The Selk'nam's quest for recognition in Chile

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José Luis Vásquez Chogue, secretary of the Corporation Selk’nam. "This is the first time he has visited Tierra del Fuego, the land of his ancestors." Photo: Marcio Pimenta José Luis Vásquez Chogue, secretary of the Corporation Selk’nam. "This is the first time he has visited Tierra del Fuego, the land of his ancestors." Photo: Marcio Pimenta
 
 
By Marcio Pimenta and Nina Radovic Fanta
Translated by Dawn Penso
 
This project was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting
 
About 500 years ago, the Portuguese explorer Hernando de Magellan discovered a maritime passage in the extreme south of the planet, a region unknown to Europeans at the time, a place they would come to call "Tierra Australis Incognita." The discovery, in effect, was the first  globalization of modern society. The sea passage itself was named the Strait of Magellan.
 
In the 19th century, other Europeans and their descendants would arrive, this time to stay. Men who had already domesticated plants and animals and who upon arriving in what is now called Tierra del Fuego found hunter-gatherers who had lived there for more than 10,000 years. That indigenous group would become to known as Selk'nam. 
 
The encounter between hunter-gatherers and the colonizer farmers led to a defacto death penalty for the Selk'nam. A tragedy that is still the order of the day. Considered extinct in the history books and laws written by the victors, yet the survivors claim to be alive. And now they fight for recognition.
 
 
About 500 years ago, the Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan discovered a sea passage in the extreme south of the planet, a region completely unknown by the Europeans who later called it “Terra Australis Incognita.” This discovery united the world and was in effect the first globalization of modern society. These are the waters of the Strait of Magellan, which unites the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.  Strait of Magellan, Chile, 2021. Photo: Marcio PimentaAbout 500 years ago, the Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan discovered a sea passage in the extreme south of the planet, a region completely unknown by the Europeans who later called it “Terra Australis Incognita.” This discovery united the world and was in effect the first globalization of modern society. These are the waters of the Strait of Magellan, which unites the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Strait of Magellan, Chile, 2021. Photo: Marcio Pimenta
 
 
Located in Bahía Inutil, one of the most important archeological sites is the Pedra de Marazzi, recognized as one of the oldest settlements on the island, reaching 9,500 years. Here were found lithic instruments and other evidence of the presence of hunting groups of birds and guanacos. Tierra del Fuego, Chile, 2021. Photo: Marcio PimentaLocated in Bahía Inutil, one of the most important archeological sites is the Pedra de Marazzi, recognized as one of the oldest settlements on the island, reaching 9,500 years. Here were found lithic instruments and other evidence of the presence of hunting groups of birds and guanacos. Tierra del Fuego, Chile, 2021. Photo: Marcio Pimenta
 
 
Tools used by Selk’nam to build bows and arrows that would be used for hunting the guanaco. Artifacts from the Maggiorino Borgatello Museum, Punta Arenas, Chile. Photo: Marcio PimentaTools used by Selk’nam to build bows and arrows that would be used for hunting the guanaco. Artifacts from the Maggiorino Borgatello Museum, Punta Arenas, Chile. Photo: Marcio Pimenta
 
 
Rewriting history
In Chile, a century has passed, and a dictatorship, without the Selk'nam genocide being addressed. This began to change only recently, in the 2010s, thanks to the Internet, when web users searching for their origins could now find each other. Now, together, the Selk'nam face the process of decolonizing and denaturalizing the historical perspective, of recovering and rethinking what happened to them. They have created community centers where family experiences, stories and memories are shared and the truth is confronted. The Selk'nam are organized in entities such as Corporación Selk'nam and Comunidad Covadonga-Ona, both in Chile, and Comunidad Rafaela Ishton, in Argentina, to fight for their rights, starting with the recognition that they still exist, that they are not yet extinct. It is a living people.
 
Comunidad Rafaela Ishton has existed since the 1980s and was one of the first to obtain legal jurisdiction in Argentina. In 1994, the Selk'nam were recognized as an indigenous people by the Argentine state. More than 600 families, in total about 1000 people, identify themselves as Selk'nam in that country.
 
Hema’ny Molina, president of the Corporation Selk’nam Chile, and Miguel Pantoja, member of the Community of Rafaela Ishton, do not accept to be seen as “descendants” of the Selk’nam. “I am not a descendant, I am Selk’nam,” says Pantoja. “I have to explain myself and think about myself– it’s something violent,” he continues. Molina, in agreement, adds: “I always knew that I was Selk’nam but that does not mean to live as such or understand how to do it. There are various, complex layers. For many years there was a feeling of loneliness as we were unaware of the existence of other families. It was a feeling of emptiness and complete solitude. Who am I going to talk to? Who am I going to tell? Will people believe me?”
 

“I always knew that I was Selk’nam but that does not mean to live as such or understand how to do it. There are various, complex layers. For many years there was a feeling of loneliness as we were unaware of the existence of other families. It was a feeling of emptiness and complete solitude. Who am I going to talk to? Who am I going to tell? Will people believe me?”

 

“Erected by his co-workers in memory of John Saldine, killed by Indians on July 20, 1898," says the headstone of one of the graves in the cemetery of Onaisín.  Tierra del Fuego, Chile, 2021. Photo: Marcio Pimenta“Erected by his co-workers in memory of John Saldine, killed by Indians on July 20, 1898," says the headstone of one of the graves in the cemetery of Onaisín. Tierra del Fuego, Chile, 2021. Photo: Marcio Pimenta

 
On the banks of the Strait of Magellan, Maria Margarita Vasquez Choque (Pilar) proudly holds the flag that represents the Selk’nam and raises her fist as a sign of struggle and resistance. Punta Arenas, Chile, 2021. Photo: Marcio PimentaOn the banks of the Strait of Magellan, Maria Margarita Vasquez Choque (Pilar) proudly holds the flag that represents the Selk’nam and raises her fist as a sign of struggle and resistance. Punta Arenas, Chile, 2021. Photo: Marcio Pimenta
 
 
In Chile, Corporación Selk'nam won legal jurisdiction in 2015. The organization has more than 50 members and their families, in total, number about 200 people. According to the 2017 Chilean census, 1,144 people identified themselves as Selk'nam. Still, the Chilean state does not recognize the existence of the Selk'nam as a people. The Corporation Selk'nam fights for the inclusion of the Selk'nam in the list of "main ethnic groups" recognized by the Indigenous Law No. 19,253, of 1993.
 
They have the help of researchers from two Chilean universities: Universidad Católica Silva Henríquez and the Universidad de Magallanes. Alejandro Núñez Guerrero, director of the Centro Universatario of the Universidad de Magallanes in Porvenir, Chile, has been forging agreements to carry out more field research. Among their findings so far, it was recently discovered that the first settlers' ranch on Tierra del Fuego was built on the Chilean side and not on the Argentine side, as previously believed, and that the Selk'nam are actually more numerous on the island.  All of this are fundamental facts in the recognition process.
 
For their part, Héctor Vásquez Chogue, former vice-president of the Covadonga Ona community, and his brother, José Luis Vásquez Chogue, secretary of the Selk'nam Corporation, have been on a personal quest for more than thirty years. The recent journey of self-discovery as Selk'nam has also turned into a tour of endless meetings with Chilean politicians to incorporate the Selk'nam into the Indigenous Law. The main objective is to make them known as living Selk'nam, as a modern and integrated people, unlike what is currently taught. "It is difficult to say who I am, because the State does not recognize us," says José.
 
The Selk'nam hope to receive official recognition in early 2022, the deadline which the Chilean state has given the community to prove they are alive. 
 
Read the complete story about the Selk’nam and their fight to obtain indigenous recognition in Chile in the next edition of Patagon Journal, to be published in January. 
 
Marcio Pimenta is a journalist, photographer, visual artist and explorer.
Nina Radovic Fanta is a cultural anthropologist and lives in Patagonia.