The Last of the Selk'nam
“Here I am singing, the wind is carrying me. I am following the footsteps of those departed. I am allowed to come to the Mountain of Power I have arrived at the Great Mountain Range of the Sky. The power of those who departed returns to me. Those of infinity have spoken to me.” —Kiepja, the last Selk'nam shaman
The Selk’nam, a stone-age hunting culture inhabited the Tierra del Fuego area of southern Argentina and Chile for 7,000 years. During those times the tribes lived nomadically and in tune with the land—hunting, gathering and fishing.
The Selk’nam had no chiefs, but were instead led by wise men (‘fathers of the world’) who were believed to possess spiritual power over people, weather and events. The tribe's most sacred ceremony was the coming-of-age, or the ‘hain’. Adult male members of the tribe would be painted with red, black and white paint and don fur, down and bark costumes, impersonating much feared spirits. Over a period of days or weeks they would conduct a complex initiation to transition boys into manhood.
There was an age-old belief in the Selk'nam tribe that women used to rule over men in ancient times. Women originally performed ceremonies disguised as spirits and scared men into submission. When they were ultimately discovered, the men retaliated violently and vowed to reverse the situation. They became the ones to impersonate spirits, keeping the ruse a secret from future generations of women and thus dominating over them.
In contemporary ceremonies this interplay between the sexes was informal, with male and female tribe members 'playing' their respective roles. One of the last such ceremonies was performed in 1920 and recorded by the missionary, Martin Gusinde. The images of shamans in this post were taken by Gusinde.
Kiepja (quoted above) was born in the late 1800s, a century when repression and genocide by European settlers had begun to decimate the Selk'nam people. Immigrants arrived determined to develop industrialized sheep farming and saw the nomadic hunters as an obstacle. This began a bitter and violent campaign to exterminate the native population and deprive them of their hunting grounds.
Despite being female, Kiepja inherited shaman status from a maternal uncle whose spirit came to her in a dream. She practiced the ancient rituals with dedication and patience. In 1964, ethnographer Anne Chapman met Kiepja and spent 3 month recording her hain chants.
Kiepja was the last Selk’nam shaman. She died in 1966.
Shaman illustrations by Alexis Demetriades. Photograph of Kiepsja by Anne Chapman. All other images by Martin Gusinde.