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|Selk'nam children, 1898|
|505 (2001)|
|Regions with significant populations|
|Related ethnic groups|
The Selk'nam, also known as the Onawo or Ona people are 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 reached by Westerners in the late 19th century, when 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).
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, whence they departed 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.
Relations with whites 
The Selk'nam had little contact with Spanish colonizers. Settlers only arrived in the late 19th century, and used a great part of the land of Tierra del Fuego to establish 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 sheep, behavior which was perceived as banditry by ranch owneers. Ranchers supported armed groups to hunt down and kill the Selk'nam. To receive their bounty, such groups first had to return with the ears of the victims. After some ear-less Selk'nam were seen to be wandering the grounds the process was changed to exchanging a complete head for bounty. Relations with whites in the Beagle Channel area were somewhat more cordial, especially with the Bridges family, founders of Estancia Harberton and Ushuaia. Lucas Bridges, one of three sons of Thomas Bridges, did much to help the local cultures, learning the languages of the various groups and trying to provide the natives with the space in which to live their customary lives as "lords of their own land". Alas, it turned out to be too little, too late, but Bridges' book, "Uttermost part of the earth", gives a sympathetic insight into the natives' lives.
Two missions by Christian missionaries were eventually 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, and 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'nams. Martín Gusinde wrote in 1919 that only 279 Selk'nams remained and the salesian Lorenzo Massa counted them in 1945 to 25. In May 1974, Ángela Loij, the last ever fullblood Selk'nam died.
Culture and religion 
The missions did a remarkable job in collecting information about Selk'nam religion and traditions. A short dictionary of the Selk'nam language was also created.
The Selknam spoke a Chon language.
Selk'nam religion was a complex systems of beliefs. It more or less denied the existence of a supreme being; these beings were only mentioned in one legend as a part of the past, in creation myth.
Temáukel was the name of a great supernatural entity they considered keeping the world order, even though the creator deity of the world was called Kénos or Quénos.
Initiation ceremonies 
Young males were called to a dark hut. There they would be attacked by "spirits" - actually people disguised as such. The children were taught to fear these spirits at childhood and were threatened by them in case they misbehaved. These now-young men did not know these spirits were not real, and they were to go to them and unmask them. After they saw that these "spirits" were actually human beings, they were then told a story of world creation about the Sun and Moon. Also, there was a story told (actually part of the same story) that at one time women used these spirits to control men: they would disguise themselves as spirits and threaten the men while the men did not know that these were not spirits at all. Once they found out, it was done vice-versa - women did not know that the spirits weren't real, while males found out at the initiation age. However it was more like a joke at these times, without males actually using spirits to control women, unlike the women had supposedly done in the past. After this first day, there were various related ceremonies - males showing 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 had its typical actions, words and such as well as typical outside looks. Therefore Selk'nam were perhaps the only Amerindian nation to have a theater tradition - the best actors from previous Hains were called again to impersonate spirits in later Hains.
The Hain used to take a very long time, perhaps even a year on occasion, at the times when Selk'nam were not in touch with Europeans. 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), and by then all the Selk'nam from all the tribes 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 doing various things related to their characters. The last Hain was held in one of the missions in the early 20th century, and it was photographed by the missionary. It was of course a much shorter and smaller ceremony than it used to be when Selk'nam were still free, but it still provides a good insight into traditions of this nation. The photos depict various "spirit" clothings too.
Pictures of Selk'nam people taken by the missionaries are available in 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 attempted to collect information about other local nations - but unlike with Selk'nams, whom he visited whilst still numerous, the missionary visited and spent some time with people of other cultures only when their nations were already reduced and consisted only of a few people; therefore it was not possible to write as much about them as was written about the Selk'nam. According to the Argentine census of 2001, there were 391 Ona living in the island of Tierra del Fuego and a further 114 in other parts of Argentina.
See also 
- 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 
- 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
- Gusinde, Martin: Nordwind—Südwind. Mythen und Märchen der Feuerlandindianer. E. Röth, Kassel, 1966
- About the Ona Indian Culture in Tierra Del Fuego
- 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.
Further reading 
- Luis Alberto Borrero, Los Selk'nam (Onas), Galerna, Buenos Aires 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.
- A Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary about a Chilean linguistic prodigy who is helping revive the Selk'nam language.
- Lola Kiepja. Selk'nam (Ona) Chants of Tierra del Fuego, Argentina (Streamed tracks on Napster from the audio CD)).
- Excerpts from the same material on Amazon.com