Photo: Shuka Kura

Anselmo Nuyado Ancapichun and Teresa Maripan at the sacred site "Shuka Kura" (House of Rock), near Choroy Traiguen, Chile

Photograph by Chris Rainier

The Enduring Voices team traveled to Chile to assess the current status of an endangered South American language, Huilliche. We intended to find out just how endangered Huilliche is, how many speakers remain, and where they live. We also planned to observe efforts being made to revitalize the language, and ask the communities how we might be able to assist.

Our findings are that Huilliche is much more endangered, at least in some communities, and the overall number of speakers lower than previously reported. We also learned that there is more than one Huilliche language spoken in the community.

We visited two different communities, Choroy Traiguen (in Osorno Province) and Wequetrumao (on Chiloe Island). In each, we observed many traditional practices, for example: gathering and preparation of medicinal plants, fishing, weaving of wool textiles, basketry, berry processing, small-scale farming (pigs, chickens, sheep, cows), gardening (vegetables and flowers). Both communities are promoting eco-tourism, have modern small-scale industries (hydroelectric power, sawmills, greenhouse cultivation), and are well connected by mobile phone networks and internet.

The two communities, as we were able to determine from comparative word-lists we collected, differ in their dialects. We conclude, based on both linguistic and sociolinguistic evidence, that there are at least two distinct languages spoken in the Huilliche community. Though both are referred to by outsiders under the single label "Huilliche", they seem to lie at the two extreme ends of a Huilliche language continuum. They are to some degree hidden within the broader Mapuche ethnic group, yet consider themselves quite distinct in both language and identity.

In Choroy Traiguen—perched on a seaside escarpment—they call their tongue Tsesungun. In Wequetrumao—in a low-lying flat part of Chiloe Island—they call their tongue Huillichesungun. They assert that is a different language than Tsesungun. Though the two languages may share as many as 80% of basic words, we confirmed that they differ in their sounds and grammar, as well as in their ethno-linguistic identity.

Both Tsesungun and Huillichesungun are sister languages to Mapudungun (the language of the much larger Mapuche ethnic community in Chile). Unexpectedly, Tsesungun, though it is geographically closer to Mapudungun, is less similar to it.

Both communities are aware and alarmed by the extreme endangered status of their mother tongues. There are few if any speakers of Tsesungun under the age of seventy. Huillichesungun is also severely endangered, with an estimated 8 to 12 fluent speakers. The youngest speaker, Hugo Antipani, is 40, but all the others are a generation older.

People in both communities expressed a sadness and belief that their languages will soon disappear, as well as a desire to revitalize them. In Choroy Traiguen village, speakers in their 50s and 60s used greetings and occasional words ('mother earth', 'wisdom') in their everyday Spanish as a way to assert their linguistic pride and cultural identity. They still perform rituals to a sacred rock, which they call 'shuka kura'.

Wequetrumao village hosts a kindergarten that teaches children elements of the language and culture. Ethnic and linguistic pride are extremely strong in this community, as evidenced by two young hip-hop performers who composed indigenous protest lyrics including words in Huillichesungun.

Photographer Chris Rainier carried out a comprehensive photographic documentation, including rituals, traditional farming and gathering activities, portraits of the elders, and the local environment.

Linguists and National Geographic Fellows Dr. Greg Anderson and Dr. David Harrison, assisted by Willamette University student Freddy Leon, recorded the speech of eight speakers, from four different villages, in both informal and formal settings. We noted many linguistic differences and similarities. We also recorded extended interviews in Spanish. We asked the last speakers what will happen to their languages in the future, and what they are doing to sustain them. We elicited many statements from speakers (and community members who are not fluent speakers) about why the language matters to them. Huilliche language activist Anselmo Nuyado Ancapichun asserted that language matters because it "gives access to other ways of thinking, helps combat acculturation, perpetuates cultural values, and unites the people."

We identified and interviewed several key language activists who have agreed to a longer-term collaboration with Enduring Voices. Enduring Voices has made a commitment to the Huilliche community to provide training, resources, and expertise to aid their linguistic survival.

To see and hear Huilliche speakers, visit www.youtube.com/enduringvoices.

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