Selk'nam Culture

By Hach Saye

The Selk'nam people lived for over ten thousand years on Tierra del Fuego’s Isla Grande, located at the south of the planet. People’s existence there was due to the balance and harmony with which they coexisted with nature and their surroundings.
The Selk'nam were migrating hunter-gatherers. They were divided into harowen, or family clans, and they maintained an egalitarian social organization with defined roles. There was no chief or leader of the clan, rather, the respected figures were those of the xo’on, or doctor and the elderly.
Spirituality is one of the great features that stand out in the Selk'nam people. It is based on the connection with the ancestors or hoowen, with nature or merremen, and the kaspek or spirits of everything. In this sense, the spirits that accompany the Selk'nam during the initiations of young men and women are particularly relevant.

Photo courtesy of Hach Saye @ Hema’ny Molina

The Selk'nam language

The Selk'nam language or Selk'nam chan comes from the family of Chon languages.

The geography of the Chon tongues represents the linguistic familiarity between the Haush and Ona (Selk'nam) nations of the island of Tierra del Fuego and the Aonek'enk and Teushen nations which were spread out from the other side of the Strait of Magellan “until at least the Chubut River” (Viegas Barros, 2015: 11).

The Covadonga Ona community has made many efforts to revitalize this language, since as a result of genocide and subsequent assimilation into Chilean culture, the Selk'nam chan is in an extremely vulnerable state, in serious danger of disappearing.

What is the political status of the Selk'nam people?

In Chile, the Selk'nam people congregate through the Covadonga Ona indigenous community. This community, in order to operate within the legal parameters, has formed the Selk'nam people’s corporation in Chile, dedicated to its rescue, appreciation, and cultural identity, better known as Corporación Selk'nam Chile.

The corporation has been appointed by the community as their legal representation in order to defend their rights and revendicate their existence. The year 2019 marked the beginning of the political efforts in which the corporation presented its own independent proposed legislation before Congress, with the help and counsel of Mr. Ariel Leon Bacian, requesting that the Selk'nam People be integrated into the Chilean Indigenous Peoples Law no. 19.253.

Thus began a process of political lobbying that brought the project to be discussed within the Human Rights and Indigenous Peoples’ Commission, where it reached unanimous support and was passed on to the Chamber of Deputies on June 23rd and 24th of 2020, obtaining 148 votes in favor. Since then, the process has been hampered due to the fact that a characterization study was required to determine the current-day presence of the Selk'nam people; this anthropological, historiographical, and genealogical investigation was to be funded by the government through a public bidding that did not happen during 2020.

The year 2021 was marked by media campaigns that publicly requested the government to finance the investigation, finally accomplishing a call for bids in September of 2021. The study was submitted to the Ministry of Development on March 7th of 2022, and based on that investigation, which proves that the Selk'nam people are alive and present in Chile, lobbying efforts will continue to happen in the Senate from that day forward. It is expected that during the year 2022 and with the new government in place, the process will be completed and the Selk'nam people will be integrated into the Chilean Indigenous People’s Law, restoring their dignity and rights.

What are the peatlands to the Selk'nam people?

Our elderly tell us that back in the beginning of time, our hoowen or ancestors did not die, but rather, when they felt tired, they would get comfortable and rest for a long while, but that some of them were so comfortable that they preferred not to wake up, and so they became hills, mountains, rivers, trees, peat, even animals, and this is how Karokynká came into being.

It is for this reason that to the Selk'nam every element of nature, animate or inanimate, is sacred, because they are the ancestors.

What is Hach Saye?

Hach Saye is a family foundation that was created in order to contribute to the strengthening of the Selk'nam people’s culture (with the vision and experiences of a 21st century Selk'nam family), so as to create consciousness and take actions regarding the environmental care of Tierra del Fuego’s Isla Grande.

Within this context and these ideologies, Hach Saye has delivered different lectures regarding culture and world view at different governmental and non-governmental institutions, where the center of the information is relevant in the importance of the education and survival of the Selk'nam people. This is an extremely important base so that the culture may be taught in the near future just as it is, without myths or baseless popular beliefs.

As regards the other mission, the care for Karokynká, Hach Saye has worked in coastal cleanups in the commune of Porvenir, raising awareness about the importance of tending to Fuegian ecosystems and, one of the most powerful and important tasks today, to make known the existence of peatlands: their importance, their role in the life of their own surroundings and across the planet, their beauty, and the seriousness of their commercialization.

Hach Saye Website

What does Hol-Hol Tol mean?

In Selk'nam chan, the Selk'nam language, hol-hol means peat and tol means heart. By putting these two words together, the expressed meaning is that one’s heart is made of peat.