|This article needs additional citations for verification. (June 2006)|
Selk'nam children, 1898
|505 (2001)|
|Regions with significant populations|
|Argentina and Chile|
|Selknam language (Ona)|
|Related ethnic groups|
|Haush, Tehuelche, Teushen|
The Selk'nam, also known as the Onawo or Ona people, were an indigenous people in the Patagonian region of southern Argentina and Chile, including the Tierra del Fuego islands. They were one of the last aboriginal groups in South America to be encountered by ethnic Europeans or Westerners in the late 19th century. With the discovery of gold and expansion of sheep farming, the Argentine and Chilean governments began efforts to explore and integrate Tierra del Fuego (literally, the "land of fire" based on early European explorers observing Selk'nam smoke from their bonfires) into their cultures.
While the Selk'nam are closely associated with habitation of the northeastern area of Tierra del Fuego, their early origins are likely from the mainland. They migrated thousands of years ago by canoe across the Strait of Magellan. Their territory in the early Holocene likely ranged as far as the Cerro Benitez area of the Cerro Toro mountain range, both in Chile.
Traditionally, the Selk'nam were nomadic people and survived by hunting. They dressed sparingly, a remarkable feat given the cold climate of Patagonia. They shared Tierra del Fuego with the Haush (or Manek'enk), another nomadic culture that lived in the south-eastern part of the island. Also in the region were the Yámana or Yahgan.
Relations with whites
The Selk'nam had little contact with ethnic Europeans until settlers arrived in the late 19th century. They developed a great part of the land of Tierra del Fuego as large estancias - sheep ranches, thus depriving the natives from their ancestral hunting areas. Selk'nam, who had an understanding of sheep herds as game and not private property, hunted the sheep. The ranch owners considered this to be poaching of their property. They supported armed groups or militia to hunt down and kill the Selk'nam, what is now called the Selk'nam Genocide. To receive their bounty, such groups first had to bring back the ears of the victims.
Salesian missionaries worked to protect and preserve Selk'nam culture. Father José María Beauvoir explored the region and studied the native Patagonian cultures and languages between 1881 and 1924. He compiled a vocabulary of Selk'nam of 4,000 words and 1400 phrases and sentences, which was published in 1915. It also included a comparative list of 150 Ona-Tehuelche words, to provide evidence of connections to the Tehuelche people and language to the north.
Relations with whites in the Beagle Channel area in the southern area of the island of Tierra del Fuego were somewhat more cordial. Thomas Bridges, who had been an Anglican missionary at Ushuaia, retired from that service. He was given a large land grant by the Argentine government, where he founded Estancia Harberton. Lucas Bridges, one of his three sons, did much to help the local cultures. Like his father, he learned the languages of the various groups and tried to provide the natives with some space in which to live their customary lives as "lords of their own land". The forces of change were against them, and the indigenous people continued to have high fatality rates as their cultures were disrupted. Lucas Bridges' book, Uttermost Part of the Earth (1948), provides sympathetic insight into the lives of the Selk'nam and Yahgan.
Two missions by Christian missionaries were established to save the Selk'nam. The missions were meant to provide housing and food for the natives, but were forced to close due to the limited number of Selk'nam remaining. While Selk'nam numbered in the thousands before Western colonization, by the early twentieth century only several hundred remained. The last ethnic Selk'nam died in the mid-twentieth century.
Alejandro Cañas estimated that in 1896 there was a population of 3,000 Selk'nam. Martín Gusinde, an Austrian priest and ethnologist who studied them in the early 20th century, wrote in 1919 that only 279 Selk'nam remained. In 1945 the Salesian missionary, Lorenzo Massa, counted 25. In May 1974, Ángela Loij died; she was the last full-blood Selk'nam. The tribe is extinct, although descendants of partial Selk'nam ancestry are likely.
Culture and religion
The missions and early 20th-century anthropologists collected information about Selk'nam religion and traditions while trying to help them preserve their culture. Missionaries also compiled a short dictionary of the Selk'nam language.
The Selknam spoke a Chon language.
Selk'nam religion was a complex systems of beliefs. It described spirit beings as a part of the past, in creation myth. Temáukel was the name of the great supernatural entity who they believed kept the world order. The creator deity of the world was called Kénos or Quénos.
Young males were called to a dark hut. There they would be attacked by "spirits" - people disguised as such. The children were taught to fear these spirits at childhood and were threatened by them in case they misbehaved. The youths did not know these spirits were not real. Their task was to go and unmask them. When they saw that the spirits were human, they were told a story of world creation related to the Sun and Moon.
In a related story, they were told that in the past, women used to be disguised as spirits to control men. When the men discovered the masquerade, they in turn would threaten women as spirits. According to the men, the women never learned that the masked males were not truly spirits, but the males found out at the initiation rite.
The contemporary ceremonies used this interplay in somewhat of a joking way. After the first day, related ceremonies and rituals took place. Males showed their "strength" in front of women by fighting spirits (who were other males but the women did not know it) in some theatrical fights. Each spirit was played with traditional actions, words and gestures, so that everyone could identify it. The best spirit actors from previous Hains were called again to impersonate spirits in later Hains.
Apart from these dramatic re-enactments of mythic events, the Hain involved tests for courage, resourcefulness, resisting temptation, resisting pain and overcoming fear. It also included prolonged instructional courses to train the young men in the tasks for which they would be responsible.
Before European encounter, the various rites of the Hain could take a very long time, perhaps even a year on occasion. It would end with the last fight against the "worst" spirit. Usually Hains were started when there was enough food (for example a whale was washed on coast), a time when all the Selk'nam from all the bands used to gather at one place, in male and female camps. "Spirits" sometimes went to female encampments to scare them as well as going around the place and acting out in ways that related to their characters.
The last Hain was held in one of the missions in the early 20th century, and it was photographed by Gusinde. It was a shorter and smaller ceremony than they used to hold. The photos show the "spirit" costumes they created and wore.
Pictures of Selk'nam people taken by the missionaries are displayed at the Martin Gusinde Anthropological Museum at Puerto Williams. There are also a few books on the subject, including Selk'nam tales, collected by the missions, and a dictionary of the Selk'nam language. Due to early contact by missionaries, it was possible to gather much more information about the Selk'nam people than about other peoples of the region.
The same missionary also tried to collect information about other local nations, but he found their numbers much reduced. He was able to write more about traditional Selk'nam culture because it was still being lived. According to the Argentine census of 2001, there were 391 Selk'nam (Ona) living in the island of Tierra del Fuego, and an additional 114 in other parts of Argentina.
- Anitei, Stefan. The Enigma of the Natives of Tierra del Fuego - Are Alacaluf and Yahgan the last Native Black Americans?
- Frederick Webb Hodge, Proceedings: Held at Washington, December 27–31, 1915, original from Harvard University, 649 pages
- C. Michael Hogan, Cueva del Milodon, The Megalithic Portal, ed. A. Burnham, 2008 
- Furlong, Charles Wellington (December 1915). "The Haush And Ona, Primitive Tribes Of Tierra Del Fuego". Proceedings Of The Nineteenth International Congress Of Americanists: 445–446. Retrieved 2009-08-16.
- Gerardo Rafael Álvarez. Explotación ganadera y exterminio de la raza ona
- * Dick Edgar Ibarra Grasso. Cosmogonia y Mitología Indígena Americana, Editorial Kier, 1997. página 65. ISBN 950-17-0064-X, 9789501700640
- Martin Gusinde: Nordwind—Südwind. Mythen und Märchen der Feuerlandindianer (North Wind-South Wind. Myths and Fables of the Fuegian Indians). Kassel: E. Röth, 1966
- About the Ona Indian Culture in Tierra Del Fuego, Victory Cruises
- Anne Chapman, Drama and Power in a Hunting Society: the Selk'nam of Tierra del Fuego, Cambridge 1982
- Philip McCouat, "Art and Survival in Patagonia", Journal of Art in Society http://www.artinsociety.com
- Furlong, Charles Wellington (December 1915). "The Haush And Ona, Primitive Tribes Of Tierra Del Fuego". Proceedings Of The Nineteenth International Congress Of Americanists: 432–444. Retrieved 2009-08-16.
- Luis Alberto Borrero, Los Selk'nam (Onas), Buenos Aires: Galerna, 2007.
- Lucas Bridges, Uttermost Part of the Earth, London, 1948.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Ona.|
- About the Ona Indian Culture in Tierra Del Fuego.
- Documentary about a Chilean linguistic prodigy who is helping revive the Selk'nam language, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 2 July 2001
- Lola Kiepja. Selk'nam (Ona) Chants of Tierra del Fuego, Argentina (Streamed tracks on Napster from the audio CD)).