A young selk'nam woman. Photo by Martin Gusinde.
Martin Gusinde (1886- 1969).
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October 2006
Mateo Martinic, investigator and Historian:
The wonder of adaptation

He got Chile's History Award in the year 2000 and has just been recognized with the Bicentennial Award 2006. Historian Mateo Martinic talks here about land hunters and sea nomads who inhabit Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego.

By Rosario Mena

When Mateo Martinic got his turn to make a speech after the receiving of the Bicentennial Award 2006, at Universidad de Chile's Honour Hall, he decided to address what he calls the "Chilean magallanization", meaning for that the "contribution and trascendence that zone has given to our country's development".

In a way, this has been the crusade to which this investigator and professor has devoted his whole life. He feels as part of a territory whose geographical distance is directly connected to a social and cultural isolation, and the ignorance even we Chileans have about our cultural, historical and natural patrimony.

\We are used to hear that Magallanes culture is that of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. Since Patagonia begins in ChiloeL, how do you delimit that cultural territory?
\The Magallanes culture is that developing within the historical territory of Magallanes: what I call "the magallania". It's a territory separated from the rest of the country by Patagonia's icefields and channels. It's Chile's Southerner extreme. This territory is formed by one part continental land, and one part islands. So you have the Magallanes culture at each side of the Strait.

\We are now seeing a growing number of people who are interested in the whole Selk'nam culture. The image, spirituality and history of this tribe is just amazing, and seems to be apart from conventional history and heritage. Why is that so?
\There's been a huge ignorance in Chile about our native people. We have four Austral ethnic groups (the Kaweskar and the Yamanas, from the sea; and the Aonik'enk and Selk'nam, who are land hunters). It was not until 20th Century's second half that these people became somehow relevant, thanks to the work of Martin Gusinde, but then it was all about specialists, exquisite people. At the end of the '80s, I started seeing a new interest for these issues, maybe because of the Fifth Centenary of the Columbus journey, which was something that brought again the Indian debate all around the world. The Selk'nam had a very tragic role in the development of the large livestock industry, at the end of the 19th century. Besides, there was a re-discovery of Gusinde's work, as well as that of Anne Chapman and other investigators. Thanks to them we came to learn about the rich cultural mistery of these people, their profound initiation rites, their body paintings. It sounded like something completely new and unusual for Chilean native people. So on the last twenty years I've seen all kind of works related to them: photographies, documentaries, books... both in Chile and abroad.

\How would you describe Gusinde's contribution to all this? Some people are very critical of how he made a re-creation of the Selk'nam's rites, like if it was a mise-en-scene, and which was no longer being practiced when he registered it.
\Gusinde's merit has to be seen within the context of how little we knew then about Southern tribes, specially those in Tierra del Fuego. What little we knew, was negative. You have to remember Darwin's writings, in which he described them like the lowest form of human existence. With his admirable and dedicated work, Gusinde rescued and vindicated them. He knew he was investigating an amazing culture, with all its primitiveness, its spiritual and cultural richness, its incredible adaptation in such a harsh environment. The Yamanes, hunters from the austral archipelago of Tierra del Fuego, where the ones to receive the most scorn.

\Do you think it's importat to address each tribe separately?
\All are put under the same label, and I think it's important to make a difference, because they are completely diverse in their way of life, their history. You have the "canoers" and sea hunters, who are the Kaweskar; then you have the Alacalufes, who live towards the Northern channels of Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia's extreme South; the Yamanas are in Tierra del Fuego. Among the land hunters, you have the Patagonia's indians, those giants with huge feet, as the legend goes, although they were not that tall; they're the Aonik'enk, who used to inhabit in the continent and who were the ones to have the best contact with the Europeans from the beginning of Colonization. When Chile became a republic, in the 19th Century, they were the ones to have the best relations with Chilean and foreign settlers. There was no difficulty at all among them. On the other hand, the Selk'nam and other land hunters from Tierra del Fuego's largest island were used to being completely isolated in an almost virgin territory, until 1880. When the settlers came, they confronted them, defending their land, and so unleashing tragedy and extinction. What all of them have in common is the fact of being a wonder of adaptation. These are people living on the edge of balance, both on land and maritime environments.

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