Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The ancient people of Tierra del Fuego

Tierra del Fuego is an archipelago off the southern tip of the South American continent, and is made up of several small islands that are exposed to the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, as well as the cold currents from Antarcica to the south.

This is a windswept land where winters are freezing cold and summers are cool, where a day can change from sunny and pleasant to bitterly cold with gale-force winds within hours.


Yet, this fascinating land has been occupied by humans for more than 12,000 years now. Nomadic hunter gatherers crossed a land bridge from the main continent to get here all those years ago, before the sea level rose and separated the islands from the mainland.

Their descendants, the Mannekenk and Selknam (or Ona) people still lived here in 1869 when the first white settler founded an Anglican Mission in Tierra del Fuego. Since then, the indigenous people who had lived here for so long, have quickly died out, due to exposure to different ways, diseases and so on.



All that remains is a small, modest museum in the city of Ushuaia, which tells their history in simple, but carefully prepared displays that at best look like school projects of gifted children.

In contrast, the more recent history of this area is displayed in larger museums (with steeper entrance fees).


The Yamana Museum

We skipped visiting the more recent museums, but spend a large part of an afternoon inside the Yamana museum. No one else visited while we were there. We were told to take as many pictures of the displays as we wanted, so I took a lot of them. It's a good way to encourage sharing of the fascinating history of these cultures.

The Yamana: Canoe people of the Beagle Channel

The Yamana or Yaghan people were still living their traditional lives in Tierra del Fuego 150 years ago, so this isn't ancient history.

They were sea-going people who spent long periods aboard their canoes, living off the sea. While out on the ocean, the men hunted seals from the prow, while the women collected shellfish from the oceans.




The fact that utterly fascinates me is that only the women could swim. And since the Yamana didn't wear any clothes, these amazing women took to the icy waters with only seal grease protecting them from the cold! It was so cold even in the summer while we visited, that it is mind boggling to me that these women were so tough.



The Yamana always carried fire with them, even on to the canoes. They set the fire in a space in the middle of their canoes. This was so that they could instantly start a larger fire once they arrived on land, since it was always so cold.



The arrival of European settlers in 1884 mostly wiped out the Yamana due to a measles epidemic. Also, the Yamana way of life was very finely tuned to the environment they lived in, and had been honed over hundreds of years. When well-meaning missionaries tried to clothe them, the Yamana contracted pneumonia from the damp clothes that they wore, since their sea-faring ways didn't match the clothes they were given.



The last of the Yamana, Abuela Rosa, died in 1982. Some descendants of the Yamana still live in Tierra del Fuego, but there is only one surviving speaker of the Yamana language alive today.

The Selknam

The Selknam or Ona were powerful, fearless people who also lived in Tierra del Fuego at the same time as the Yamana. The community hunted guanacos, eating the meat and fashioning clothes out of the guanaco skin. They were expert hunters who used bows and arrows with great skill.



When European settlers arrived here in the 1880s and set up sheep farms, they fenced off large areas of Selknam land, and prohibited entry to the native people. This led to conflict, especially when the Selknam started hunting the sheep, since any animal was fair game to them.

This unfortunately led to a systematic genocide of the Selknam people. Headhunters were paid money for bringing in heads of the Selknam they had killed, with bonuses paid for pregnant women. The heads were even shipped off to collectors and museums in Europe. Poisoned meat was also given to the Selknam in the attempt to get rid of them.



In 1881 around when Tierra del Fuego was first colonized, about 3500 Selknam people lived on the big island of Tierra del Fuego. By the late 1920s, the hundred or so of the Selknam that remained, had to succumb to acculturization.

The last two pure-blooded Selknam: Lola Kiepje and Esteban Yshton passed away in the late 1960s.

For the whole time that we were in Tierra del Fuego in the city of Ushuaia, I felt a little disconnected from the modern city around me. It was cold and rainy on most days, and as we walked up to high glaciers and hiked in the forests, I felt the presence of these ancient people around me. I kept trying to see this land through their eyes. What a great loss it is to us that their culture is no more!

PS: The photos above are the ones I took from displays at the museum. I don't know who the original photographers were.

27 comments:

Chris said...

I've never heard this story before. Thanks for telling it. I've always been so dismayed by the way indigenous people have been treated by settlers. I wonder what lifestyle these people would live today if they had survived?

Sydney said...

Bindu, you are so admirable! The work you put into each post is just amazing. And the subject matter is so diverse.

Any chance you will be coming down to Houston soon? I do not have plans to be up in Austin for awhile. I am trying to stay put and finish my studies, as I graduate in June. Lots to do and now that we are not moving, I just want to stick close and sink into the work and glean as much as I can for these last few months.

Henry the Dog's Mum said...

My goodness. How utterly fascinating. How utterly tragic. I knew nothing about Tierra del Fuego. Didn't even know it existed. Thank you for bringing this to our attention. I was fascinated reading about the Yamana never wearing clothes - initially I thought WHAT (as I feel the cold so easily - I have Reynauds) but as I carried on reading it made sense. A truly wonderful post. I'm just about to tell UHugh to read it.

Blu said...

How interesting and so very sad. I was facinated about the fire in the canoes. Keep up the good work I love to keep learning.

Best wishes Blu xx

sweetmango said...

I love these posts of yours...just beautiful...what a fascinating people.
Hope you are well bindu :)

LadyFi said...

Gosh, Bindu - you have outdone yourself! A fascinating and poignant look at the two tribes of Tierra del Fuego.. maybe that's how it got its name too: The Land of Fire because the Yanama carried it around with them all the time?

Raghav said...

Nicely done.

3rdEyeMuse said...

thank you so much for sharing all of these wonderful bits and pieces with us ... you breath life into the unknown and help us remember what once was. I really appreciate what you share.

LadyFi said...

I have now posted some photos of the inside of our igloo at: http://ladyfi.wordpress.com/

meb said...

bindu... I love reading the history of those people I will never know except through your stories. You profile them so elaborately that I truly feel as though I were there with them. I often wondered why these types of "tribes" didn't wear clothes. The Indians of Florida who wore so little were understandable because it was so hot, but people who lived in frigid temperatures were confusing to me. You explained it as to these people, and it makes sense to me now.

Thanks so much.

ArtSparker said...

A sad and too-common story...When will the human race mature to the point that those in power have kindness as well? Killed by clothing...

Indrani said...

Amazing stories from History and you have put lot of effort in this it is evident. Great write up.

French Fancy said...

What an interesting story and photos - you do have some good research skills.

I loved the blueness of the museum.

CushmoK said...

so interesting stories and rough reality you tell about...

lasiate said...

Une histoire déjà lu de la destruction d'un peuple qui ne demandait rien. C'est bien de garder le souvenir des monstruosités discrètes de nos cultures occidentales

Cuckoo said...

Interesting story ! You've done it with lots of effort.

I have linked your post to Blogbharti here.

http://www.blogbharti.com/cuckoo/society/4539/

Robyn said...

So interesting! I wonder why it was only the women who swam. The thought of fire being carried over sea is amazing. Cave man carried fire but I've never heard of it being floated over water.

Aniruddha said...

Such a wonderful post. I was never aware of this history. Its so tragic that natives have always suffered due to settlers in history.

Thanks for sharing this information with us...

painter girl said...

Oh Bindu!
This is an amazing post.Beautiful images with words and pictures. Love thinking about the fire traveling with them everywhere they went,the women being so strong to swim, the cohesiveness of their families....
You always bring such beauty to your stories.
You are a great storyteller....thank you

dolphin said...

awesome. i never knew or heard of these people. your posts are always so new and informative.
keep writing bindu!

GMG said...

Hi Bindu!
Excellent post. Patagonia is my dreamland! One day I'll get there... ;)

Meanwhile my India 2008 is coming to its end at Blogtrotter. I know you’re getting a bit tired, but there are still some marvels to come ;). Look forward to reading your comments! Enjoy and have a great week!

T and S said...

That's an amazing and interesting piece of history that you unearthed for people like us. Very informative and thanks for sharing it with us.

Kiji said...

Very interesting and beautiful photoblog! It's admirable. great job!
I voted for your blog for 2009 photoblog awards because I love it very much! Good luck :)

Shayla said...

By turns fascinating and frustrating- a captivating post, Bindu.

pink dogwood said...

I somehow missed this post - great write up. Since you write so wonderfully - ever thought of writing a book?


check out this post - my brother wrote about something happening in your neck of the woods.
http://sdotg.blogspot.com/2009/03/collabo-babies.html

Phoenix said...

Fascinating... I knew of Tierra del Fuego... (had studied in 8th grade geography)... but reading your post makes me want to plan an excursion there... far far away from our mad, materialistic world...

phoenixx1965 said...

Yes, it is a shame how these people were wiped out. Tierra del Fuego is one of the most amazing places in the world and the island has its name because of its unique inhabitants.