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The Yámana, the Selk’nam and the Kawéskar

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The harsh lands of Tierra del Fuego and Isla Navarino were originally home to three tribes, the Yámana (Yaghan), the Selk’nam (Ona) and the Kawéscar (Alacalúf). The latter inhabited the Magellan Strait and the western fjords, and the former two resided on and around Isla Navarino. The Yámana and the Kawéskar were both “Canoe Indians”, who relied on their catch of fish, shellfish and marine animals, while the Selk’nam were hunter-gatherers who subsisted almost entirely on a diet of guanaco meat.

Though dismissed by European explorers as savages (Charles Darwin famously commented that the “Canoe Indians” were “among the most abject and miserable creatures I ever saw”), and now largely culturally extinct, the tribes had complex rituals. The Selk’nam, for example, performed a sophisticated male initiation ceremony, the Hain, during which the young male initiates, or kloketens, confronted and unmasked malevolent spirits that they had been taught to fear since their youth, emerging as maars (adults). Father Martín Gusinde was present at the last Hain ceremony in 1923, and managed to capture the event in a series of remarkable photographs, copies of which circulate as postcards today.

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