Patagonia Indian tribe faces extinction

Wed Dec 10, 2008 10:29am EST
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By Simon Gardner

PUERTO EDEN, Chile (Reuters) - Hawking sea lion skin souvenir canoes at one of South America's most remote outposts, Francisco Arroyo is among the last members of a Patagonian tribe staring down the barrel of extinction.

The elderly Arroyo recalls wending the icy channels and fjords of southern Chile's Patagonia region with his father as a boy, tending a fire lit on dried earth on the bottom of their canoe and diving naked for giant mussels to survive.

With only an estimated 12-20 pure-blooded members of his nomadic Kawesqar tribe surviving, most of them elderly, another of the far-flung region's tribes will soon disappear.

"It ends with our generation," Arroyo said, huddling against chill wind and spitting rain in a polar fleece and hat on a wooden walkway that skirts the tiny fishing port of Puerto Eden on an island around 1,300 miles south of the capital, Santiago.

Arroyo does not know how old he is. A state census hazarded a guess, assigning him a birth date that makes him 66.

"We are old now. We can't go out in the channels any more. I am not sad. Life is easier now," he said in Spanish, as European tourists in bright orange life vests paid a lightning visit to the far-flung settlement of 120 people, reachable only by boat or helicopter.

He sold a few trinkets, earning less than $10.

His ancestors lived in their canoes, even sleeping and cooking in them, wearing nothing other than a piece of sea lion skin on their backs and smothering themselves in grease and fat when diving for food.   Continued...

<p>A view of the Rio Baker near the town of Cochrane, in the Chilean Patagonia region, some 1600 km (994 miles) south of Santiago, in this May 23, 2006 file photo. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado/Files</p>