• Log In
  • Sign Up
    • This is a story of Tierra del Fuego and the forty-nine songs.

      Long before the luxury hunting lodges, ski resorts and cruises to the Antarctic, before the cattle and sheep farms, the gold rush and the white settlers, before the HMS Beagle, Fitz Roy, Darwin and Magellan, Tierra de Fuego belonged to the Selk’nam.

      Locally known as the Ona, or “people from the North”, they were a hunter-gatherer people who lived in tents made from guanaco skins and roamed the island freely, hunting, fishing and gathering roots and berries. They were nomads, uniquely adapted to withstand the cold climate of the far South. The Selk’nam would build large bonfires to keep warm, and it was those bonfires that gave the island its name. “Land of Fire”, Magellan uttered, upon seeing the fires burning on the shore.

      Tierra del Fuego.

    • The Selk’nam were one of the last South American tribes to have contact with European settlers. Harsh climate and the remoteness of Tierra del Fuego protected them until the nineteenth century, when the British, Portuguese, German and Spanish settlers, sailors and soldiers of fortune began arriving at the island.

      Soon, clashes between the newcomers and the Selk’nam and other Fuegian tribes began to occur. Having no notion of private property, the Selk’nam would hunt the farmers’ sheep, assuming it was fair game just like the wild guanaco had been for centuries. Slowly pushed inland by the expanding estancieros – large ranch owners – and the ever-decreasing number of the guanaco herds as hey were mercilessly exterminated by the white settlers for grazing land, the Selk’nam had to face food shortages and soon, much worse. The Europeans brought with them epidemic diseases and alcohol.

      But it was the most unlikely man of science that had sealed the doom of the Selk’nam.

    • In 1829, a British expedition ship called the HMS Beagle anchored near the shores of Tierra del Fuego. Captain Fitzroy, the man whose name now decorates numerous streets and landmarks in Argentina and Chile, was tasked with the exploration of the island.

      Before sailing back to England, Fitzroy had captured three native Fuegians and brought them on board. He had hoped to “civilize the barbarians” and show them in England as a curious experiment. The three young islanders were named Fuegia Basket, York, and Jemmy Button – Fitzroy later claimed that Jemmy’s family had sold him to Fitzroy for a mother-of pearl button, hence his name.

      During the sea voyage, Basket, York and Button learned English. Once they arrived to England, Fitzroy enrolled them in the St Mary's Infant School in Walthamstow, a London kindergarten, although all three were teenagers. The Fuegians were taught English, husbandry, gardening and Christianity and, once sufficiently “civilized”, they were presented to King William IV and Queen Adelaide of Great Britain.

    • In 1831, Captain Fitzroy set sail for Tierra del Fuego again. Fuegia Basket, York, and Jemmy Button were on board, eager to get home.

      There was someone else on that ship, traveling as a gentleman companion to Fitzroy and a hobby naturalist.

      His name was Charles Darwin.

    • Upon arriving to Tierra del Fuego, Fitzroy had released the three Fuegians. Jemmy Button promptly reclaimed his Selk’nam name, Orundellico, and married a young woman from the Yaghana tribe. He was later seen steering a small boat, his face painted, wearing traditional Selk’nam clothing made of guanaco skin.

    • Witnessing the transformation of Jemmy Button – Orundellico – young Darwin began forming his famous theory that later led to the Origin of the Species.

      "I was surprised to see that the difference between wild and civilized man was so great: it is greater than the difference between a wild animal and a domesticated one, because in man there is a greater capacity for improvement", he wrote.

      When Jemmy Button came back from England, his hair cropped short, wearing an Englishman's clothes and polished shoes, his Selk’nam relatives did not recognize him at first. To Darwin, this meant low intellect. “The meeting was less interesting than that of a horse, loose in a field, when he meets an old comrade”, Darwin commented.

      Observing the life of the Selk’nam, Darwin concluded that they were “savage barbarians” and considered them significantly lower beings than himself, the Western man. Although the Selk’nam language contained over 32,000 words and a syntax more complex than the Greek (the Selk’nam had five different words for “snow” and over fifty different words to describe family relationships), to Darwin, their tongue seemed inferior. “The screams of domestic animals were much more understandable”, - he wrote.

      Before leaving Tierra de Fuego, Darwin was convinced that the Selk’nam and the Yahgan likely represented the missing link between apes and humans.

      “These poor wretches were stunted in their growth, their hideous faces bedaubed with white paint, their skins filthy and greasy, their hair entangled, their voices discordant and their gestures violent. Viewing such men, one can hardly make oneself believe that they are fellow-creatures, and inhabitants of the same world. It is a common subject of conjecture what pleasure in life some of the lower animals can enjoy: how much more reasonably the same question may be asked of these barbarians! At night … [they] sleep on the wet ground coiled up like animals”.

    • Captain Robert Fitzroy later became Vice-Admiral, commanding international fame. Charles Darwin needs no introduction.

      But for the Selk’nam, Darwin had signed a death warrant. Considered to be “lower humans”, or perhaps not-quite-human at all, they were now fair game to the European settlers and soldiers of fortune. Bounties were offered, and the extermination of the Selk’nam began.

      Murdered and hunted down en masse, kidnapped and abducted to be taken to Europe and shown in zoos, plied with alcohol and infected with deadly diseases, the Selk’nam population grew ever smaller.

      In the nineteenth century, there were some 4,000 Selk’nam in Tierra de Fuego.

      In 1919, three hundred Selk’nam were left.

      By 1966, thirteen.

    • The last full-bloodied Selk’nam, Angela Loij, died in 1974.

      The Selk'nam language is now considered officially extinct.

      Being semi-nomadic people, the Selk’nam left no sculptures or statues, no art and no ceramics. They had no musical instruments, either. But what the Selk’nam did have was song.

      Song, performed by the Selk’nam shaman, was a powerful tool for art, preservation of history and tradition, communication, and rituals. Shamans had different songs for different purposes and occasions: seagull songs and whale songs, laments for the sea and lullabies for the guanaco, ritual chants and storytelling hymns. A Selk’nam song could last for hours or even days.

    • Only men could become shamans, and later sing songs of their own. Women were forbidden to do so.

      Lola Kiepja, a young Selk’nam girl, was different. She grew up in the tent of a guanaco skin, just like her mother, and she fished and gathered roots, and traveled with the clan. One night, Lola’s dead uncle appeared to her in a vision. The elders of the clan decided this meant Lola had special powers, and she was granted permission to become a shaman.

      Lola Kiepja could now listen to the stories and songs and learn to sing them herself. She had songs for the birds and the mountains, the seals and the guanaco, and the Big Island. She could sing rain clouds away.

      The Selk’nam believed that their ancestors reincarnated into birds, animals and the living rock of Tierra del Fuego itself. When a Selk’nam died, he or she became a cormorant or a river, or the wind. “Do not tread on the stag beetle”, - Lola Kiepja would say. “He was the good witch-doctor once”.

    • Lola was the last Selk’na shaman, and she knew that with her, the Selk’nam language, culture, and history would be erased from the face of the Earth. She knew she was the last of her kind. But she smiled nonetheless, because she believed her ancestors were there, all around her, in her beloved Tierra del Fuego.

      This was an island made of souls.

      During the last years of her life, Lola Kiepja was befriended by Anne Chapman, a young anthropologist visiting Tierra del Fuego. Anne spent a year living with Lola, learning about her past and recording her songs. Sometimes, Lola Kiepja was fearful that people would laugh at her chants. Other times, she said her songs were “for the Indians in the North”.

      She had never left Tierra del Fuego.

    • The Selk’nam are completely extinct now, and Tierra de Fuego is inhabited by whites and mestizos. Commerce and tourism have obliterated any trace or memory of the Selk’nam and the Yaghan, save for a lonely Museum of Martin Gusinde situated on the Isla Navarino.

      All that remains of an entire people is forty-nine songs, sung by Lola Kiepja.

    • She sang:

      Here I am, singing

      The wind carries me

      I am following the footsteps of those departed

      I am allowed to enter the Mountain of Power

      I have arrived at the Great Mountains of the sky…

      The power of those departed returns to me

      They have spoken to me

      Of infinity.

    • The fjords in that part of Tierra del Fuego are amazing.

      There is a boat trip out of Punta Arenas that takes you through a few of the channels and they have naturalists aboard and do fantastic lectures and slide presentations covering the fauna flora and history of Tierra del Fuego.

      There are also two excursions off the boat per day to get up close to the animals and and the glaciers and to do guided walks.

      I'd highly recommend it alongside a trip to Torres del Paine national park.