The Selk’nam People, Once Declared Extinct, Reclaim Recognition

FROM THE EDITORS: Due to its geographical location, right in Ona-sin land (Tierra del Fuego), the Selk’nam People’s contact with the white man was marked by the forced transit of explorers and traders. Newcomers hunted local fauna to the point of extinction, species on which the Ona People depended on for sustenance. In the late 1800s, the colonization of the southern tip by the Argentina and Chile republics, as well as the British (for its strategic relevance in navigation, the British empire preserved territorial portions in the region) contributed to what is known as the Selk’nam genocide. The survivors were stripped of everything, including their children, who were forcibly taken away and taken to the mainland, on both sides of the border of the newly-formed republics. Officially, it was simpler for the “democratic” governments to declare the Selk’nam people extinct.

However, the Selk’nam are still here. In a communique, representatives of the Covadonga Ona Selk’nam Indigenous Organization are fundraising to get recognition as a First Nation peoples, “alive and present to reveal the history behind that official history, to lobby in the Chilean Congress to reform the law that declares us Selk’nam extinct.” The legislative branch is set to debate the proposed legislation in the near future to officially recognize the Selk’nam People.

It is impossible to know how many people in Tierra del Fuego are of Ona ancestry, because to survive they had to hide in forced Westernization, abandon their dress, their tradition, their culture, their language. However, its descendants have been able to overcome the terror, raising with pride, with dignity, and recognize themselves as the sons and daughters of that story, claiming the legal right to be recognized by history, by law, by right.

Below, we reproduce a personal testimony of this effort published by Herma’ny Molina, member of the Covadonga Ona indigenous community, and President of the Selk’nam People Organization (Corporación del Pueblo Selk´nam) in Chile.

Selk’nam People: Alive and Present

By Herma’ny Molina, January 7, 2020

The Selk’nam people are currently mixed within Chilean society; although invisible, we walk the streets of the country’s many cities with pride of being the heirs of a culture that is present in memory, at home and in our hearts. But one that is not known or recognized by Chilean society.

Unfortunately, history is always written by the victors and from that perspective, it is easy to understand why the existence of the Selk’nam people has been denied, since the official versions account for terrible events that happened in Tierra del Fuego, real events endorsed by the states of Chile and Argentina, in the context of colonization and economic momentum of the region. But that chapter is missing the version of the main protagonists, those Selk’nam Indians who were not present in the places where their people died. Either because they had been handed over to the colonists for domestic service, sent to the salt mines, settled with landowners, or brought out of the area as navigators, military officers, or simply because there were families that mobilized as survivors of the massacres and went into hiding.

Little is known about these stories, and it is because they have remained hidden; first, as an act of survival of those who knew themselves in danger, then the silence was transferred to their children, to which we must add shame, fueled by the great discrimination that the process of Chileanization and cultural homogenization brought with it … which, must be said, occurred horizontally to all the original peoples of Chile.

The Selk’nam were no exception to this process, and we went from exile and violent cultural intervention, to silence, and then resistance to our denial and discrimination which occurs without truce until today.

The reduction of the tribes, through paid killings, to grab their lands and hand them over to the settlers, as well as the exile of those who were sent to Dawson Island to be evangelized by the Salesians, created for onlookers the feeling that no Ona was left alive.

There is a historical fact that seems invisible, despite being known and widely documented: there are records from 1895 of Selk’nam who lived in rustic dwellings and wandered around Tierra del Fuego trying to maintain their natural way of life.

According to a judicial investigation that took place in Punta Arenas in 1895, 165 Selk’nam Indians were captured in Inútil Bay. They were to be sent to the San Rafael Salesian Mission on Dawson Island. However, at the whim of the then governor of Magellanes, Mr. Señoret, they were taken to Punta Arenas and presented as workers to settlers, friends of his inner circle. Upon realizing that no one accepted adult Indians, because they were too difficult to tame, they began to give away their children without contemplation or authorization from their parents. (“Sumario sobre vejámenes inferidos a indígenas de Tierra de Fuego”)

The big question is, what happened to all these Selk’nam children who were stolen and given away?

Although a legal brief was created and the presence of Selk’nam in the Chilean territory was evident, it would seem that this chapter in history never happened. The case was closed without finding none guilty or any punishment.

Martin Gusinde, a well-known German anthropologist who arrived in Chile in 1918, and who did important research on our people, after finishing his investigations made clear his theory in a letter sent to the governor of Magallanes, where he predicts a devastating future:

Mr. Governor,

It is a very pleasant duty for me to present to the governorship the report on the means of protecting and settle the Indians of Tierra del Fuego in accordance with the provisions of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, then Don Luis Izquierdo, dated January 1923 (LC Sec.CN, No. 4); in order for this government to transmit this report to that department. 1) As for the Ona Indians who are in the large island of Tierra del Fuego, the undersigned considers our supreme government already free of the obligation to intervene in the protection of this tribe, as all Indian survivors frequent, today, almost exclusively the Argentine territory.

(Source: “Martin Gusinde, expedición a Tierra del Fuego”)

Obviously, when he said that there was no Selk’nam left in Tierra del Fuego on the Chilean side, Martin Gusinde did not consider the children who were handed over to the families of Punta Arenas, nor the young people who were removed from the area.

It may have been due to ignorance of these facts or because he thought all Indians were already Chileanized and civilized, which is why he thought they should no longer be considered Selk’nam Indians.

In the 1960s there was another anthropologist, Anne Chapman, who finished sealing our history when carrying out her fieldwork in Rio Grande. She didn’t even bother to look for Selk’nam in Chile, (it is understood that she based her work on Gusinde’s, assuming that there were no more left in Chile), and on the contrary, she worked with only two women who in her opinion were pure Selk’nam (of Ona father and mother), denying the right of identity to all the rest who, mestizos or not, were Selk’nam by blood and identity rights.

When Lola Kiepja and Algela Loig died, who are made known by Chapman as the last Onas of pure origin (father and mother Ona) and last speakers of Selk’nam Chan (Selk’nam language), the language is assumed extinct and with it, a whole culture.

Today’s Reality

Pueblo Selk´nam. Foto:

Pueblo Selk´nam. Foto:

Unfortunately, changing reality is an unprecedented challenge for all Selk’nam who are currently dispersed throughout the territory; given the arguments presented, it is clear that although not visible, we exist. Quite the contrary, we are a people who have had to rise up and strengthen ourselves in the face of discrimination and the population’s refusal to listen to our arguments. Additionally, there is little interest from the academic world to understand the survival processes of each family, and an absolute indifference from the state, which simply assumes that we do not exist, without taking responsibility for past events or what happens to us in the present.

All this makes our work an odyssey both in everyday life, to keep our legacy within our homes and our communities, but also when trying to create spaces for dialogue and interaction with different organizations or entities of the state, since the latter has kept its immovable official position.

The historical need for recognition of the Selk’nam, Yagan, Kawéskar, and Aonikenk genocide by the state was raised in 2007 in a parliamentary motion of then-Senator Pedro Muñoz of Magallanes, which was discussed in the Culture Commissions in the Senate and House of Representatives.

In the Senate, the issue was discussed by referring to the Truth Commission’s report and new dealings with Indigenous Peoples, which defined the occupation of Southern Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego as genocidal. On that occasion, Mr. Andrés Chadwick and Mr. Mariano Ruiz-Esquide proposed replacing the term genocide with extinction, given the consequences that could be generated for the state if the term was accepted, an approach also backed by Senator Carlos Cantero. This would have lead to unanimously recognizing “the extinction of ethnicities.”

On the other hand, after the proposed legislation went to the Education Committee in the House, it was decided to use the concept of genocide. In plenary, Representatives Giovani Calderón (UDI) and Jorge Sabag (DC) opposed the recognition of the genocide, “because the crime against humanity does not prescribe and may result in compensation to the victims.”

Since then, the bill stalled for a long time without urgency.

Despite the government’s stance, there are voices that have risen in defense of the concept of genocide.

A long time ago, a petition was made through, launched by historians Nicolás Gómez, Alberto Harambour and Jorge Marchante, who directed a complaint to the Mayor of the Region of Magallanes and the Chilean Antarctic, Jorge Flies Añón, asking for the recognition of Selk’nam genocide by the Chilean state and the beginning of a historical reparation process to erect a memorial, repatriate the bodies of the deported Selk’nam, and dignify the memory of the victims of colonization.

Undoubtedly, we are infinitely grateful for these gestures, however, from our perspective, these are still discriminatory gestures because in these actions there is no previous study done in the spirit of finding out truly, we are extinct.

We are continually spectators of tributes, meetings, conversations, analysis, studies about us, but … without us. In general, there are only discussions about the past denying the sole possibility of our existence and cultural continuity in the present.

Our Community

Today’s reality is difficult, but at the same time, it contrasts with beautiful life experiences, getting reacquainted with our culture, meeting new families who must face their past and identify as Selk’nam, are all experiences that constitute feelings of happiness and pride that can hardly be described with words.

For the past 15 years there have been ties between Selk’nam families who know their ancestry. There is a whole body of work and silent dedication to keeping the memory alive, some customs that still remain, build community, and continue strengthening all those aspects that identify us with our ancestors: it has become our life goal.

The reunion between Selk’nam families enriches us, gives us more fragments of memory that become part of our collective memory and explain how our people have resisted a policy of extermination, genocide, denial, attempted cultural alienation, exile. It is even present in our resistance by recognizing our multiracial ancestry, to somehow remain and defend our cultural and spiritual historical heritage.

Our hope is to become stronger through it all. Currently, our dedication has paid off, our community has grown and with it, the needs of organizing and channeling our efforts, which materialized in the Corporación del Pueblo Selk’nam, an organization created to rescue and create appreciation for our cultural identity. (PJ 208698- 2015)

Through this organization, we have been able to establish a presence in the work with indigenous organizations of the Santiago commune and to be part of the communal table of the municipality, which has allowed us to be present as a People and a living culture officially since 2015, participating in different activities. As an example, we can say that it has been 5 years since our flag was raised on the front of the municipality of Santiago to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Month.

On the government side, we have had the possibility of being present in different consultations. Although we have been allowed to comment, our vote is not taken into consideration. We have been invited to the consultations of Culture, Education, health and even the constituent process, in which we had the possibility of holding our internal deliberation meeting, of course, financed by the Ministry of Social Development. We have had the bad experience of discrimination and have yet to see an end to that, however, we highlight the fact that we are present and that already is a breakthrough.

We’ve also worked for the past few years with Silva Henríquez University, which has become a source of support and a platform to carry out different activities and allow us visibility. For example, this will be the fifth year that we can count on their support to commemorate Selk’nam People’s Dignity Day, on November 25. That is, today there are institutions and support networks that allow us to have a window of hope.

Unfortunately, this hope has been overshadowed by the reactivation of the law that aims to establish the genocide of four pueblos of the Southern channels, Kawésqar, Yagán, Selk’nam, and Aonikenk. It’s important for the state to recognize that there was a genocide, however, this recognition is based on the basis that the Selk’nam and Aonikenk Peoples are extinct, which simply makes it a nefarious law that only intends to put a gravestone on our people without the possibility of demonstrating our ancestry and inherited ancestral rights through studies.

The Selk’nam today walk amongst millions of Chileans who use social networks, smartphones, who have conventional careers and dress fashionably like anyone else. The romanticism of fur and hunting has been left behind, however, it is still part of our culture, we continue to pass it from generation to generation. We wait in silence for the day when we do not have to defend ourselves just for being descendants of a People who, by convenience, misunderstandings or comfort, are preferably ignored and classified as extinct. When the truth is that we continue breathing and traveling through the streets and roads, restoring the hope not only for recognition and dignity, but also to return to Karokynka, our harowen, our land (Tierra del Fuego).

Herma’ny .

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