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Selk'nam People

Familia Selk'nam caminando junto al mar

The were a nomadic people, whose livelihood was based on hunting, mainly birds, complemented with gathering berries, fungi and wild roots; along with some marine products.

Their perfected and elaborated arrowheads, more efficient than those of their predecessors, are one of their special characteristics.

The Selk'nam people are supposed to have been related to the Aonikenk or southern Tewelche people by a common branch, from which the first might have separated, occupying Tierra del Fuego.

Selk'nam is the name used by the nomadic people of Tierra del Fuego to identify their people and their culture. That is why this denomination is privileged, since the name Ona was given to them by the Yagán people and became popular after the colonization of the Austral territory, it did not come from the Selk´nam themselves.

This culture possessed a wide and diverse spiritual world manifested in ceremonies such as the Hain, a ritual initiation for adolescent males, in which certain secrets tending towards the preservation of the patriarchy were revealed.

Education

Mujer pintada para el Chiejaus de 1922 Foto Anthropos Institute

The Yagán people had similar Initiation rituals to the Kawésqar and the Chonos people. These rituals took place when a group of young people reached the age of adolescence, and when there was enough surplus food to be able to have a break in the constant search for substance (a beached whale for example).

According to the observations of the chroniclers of the time, they buried their dead in natural caverns and forests.

The Chiejaus was a veritable school for tribal customs, norms and knowledge necessary for the survival of the community. A fundamental principle in the life of these canoeists was learned: «We, men and women, first of all must be good and useful to the community ».

Domestic Utensils

Taha'l, cuna Selk'nam

Among the domestic utensils we may find baskets woven by the women, made of reeds using braids woven in a spiral.

Bags of sea lion leather were used to transport water and smaller ones were used to carry personal utensils during their travels, besides carrying the stones used to make sparks for fire and dried mushrooms, feathers for arrows, guanaco tendons and other instruments.

The Taha´l was a cradle used for transporting small children. It was made of oak and covered with a guanaco skin.

It was shaped like a small ladder and looked like the cradles used by the Aonikenk people. Over the ladder, made with two rods, about a meter long and 12 or 15 perpendicular, evenly spaced pegs, were layed delicate and finely tanned skins from the chulengo, young guanacos, forming a soft cushion to protect the child.

Means of subsistence

Selk'nam

They were a nomadic people, whose livelihood was based on hunting, mainly birds, complemented with gathering berries, fungi and wild roots; along with some marine products.

Their perfected and elaborated arrowheads, more efficient than those of their predecessors, are one of their special characteristics.

The Selk'nam people are supposed to have been related to the Aonikenk or southern Tewelche people by a common branch, from which the first might have separated, occupying Tierra del Fuego.

Selk'nam is the name used by the nomadic people of Tierra del Fuego to identify their people and their culture. That is why this denomination is privileged, since the name Ona was given to them by the Yagán people and became popular after the colonization of the Austral territory, it did not come from the Selk´nam themselves.

This culture possessed a wide and diverse spiritual world manifested in ceremonies such as the Hain, a ritual initiation for adolescent males, in which certain secrets tending towards the preservation of the patriarchy were revealed.

Society

Padre Alberto de Agostini junto a chamán Selk'nam

The family was the basic nucleus. Monogamous marriages were usual, though a man could have two women.

No hierarchy such as the of cacique was known among the Selk'nam people , due to the fact that they were organized in families.

Only the shamans, known as kon, who were recognized as having special powers were respected and feared. They cured the sick and took charge of religious ceremonies.

Social relationships were based on patriarchal kinship, expressed in the establishment of the married couple with the family of the male (virilocal). A family might consist of four or five generations.

Selk´nam territory, property of an extended family, was traditionally sub-divided in 40 family districts, which had limits known by all, according to the ethnologist Martín Gusinde. To travel to another territory, the Selk'nam must have the consent of their neighbors.

Customs

Chaman y familia

The Selk'nam people took pride in their personal appearance. Any opportunity was taken advantage of for painting their bodies and faces. The most common adornments among women and children were necklaces made of seashells and the bones of birds.

In daily life the men used no adornments, on scarce occasions they used a crown made of feathers, which constituted a privilege and indicated that he was fulfilling a special role, generally during a ceremony.

The main dress was a long cape of guanaco fur, from the neck to the knees, which was used as a protection from the cold. On occasions this cape was made from the skin of foxes or cururos, this last was used by the groups further north. The skins were scrapped and left to stretch on stakes. They were then sewn together using tendons of the same animal.

The male cape was not fixed to the body, the top part must be held together with the left hand against the chest. This allowed the hunters to remove the garment easily in order to capture their prey.

Selk'nam Origins

Mujer Selk'nam

The Selk´nam people called its territory, where they lived over 10.000 years ago, Karukinka, the same land that the Spaniards called Land of Smoke and Later Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire), due to the fires lit by the natives at night and were seen from the sea by the sailors.

The Selk´nam explained this fact through legends that narrate how their ancestors became isolated when the water rose, permanently separating them from their continental brothers.

Two religious organizations created reservations for the surviving natives: one on Dawson Island and another in Ushuaia. The first was created by a Salesian missionary, he managed to bring together close to 1.000 Selk´nam, but it was closed in 1912.

In only eight years, the population was reduced to only 270 natives, who survived under the protection of the Anglican Bridges brothers, as verified by the anthropologist Martin Gusinde in 1920.

Selk'nam costume

Kochel, tocado capilar con poderes mágicos

The woman's cape, on the contrary, was held in place around the shoulders by two guanaco tendons. It was also used to protect their children from the cold, since they rode on their mother's back, under the cape.

Female attire also included: the apron, also made from a guanaco skin, used under the breasts and covering the stomach all the way to the knees. They never took this article of clothing off in public; but the cape was easily shed.

Moccasins; shoes made from the extremities of the guanaco with the fur facing outwards.

Koschel, a triangular sort of headgear, to which miraculous hunting powers were attributed. It was made with the skin from the head of the guanaco and covered the hunters forehead. The nerves of the animal were used to attach the article to the head.

The Po´o was only used on special occasions by some men. It was a sort of crown made with feathers attached to a strip of leather.

History

Selk'nam ornamentados  para una ceremonia

Nomads and hunters of the larger islands of Tierra del Fuego, the tall Selk'nam people fed on birds, guanacos, red foxes and cururos, complemented with marine products, such as shellfish and an occasional beached whale. This brought together the entire Selk´nam community and sometimes they shared with the Yagán people.

In 1881, modern colonization of the island began: the white man came in search of the Austral gold. Later there were large investments destined to livestock raising in Patagonia. They promoted the extermination of the Selk´nam people, a culture that knew nothing of private property and did not recognize it as such; therefore they considered it natural for them to hunt sheep.

For this reason the gold hunters and livestock barons paid for a special kind of hunters, human hunters who killed natives: the mercenaties were paid by presenting a pair of testicles.

Environment

Matrimonio Selk'nam

The cold dry climate of the Patagonia was not always so.

Since the year 3.000 AC the climate is supposed to have changed from a warm humid climate towards a cold dry climate, until reaching present conditions.

Guanacos, red foxes, cururos, and a large diversity of birds form the native fauna of the area.

The Fuegian hunters took advantage of the roots, different kinds of mushrooms and wild berries found in the surrounding forests and steppes.

A beached whale, trade relations, wrestling tournaments marking the end of hostilities between families, peace ceremonies or funeral rites of an outstanding person were occasions for the community to meet.

The death of a whale brought people from all around, initially due to the strong smell and later by the fires lit by those who found the animal, summoning the rest of the Selk´nam. On these occasions, when there was enough food for all, conditions were right for the celebration of the adolescents' rite of initiation: the Hain.