Once spread throughout much of Patagonia, the Tehuelche, whose name, meaning “brave people”, is derived from the language of the Chilean Araucanian groups, actually consisted of three different tribes – the Gününa’küna, Mecharnúek’enk and Aónik’enk – each of whom spoke a different language but shared common bonds of culture. Great intertribal parliaments were held occasionally, but any alliances formed would be temporary, and sporadic intertribal warfare broke out.

Culture and religion

The Tehuelche’s nomadic culture – centred on the hunting of rhea and guanaco – had probably existed for well over 3000 years by the time Magellan landed on Patagonian soil, but contact with Europeans soon brought change. By 1580, Sarmiento de Gamboa had reported use of the horse by the Tehuelche, and by the early eighteenth century the animal had become integral to Tehuelche life. Intertribal contact and intermarriage became more common and hunting techniques evolved, with boleadoras and lances increasingly preferred to the bow and arrow. The boleadora consisted of two or three stones wrapped in guanaco hide and connected by long thongs made from rhea or guanaco sinew. Whirled around the head, these were thrown to ensnare animals at close quarters. Boleadoras are the main physical legacy of Tehuelche culture in today’s Argentina.

Tehuelche religious beliefs recognized a benign supreme god (variously named Kooch, Maipé or Táarken-Kets), but he did not figure greatly in any outward devotions. In contrast, the malign spirit, Gualicho, was a much-feared figure, the regular beneficiary of horse sacrifices and the object of shamanistic attentions. The main divine hero was Elal, the being who created man.

Decline and fall

The decline of Tehuelche civilization came fast: in 1870, there were estimated to be 1500 Tehuelche in Patagonia; a 1931 census in Santa Cruz Province (home to the greatest population of Tehuelche) recorded only 350. Wars with the huincas (white men) were catastrophic – above all, Julio Roca’s Conquest of the Desert in 1879 – and were exacerbated by intertribal conflicts. Even peaceful contact with huinca civilization led to severe problems: disease wiped out whole tribal groups, while alcohol abuse led whites to replace one misconception (the “noble savage”) with another (the “moral delinquent”), enabling them spuriously to justify attempts to settle ancestral Tehuelche lands as part of a greater plan to “civilize the indio”.

Following the capitulation of the last rebel group to Roca in December 1884, the remaining Tehuelche were pushed into increasingly marginal lands. Guanaco populations plummeted and Tehuelche life became one of dependency. Many found the closest substitute to the old way of life was to join the estancias that had displaced them as peón shepherds. In this way, they were absorbed into the rural underclass. Whereas Mapuche customs and language have managed, tenuously, to survive, Tehuelche populations fell below that imprecise, critical number that is necessary for the survival of a cultural heritage. The last Gününa’küna speaker died in 1960. The Aónik’enk language can be spoken, at least partially, by fewer than a dozen people.

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