandma Rosa meant the extinction of her ancient race.
Rosa Yagán  the last full-blooded member of the Yagan indigenous group who lived as her ancestors. ...
Rosa Yagán, the last full-blooded member of the Yagan indigenous group who lived as her ancestors. Photographed in Villa Ukika, Puerto Williams, in the far south of Chile. She died two years after the picture was taken.
Narciso López Lantadilla Daniel
The Book "Rosa Yagan, the last link"
During her last years of life, Grandma Rosa told her story to her friend the writer Patricia Stambuk-Mayorga. Patricia wrote Rosa’s memories and reflections in first-person narrative in her book, "Rosa Yagán, el útimo eslabón.” The book, which first edition was published in Spanish in 1986, is considered a classic of Chilean indigenous literature. "Rosa Yagán" has been translated into three languages, English, Mandarin Chinese and Croatian. The English edition was
Cover of the English Edition of  Rosa Yagán  the last link .
Cover of the English Edition of "Rosa Yagán, the last link".
published in 1998 under the title "Rosa Yagan, the last link" (Hardcover, ISBN 9789567825004). Unfortunately, at present the English version is extremely rare.
In the Presentation of her book Patricia Stambuk says:
"(Rosa Yagán) shows her dignity and pride in every sentence; the inexorable fate of racial minorities of the world, and the richness of life of her caste, the southernmost and most primitive people on Earth.
She is not the last link in the Darwinian sense, that is, one that can unite the human succession to the animal chain without anyone objecting. It is in the sense of the final version of a dramatic stage in the life of a race, because she, Rosa Yagán, was the last to live what she lived and was the last able to say what she said."
Recently (August 17, 2014), Patricia Stambuk was incorporated to the Chilean Language Academy representing the city of Viña del Mar. I talked with Patricia about her book and about Rosa Yagán’s position as the last person representing the southernmost indigenous people of the planet.
Igor I. Solar: Why is Rosa Yagán considered the last representative of the lineage of the Yaghan people?
Patricia Stambuck: Rosa was the last and only remaining person who lived in her childhood and adolescence in the manner of the canoe-riding Yaghan nomads, and she was a link between the old way of life and modern life. Although there were Missions at the time in the area, European immigrants, modern clothing, livestock farming, and so on, it was a world in rapid transculturation. Rosa was the very last individual having firsthand knowledge about the last stages of the ancient life of her ethnic culture.
IIS: How Rosa Yagán differs from Cristina Calderón who is credited with being the last remaining survivor of the Yaghan culture?
PS: Cristina is the last surviving pure-bred Yaghan. And she is also the last speaker of the Yaghan language. However, her children can understand, but do not speak the language or speak it with limitations. Nevertheless, both Cristina (who, for example, does not like to navigate) and her sister Ursula (now deceased), being Yaghan, are in a much more advanced stage of transculturation. They did not live according to the way of life of the ancient Yaghan and lack the cultural memories that Rosa had until her death.
The town of Puerto Williams  on Navarino Island  at the end of the South American continent.
The town of Puerto Williams, on Navarino Island, at the end of the South American continent.
Sources in Spanish:
Gobernación Antartica
More about Rosa Yagan, Yaghan ethnic group, Native American indians, Navarino Island, Chilean Patagonia
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