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The Selk'nam people, also known as the 'Ona, were an indigenous people who inhabited the northeastern part of the archipelago of Tierra del Fuego for thousands of years before Europeans arrived. They were nomads known as "foot-people," as they did their hunting on land, rather than being seafarers.
The last full-blooded Selk'nam, Ángela Loij, died in 1974. They were one of the last aboriginal groups in South America to be reached by Europeans. Their language, believed to be part of the Chonan family, is considered extinct as the last speakers died in the 1980s.
The Selk'nam had lived for thousands of years of semi-nomadic life in Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego (literally, "big island of land of fire;" its name was based on early Spanish explorers' observations of smoke from Selk'nam bonfires.) They lived in the northeast, with the Haush people to their east on the Mitre Peninsula, and the Yaghan people to the west and south, in the central part of the main island and throughout southern islands of the archipelago.
In the 1880s, British introduced sheep ranches to the large open areas of Tierra del Fuego. Numerous British immigrants arrived to work in the new industry, some remain in Falkland Islands. The ranches created strong conflicts with the Selk'nam natives, who had traditionally hunted this territory and considered the sheep game. They had no concept of European property rights. The large ranchers tried to run off the Selk'nam, then began a campaign of extermination against them, with the compliance of the Argentine and Chilean governments. Large companies paid sheep farmers or militia one pound sterling per Selk'nam dead, which was confirmed by the redemption of a pair of hands or ears, or later a complete skull.
Repression against the Selk'nam persisted into the early twentieth century. Chile moved some Selk'nam to Dawson Island, confining them in an internment or concentration camp. Argentina finally allowed Salesian missionaries to aid the Selk'nam and attempt to assimilate them, but their culture and people were largely destroyed.
According to the 2010 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger, the Ona language is extinct, as the last speakers died in the 1980s.
- Adelaar 2010, p. 92.
- Adelaar, Willem (2010). "South America". In Christopher (ed.), Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger, 3rd Edition. UNESCO. pp. 86–94.
- Luis Alberto Borrero, Los Selk'nam (Onas), Galerna, Buenos Aires 2007.
- Lucas Bridges, Uttermost Part of the Earth, London 1948.
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