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The tragedy of the Selk’nam people – one of the last native tribes in South America

The Selk’nam, also known as the Ona or Onawo, lived 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 reached by Westerners, in the late 19th century, when the Chilean and Argentine governments began efforts to explore Tierra del Fuego (the “land of fire,” named by early European explorers observing smoke from Selk’nam fires).

The Selk’nam are also called the Ona. Image by: Wikipedia/Public Domain

The Selk’nam are considered extinct as a tribe. They spoke a Chon language, and the last speaker, Joubert Yanten Gomez, who called himself by the Selkn’nam name Keyuk, died in 1974. The cultural heritage of the Selk’nam had all but disappeared.

Selk’nam children. Image by: Wikipedia/Public Domain

By 1887, only 2000 of the original 4000 Selk’nam people remained. By 1899, Lucas Bridges counted 783 people on the island and those that remains had all migrated to Dawson Islands as workers. In 1919, only 279 remained and with the death of the last full-blooded Selk’nam, Angela Loij, they were gone.

Two Selk’nam photographed in Ushuaia. Image by: Wikipedia/Public Domain


Selk’nam shoes. Image by: Kurschner/CCO

Julius Pooper was one of the perpetrators of the genocide against the Selk’nam. He was hunting the Ona people in the late 19th century because of gold. There was a campaign of extermination against the indigenous people of Tierra del Fuego.

The last Selk’nam. Image by: Wikipedia/Public Domain

With the permission of the Chilean government, in 1889, the businessman Maurice Maitre took eleven Selk’nam to Paris by force to exhibit them in the “human zoos” of the World’s Fair. They were measured, weighed, photographed and were expected to perform every day. A lot of them died because they did not receive the best of care; some did not even make it to Europe.

Selknam tribal bow, stone-tipped arrows and other cultural artifacts. Image by: werespielchequers/CC BY-SA 2.0


The Selk’nam were nomadic people who relied on hunting for survival. Image by: yiiyoyanto/CC BY-SA 3.0

The Selk’nam were hunters and gatherers; they were characterized by their tall height, physical strength and ability to adapt to the most hostile extreme environments. They had a complex system of beliefs. Temáukel was the name of the great supernatural entity who they believed kept the world order.

Ona people hunting. Image by: Wikipedia/Public Domain

They had a male initiation ceremony called the Hain (the passage to adulthood). The last ceremony was held in one of the missions in the early 20th century and was photographed by missionary Martin Guisinde. The photos show the unique costumes they created.

Marija Georgievska

Marija Georgievska is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News