Judith Thurman writes: It is a singular fate to be the last of one’s kind. That is the fate of the men and women, nearly all of them elderly, who are — like Marie Wilcox, of California; Gyani Maiya Sen, of Nepal; Verdena Parker, of Oregon; and Charlie Mungulda, of Australia — the last known speakers of a language: Wukchumni, Kusunda, Hupa, and Amurdag, respectively. But a few years ago, in Chile, I met Joubert Yanten Gomez, who told me he was “the world’s only speaker of Selk’nam.” He was twenty-one.
Yanten Gomez, who uses the tribal name Keyuk, grew up modestly, in Santiago. His father, Blas Yanten, is a woodworker, and his mother, Ivonne Gomez Castro, practices traditional medicine. As a young girl, she was mocked at school for her mestizo looks, so she hesitated to tell her children — Keyuk and an older sister — about their ancestry. They hadn’t known that their maternal relatives descended from the Selk’nam, a nomadic tribe of unknown origin that settled in Tierra del Fuego. The first Europeans to encounter the Selk’nam, in the sixteenth century, were astonished by their height and their hardiness — they braved the frigid climate by coating their bodies with whale fat. The tribe lived mostly undisturbed until the late eighteen-hundreds, when an influx of sheep ranchers and gold prospectors who coveted their land put bounties on their heads. (One hunter boasted that he had received a pound sterling per corpse, redeemable with a pair of ears.) The survivors of the Selk’nam Genocide, as it is called — a population of about four thousand was reduced to some three hundred — were resettled on reservations run by missionaries. The last known fluent speaker of the language, Angela Loij, a laundress and farmer, died forty years ago.
Many children are natural mimics, but Keyuk could imitate speech like a mynah. His father, who is white, had spent part of his childhood in the Arauco region, which is home to the Mapuche, Chile’s largest native community, and he taught Keyuk their language, Mapudungun. The boy, a bookworm and an A student, easily became fluent. A third-grade research project impassioned him about indigenous peoples, and Ivonne, who descends from a line of shamans, took this as a sign that his ancestors were speaking through him. When she told him of their heritage, Keyuk vowed that he would master Selk’nam and also, eventually, Yagán — the nearly extinct language of a neighboring people in the far south — reckoning that he could pass them down to his children and perhaps reseed the languages among the tribes’ descendants. At fourteen, he travelled with his father to Puerto Williams, a town in Chile’s Antarctic province that calls itself “the world’s southernmost city,” to meet Cristina Calderón, the last native Yagán speaker. She subsequently tutored him by phone. [Continue reading…]