Selk’nam, Hain initiation

Costumes for Hain, Selk’nam (original Patagonian population) male initiation ceremonies.

Young males were called to a dark hut. There they would be attacked by “spirits” – actually people disguised as such. The children were taught to fear these spirits at childhood and were threatened by them in case they misbehaved.These now-young men did not know these spirits were not real, and they were to go to them and unmask them. After they saw that these “spirits” were actually human beings, they were then told a story of world creation about the Sun and Moon. Also, there was a story told (actually part of the same story) that at one time women used these spirits to control men: they would disguise themselves as spirits and threaten the men while the men did not know that these were not spirits at all. Once they found out, it was done vice-versa – women did not know that the spirits weren’t real, while males found out at the initiation age. However it was more like a joke at these times, without males actually using spirits to control women, unlike the women had supposedly done in the past. After this first day, there were various related ceremonies – males showing their “strength” in front of women by fighting spirits (who were other males but the women did not know it) in some theatrical fights. Each spirit had its typical actions, words and such as well as typical outside looks. Therefore Selk’nam were perhaps the only Amerindian nation to have a theater tradition – the best actors from previous Hains were called again to impersonate spirits in later Hains.

 

The Hain used to take a very long time, perhaps even a year on occasion, at the times when Selk’nam were not in touch with Europeans. It would end with the last fight against the “worst” spirit. Usually Hains were started when there was enough food (for example a whale was washed on coast), and by then all the Selk’nam from all the tribes used to gather at one place, in male and female camps. “Spirits” sometimes went to female encampments to scare them as well as going around the place and doing various things related to their characters. The last Hain was held in one of the missions in the early 20th century, and it was photographed by the missionary. It was of course a much shorter and smaller ceremony than it used to be when Selk’nam were still free, but it still provides a good insight into traditions of this nation. The photos depict various “spirit” clothings too.

After thousands of years of semi-nomadic life in Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego (literally, big island of land of fire, based on early European explorers’ observations of smoke from Selk’nam bonfires), the introduction of European sheep ranches created strong conflicts between natives and European, Argentinean, or Chilean settlers. The conflicts became a war of extermination. Large companies paid sheep farmers one pound sterling per Selk’nam dead, which was confirmed by the redemption of a pair of hands or ears, or later a complete skull.

 

Repression against the Selk’nam persisted into the early twentieth century.[1] Ángela Loij, the last full-blooded Selk’nam, died in 1974.

The Selk’nam, also known as the Onawo or Ona people are an indigenous people of the Patagonian region of southern Chile and Argentina, including the Tierra del Fuego islands. They were one of the last aboriginal groups in South America to be reached by Westerners in the late 19th century.

 

 

 

All the photos are from Martin Gusinde (1886-1969). German priest and ethnologist.

2 Responses to Selk’nam, Hain initiation

  1. pph17 says:

    No soy humano si antes no he sido humano primitivo
    No soy adulto si antes no he sido niño
    Es una pena que se haya perdido lo primitivo
    Habrá que recuperarlo

    Eso sí que son espíritus

  2. [...] de paris y quizas en cuantas partes del mundo, no se que de maravilloso tiene todo esto.” Older post I made about the [...]

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