• Environment and Geography

    The Selk’nam inhabited the Isla Grande (large island) of Tierra del Fuego, which was divided into the Párik, the windy plains region north of the Rio Grande, and Hérsk, the mountainous region of forests and lakes south of the river. The region has a rather inhospitable climate, with short cool summers and long, cold wet winters. Animal life abounds here, despite the harsh environment: the Pacific coast is especially rich in marine mammals and shellfish while the Atlantic coast has abundant guanaco, fox and rodents. A variety of edible plants and rich variety of bird life are also found throughout the island.

  • Economy

    The Selk’nam people were a terrestrial hunter-gatherer people that moved around frequently to make use of resources dispersed around the island. Guanaco were of prime importance to the Selk’nam, who hunted these camelids with bow and arrow and also with bolas. This activity was exclusive to the male members of the group, although both men and women fished and hunted other species. Every member of the group was expected to work, except small children, elders and the sick. Those with special skills that were valuable to the group’s economy—bow-makers, arrow-makers, makers of certain hunting implements and shamans—were distinguished with honorary titles. Women performed virtually all domestic work, gathering food, cooking, weaving baskets, preparing and curing animal skins, caring for children and transporting domestic implements. Women also collected firewood, obtained water and built the Selk-nam dwellings. Meanwhile, the men manufactured tools from stone, bone and wood and provided the materials needed for the group’s food, clothing and housing. The Selk’nam’s only domestic animal was the dog, which they considered indispensible for hunting guanaco and fox. Though it is not known when dogs were first adopted, they were considered so valuable that they were inherited by relatives when their owner died.

    Before the days of industrial fishing, sea lions and whales abounded in the region. When these animals beached themselves occasionally, the entire community took the opportunity to hold a lengthy celebration. The Selk’nam consumed virtually all bird species available, except for birds of prey. Women and children collected bird eggs, fungi, berries and mollusks on the coast and in the territory’s rivers, lakes and lagoons. Plants were not a major component of their diet, but a complement to their main food—animal meat—especially when the latter was scarce. In times of famine, the people ate seaweed.

  • Art

    The Selk`nam were masters in the arts of singing and body painting; however, much of our knowledge of them relies on their attire. The people wore only animal hides and skins, usually guanaco, although they preferred fox for their capes. They also used the skins of rodents, birds, otters and sea lions. Every member of the group wore a cape, with the fur side out. These also served as sleeping blankets and as shields. Sometimes they decorated the fur with ákel (ochre mixed with animal fat). The women wore necklaces and bracelets, while the men wore impressive feathered headdresses called ohn or oon. As a symbol of adulthood, the men were given a triangular headdress called a kochel, which they wore across their foreheads on every hunt. All members of the group wore their hair long, with bangs across the forehead. Body paint was a central element of Selk’nam cultural expression, and the people had special designs for different occasions—hunting, combat, peacetime, tournaments, duels, and so on. They painted themselves every day for practical as well as aesthetic reasons. In regard to color, red was considered the most attractive. Each individual a personal supply of ákel, which was also used for bartering. The designs they used for ceremonies were highly sophisticated.

  • Social Organization

    Tierra del Fuego’s Isla Grande was divided into haruwen (territories), each occupied by an extended family group. Selk’nam society was organized around four basic social institutions. The first was concerned with territories called “skies” or shó´on. These were: North, South, and West (the fourth, the East, was occupied by a different group, the Haush). Each individual was identified by his or her territory of birth or residence (shó´on). The Selk’nam concept of shó´on was an organizing principle with great social and ceremonial significance, as it defined the main exogamous entities: individuals belonged to their father’s shó´on and could not marry within that group, whether blood relations or not. Kinship relations were bilateral and included all blood relatives up to the third and fourth generation. This organization configured community life and regulated the selection of spouses, who could not be blood relatives. Exceptions were made in special cases; for instance, a man could marry the daughter of his mother’s brother. The Selk’nam also had lineages, which were patrilineal and patrilocal and included all relatives living in the same haruwen. The final institution was the aska, which included the immediate family and close relatives. Askas were numerous, as polygamy was common and each wife bore an average of five children. In general, families migrated within their own haruwen, moving outside of this sphere only on rare occasions, such as for a whale beaching, bird hunting, the Hain initiation ceremony, and sports tournaments. Selk’nam society had no official governing bodies, but adults wielded a natural authority over young people. Selk’nam society could be described as egalitarian and individualist, as each person followed his or her own interests or those of the lineage. There was no system of tributes or gifts, and the people did not accumulate wealth. However, haruwens did differ in size and wealth and the sexual division of labor was not equal. Certain individuals who performed certain roles in Selk’nam society were given higher social status. The Xo´on (shamans) played a major role in all social arenas, having functions related to the hunt, war, curing the sick, and ensuring subsistence, among other concerns.

  • Beliefs and Funeral Rites

    The Selk’nam had a complex ideology that was expressed through myths, legends, rites and intricate social ceremonies. They had a monotheistic religion that recognized a divine spirit, Temaukel, as supreme being. Temaukel existed before the world and men were created and was omnipresent, incorporeal and above all, distant. Members of the Selk’nam were expressly forbidden to mention this being directly and under no circumstances were to say his name. Temaukel, they believed, had created the world from the formless mass and the starless sky, and had passed down the laws of conduct to men through Kenós—a corporeal being, noble and irreproachable, who shared no kinship with Temaukel. Kenós had been charged with populating the earth and endowing it with life and happiness. According to the Selk’nam, Temaukel and Kenós were the only inhabitants of the heavens, making it likely that their religion was worldly—the people did not look beyond the reality of earth and did not prepare themselves for a life beyond. Worship was a private, though minor, matter to the Selk’nam, who never had any public forms of worship.

    Foremost among Selk’nam rites was the Hain, which has its origins in a Selk’nam myth that tells of a time when women reigned supreme through a matriarchy in which females ruled the males, forcing them to work to provide subsistence while the women took their leisure. The story tells how the men discovered they had been tricked and then murdered all of the women initiates. To prevent the resurgence of female power, they introduced the Hain, a secret society from which women were excluded. The Hain ritual served a four-fold social purpose, being used as a rite of passage for young Selk’nam males, known as the Klóketen; to ‘instruct’ women through the representation of male domination; to gather the group together; and to act out a ritual that was crucial to Selk’nam society. Little is known about Selk’nam burial customs, as few burial sites have been identified. Because they moved around frequently, the people may have buried their dead in an ad hoc manner, and not in identifiable burial sites. The humidity of the region may also have allowed buried bodies to decompose more quickly.

  • Settlement Pattern

    In their search for resources, the Selk’nam moved around in family groups, occasionally meeting with other groups (for trade, important ceremonies, whale beachings, etc.). They lived in temporary camps for short periods, from a few days to a few weeks, and built two kinds of dwellings there. The less common were Kauwi, conical structures found in forested areas, where wood was available. These had an average diameter of 3.5–4.5 meters, with the exact size depending on the group they would house, usually one to three families. These buildings were usually constructed for the Hain ritual. The more commonly found type of Selk’nam dwelling was the windbreak or tent. These were more or less cone-shaped structures made of trunks and branches covered with guanaco or sea lion hides. They were temporary structures that could be assembled and dismantled quickly and easily, which was the work of the women of the group. The covering consisted of 6 to 16 hides stitched together, while the tents themselves were erected in a depression or hole dug out of the ground to a depth of around 25 to 40 cm, around 1-3 meters in diameter. The hearth was always located at the center of the dwelling. The floor of the residence was covered with grass and small branches for insulation, and sleeping skins were laid over this layer. Both types of structures served as single or multi-family dwellings. In summer, when the weather was good, the windbreak was set up in an open semicircle, while in winter it was enclosed and reinforced. When several families camped in the same spot, they erected their tents 25 to 40 meters apart, where possible.

  • History

    Chile’s Selk’nam people were also known as the Ona, a Yamana word meaning “northward” or “northern.” They are completely extinct today. The Selk’nam’s first contact with Europeans was with the expedition of Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa in 1580, but no regular contact was established until 1880, when the European occupation of Tierra del Fuego began, initially in search of alluvial gold and later to take advantage of its extensive plains for sheep ranching. Contact was mainly violent at first, with clashes between the local Selk-nam and gold miners resulting in the capture and rape of native women. In 1883, however, the government issued the first sheep ranching concession for the island’s northern sector. By 1885 the natives were killing the sheep and the colonists began killing the natives. Anglican missionary Thomas Bridges urged the aboriginals to respect the colonists’ property, a request that was incomprehensible to a people who felt entitled hunt to all animals within their territory, whether guanaco or “white guanaco.” The fencing of the sheep ranches severely restricted the movement of the Selk-nam, forcing them into the mountains and forests of the island’s southern region, which led to territorial conflicts with other groups.

    Around the same time, the Salesian religious order founded missions on Dawson Island (1889) and on the site of the future city of Río Grande (1896). The policy of concentrating the native population around the missions created the ideal conditions for the spread of infectious diseases, which caused many deaths among the natives from tuberculosis, influenza, pneumonia, measles, scarlet fever and venereal disease. Indeed, the 1880-1905 period could be said to be the final chapter in Selk-nam history. Severely depleted, the surviving population took refuge in the southern part of the island, in the Salesian missions and along the Beagle Channel, near the mission established by Bridges.

  • Language

    The Selk’nam language is one of the Fuegian languages, along with Yámana. These were mutually intelligible languages that had no apparent genealogical relation. The language is extinct today.



Share this