There we were at the end of the trail in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park. We had completed the “W” – 60 miles, fully laden – and were basking in the warmth of the Patagonian sun. In the process we had become proficient at assembling our tent in strong winds, cooking wondrous meals with packaged pasta, and securing our stuff from mice at night. We appreciated nature in full: not only the beauty of its rainbows, glaciers, condors and granite towers, but also the wrath of its hurricane-strength winds.
At the end of our journey, the feeling of camaraderie amongst our fellow trekkers was palpable. We all shared an accomplishment. In the soft grass at the trailhead kiosk, we indulged in overpriced potato chips and cracked open celebratory beers.
But something was missing.
The next day, we visited Perito Moreno Glacier. The weather was nearly perfect and the autumn foliage provided a postcard-perfect contrast to the whites and blues of the ice. Nearby El Calafate was a nice enough town with its cast of friendly, decent people.
But something about this experience felt a bit empty.
Trading on the Native Cliché
As we waited for change from a purchase at a photo equipment store in El Calafate, I flipped through a stack of plastic-wrapped sepia tone photographs of Native Americans – locals one would presume – likely taken around the turn of the century. The photos were meant to invoke the same “native” imagery found in jewelry and souvenir shops around town.
All the photos were iconic: portraits of women in long braids, shots of wizened old men, and family scenes of weathered elders and grimy-faced kids standing in front of basic homes and dressed in half-outfits made of oily, tattered fur skin. Some of the faces were reminiscent of schoolbook images of native North Americans, some recalled indigenous Andeans we’d met in Peru and Bolivia, and others hinted “Eskimo.”
Special thanks to Ben McRae for going back to the shop in El Calafate and sending us these photos
Audrey asked, “Are these photos of the indigenous people who lived in Patagonia before the Europeans?” After a quick nod “yes,” the clerk swept along with the business of our transaction.
The designs carved into knick-knacks and necklaces and splashed on the walls of trendy restaurants all traded on the same cliché. The idea: buy one, purchase this, eat here — and you too can collect or feel a bit of human history from the place where you climbed all those mountains, hiked all those trails, and took in all those rocky outcroppings.
Nothing wrong with that, but those images left me wondering: Where did all the native people go? No, I'm not talking about the people in the photographs. They are all long since dead. But what happened to their children? And their children’s children?
Are the people in those photos meaningful memories to anyone these days?
History books tell us that European traders gave locals blankets laced with smallpox and other diseases. It’s one thing to read about the decimation of indigenous people like it’s an object of distant history, but it’s something entirely different to experience it viscerally and feel the void.
A Childhood Memory
All of this reminded me of a scene from a drive across the United States with my parents when I was twelve. We were at a gas station somewhere in Arizona along historic Route 66 near the Painted Desert. As we filled the gas tank, my mom purchased two dream-catcher wall-hangings from a Native American family selling them out of the trunk of their old powder blue beater of a Studebaker at the edge of the station lot.
The weavings were terrifically colorful and featured all the inimitable trademark faults of something handmade. They were so unlike the typical ubiquitous tourist schlock peddled in gas station souvenir shops along our cross-country route.
My parents were under no illusion that their purchase would right any historic wrongs, but we all felt good about it. As we completed our transaction, however, the owner emerged from his store in a rant, screaming and cussing after the family. Heads down, mother, father and son scurried, packed up and drove off — probably to the next gas station, to the next fleeting transaction, to the next chapter in a story of feeling unwanted in a place their family once called home.
A Few Indigenous Faces
We have not seen any local indigenous people or communities as we’ve bounced back and forth between Chilean and Argentine Patagonia. We suppose there are some, but they certainly don’t feature naturally or prominently in the average Patagonian travel and trekking experience.
There are hints of mestizo culture (mixed indigenous and European), but the feel in this part of the New World is decidedly European, post-colonial. The few native-looking folks you’ll see are likely economic migrants whose families are rooted to other mountains, other lands.
Our Perito Moreno glacier guide emphasized this point as she described recent developments in her hometown, El Calafate. After the airport was built in 2001, the town grew from a shepherd trading post of 5,000 people to today’s tourism service station of 20,000. Pointing to the outskirts of town, she remarked: “Over there, that's where the Peruvian and Bolivian construction workers live. It’s very different than what you see downtown.”
Just a few weeks before at a local grocery store in Ushuaia, the very southern tip of South America, I remember seeing the first patch of dark indigenous skin I had seen in two months (keep in mind that we had been in Buenos Aires and Uruguay just before). A Bolivian family was on a Sunday shopping outing at the grocery store; the husband likely a local construction worker. I wanted to approach them and ask them their story; perhaps we had visited their hometown during our recent visit to Bolivia. But my inner censor got the better of me and I figured it better not to ask.
The Scale of History
On so many of our treks and travels we’ve met and stayed with families with ancestral roots in their current home that predate the last wave of colonization. Theirs is a story of a long-standing human connection to the land and the places where they live. Their presence provides an added cultural dimension to a trekking experience; it serves to complete a story that begins with nature.
But in Patagonia there are few, if any, who can share a creation story like those told in Guatemala, Peru or Bolivia — passed orally from generation to generation for hundreds or even thousands of years.
Some Patagonian families have lived there for generations, their European ancestors having arrived as early settlers or guests of the penal colony, while many more have appeared in the last decade to take advantage of the tourist boom.
But who came before them?