Mobility and identity in the Patagonian Archipelago

By Paul Merchant

Cast your eyes over a map of Chile, from top to bottom, and you’ll notice a strange development. South of Temuco, the lakes become more frequent and larger, and eventually, after Puerto Montt, the land fragments into hundreds of islands, some quite large, like Chiloé, and many that are very small. You can travel by road as far south as the town of Villa O’Higgins in the Aysén region, but beyond that, unless you cross into Argentina, a boat is the only option. In Chile’s far south, the Andes seem to gradually sink into the Southern Ocean.

This remarkable landscape (though perhaps seascape would be a more appropriate term) is home to communities whose lifestyles and methods of travel offer visions of identity and belonging beyond Chile’s current political order.

Quellon on Chiloe Island (image: Wikimedia Commons)

My research project ‘Reimagining the Pacific: Images of Ocean in Chile and Peru, c.1960 to the Present’, which is supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, explores how cultural responses to the ocean reveal contemporary ecological challenges and neglected local histories. In Chile, the last ten years have seen increased interest on the part of documentary filmmakers in the past and present of indigenous communities in Chile’s watery south. These communities, such as the Kawésqar and the Yaghan, suffered terribly as a result of the arrival of European explorers, missionaries and colonisers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with many dying from disease and malnutrition, and some groups disappearing entirely.

Yet not all is lost. In Patricio Guzmán’s documentary El botón de nácar (The Pearl Button, 2015), we meet Martín González Calderón, a Yaghan man who explains how the Chilean Navy’s strict control over maritime space has made it almost impossible for him and his family to travel by boat using the skills and techniques passed down over generations.

Guzmán also speaks to Gabriela Paterito, a Kawésqar woman who recounts a long journey by canoe that she made when she was a girl, and the director prompts her to state that she does not feel Chilean at all. In Guzmán’s film, indigenous mobility by water in the Patagonian archipelago is presented as lost to the past, and impossible in the present (I’ve written elsewhere about how Guzmán consistently relegates indigenous experience to a separate timeframe, or even a separate world).

Other filmmakers have taken a different approach to these issues, however. In Tánana, estar listo para zarpar (Tánana, being ready to set sail, 2016), for instance, we meet Martín González Calderón again, but this time at much greater length. The documentary’s directors Alberto Serrano Fillol and Cristóbal Azócar do not provide an explanatory voiceover. Instead, the camera follows González Calderón as he goes about his daily life, and then seeks to build a boat in which he can recreate a childhood trip around the False Cape Horn, near the southern tip of the continent, that he undertook with his father.

Another documentary from 2016, Alas de mar (Sea Wings) exhibits some similar characteristics. Here, the director Hans Mülchi does provide a voiceover, but it is intermittent and reflective. The film follows the journey by boat of two Kawésqar women, Rosa and Celina, back to the region where they grew up. The voices of Rosa and Celina are much more prominent than that of Mülchi, or indeed that of the European anthropologist who is travelling with them.

Yaghan bark canoe, Wuluaia Bay, Chile (image: GrahamAndDairne on Flickr)

It is not only the human voice that counts, though. Both Tánana and Alas de mar contain long sequences in which the only sounds audible are the sounds of travel by sea: the flapping of a sail, the rush of the wind, the crash of waves against the hull, or the roar of a motor. This openness to the sounds of the marine environment allow the spectator to share in the embodied experience of the protagonists in a way that escapes any definitions that might be imposed by spoken or written language.

It is precisely because Alas de mar and Tánana do not offer definitive answers to the question of the relation between indigenous identity and Chilean identity that I find them valuable to think with. The people whose stories are told in these films have been displaced from their childhood homes (as is the case for Rosa and Celina), or are held in place by the state’s unwillingness to allow maritime travel outside of specific, limited purposes (in the case of Martín). And yet we see them strive to retrace past journeys and reclaim certain modes of mobility as an essential part of their heritage.

In fact, indigenous identity itself appears as fluid and mobile in these films. Martín notes that while he understands much of the Yaghan language, he cannot speak it well himself, and in Tánana we see him teaching boatbuilding techniques to family members who are clearly of mixed heritage. In Alas de mar, Rosa and Celina share weaving and construction techniques with their fellow travellers.

At a time when the Constituent Convention in Chile is determining the form of the country’s new constitution, with the participation of many indigenous groups, including the Kawésqar and the Yaghan, these films’ visions of mobile and changing identities present a source of inspiration for a plurivocal or even plurinational political order.

Brian Russell Roberts and Michelle Ann Stephens have suggested that an ‘archipelagic American studies’ can offer a way of ‘decontinentalising’ our understandings of space and identity. A way, in other words, of recognising the cultural and political value of apparently marginal or ‘in-between’ spaces like islands, seas, beaches and inlets, and the people who live in them. Perhaps a decontinental understanding of Latin America might allow a similarly generous approach to its many voices and perspectives.

This post was first published on the Migration Mobilities Bristol blog: https://migration.bristol.ac.uk/2021/11/02/mobility-and-identity-in-the-patagonian-archipelago/

A long durée history of the commodification of the South Eastern Pacific

This week, we have a guest post from Dr Natalia Gándara, a researcher at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso, Chile.

During 2020 and 2021, the international press has run several stories about the presence of a Chinese fishing fleet in the South Eastern Pacific region. Governments in Chile, Peru, and Ecuador have installed alert and defence systems to monitor the extractivist activities of this fleet in their exclusive economic zones.  Despite this, the NGO Oceana has reported that in the waters off the Galapagos Marine Reserve alone, the fleet pulled up thousands of tonnes of squid and fish.[1] This phenomenon is not of course new. For centuries imperial powers have plundered the waters of the South Eastern Pacific, altering the marine ecosystems. If in the past, fur seals and sperm whales became a commodity, now is the turn of squid and tuna, products highly appreciated in the international market of the twenty-first century. 

This history of extractivism and commodification of marine nature needs to be critically examined. Moreover, it acquires a sense of urgency as the region is increasingly facing the impact of climate change and the deterioration of marine ecosystems. In particular, we need new and disruptive ways of thinking about society’s relationship with nature to comprehend and tackle these social, economic, and environmental challenges. For historians, this means writing the history of the seas, oceans, and coastal communities in a way that focuses on representations of nature, power relations between locals and foreign powers, the changing needs of global markets, the knowledge systems and technologies used in fishing, as well as the localised human impact of these activities. 

My doctoral thesis, titled ‘Thalassologies of Empire and Republic: Competing for Knowledge of the South Eastern Pacific in the Age of Revolutions’, engages with recent scholarship in environmental humanities. It explores the construction of global geographic knowledge systems and the commodification of coastal waters of the South Eastern Pacific, specifically addressing the changing representations and knowledge constructions of this region in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This focus allows me to analyse the origins of enduring social representations of the seas as spaces of natural resources for human exploitation and profit. 

A critical understanding of society’s relationship with nature must also take into account the geopolitics of knowledge production and economic exploitation of these environments. In the case of Latin America in general and the South Eastern Pacific in particular, the commodification of the sea and its exploitation at an industrial scale in the late colonial and early national periods was entangled with imperialism, state formation, and the global expansion of capitalism. Crucially, my research also engages with how these power relations influenced and even shaped local representations and experiences with this marine region.

The commodification of the South Eastern Pacific propelled local initiatives to exploit what were considered local or national resources. In the late eighteenth century, colonial authorities in Chile and the viceroyalty of Peru fostered fishing projects, creating internal markets for these products, especially conger eels. By the second half of the nineteenth century, the South American republics had developed sizeable national fishing industries, particularly on whaling, catching animals from the Southern Ocean to the North Eastern Pacific.  

Latin American coastal communities have historically been marginalised from the studies of the cultural productions and economic exploitation of the Pacific. The acknowledgment of their engagement in the exploitation of the sea and the commodification of marine nature is relevant to tackle current Eurocentric and imperialistic narratives about the South Pacific history, and, very importantly, to illuminate how to engage with historical unsustainable practices of marine exploitation in Latin America.

My goal as a researcher is to rethink the history of global commodification of the world’s oceans, to question current inequalities in the production and exploitation of marine nature and their impact on environmental justice, and to re-imagine human history in the light of the climate crisis. Only by linking local with national and global dynamics, and giving agency to local actors as well as international and imperial powers, we will be able to truly examine global representations of the world’s seas, their historical economic exploitation and to develop new critical understandings of how coastal communities respond to social and environmental pressures, particularly relevant in the current political and environmental context. 


[1] https://usa.oceana.org/publications/reports/oceana-finds-300-chinese-vessels-pillaging-galapagos-squid