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'Grandma' Cristina, Lone Surviving Voice Of Yaghan Language

Calderon in 2014
Calderon in 2014
Benjamin Witte

VILLA UKIKA — Just outside of Puerto Williams, the world's southernmost city, lives an extraordinary woman. This far-flung outpost on Chile's Tierra del Fuego, across the Straight of Magellan, is quiet literally at the end of the earth. And at 89, Cristina Calderón is nearing the end of her life — when she will take an entire language with her.

Locals call her "abuela" (grandmother, in Spanish), which isn't surprising given the many offspring, and offspring of offspring she has. But Calderón is more than just the mother of seven surviving children, 14 grandchildren and numerous great-grandchildren, the Chilean radio station ADN reports. She's the last full-blooded representative of an entire people, the Yaghan, which have inhabited the area on and around Tierra del Fuego — the far southern tip of South America — for millennia.

Since the death of her sister several years ago, Calderón is also considered the last surviving native speaker of the Yaghan language. "There are others who understand it. But they don't know it like I do," she told a group of reporters earlier this month in Villa Ukika, the village where she lives with some of the few hundred Yaghan descendants thought to still remain.

Little wonder that in 2009 the Chilean government recognized Calderón as a "Living Human Treasure," a distinction UNESCO encourages for people "who possess to a high degree the knowledge and skills required for performing or re-creating specific elements of the intangible cultural heritage." She was later honored as "an illustrious daughter" of the country's Region of Magallanes and Chilean Antarctica.

The Yaghan were once a nomadic people who traveled by canoe, fished and hunted seals around Tierra del Fuego and the archipelago of Cape Horn. Their days of fishing are over, but Calderón and others in Villa Ukika do still use traditional techniques to weave baskets and blankets, and build replica canoes.

There were an estimated 3,000 Yaghan in the mid-19th century, when Europeans first began to colonize the area. A census conducted in 2002 put the population at just under 1,700.

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