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Living Embers: Yaghan Art, Culture, and Bone Harpoons

Sawing a blank for a harpoon out of a massive chunk of blue whale baleen. Photo by Will Meadows
Sawing a blank for a harpoon out of a massive chunk of blue whale baleen. Photo by Will Meadows

What if thousands of years of your culture, your stories, your identity were reduced to ashes? What would you do? Martin Gonzalez, son of one of the last speakers and full-blooded Yaghan, Ursula Calderon, has a simple answer. Seek out the embers and ignite anew.

Perfecting the barb. Photo by Will Meadows
Perfecting the barb. Photo by Will Meadows

I sit with Martin on a simple beach wood workbench overlooking the Beagle Channel. We are literally sitting atop mounds of tools, art, and food remnants, buried in the ashes of fires his people made over thousand of years.

Many stories lie deep under the grass and wild flower covered mound shaped like a perfect place to build a shelter. Below us on the beach is the mandible of a blue whale he found on the southern part of Island Navarino, where he lives. Today, we are carving from the big white baleen, a harpoon of the same design of Martin’s ancestors. A design he learned by simply keeping his eyes open on the beach, pulling out ancient tools from the gray ashes.

The Yaghan are few, but they live. Of the few hundred living descendants, many have property near Puerto Williams in Villa Ukika, in Chile´s large southern Isla Navarino, what many call the ´End of the World´, being the southern most tip of South America.

Misconceptions abound about these people abound. For example, Yamana (meaning male) is used commonly as the name of the people, even by myself in my last article. They are Yaghan and have a long history of cultural shift; from nomadic canoeist to forceful assimilation, disease, and stripping of land and culture, what identity survives, like the ever persistent Coigue tree in the Patagonia wind, is inspiring.

Shaping a whale harpoon, Martin Gonzalez sits calmly as always. Photo by Will Meadows
Shaping a whale harpoon, Martin Gonzalez sits calmly as always. Photo by Will Meadows

Over the past month, I have had the honor of living and working with Martin and his family on their land on the northern beaches of Isla Navarino. The experiences I have everyday, harvesting bark, rush, and other natural materials to use in traditional art, reveal to me the intense relationship and knowledge of place.

Finding the whale skeleton, for example, shows how well Martin knows these lands. He knows the places they tend to beach, often incredibly remote, how long (more than 30 years) they take to weather away the aromatic oil to be hard enough to make good harpoons.

Fine tuning the tip of the harpoon. Photo by Will Meadows
Fine tuning the tip of the harpoon. Photo by Will Meadows

He revs the engine in Pepe II, a hand-built, red, wooden boat he uses to explore his homeland. This is the same vessel he used to sail around the treacherous Cape Horn, the same vessel he uses today to eat from the sea. We spend the morning taking sea urchin or checking crab nets.

Every meal contains a gift from the sea. The same sea we look over from the work bench where Martin teaches me to shape the harpoon. He tells me to take off a little more here or there. His eye knows well the design of the harpoon. The intuition of his eye is what he trusts. We cut with a knife, file it down, and slowly from the block of massive bone, a harpoon emerges.

The most beautiful work bench in the world. Photo by Will Meadows
The most beautiful work bench in the world. Photo by Will Meadows

“Our culture lives in our art”  Martin tells me as well look over the beach, watching the changes of animals, birds, tides. He considers his work art, but also a vessel for the stories of culture that were nearly lost. His mother was one of the last people to see the ritual space used for initiations in roughly 1930.

Now, in the forest behind his daughter´s house, he has built one with his grandchildren to rekindle those stories. We can see it through the trees on the other side of the beach where we sit and make harpoons. His grandson, a strong and curious 9-year-old, comes to sit. He takes a harpoon recently finished with the shape, and begins sanding it without a second thought. I can’t help but notice the calmness he shares with his grandfather when crafting. After sometime, it is smooth, it is ready, it is beautiful.

The wild climate of Tierra Del Fuego and its ever persistent Coigue trees, the same one in the background in films from 1910 about the Yaghan. Photo by Will Meadows
The wild climate of Tierra Del Fuego and its ever persistent Coigue trees, the same one in the background in films from 1910 about the Yaghan. Photo by Will Meadows

The harpoon was used by Martin´s ancestors to hunt seal lions. The spine would piece the skin and be caught in the barb. Trusted from bark canoes, this barb would separate from the pole and drag it sideways by a line. Rushing for safety and air, the seal lion would get tangled in kelp forests and drown beach side. This method fed families for millennium.

Today, Martin sells his works to travelers, museums, and anthropologists. Bark canoes, sea lion hunting, and many aspects of “traditional life” no longer exist. Yet is the story that different? It is still a story of human creativity. A story about turning the remnants of the world’s largest creature into a functional piece of art. It is the Yaghan story, and it survives today.

Finished harpoon on the workspace, completely integrated into the environment that birthed it. Photo by Will Meadows
Finished harpoon on the workspace, completely integrated into the environment that birthed it. Photo by Will Meadows

NEXT: What Happened to the Fires of Tierra Del Fuego?