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The Patagonian Canoe

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Extracts from E. Lucas Bridges book "Uttermost Part of the Earth. Indians of Tierra del Fuego" 1949, reprinted by Dover Publications, Inc (New York, 1988). The book is now out of print.uttermost.jpg (473495 bytes)

Lucas Bridges was a son of Thomas Bridges, a missionary who had the courage to establish a mission at Ushuaia in 1871, at a time where the Yamanas still lived their traditional lives. Lucas was born there in 1874, and as he grew up, played and worked with the natives, first the Yamanas, later the Onas. He spoke their languages and, as adult, witnessed the decline and extinction of these tribes. Near the end of his colourful life, he sat down to write an eye-witness account that is both fascinating and enlightening. I am typing out paragraphs that relate to the canoes and life of the Yamanas.

p.61: (a reference to the people that lived to the west of the Yamanas) The Alacaloof were a tribe of canoe Indians. They lived almost entirely on birds, seal, fish and limpets. As their neighbors (the Yamanas) they made bark canoes. They also made dug-outs, which were much larger than the bark canoes. Father found one that measured twenty-nine feet in length and well over three feet in depth. For these the Alacaloof used not only paddles, but also oars of primitive design, with wooden row-locks....Adventurers, both the Alacaloof and Yamanas, had passed around the Brecknock Peninsula in their canoes, and inter-marriages between the two tribes occurred from time to time.yamana_canoe2_small.jpg (2034 bytes)

p.63: There was a fair division of labour between the sexes. The men gathered fuel and fungus for food, while the women cooked, fetched water, paddled the canoes and fished. The men tended the fires, made and mended the canoes and prepared material for them. They also attended to the hunting - otter, seal, guanaco, foxes and birds - and speared the large fish. Being in charge of the canoes - for it was only on long journeys, or when in a hurry, that the men helped with the paddles - the women were also good swimmers, but it was a rare thing to find a male Yamana who could swim. The women were by no means slaves, for what they caught was their own. The husband used only what the wife gave him, and she did not ask his permission before making gifts to her friends.
Members of this tribe often lived in places where for many miles there were no beaches on which it was possible to haul up their canoes. They were compelled, therefore, to anchor them off the rocks in the best shelter to be found. This anchoring was done by the women. After the canoe was unloaded and the husband had gone up into the forest to collect fuel for the fire, the wife would paddle off in the canoe a few fathoms into the thick kelp (a large species of seaweed), which makes a splendid breakwater. She would grasp a handful of the kelp's rope-like branches and secure them to the canoe, which was thus safely anchored by their roots, then slip into the water, swim ashore and hasten to the fire to dry and warm herself.
The Yamana women swam like a dog and had no difficulty getting through the kelp....They learnt to swim in infancy, and were taken out yagan_girls.jpg (5182 bytes)by their mothers in order to get them used to it. In winter, when the kelp was coated with a film of frost, a baby girl out with her mother would sometimes make pick-a-back swimming difficult by climbing onto her parent's head to escape the cold water and frozen kelp.

p.65: Fires were also kept going in the canoes when they were in use. There was little danger. Seawater leaked through the seams and kept the interiors of the canoes perpetually damp. The fires were built on little heaps of sand and moist turf in the centres of the canoes. On reaching the night's camping-ground after a day in the canoes the Yamanas would carry embers or blazing torches ashore. When they re-embarked the following morning, or if women went off for a few hours' fishing, fire was carried back to the canoes. Thus, except when men hunting and passed the night away from home, it was rarely necessary to kindle a new fire.
There is another interesting point about the fires of the Fuegian Indians. In the the numberless shelteredyagan_boy.jpg (5946 bytes) nooks round the shores, at points where canoes could safely be beached, were Yamana families living in their wigwams. If a distant sail appeared, or anything else occurred to startle those who had remained at home, they would send out a warning to those away fishing by piling green branches or shrubs on the wigwam fire. At the sight of the black signal smoke the fishers would hurry back home. The early explorers of that archipelago would see the countless columns of smoke at short intervals for miles along the coast. felipe1.jpg (11789 bytes)This is doubtless the reason why they named those regions Tierra del Fuego. It is possible, however, that some tract of grassland on the northern part of the island may have been seen burning.

footnote on p.77: The Fuegians obtained nearly all their supplies of whale meat and blubber from stranded whales, which had either drifted ashore after falling victim to killer whales in deep water, or had been stranded in their desperate efforts to escape those fierce creatures. My father heard of only one occasion where the Yamana actually did a whale to death. A whole fleet of canoes was used, and the attack lasted over twenty-four hours.


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