Selk'nam people

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Selk'nam children, 1898
Total population
2,761 (Argentina, 2010 est.)[1]
1,144 (Chile, 2017)[2]
Regions with significant populations
Argentina and Chile (294 in Tierra del Fuego).
At least 11 live in United States
Spanish, formerly Selk'nam (Ona),
1 person speaks the language in Chile.[3]
Animism, Christianity
Related ethnic groups
Haush, Tehuelche, Teushen

The Selk'nam, also known as the Onawo or Ona people,[note 1] 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 native groups in South America to be encountered by migrant Europeans in the late 19th century. In the mid-19th century, there were about 4,000 Selk'nam; by 1919 there were 297, and by 1930 just over 100.[5]

Until 2023, they were considered extinct as a tribe. Settlement, gold mining and the farming in the region of Tierra del Fuego were followed by the Selk'nam genocide.

While the Selk'nam are closely associated with living in the northeastern area of Tierra del Fuego,[6] they are believed to have originated as a people on the mainland. Thousands of years ago, they migrated by canoe across the Strait of Magellan.[7] Their territory in the early Holocene probably ranged as far as the Cerro Benítez area of the Cerro Toro mountain range in Chile.[8]


Distribution of the pre-Hispanic people in the Southern Patagonia

Traditionally, the Selk'nam were nomadic people who relied on hunting for survival. They dressed sparingly despite the cold climate of Patagonia. They shared Tierra del Fuego with the Haush (Manek'enk), another nomadic culture who lived in the south-eastern part of the island. Also in the region were the Yahgan (Yámana).

Relations with Europeans[edit]

Selk'nam people

In late 1599, a small Dutch fleet led by Olivier van Noort entered the Strait of Magellan and had a hostile encounter with Selk'nam which left about forty Selk'nam dead.[9] It was the bloodiest recorded event in the strait until then.[9]

James Cook described meeting a people in Tierra del Fuego in 1769 that used pieces of glass in their arrowheads. Cook believed the glass had been a gift from the French explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville, indicating potentially several early contacts.[10]

The Selk'nam had little contact with ethnic Europeans until settlers arrived in the late 19th century. These newcomers developed a great part of the land of Tierra del Fuego as large estancias (ranches), depriving the natives of their ancestral hunting areas. The Selk'nam, who did not have a concept of private property, considered the sheep herds to be game and hunted the sheep. The ranch owners regarded this as poaching, and paid armed groups or militia to hunt down and kill the Selk'nam, in what is now called the Selk'nam genocide.

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 4,000 word vocabulary of the Selk'nam language, and 1,400 phrases and sentences, which was published in 1915. He included a comparative list of 150 Ona-Tehuelche words, as he believed that there were connections to the Tehuelche people and language to the north.[11] German anthropologist Robert Lehmann-Nitsche published the first scholarly studies of the Selk'nam, although he was later criticized for having studied members of the Selk'nam people who had been abducted and were exhibited in circuses.[12]

Relations with Europeans in the Beagle Channel area in the southern area of the island of Tierra del Fuego were somewhat more cordial than with the ranchers. 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." However the forces of change were against the indigenous tribes, who 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.

Selk'nam genocide[edit]

Julius Popper during a manhunt of the Selk'nam people. In the late 19th century estancieros and gold prospectors launched a campaign of extermination against the indigenous peoples of Tierra del Fuego.

The Selk'nam genocide was the genocide of the Selk'nam people from the second half of the 19th to the early 20th century. The genocide spanned a period of between ten and fifteen years. The Selk'nam had an estimated population of 4,000 people around the 1880s but saw their numbers reduced to 500 by the early 1900s.[13][14]

In 1879, the presence of significant gold deposits in the sands of the main rivers of Tierra del Fuego were reported. Hundreds of foreign adventurers came to the island in search of fortune, conflicting with the indigenous population.[15] However, resources of the metal depleted rapidly.

Ranching became the center of controversy in the Magellanic colony. The colonial authorities were aware of the indigenous group's plight, but sided with the ranchers' cause over the Selk'nam, who were excluded from their worldview based on "progress" and "civilization." Ranchers typically exercised their own judgement, including the financing of violent campaigns. Considerable numbers of foreign men were hired and quantities of arms were imported for these campaigns, with the goal of eliminating the Selk'nam, who were perceived as a major obstacle to the success of colonists' investments. Farm employees later confirmed the routine nature of such campaigns.

The shareholders of the Company for the Exploitation of Tierra del Fuego (Sociedad Explotadora de Tierra del Fuego) strove to hide their actions towards native tribes from the public. This was both a means for the company to avoid questioning and a strategy to lower its controversial profile. Special attention was paid to these events after the intervention of the Salesian missionaries, who condemned the actions of the ranchers while themselves unintentionally contributing to the extermination of native cultures.

Beginning in the 1890s, the situation of the Selk'nam became severe. As the territories of the north began to be largely occupied by farms and ranches, many indigenous people, beset by hunger and persecuted by colonists, started to flee towards the extreme south of the island. This region was already inhabited by indigenous groups who had a strong sense of ownership over the land. Consequently, the fights for control of territory intensified.

Julius Popper (on left) shooting, with a Selk'nam corpse visible in the foreground

The large ranchers tried to drive out the Selk'nam, then began a campaign of extermination against them, with the complicity of the Argentine and Chilean governments. Large companies paid sheep farmers or militia a bounty for each Selk'nam dead, which was confirmed by the presentation of a pair of hands or ears or, later, a complete skull. They were given more for the death of a woman than a man. The predicament of the Selk'nam worsened with the establishment of religious missions, which disrupted their livelihood through forcible relocation[citation needed] and inadvertently brought with them deadly epidemics.

Repression against the Selk'nam persisted into the early twentieth century.[16] Chile moved most of the Selk'nam in their territory to Dawson Island in the mid-1890s, confining them to a Salesian mission. Argentina finally allowed Salesian missionaries to aid the Selk'nam and attempt to assimilate them[when?], with their traditional culture and livelihoods then completely interrupted.

Later conflicts between governor Manuel Señoret and the head of the Salesian mission José Fagnano[17] only served to worsen, rather than improve, conditions for the Selk'nam. Long disputes between civil authorities and priests did not allow a satisfactory solution to the indigenous issue. Governor Señoret favored the ranchers' cause, and took little interest in the incidents that took place in Tierra del Fuego.

Selk'nam people in 1930

Two Christian missions were established to preach to the Selk'nam. They were intended to provide housing and food for the natives, but closed due to the small number of Selk'nam remaining; they had numbered in the thousands before Western colonization, but by the early twentieth century only a few hundred remained. The last ethnic Selk'nam died in the mid-20th 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.[18] In May 1974 Ángela Loij, the last full-blood Selk'nam, died. There are probably surviving descendants of partial Selk'nam ancestry. 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.[citation needed]

Culture and religion[edit]

Bow and arrows.
Selk'nam family

The missions and early 20th-century anthropologists collected information about Selk'nam religion and traditions while trying to help them preserve their culture. Missionary José María Beauvoir compiled a dictionary of the Selk'nam language.


The Selk'nam spoke a Chon language. The last native speaker died in 1974.


Selk'nam religion was a complex system of beliefs, with a 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.[19]

The Selk'nam had individuals who took shaman-like roles. Such a xon (IPA: [xon]) had supernatural capabilities, e.g. to control weather.[20][21]

Initiation ceremonies[edit]

Male painted for initiation rite of Selk'nam people

The Selk'nam male initiation ceremony, the passage to adulthood, was called Hain. Nearby indigenous peoples, the Yahgan and Haush, had similar initiation ceremonies.

Young males were called to a dark hut. There they would be attacked by "spirits", who were men dressed as supernatural beings. Children were taught to believe in and fear these spirits during childhood and were threatened by them in case they misbehaved.[citation needed] The boys' task in this rite of passage was to unmask the spirits; when the boys 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 men 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 men but the women supposedly 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 young males 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.[22][23]

Before European encounter, the various rites of the Hain lasted 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 onto the coast), a time when all the Selk'nam from all the groups would gather at one place, in male and female camps. "Spirits" sometimes went to female encampments to scare them, as well as moving around and acting in ways that related to their characters.

The last Hain was held in one of the missions in the early 20th century, and was photographed by missionary Martin Gusinde. It was a shorter and smaller ceremony than used to be held. The photographs show the "spirit" costumes the Selk'nam created and wore. Gusinde's The Lost Tribes of Tierra Del Fuego (2015) was published in English by Thames & Hudson, and in French and Spanish by Éditions Xavier Barral.[24]

Heritage and current status[edit]

Flags used by current Selk'nam organizations.

Photographs of Selk'nam people taken by the missionaries are displayed at the Martin Gusinde Anthropological Museum in 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 (Ona) language. Due to early contact by missionaries, much more information was collected about the Selk'nam people than about other people of the region.

Austrian priest and ethnologist Gusinde tried also to collect information about other local people, but he found their numbers much reduced. He was able to write more about traditional Selk'nam culture because it was still being lived.

The 2010 National Population Census in Argentina revealed the existence of 2,761 people who recognized themselves as Selk'nam throughout the country, 294 of them in the province of Tierra del Fuego, Antarctica and South Atlantic Islands.

1,144 people declared themselves to be of Selk’nam ethnicity in the Chilean census in 2017. The descendants of the previously considered extinct Selk'nam people are in the process of cultural reappropriation and recreation and do not consider themselves or their people as extinct. On 5 September 2023 the National Congress of Chile recognized the Selk’nam as one of the 11 original peoples of Chile, accepting them as a living community of Chile. As part of the official recognition, members of parliament regretted the role Chilean and Argentinean states had played in massacres against Indigenous people.[25]


  1. ^ According to Lucas Bridges, the people called themselves Selk'nam (Shilknum); the Yahgan people called them Ona.[4]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Censo Nacional de Población, Hogares y Viviendas 2010: Resultados definitivos: Serie B No 2: Tomo 1" (PDF) (in Spanish). INDEC. p. 281. Archived from the original (PDF) on 8 December 2015. Retrieved 5 December 2015.
  2. ^ "Estudio confirma al pueblo Selk'nam como etnia viva y facilita su reconocimiento legal". El Mostrador (in Spanish). 6 June 2022. Retrieved 10 February 2022.
  3. ^ Thurman, Judith (23 March 2015). "A loss for words: Can a dying language be saved?". The New Yorker. Condé Nast. Retrieved 15 October 2022.
  4. ^ Bridges, E. Lucas (1948). Uttermost Part of the Earth (2022 ed.). Echo Point Books & Media, LLC. p. 62. ISBN 978-1648372810.
  5. ^ Gardini, Walter (1984). "Restoring the Honour of an Indian Tribe-Rescate de una tribu". Anthropos. 79 (4/6): 645–47. JSTOR 40461884.
  6. ^ Anitei, Stefan. "The Enigma of the Natives of Tierra del Fuego – Are Alacaluf and Yahgan the last Native Black Americans?", Softpedia
  7. ^ Frederick Webb Hodge, Proceedings: Held at Washington, December 27–31, 1915, original from Harvard University, 649 pages
  8. ^ C. Michael Hogan, Cueva del Milodon, The Megalithic Portal, ed. A. Burnham, 2008 [1]
  9. ^ a b Martinic, Mateo (1977). Historia del Estrecho de Magallanes (in Spanish). Santiago: Andrés Bello. pp. 73–74.
  10. ^ Hough, Richard (1994). Captain James Cook A Biography. London: Hodder & Stoughton. pp. 78–79.
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ Ballestero, Diego (2013). Los espacios de la antropología en la obra de Robert Lehmann-Nitsche, 1894-1938 (PhD) (in Spanish). Universidad Nacional de La Plata.
  13. ^ "Selk'nam: Tierra del Fuego's last forgotten tribe". Chimu Adventures Blog. 2016-10-29. Retrieved 2022-08-18.
  14. ^ Chapman 2010, p. 544.
  15. ^ Spears, John (1895). The Gold Diggings of Cape Horn. A study of Life in Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia. New York. ISBN 9-7805-4834-724-9.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  16. ^ Adelaar 2010, p. 92.
  17. ^ Emery, Carlo (1894). ""Viaggio del Dr. E. Festa in Palestina, nel Libano e regioni vicine. XI Descrizione di un nuove Campanotus"" ["Journey of Dr. E. Festa in Palestine, Lebanon and neighboring regions. XI Description of a new Campanotus".]. Bollettino dei musei di zoologia ed anatomia comparata della Reale Università di Torino (in Italian). 9: 1–2. doi:10.5962/bhl.part.8049.
  18. ^ Gerardo Rafael Álvarez. Explotación ganadera y exterminio de la raza ona (in Spanish)
  19. ^ Dick Edgar Ibarra Grasso. Cosmogonia y Mitología Indígena Americana, Editorial Kier, 1997. página 65 (in Spanish). ISBN 950-17-0064-X, ISBN 9789501700640
  20. ^ Martin Gusinde: Nordwind—Südwind. Mythen und Märchen der Feuerlandindianer (North Wind-South Wind. Myths and Fables of the Fuegian Indians). Kassel: E. Röth, 1966
  21. ^ About the Ona Indian Culture in Tierra Del Fuego Archived 2015-06-14 at the Wayback Machine, Victory Cruises
  22. ^ Anne Chapman, Drama and Power in a Hunting Society: the Selk'nam of Tierra del Fuego, Cambridge 1982
  23. ^ Philip McCouat, "Art and Survival in Patagonia", Journal of Art in Society
  24. ^ Glenn H. Shepard Jr., "Specters of a Civilization:" review of Martin Gusinde's Lost Tribes of Tierra del Fuego, New York Review of Books, 9 August 2015, accessed 9 September 2015
  25. ^ Pimenta, Marcio; Radovic Fanta, Nina; Barretto Briso, Caio (3 October 2023). "'We are alive and we are here': Chile's lost tribe celebrates long-awaited recognition". The Guardian. Retrieved 15 January 2024.

Further reading[edit]

  • Luis Alberto Borrero, Los Selk'nam (Onas), Buenos Aires: Galerna, 2007 (in Spanish)
  • Lucas Bridges, Uttermost Part of the Earth, London, 1948

External links[edit]