Fuegians are one of the three tribes of indigenous inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of South America. In English, the term originally referred to the Yaghan people of Tierra del Fuego. In Spanish, the term fueguino can refer to any person from the archipelago.
The indigenous Fuegians belonged to several different tribes including the Ona (Selk'nam), Haush (Manek'enk), Yaghan (Yámana), and Alacaluf (Kawésqar). All of these tribes except the Selk'nam lived exclusively in coastal areas and have their own languages. The Yaghans and the Alacaluf traveled by birchbark canoes around the islands of the archipelago, while the coast dwelling Haush did not. The Selk'nam lived in the interior of Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego and lived mainly by hunting guanacos. The Ona were exclusively terrestrial hunter gathers that hunted terrestrial game such as guanacos, foxes, tuco-tucos and upland nesting birds as well as littoral fish and shellfish. The Fuegian peoples spoke several distinct languages: both the Kawésqar language and the Yaghan language are considered language isolates, while the Selk'nams spoke a Chon language like the Tehuelches on the mainland.
When Chileans and Argentines of European descent studied, invaded and settled on the islands in the mid-19th century, they brought with them diseases such as measles and smallpox for which the Fuegians had no immunity. The Fuegian population was devastated by the diseases, and their numbers were reduced from several thousand in the 19th century to hundreds in the 20th century.
As early as 1878 Europeans in Punta Arenas seeking additional sheep pastures negotiated to acquire large tracts of land on Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego from the Chilean government just prior to Argentina and Chile's sovereignty here.
On May 11, 1830 several Fuegians (Alacaluf) were transported to England by the schooner Allen Gardiner, presented to the court, and resided there for a number of years before three were returned.
The United States Exploring Expedition came in contact with the Fuegians in 1839. One member of the expedition called the Fuegians the "greatest mimics I ever saw."
The Selk'nam genocide was authorized and conducted by the estancieros that between 1884–1900 resulted in a severe indigenous population decline. Large companies paid sheep farmers or militia a bounty for each Selk'nam dead, which was confirmed on presentation of a pair of hands or ears, or later a complete skull. They were given more for the death of a woman than a man.
"Archaeological investigations show the prevalence of maritime hunter-gatherer organization throughout the occupation of the region (6400 BP – 19th century)." Although the Fuegians were all hunter-gatherers, their material culture was not homogeneous: the big island and the archipelago made two different adaptations possible. Some of the cultures were coast-dwelling, while others were land-oriented. Neither was restricted to Tierra del Fuego:
- The coast provided fish, sea birds, otters, seals, shellfish in winter and sometimes also whales. Yaghans got their sustenance this way. Alacalufs (living in the Strait of Magellan and some islands), and Chonos (living further to the north, on Chilean coasts and archipelagos) were similar. Most whales were stranded but some whaling occurred.
- Selk'nams lived on the inland plain of the big island of Tierra del Fuego, communally hunting herds of guanaco. The material culture had some similarities to that of the (also linguistically related) Tehuelches living outside Tierra del Fuego in the southern plains of Argentina.
All Fuegian tribes had a nomadic lifestyle, and lacked permanent shelters. The guanaco-hunting Selk'nam made their huts out of stakes, dry sticks, and leather. They broke camp and carried their things with them, and wandered following the hunting and gathering possibilities. The coastal Yamana and Alacaluf also changed their camping places, traveling by birchbark canoes.
There are some correspondences or putative borrowings between the Yámana and Selk'nam mythologies. The hummingbird was an animal revered by the Yámanas, and the Taiyin creation myth explaining the creation of the archipelago's water system, the culture hero "Taiyin" is portrayed in the guise of a hummingbird. A Yámana myth, "The egoist fox", features a hummingbird as a helper and has some similarities to the Taiyin-myth of the Selk'nam. Similar remarks apply to the myth about the big albatross: it shares identical variants for both tribes. Some examples of myths having shared or similar versions in both tribes:
- the myth about a sea lion and his [human] wife;
- the myth about the origin of death.
All three Fuegian tribes had myths about culture heroes. Yámanas have dualistic myths about the two yoalox-brothers (IPA: [joalox]). They act as culture heroes, and sometimes stand in an antagonistic relation to each other, introducing opposite laws. Their figures can be compared to the Selk'nam Kwanyip-brothers. In general, the presence of dualistic myths in two compared cultures does not necessaily imply relatedness or diffusion.
The abundant and nutritious patagonian blenny (Eleginops maclovinus) were apparently not consumed and the rock art suggests they may have had some religious significance.
Both Selk'nam and Yámana had persons filling in shaman-like roles. The Selk'nams believed their xon (IPA: [xon]) to have supernatural capabilities, e.g. to control weather and to heal. The figure of xon appeared in myths, too. The Yámana yekamush ([jekamuʃ]) corresponds to the Selk'nam xon.
There are myths in both Yámána and Selk'nam tribes about a shaman using his power manifested as a whale. In both examples, the shaman was "dreaming" while achieving this. For example, the body of the Selk'nam xon lay undisturbed while it was believed that he travelled and achieved wonderful deeds (e.g. taking revenge on a whole group of peoples). The Yámana yekamush made similar achievements while dreaming: he killed a whale and led the dead body to arbitrary places, and transformed himself into a whale as well. In another Selk'nam myth, the xon could use his power also for transporting whale meat. He could exercise this capability from great distances and see everything that happened during the transport.
There is a belief in both the Selk'nam and Yámana tribes that women used to rule over men in ancient times, Yámana attribute the present situation to a successful revolt of men. There are many festivals associated with this belief in both tribes.
The patrilineal Ona and the composite band society Yahgan reacted very differently to the Europeans and it has been suggested that this was due to these facets of their cultural structure.
Contacts between Yámana and Selk'nam
The languages spoken by the Fuegians are all extinct, with the exception of the Yaghan language and Kawesqar. The Selk'nam language was related to the Tehuelche language and belonged to the Chon family of languages. The Onan language had more than 30,000 words.
Alongside the Pericúes of Baja California, the Fuegians and Patagonians show the strongest evidence of partial descent from the Paleoamerican lineage, a proposed early wave of migration to the Americas derived from a Proto-Australoid population, as opposed to the main Amerind peopling of the Americas of Siberian (admixed Ancient North Eurasian and Proto-Mongoloid) descent. Further credibility is lent to this idea by research suggesting the existence of an ethnically distinct population elsewhere in South America. Both Tehuelches and Selk'nams practiced body painting and rock art similar to that of Australian Aborigines. In contrast to most Amerindian peoples, Fuegians appeared to be taller than most Europeans (this does not include the Yaghans, who were quite short with skinny limbs and fat bodies or the Kawesqar).
The name "Tierra del Fuego" may refer to the fact that both Selk'nam and Yamana had their fires burn in front of their huts (or in the hut). In Magellan's time Fuegians were more numerous, and the light and smoke of their fires presented an impressive sight if seen from a ship or another island. Yamanas also used fire to send messages by smoke signals, for instance if a whale drifted ashore. The large amount of meat required notification of many people, so that it would not decay. They might also have used smoke signals on other occasions, but it is possible that Magellan saw the smokes or lights of natural phenomena.
Both Selk'nams and Yámanas were decimated by diseases brought in by colonization, and probably made more vulnerable to disease by the crash of their main meat supplies (whales and seals) due to the actions of European and American fleets.
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- Odone, C. and M.Palma, 'La muerte exhibida fotografias de Julius Popper en Tierra del Fuego', in Mason and Odone, eds, 12 miradas. Culturas de Patagonia: 12 Miradas: Ensayos sobre los pueblos patagonicos', Cited in Mason, Peter. 2001. The lives of images. P.153
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- Gusinde, Martin (1966). Nordwind—Südwind. Mythen und Märchen der Feuerlandindianer (in German). Kassel: E. Röth. Title means: “North wind—south wind. Myths and tales of Fuegians”.
- Itsz, Rudolf (1979). Napköve. Néprajzi elbeszélések (in Hungarian). Budapest: Móra Könyvkiadó. Translation of the original: Итс, Р.Ф. (1974). Камень солнца (in Russian). Ленинград: Издательство «Детская Литература». Title means: “Stone of sun”; chapter means: “The land of burnt-out fires”.
- Service, Elman R. (1973). "Vadászok". In E.R. Service & M.D. Sahlins & E.R. Wolf. Vadászok, törzsek, parasztok (in Hungarian). Budapest: Kossuth Könyvkiadó. It contains the translation of the original: Service, Elman (1966). The Hunter. Prentice-Hall.
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|Wikisource has the text of The New Student's Reference Work article Fuegians.|
- Balmer, Yves (2003–2009). "Fuegian Videos". Ethnological videos clips. Living or recently extinct traditional tribal groups and their origins. Andaman Association.
- Lola Kiepja. Selk'nam (Ona) Chants of Tierra del Fuego, Argentina (Streamed tracks on Napster from the audio CD)).
- Excerpts from the same material on Amazon.com
- Bibliography, linking many online documents in various languages
- Lenguas australes / Materiales sobre lenguas y culturas indígenas de la Tierra del Fuego y del sur de la Patagonia
- Extinct Ancient Societies Tierra del Fuegians
- Indians page of homepage of Museo Maritiomo de Ushuaia
- Dr Wilhelm Koppers: Unter Feuerland-Indianern. Strecker und Schröder, Stuttgart, 1924. (A whole book online. In German. Title means: “Among Fuegians”.)
- Die letzten Feuerland-Indianer / Ein Naturvolk stirbt aus. (Short article in German, with title “The last Fuegians / An indigenous people becomes extinct”)
- Feuerland — Geschichten vom Ende der Welt. (“Tierra del Fuego — stories from the end of the world”. Link collection with small articles. In German.)
- erdrand galleries, 9 photos
- Shaman-like figures (Selk'nam [xon], Yámana [jekamuʃ])