|Part of Genocide of indigenous peoples|
Julius Popper with a naked dead aboriginal
|Location||Tierra del Fuego, Argentina and Chile|
|Date||late 19th to early 20th century|
|Genocidal massacre, Internment, Bounty killings|
(97.5% of the population killed)
|Perpetrators||Julius Popper and his exploring company|
José Menéndez and the Sociedad Explotadora de Tierra del Fuego
The Selk'nam genocide was the genocide of the Selk'nam people, one of three indigenous tribes populating the Tierra del Fuego in South America, from the second half of the 19th to the early 20th century. The genocide spanned a period of between ten and fifteen years. The Selk'nam, which had an estimated population of 3,000 people, saw their numbers reduced to 500.
The Selk'nam were one of three indigenous tribes who inhabited the northeastern part of the archipelago, with a population before the genocide estimated at between 3,000 and 4,000. They were known as the Ona (people of the north), by the Yaghan (Yamana).
The Selk'nam had lived a semi-nomadic life of hunting and gathering in Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego for thousands of years. The name of the island literally means "big island of Land of Fire", which is the name the early Spanish explorers gave it as they saw the smoke from Selk'nam bonfires. They lived in the northeast, with the Haush people to their east on the Mitre Peninsula, and the Yaghan people to the west and south, in the central part of the main island and throughout the southern islands of the archipelago.
According to one study, the Selk'nam were divided into the following groups:
The last full-blooded Selk'nam, Ángela Loij, died in 1974. They were one of the last aboriginal groups in South America to be reached by Europeans. According to the 2010 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger, the Ona language, believed to be part of the Chonan family, is considered extinct, as the last speakers died in the 1980s.
About 4,000 Selk'nam were alive in the mid-nineteenth century; by 1930 this had been reduced to about 100. With the arrival of Argentinians, Chileans, and British settlers to Selk'nam territory, it brought an asymmetrical conflict between adventurers, gold diggers, settlers, and ranchers on the one hand and the Selk'nam on the other.
The natives were plied with alcohol, deported, raped, and exterminated, with bounties paid to the most ruthless hunters.Martin Gusinde, who visited the island towards the end of 1918, recounted in his writings that the hunters "sent the skulls of the murdered Indians to the Anthropological Museum in London, which paid four pounds per head."
German anthropologist Robert Lehmann-Nitsche published the first scholarly studies of the Selk'nam, although he was later criticized for having studied members of the Selk'nam people who had been abducted and were exhibited in circuses in conditions of virtual slavery.
The Chilean expedition of Ramón Serrano Montaner in 1879, was the one who reported the presence of important gold deposits in the sands of the main rivers of Tierra del Fuego. With this incentive, hundreds of foreign adventurers came to the island hoping to find long-awaited and distant lands, the initial support to produce auspicious fortunes. However, there was a rapid depletion of the metal.
The large ranchers tried to run off the Selk'nam, then began a campaign of extermination against them, with the compliance of the Argentine and Chilean governments. Large companies paid sheep farmers or militia a bounty for each Selk'nam dead, which was confirmed on presentation of a pair of hands or ears, or later a complete skull. They were given more for the death of a woman than a man. In addition, missionaries disrupted their livelihood through forcible relocation and inadvertantly brought with them deadly epidemics.
Repression against the Selk'nam persisted into the early twentieth century. Chile moved some Selk'nam to Dawson Island, confining them in an internment or concentration camp. Argentina finally allowed Salesian missionaries to aid the Selk'nam and attempt to assimilate them, but their culture and people were largely destroyed.