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February 2004

Anne Chapman, ethnologist:
The selk'nam's witness

Conversations with the last two selk'nam women, gave French-American ethnologist Anne Chapman a solid ground from where to study, interpret and re-build from a feminine perspective the social and spiritual structure of this now extinguished culture.

By Rosario Mena


Anne Chapman is one of the world's most important investigators of the selk'nam people, who inhabited Tierra del Fuego for centuries. During the 60's she stayed three times in Tierra del Fuego's main island (Isla Grande), where she worked very closely with the last two selk'nam women, who had lived their childhood according to the hunter-pickers tradition.

One of these women was shaman Lola Kiepja, who passed away in 1966 at 90 years of age, leaving her voice registered in several ceremonial chants. The other one, Angele Loij, was born in the 20th Century and could speak Spanish as well as selk'nam. The meeting of these two women was what motivated Chapman to write her book The Selk'nam: The Life of the Onas, published in the 80s.

"The book's original title was actually Drama and Power in the Selk'nam Society, since the whole text is about men/women power relationships within the context of the male initiation ritual, the hain", explains anthropologist Francisco Mena. "The hain is a very theatrical representation, which lasts for months. The men all incarnate different spirits, disguising themselves and painting their bodies".

Chapman's main referents where the written and audiovisual documents of Austrian ethnologist Martín Gusinde, who arrived in Tierra del Fuego during the beginning of the 20s, when there were no more than 280 of the original 4,000 inhabitants that lived in the area before the beginning of the colonization, in 1880, and which meant a true massacre.

"Traditional native life was more or less disarticulated by then, but there were still some practices that came from the most ancient society. What Gusinde does is try to rescue what's left", says Mena.

Paintings and clothes were then prepared just for the ocassion, ten years after the last hain made by the community. Those are the pictures now available for us to see: almost mythical people with their skin all painted in white stripes. "They spoke in selk'nam but used normal clothes. They were already transculturated because the whole island was full of cattle ranches by then".

Chapman presents a map of the selk'nam's socio-cultural structure, and explains the shape and sense of their main ritual. Then she focus her analysis on the social function of the hain, in the sense of how it defines the domestication of women in this patriarchal society. She concludes that, despite the secrecy, "they (women) knew the spirits present in those ceremonies were nothing but the men in disguise".

Anne Chapman's main contribution, says Mena, "was to give Martin Gusinde's studies a feminine perspective". A movie and two books have been the contribution of this investigator to what can now be called "a selk'nam vogue", that attracts lovers of history, design, spirituality and ethnologists. This is a fascination that Mena links to the hurry of current times. "They are our opposite: a very poor society in terms of tecnhology, but spiritually wealthy".

Theirs is a world annihilated by colonization, disease and constant internal coflicts, whose life is still a big mistery:

"All we know are their rituals, paintings, spirits, that they hunted guanacos and dressed in fur. It's not much", says Mena. These people spirit is defined by a parallel reality, full of spirits and characters, and the rudeness with which they can adapt to the most hostile of physical conditions, way below zero degrees of temperature. "For their initation rituals, they used to throw themselves in the snow. An investigator of the 19th Century writes that he once met a naked man, and asked him how come he felt no cold. And the selk'nam answered: My whole body has become face".

During her last visit to Chile, last January, Chapman met investigators and Chile's Cultural Heritage Corporation's Executive Vice-President, Cecilia García-Huidobro. They are working on a project which will be soon announced by

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