What Happened to the Fires of Tierra Del Fuego?

Tierra Del Fuego National Park, the waters below riddled with historical sites. Photo courtesy of Will Meadows. 

Young Explorer Will Meadows is building traditional canoes throughout the world’s ecosystems and indigenous communities, using the vessel as a lens into culture, identity, art, environment, and innovation.

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Mountains of ice, vast, frigid, and treacherous waters, deep, dense, mud and earth, Tierra Del Fuego is a land of elements. Yet the Land of Fire was named, not for the immensities that abound, but for the most humble of all the elements. It was the element that flickered above warm embers of indigenous ingenuity over more than six thousand years until European explorers arrive to see fires scattered across a vast landscape. It was fire that had been kept lit in canoes, dwellings, and seal-skin and earth pouches, keeping a diverse people and their culture warm and dry at the southern most tip of the inhabited world.

Yamana Mural at the Museo Fin Del Mundo
Yamana Mural at the Museo Fin Del Mundo. Photo courtesy of Will Meadows.

The small, well-tended, fire was central to the peoples of Tierra del Fuego. Along the Beagle Channel and south, the Yamana people had mastered its use. Without a system of waterproofing, wet clothes could harbor illness. A warm fire, kept everywhere they went like a member of the community, helped the Yamana stay dry without wearing much at all. It was kept alive even in the most important creation of their material culture – the canoe. Made of bark of the southern beech tree, Nothofagus betuloides, or locally guindo, the ingenious invention was the vessel for the entire way of life, a nomadic, sea-based, system of hunting and gathering.

Model Bark Canoe in the Museo Fin Del Mundo
Model Bark Canoe in the Museo Fin Del Mundo. Photo courtesy of Will Meadows.

The fires of Tierra Del Fuego no longer flicker from bark canoes. Nor do the bark canoes gently glide over frigid waters looking for sea lions, urchins, or a good beach to rest. The fires of Tierra Del Fuego have vanished. Through the project Vanishing Flame: Rekindling the Bark Canoe of Tierra Del Fuego, I seek to understand the unraveling of this tradition and what humble sparks still may flicker. A tradition is a vessel which carried immense knowledge gained over eons, something much more difficult to make, than to destroy. After having built canoes with native masters all over the world for my project, Humanity’s Vessel, this is the first place I have ventured where the masters, along with the tradition, too have vanished.

Young Yamana boy next to a Bark Canoe (Museo Yamana)
Young Yamana boy next to a Bark Canoe (Museo Yamana). Photo courtesy of Will Meadows.

Where can one find kindling? The Museums of Ushuaia, the largest town in the Yamana homeland at the center of their ancestral territory, hold many clues. I have spent many hours in the Museo Fin Del Mundo (End of the World Museum, a part of the Territorial Museums), reading accounts of anthropologists and explorers over the last few hundred years. Diseases, cultural assimilation, and an already fragil way of survival lead to a quick collapse. The Yamana Museum tells the stark story of a decimation of a population to almost nothing, which by 1900 had abandoned their once chief important vessel, the bark canoe.

Yamana Museum in Ushuaia, Argentina
Yamana Museum in Ushuaia, Argentina. Photo courtesy of Will Meadows.
Yamana Street Art in Ushuaia
Yamana Street Art in Ushuaia. Photo courtesy of Will Meadows.

The knowledge of the Yamana was diverse. They were navigators, craftsman, ecologists, hunters, and had a complex society which we know little about. A few people have made strong attempts to understand the complexity of that knowledge. Carlos Vairo, Director of the Maritime Museum in Ushuaia, rebuilt a bark canoe with a team he assembled in the 80’s. I have spent time, and much more to come, with him, understanding what he learned and the challenges that arose in attempting to relearn secrets that to thousands of years to know. Dr. Ernesto Piana of CADIC in Ushuaia, is perhaps the most experienced and advanced investigator of ancient Yamana ways of life. He explained to me in his office that “these canoes were like living things. They couldn’t just be built from blueprint; all the pieces worked in harmony. You had to really know the material to know how to make these things work”.

Overlooking Beagle Channel and Ushuaia from Glacier Martial
Overlooking Beagle Channel and Ushuaia from Glacier Martial. Photo courtesy of Will Meadows. 

The Yamana knew the nature of their materials to their depths. The materials they had use of are still available today. Spending time on the beaches and in the forests that were once inhabited has been like introducing myself to a masters whom has immensities to teach, and will teach only if I am a patient and respectful student.

Yet some embers may still burn among living descendants. In Chile on the Island of Navarino, but a very few living descendants practice the crafts of the ancient days. I wish to learn, understand, and hopefully participating in what traditions may survive, or what traditions may be rekindled. In the morning I leave for the island.

Beaches along the Beagle Channel contain remnants of the indigenous past
Beaches along the Beagle Channel contain remnants of the indigenous past. Photo courtesy of Will Meadows. 

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Changing Planet

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Storyteller. Designer. Environmental Advocate. Many roles allow me to follow my passions and interests in our vast world of wonderful people and places. I am a National Geographic Young Explorer and 2012-2013 Watson Fellow, where through my work entitled Humanity's Vessel, I build traditional canoes around the world's ecosystems and indigenous communities, using the vessel as a lens to culture, identity, art, environment, and innovation.