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The Selk'nam, Forgotten But Not Extinct

The Selk'nam, also known as “Onas” are indigenous people from the extreme south of what now is Chile and Argentina. The Selk’nam belong to the part of Patagonia named Tierra del Fuego islands (also known as “the end of the world”), a place with a subpolar climate on which the highest temperatures are reached in January: 13°C and the west wind can reach 100 km per hour no matter the season.

The Word “Ona” means “North” for the Yámanas, tribe that inhabited the south of Tierra del Fuego Islands, they used to call Ona, the Selk’nam and because the missionary Thomas Bridges lived among Yámanas and thought their northern neighbors were called Ona and spread the mistaken information for a long time.

Guanaco crossing the road in Tierra del Fuego

According to their tradition, the Selk’nam arrived in Tierra del Fuego when it was still connected to the rest of the continent, following Guanacos (Lama guanicoe) and at some point, after an earthquake, the land bridge disappeared and they remained on the island, according to archaeological excavations, that might have happened around 9.000 B.P. They were classified as Paleolithic hunter-gatherers.

Selk’nam family used to be composed of 3 or 4 generations ordered in a patrilineal way in inhabited specific areas, also in patrilocal settlements, these areas were named Haruwen and its limits used to be respected.

The Haruwen distribution according to Martin Gusinde research

The Haruwen registered by Martin Gusinde (Austrian priest and ethnologist) has been interpreted in late reviews, as conformed according to the available resources in the different sectors of the island, being that the smaller ones are on the Atlantic Seaside where there was supposed to exist more chances to do fishing (they were pedestrians, not navigators).

The Selk’nam used to build tools made of stone, bone, and wood, they used most of those tools to slaughter the Guanacos they used to haunt, along with some foxes, birds, seals, and wolves. And it is also being said that they could live a long period extracting food, and fat from beached whales. The guanaco skin was used to dress up, and the leather for building their homes, but they were in movement most of the time following Guanacos in their Haruwen. Along with the consumption of meat, they also gathered mushrooms, berries, eggs, and mollusks, some archaeobotanists estimated that they consumed around 25% of the species of the surrounding herbs and plants, agriculture is excluded because of the weather and soil conditions. Their only beverage was water.

Selk'nam family by J. Ojeda- William S. Barclay (1902)

In regard to their social organization, there were no bosses or leaders of any kind, there were skilled people and on each generation, there was a wise man or “father of the word” who used to teach the main knowledge to the new generations. Also, when there was an important amount of hunting products and enough young boys, a ceremony named Hain was executed.

The Hain was a rite of passage to adulthood for men and the body painting used among the young boys and the representations of deities executed by older men, might be one of the most iconic and spread features of the Selk’nam culture.

In the Hain, young men were taught to respect older men and especially women.

1.923, Selk'nam men at the end of a Hain ceremony in the presence of Martin Gusinde

Back in 1520, Hernando de Magallanes crossed the strait that now has his name (Estrecho de Magallanes) and they saw fires that did not go out either by day or night. Anne Chapman, one of the anthropologists that could work the most with the last Selk’nam who could live in their ancestral way and made a very important recompilation of their cosmogony, rituals, and culture in general, thinks that those fires might have been during a funeral. Between the XVI and XVIII centuries, the Selk’nam had sporadic contact with European castaways, it has been shared orally that they used to pick them up from the shores and bring them assistance. There was no notion of the damage.

By 1880, a lot of colonialist ranchers started to inhabit Tierra del Fuego and by consequence, the Selk’nam population started to decrease dramatically. Martin Gusinde during the year 1.919 counted 279 Selk’nam and by 1.929 there were less than 100. By the time the Franco-American anthropologist Anne Chapman worked with the last Selk’nam Chaman, named Lola Kiepja, around 1966, there were 13 mixed Selk’nam.

How such a thing could happen? In 1880 when the occupation of Tierra del Fuego was started by European ranchers, the Selk’nam used to steal their sheep, but not thinking it was something wrong or offensive, they just needed food for when the Guanacos were not available. These ranchers started to send people to “hunt” the Selk’nam. One of the most known was MacLennan, sent by Menendez (an important rancher known for the way he got rich by killing indigenous people) and named “red pig” by the Selk’nam for “having a pink face and blond hair”. MacLennan killed MANY Selk'nam, arguing that trying to “educate them” was going to be a waste of time. By this time, the Selk’nam used to run and hide to the south where there were fewer resources but was still safer than the north where the “Estancias” were settled.

“Death on Display: Photographs of Julius Popper in Tierra del Fuego (1886-1887)” Marisol Palma y Carolina Odone, en 12 Perspectives on Selknam, Yahgan and Kawesqar. Carolina Odone yPeter Mason (eds.), Taller Experimental Cuerpos Pintados, Santiago.

In 1886 a Romanian engineer named Julius Popper arrived in Tierra del Fuego sent by the Buenos Aires governors to seek gold, and he found it and also started to hunt Selk’nam, enjoying it and sending people to take pictures of its haunting achievements, files that he published on a book by himself.

Popper, an educated man, an engineer, killing Indians and still has the nerve to have his photograph taken. And he killed just to kill, because at that time when Popper hunted he didn't even have sheep, he was a gold digger. He killed to kill, with pleasure.

Maurice Maitre next to the 11 Selk'nam he kidnapped and later exhibited on cages in Paris.

But the worst was yet to come, in 1889, a French named Maurice Maitre kidnapped 11 Selk’nam and took them to Paris to be exhibited inside cages, this practice was known as “Human zoos” that has been one of the most degrading in history.

Along with these situations, the Selk’nam also used to have practices related to revenge between families, and according to Lola Kiepja the last big confrontation between families happened around 1903, also there was a measles epidemic in 1924 on which another important number of Selk’nam died.

Another factor that played an important role for the Selk’nam lifestyle to disappear was the order of the Chilean governors to move the remaining Selk’nam at the end of 1800, to the Mission of Monsignor Fagnano, one in Dawson island, and the other one in Candelaria mission located in Ro Grande. There the nuns trained Selk’nam women to work in domestic labors.

Lola Kiepja on her last years pictured by Anne Chapman

The last Selk’nam Chaman as named above was Lola Kiepja, she died in 1966 when she was 90 years old, she did not speak Spanish in total level but she found a way to communicate about her knowledge and singings of her culture to Anne Chapman and those records are available for everyone on the web along with the books written by Gusinde.

Angela Loij died in 1974, even if she had a non-Selk’nam part in her family, most of her Selk’nam family died in the missions of Monsignor Fagnano, but she lived enough to help Lola to translate concepts and certain words.

In the last Chilean census, around 1.000 people have declared themselves as Selk’nam descendants and the organization “Comunidad Covadonga Ona” has been fighting in the Chilean Parliament to be recognized as the tenth indigenous group of the country, to be protected after the tremendous persecution and extermination their ancestors suffered. Investigations of the last ten years by local historians of Magallanes, who have declassified archives and new antecedents, such as, for example, the auction of indigenous people who were raised by Chilean families, which would mean that even more people are Selk’nam descendants without their own knowledge.

Selk'nam has been exposed to different types of violence since the European ranchers arrived in their lands. However, not only that but also the different diseases they carried, among with the price that was literally been offered in exchange for their ears, women's breasts or heads, and their complex legacy would be totally gone if it was not for some professionals that understood their value and the importance of leaving a record for the posterity and their descendants, all the photographic material taken by Martin Gusinde, recordings and ethnography made by Anne Chapman even along with some material elaborated for their murderers are what now became precious evidence for the actual descendants to claim their own existence nowadays, in the same institutions that declared them extinct.



Author Photo

Melisa Silva

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