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Ethnographic Museum

Media Release and Material

Retelling history, and the living culture of Kawésqar from Southern Chile today

Zurich, 10 July 2023

For three weeks in summer, members of Kawésqar society will be hosted by the Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zurich. Kawésqar people are the indigenous inhabitants of the extreme south of Chile, also known as “canoe nomads”. For more than 6,000 years they have inhabited channels, fjords, and archipelagos in the southern part of the American continent. In 1881, eleven Kawésqar were involuntarily brought to Europe and put on display in an indiscernible, undignified manner. Their last stop was Zurich. Now, with their own exhibition, talks, workshops, sounds and films, Kawésqar bring their skills and culture to Zurich on their own conditions. They will re-relate their history and share their culture; they will welcome visitors, explain, and describe first-hand how they lived in ancient times, and how they live today.

An ancestral nomadic culture in cold waters
The Kawésqar have lived throughout Western Patagonia, an extreme territory made up of innumerable islands, channels, fjords, glaciers, mountains, rivers, and peat bogs. This beautiful, cold, and rainy place, that can only be traversed by sea, often has an adverse climate, with just two seasons: winter, with temperatures between 0 and -5°C, and summer, with highs of around 10°C. In this scenario, the Kawésqar were nomadic seafaring canoeists with a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

Their principal vessel was the tree-bark canoe Kájef, which was made of overlapping pieces of bark meshed into a seashell shape and sewn together with whale nerve fibres. The canoes or Kájef were eight to nine meters long, and in the centre of the canoe a fire was always kept alight, normally consisting of slow-burning embers that produced heat for warmth and cooking. The canoe could hold a nuclear or extended family of up to ten people. The family travelled with their dogs, weapons, and tools.

The Kawésqar diet was based on sea lions and birds, which were hunted; and fish and shellfish, which were gathered. Shellfish were a staple food and were collected by women, who dove in search of them. In order to preserve their body heat when gathering the shellfish in handmade baskets, they covered their bodies in clay and sea lion fat.

The canoe nomadic lifestyle of the ancient Kawésqar remained as such for much longer than other similar cultures in the world, in part due to the late arrival of colonists from Switzerland, Spain, France, Germany, Portugal and other countries to these extreme lands, by the mid-19th century.

The journey of Kawésqar people
In 1881, 11 Kawésqar were involuntarily brought to Europe and put on display, to be gazed at in “human zoos” in different cities. Five Kawésqar of this group died during their stay in Zurich in 1882, and their human remains were retained in the Anthropological Museum at the University of Zurich. After 128 years, in 2010, their remains were repatriated from the University of Zurich to the Government of Chile.

Now, with the support of the Embassy of Chile in Switzerland, Kawésqar people have decided to take a new journey to Zurich, to find again the place that once witnessed the end of a sad and inhumane trip, to re-narrate their history, and provide it with a new significance. This time, the Kawésqar delegation will be welcomed by Mareile Flitsch and Maike Powroznik, director and curator of the Ethnographic Museum, and the museum team.

In this new journey the Kawésqar are the protagonists of their story, and will share with visitors their culture, their history and the skills that are materialized in the objects. They have important meaning and use in their traditional, and in some cases current life, such as baskets made by the artisans, harpoons, valuable stones, sea lion skin and oil, and rock tools, among other pieces. They will introduce to visitors not just objects, but also their cosmovision and understanding of life, offering immersive experiences in the Kawésqar territory through storytelling and talks on various topics of Kawésqar culture.

The museum and its visitors will have the unique opportunity to ask questions and obtain first-hand answers. How have Kawésqar people preserved their culture, despite the adversities? Did ancient Kawésqar interact with other indigenous groups in Patagonia? How did/do Kawésqar conceive of themselves and their interaction with the environment? What significance did/do they give to animals, earth, and water? Visitors may find answers to these questions while learning from the artisans how to craft baskets in the workshops that the delegation will offer.

Present life and Kawésqar engagement
Above all, Kawésqar want to shape their present – of course against the background of their history – and invite you to learn about their current commitments. In the last century they have undergone the utmost transformation, with the aim of incorporating themselves into Western Chilean society. This process of changing has caused a great loss of cultural, essential and differentiating elements from the nomadic life of these ancient hunter-gatherers. To preserve this culture, they were formally recognized by the Chilean State at the end of the 20th century as one of the 10 Indigenous Peoples within the Chilean national territory, whose cultural heritage and rights must be preserved and protected.

Their project “Ko Aswál – The Next Day” is a journey for everyone who wants to travel with the Kawésqar. Visitors and museum staff are invited to join a journey to the Chilean Patagonia, experiencing the self-history account and the essence of this fascinating culture with its transformative and innovative potential. This exhibition is also a tribute to memory and local knowledge, and at the same time an attempt to value the legacy of knowledge and experience of people who were thought to be on the path to disappearance. They are alive and want to tell the world who they are.

Ko Aswál – The Next Day
A cooperation project at the Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zurich
Pelikanstrasse 40, CH-8001 Zurich
18–30 July 2023 and 29 August–3 September 2023
Tue, Wed, Fri 10am–5pm, Thu 10am–7pm, Sat 2–5pm, Sun 11am–5pm

Contacts of cooperation partners

Pueblo Kawésqar Foundation
Francisco González, president
+41 44 634 90 10 (via museum)

Chilean Embassy in Switzerland
Natalia Nahmías Navarro, Consul of the Embassy of Chile
+41 31 370 00 53

Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zurich
Dr. Maike Powroznik, curator
+41 44 634 90 20


Weiterführende Informationen


Kawésqar Territory Wæs

Kawésqar Territory Wæs

More about Kawésqar Territory Wæs

Western Patagonia is an area characterized by a multitude of islands, channels, fjords, winding passes, isthmuses, glaciers, mountains, rivers, peat bogs and impenetrable cold jungle. Kawésqar Wæs stretches from the Gulf of Penas in the north to the Strait of Magellan and the north of Tierra del Fuego Island.

Photo: Patagonian Fjords, Puerto Natales 2020

Celina Llanllán Catalán, a Kawésqar artisan master, collecting rush plant. Rush plant is abundant in the ancestral territory Wæs. However, today Kawésqar families live in cities more than 70 kilometers away – it means a great effort to reach the rush plant areas providing the necessary nutrients and climate of the wetlands. At the collection spot, several hours are spent carefully selecting and removing the plant. Each handful is tightly but delicately tied for transport.

Photo: Steffa Márquez, San Juan 2020

Kawésqar artisan masters

Kawésqar artisan masters

More about Kawésqar artisan masters

The rush plant was used for making food containers, tools and other items, as well as ornaments and ropes. The main use of this plant is for making baskets. The knowledge of basket braiding is transmitted orally from generation to generation and is currently preserved and maintained by a group of twelve Kawésqar masters. Susan Vargas Vargas is one of these artisan masters from Puerto Edén.

Photo: Steffa Márquez, Natales 2022

Kawésqar artisan Maritza Soto Messier from Punta Arenas demonstrating how to begin a rush plant basket.

Photo: Steffa Márquez, San Juan 2022

Rare archaeological human traces in Wæs (ancestral Kawésqar territory)

Rare archaeological human traces in Wæs (ancestral Kawésqar territory)

More about Rare archaeological human traces in Wæs (ancestral Kawésqar territory)

Thanks to the archaeological evidence of eating places, we know that the canoe nomads have lived here for thousands of years: Shells and animal bones are found buried underground as the remains of meals taken repeatedly in the same places over thousands of years. These sites serve as a reference to measure, layer by layer, the age of these sporadic but permanent accents of the nomads. Glacier Balmaceda, Bernardo O’Higgins National Park.

Photo: Francisco González, Puerto Natales 2022

The exhibition was created in cooperation between the Pueblo Kawésqar Foundation, the Chilean Embassy in Switzerland and the Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zurich. The graphic design was created by Kawésqar in Chile, the Exhibition Management of the UZH implemented the design in the exhibition room.

Photo: Francisco González, Zürich 19.6.2023

Two Kawésqar delegations will present their objects that they brought from Wæs. Some, like a house model, had to be crafted in Zurich by Pamela, Martina and Leon González.

Photo: Francisco González, Zurich 24.6.2023

In the past, Kawésqar from the north, the centre and the south of the territory met on the maritime routes, sailing together in hunting groups or separately. They changed boats frequently, depending on where one was heading. Therefore, they shared this means of transport and also their stories.
The Kawésqar’s connection to the sea remains unbroken today, and many still live and work by or on the sea. They demand coastal marine spaces for indigenous peoples and the right to access and use the sea.

Photo: Francisco González, Zurich 24.6.2023

Find original Kawésqar basketry in the museum store. Basketry from rush plants is essentially based on knotting. By this technique the flexible plant fibers are transformed into resistant and useful objects for the subsistent Kawésqar lifestyle. Baskets were the only containers they used until they met modern navigators.
Today this ancestral technique is even being suggested as a natural replacement for plastic objects that pollute the Kawésqar environment and the planet.

Photo: Francisco González, Zurich 2023.