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Natives in Argentina: the Tehuelches

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El Pueblo Tehuelche

Patagonia has been permanently inhabitted for around 12,500 years. When the Spaniards came, there were two main groups. To the North of the river Chubut were the GÜNÜN-A-KÜNA or Northern Tehuelche. To the South were the AONIKENK or Southern Tehuelche up to the Strait of Magellan. In the year 1520, on his expedition to the Strait, Magellan sought land in Port Saint Julian (50º S), where they first met the natives. Antonio Pigaffeta, cartographer and chronicler of the expedition reported to have seen such a big man that they hardly reached his waist.

AONIKENK (Southern Tehuelche)
Groups were formed by dozens of families. Each group had a chief and a territory where they migrate every season. Chiefs had scarse power. They decided about routes for migrations and gave the command for hunting. Their displacements, as well as their summer and winter settlements, were determined by the migration of animals in Patagonia. They settled near mountains and lakes in summer, and near the coast in winter. Migrations generally followed river courses. From the North to the South, we can clearly distinguish two paths, one along the coast and another one along the cordillera. Trails were always near water courses, since they camped along their way. Guanacos (Lama guanicoe) and lesser rheas or ñandúes (Pterocnemia pennata) were their main preys. Hunting methods changed as culture evolved. The old Tehuelches used to go walking with a bow and arrows. Hunting bows were small and the string was made of guanaco's intestines. Arrows were equally short. They were made of cane and had two or three feathers. The cutting end was made of white or black stone or bone. They carried them in a carcaj. Stone knives and leather wineskins for the water were also used on hunting journeys.

In the XVII century, after the Spaniards came, they adopted the horse to hunt. Bolas were their main weapon. Women sometimes cooperated by forming a fence to enclose preys and, occasionally, they hunted minor preys like skunks (Conepatus humboldti), hares (Dolichotis patagonum) and armadillos (Chaetophractus villosus). Their resources were based on hunting, apart from gathering certain edible roots and seeds to eat toasted or to make flour and prepare cakes. Commerce became an important part of their economy. Horses enabled them to travel long distances to exchange their products for the ones offered by white people from the colonies. In the XIX century, the dependance on these products increased and the journeys to Punta Arenas and Carmen de Patagones became the core of their economicalactivities. There were more people in each settlement andterritories were not so strictly defined. However, the huntingof guanacos and ñandúes kept being important.

CONCEPTION OF THE WORLD For the Tehuelches, Creation was atributed to an ever existing being, who was sorrounded by dense and obscure clouds where the sky and the sea meet. Since he felt very lonely, he burst into tears and cried for a long, unimaginable time. His tears formed the primitive sea, ARROK, the first element in nature. That allmighty eternal god is called KOOCH. When he stopped crying, he gave a deep sigh. His sigh gave origin to the wind, which dissipated the clouds and gave birth to light. After the three elements in space were created, he made a big island in the middle of the sea, and there he created birds, mammals, insects and fish. The sun sent light and heat for them to enjoy the wonderful work of Kooch. Clouds carried rain and the Wind distributed pastures. Life was very pleasant in the Tehuelche world until the Giants appeared. They were monstruous perverted beings, so ELAL took all the animals to Patagonia and they were loyal to him. ELAL is the main character in Tehuelche mythology. More than a god, he is a heroe, an educator, a hunting teacher and a protector. Elal was born in the mythical island created by Kooch, son of the giant NOSHTEC and TEO the cloud.

The swan brought Elal when he was very young. He left the child at the summit of mount Chaltén (Fitz Roy). From this place, protected by the birds, he contemplated the new land during three days and three nights. ELAL was the creator of the CHONEK (Tehuelches). He invented the bow and arrows, revealed the secret of fire to men and taught them the art of hunting as well as some moral principles. When he ended his mission, Elal left, leaving men on the Earth. Then he came down the mountain, gathered his loyal fellowmen, who were not allowed to pay homage to him, and went back to his misterious island, where he is still waiting for the dead Chonek. These are guided by WENDEUNK, a tutelar god who keeps an account of all the actions of the Tehuelches.

BOLAS Bolas have been used in Patagonia for about 10,000 years. During the Conquest, the two balls bolas were the main fighting weapon of the tribes in Pampa and Patagonia. Nevertheless, the three balls bola was known in the Andean region since pre-Colombian times. During the latest years, the Tehuelches used bolas found in old settlements or in the hunting lots of their ancestors. For the Northern Tehuelche mythology, these bolas they found were manufactured by a dwarf called TACHWšLL, who worked in cliff-like valleys and hills. He scratched the stones with his nails, and although he tried to hide from people, the rattling of his tools was constantly heard. On one occasion, he was discovered, but as soon as it happened, it became cloudy and started to rain so much that they had to set him free. Then the rain stopped. LOST BOLA It was an only stone bola, either plain, sharp or bristled, tied to a belt. They used to throw it from a distance at animals or enemies. Sometimes they grabbed it by the end of the belt and used it as a mace to fight man against man. TWO AND THREE STONES BOLAS They are intended to stop or lock the movement of the enemy or the prey. They are thrown at different parts of the body according to the prey. ¤and£es are attacked at the base of the neck, while mares and guanacos are aimed at the legs.

The double bola is known as ñanducera. It is formed by a stone or metal ball with an oval handle made of a lighter stone. Recent Tehuelches used wooden bolas to capture horses and cows because they are lighter and less agressive. They were made of Ñire wood (Notophagus antarctica). These trees are attacked by a fungus, the Llao Llao ( Citaria darwini ) and form very hard knots on their branches. They used thin colt leather stripes to make belts and lassos, and also guanaco's neck or the tendons of a ñandú's leg plated three by three. To fasten the grooved stone, they tie a leather strip around the groove and then join it to the end of the lasso. Even bolas are usually stuffed in the 'retobo'. "...They fight with bows and arrows and some stone balls which are as big as a fist and have a cord tied as a guide; they are so accurate that thy never miss their target." (Luis de Ramírez, Spanish, 1528.)

PAINTED LEATHERS The most important task for women in the campsite was the manufacture of fur blankets, a task that deserves a detailed description. First they dry the furs in the sun and peg them down with carob thorns. Once they are dry, they scrape them with a piece of flint, agate, obsidian or sometimes glass tied to a naturally curved branch forming a handle. Then they smear the furs with grease and a pulp made of liver to soften them manually until they are completely flexible. After that, they extend them on the ground, cut them into pieces with a small sharp knife and make some small notches around the edges to assemble the pieces of leather and sew them tight.

These little leather cuttings are distributed among four to six women, who sew them together with needles and threads. Needles are punches made of sharp nails and threads are the dry tendons of the loin of an adult guanaco. When the blanket is big, they do not sew it all at once. First, they finish one half, peg it down and apply the painting in the following way: they moisten the surface, then each of the women takes a pastille or a piece of red ocher and soak it to apply the paint with great care. Once the background is completed, they draw the black spots and the blue and yellow stripes on it. Once this part is finished, they put the fur to dry during one night and finish the other half and the wings that form the sleeves; after this work is finished, the fur shows a compact surface. Their favourite drawing, except when the owner is in mourning, is a red background with black crosses and longitudinal blue and yellow stripes with trimmings, or a white, blue and red zig-zag.

GÜNÜN A KÜNA (Northern Tehuelche) These Tehuelche were distinguished from the Southerners by their tongue (GÜNÜN A AJECH). In the equestrian stage, the frontier between both groups was not stable. From the XVII century onwards, the Araucanians crossed from Chile to their region. This situation ended when Northern Tehuelches virtually disappeared as such in the provinces of Buenos Aires, La Pampa and Neuqu‚n up to the river Limay. Some GÜNÜN A KÜNA groups remained on the West and only joined the Araucanians after the outpost of General Villegas in 1886. ELEMGASEM is an outstanding figure in their mithology. He is the father of the race that lives near the cave and the author of the rupestrian paintings on the caves near where he lives. He is described as a big strange animal covered by an enormous thick shell, similar to an 'armadillo'. He used to steal people, and according to some narrations, he had a human face. According to others, he was a man medium height with the back covered by a big armour. The GÜNÜN A KÜNA had a song for the Elemgasem. They said he was the "owner" of all living animals and could only be killed by a ray. They used to scrape the bones of the Elemgasem (any fossil) and give that powder to children to be strong and healthy.


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