The People of Tierra del Fuego

Time for a wee history lesson!

Now I am not one who takes the history books at their word. I am sceptical of everyone and everything (hence why I am making my own volunteer organization!) but I have to admit that this does not always apply. I think we can safely say that the indigenous people of many nations had a terrible time, and none more so than the people of Tierra del Fuego, the region in the extreme south of Argentina and Chile.

It is difficult to obtain much information about them – indeed, Chileans don’t really talk about them. So I was happy to see a small section on the numerous groups at The Natural History Museum, in Quinta Normal.


Some Background

Tierra del Fuego is the bottom-most part of Patagonia, the cold, vast expanse that is shared by southern Chile and Argentina. It was inhabited by numerous indigenous groups such as the Ona, Selknam, Qawasgar and the Yagan. The organisation Cultural Survival describes this region as having each year: 80 blizzards, (up to) 5 metres of rain and snowfall and just 20 days of sunshine (1987). There is few fish, no arable land, and the Qawasgar Indians, for example, had no clothes, no musical instruments and only a few stone tools to use.

Today, small numbers of Qawasgar survive and many were brought to the island of Chiloe to work as boat hands (Cultural Survival, 1987). However, Cultural Survival reports that these workers are discriminated against and easily fall prey to alcoholism, which is encouraged by either low wages or by being paid in spirits (Cultural Survival). This prevailing attitude of racism is most likely connected to past ideologies which were noticed in 1853 by the ethnographer Samuel Kirkland Lothrop who wrote that Tierra del Fuego was viewed as a “strange and romantic land, peopled by unmitigated cannibals (…) the very distance of Tierra del Fuego from the places where most of us live is a gap (…) not only geographical, but racial and cultural as well” (210).

When Charles Darwin sailed through this region this gap would be noted down, in “The Voyage of the Beagle”, perhaps the most well known and most pervasive account of this area. Some of his descriptions may appear a little shocking to today’s sensibilities. In a 1833 letter he wrote: “In Tierra del [sic] I first saw bona fide savages; & they are as savage as the most curious person would desire.—A wild man is indeed a miserable animal, but one well worth seeing.”11 He wrote in his account that: “I could not have believed how wide was the difference between savage and civilised man: it is greater than between a wild and domesticated animal, inasmuch as in man there is a greater power of improvement. … Their skin is of a dirty coppery red colour. … The party altogether closely resembled the devils which come on the stage in plays like Der Freischutz.” (in Grigg, 2009).   Many of his statements were based on second-hand accounts, for example he stated that “The different tribes when at war are cannibals. From the concurrent, but quite independent evidence of the boy taken by Mr Low [a Scottish sealer], and of Jemmy Button, it is certainly true, that when pressed in winter by hunger, they kill and devour their old women before they kill their dogs: the boy, being asked by Mr Low why they did this, answered, “Doggies catch otters, old women no.” (in Grigg, 2009). This was false information but the idea spread like wildfire in the colonised world.


It is beyond sad to me that today nearly all of these original groups are extinct.  Please go here to hear recordings by the last of the Ona/Selk’nam people, Lola Skejpa.

I find it even more shocking when I go to a nightclub in Bellavista that uses images of sacred coming-of-age rituals as their decor, or when I visit museums and have the option of buying mugs and tshirts with these same pictures on.


These are the most popular images that we see of them today, in their traditional gear worn during the HAIN ceremony. In a nutshell, the Hain was a coming-of-age ceremony held by the Selk’nam. The Selk’nam had a fiercely patriarchal society that was re-enforced each year when young men would undergo a terrifying ordeal facing off demons ^. At the end of the ceremony, these ‘demons’ would disrobe and the adolescents would feel shock at the deception. This was then blamed upon the women of the tribe, who are blamed for misfortunes and as deceitful. Their beliefs can be read in more detail here.


The Natural History Museum

10931400_10153006196655097_1479809962739681015_nThe museum itself isn’t anything special but it is worth a trip even if you don’t speak Spanish. It’s one of many museums in Quinta Normal, which in itself is a lovely park to while away a few hours.  It’s also the place where I saw this shocking but evocative display:

10624823_10153006202620097_3787910348521634862_nThere is always some cool shops in front of the park gates. One of them sells lovely natural honey products such as soap.

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