The Selknam were a tribe also known by the name of Onas . They were an Amerindian people who were located in the north and in the center of the Big Island of Tierra del Fuego , at the southern tip of the American continent in Argentina and Chile . At the beginning of the 20th century, they were persecuted and decimated by the island’s cattlemen and currently only a few mestizo descendants survive.


Who were the Selknam?

The Selknam were an Amerindian group or people also known by the name of Onas that inhabited Tierra del Fuego Island and divided into two large groups; those of the plain and those of the mountainous area.


Selknam characteristics

The main characteristics of the selknam were:

  • They were a nomadic people , hunters and gatherers.
  • When they moved they took their homes with them.
  • All members of the family had obligations to fulfill.
  • They were very tall and athletic men and women .
  • They specialized in the use of the bow and arrow .
  • The main economic activity was hunting .


Their ancestors came from Tierra del Fuego and shared an island with the Haush , similar in cultural and physical traits. The Selknam inhabited mainly the north and center of the island. They had contact with the white man in 1520 when Magellan discovered the strait that and, therefore, the group. In the 19th century , Salesian missionaries and white men arrived to colonize and exploit the island. The territories in which they lived were fenced off so many broke the fences and hunted the sheep, which they called ” guanaco chico ” or ” guanaco blanco “. This series of events produced agenocide that almost completely wiped out them, they were also displaced from their lands and transmitted contagious diseases .

In 1883, the Chilean government began cattle exploitation and in 1887 the miners arrived in search of gold. In 1888 a Salesian mission was established on Dawson Island for the purpose of evangelizing and civilizing the indigenous people. By 1891 the population had decreased to no more than 2,000 people.

In 1974 the last pure representative of this ethnic group, Angela Loij, died.  Mestizo descendants of the Selknam live in the Argentine part of the Big Island of Tierra del Fuego forming the Rafaela Ishton community .


The Selknam people lived on the Big Island of Tierra del Fuego . This island was divided into Párik , the region known as the windy meadows north of the Rio Grande and Hérsk , which was the wooded, mountainous and lake area south of this river.


They lived in organized groups that were also united through their kinship. Older adults were highly respected and even had some authority among others. They were nomads which made them travel from one place to another mainly in search of food.

Political and social organization

The Selknam were organized in bands that were located in different parts of the island. These territories were shared by different groups that in turn were united through kinship . They did not have an authority to follow and only the older adults were the ones who had some kind of power over the younger members of the tribe . When they had to move somewhere they did so in family groups and on some occasions several families met to carry out the activities . Their camps were then made temporarilyand they could stay in them from a few days to months. The basis of the social organization was the family .

Selknam economy

The Selknam were hunters and gatherers who exploited the island’s resources and at the same time, it was the foundation of its economy . All worked with the exception of small children and the elderly who were in charge of carrying out economic activities as they had a title of honor . They generally organized into bands to hunt and made their own tools.

Customs and traditions

Some of their customs and traditions were:

  • The dead were buried superficially and the family left the place and went to burn their belongings since the deceased had to be forgotten on earth.
  • The Onas believed that after death there was a heavenly judgment in the presence of all the gods . If they did not want the deceased to enter their kingdom and enjoy life, they should be punished by taking him to hell , where the goddess of hell, chaos and bad attitudes, Jalpen , waited for him to make him feel suffering and pain for eternity.

living place

The Selknam built two types of houses. These constructions were known by the name of Kawi , one of them was a simple semicircular house , and the other was cone – shaped . They were manufactured by means of sticks that were buried in the earth with which they could shape the structure and then covered it with animal skins to protect the interior of these.


The Selknam used to walk naked and to protect themselves from the cold and rain they used a long layer of guanaco , fox or cururo skin , which covered them from the neck to the knees. This type of clothing was known as Chonhkoli . They also wore moccasins , which were shoes made with the skin of the guanaco’s limbs and sewn with the hair out.


The art of this particular group used paints to cover their bodies and they excelled in singing . Their main art form was represented in their dresses which were skins made from animal leather. This cloak was a kind of cape with the skin facing out. They made necklaces and bracelets . Body painting was also part of his art. For them the best color was red and they painted themselves every day.


This culture was actually very poor with regard to crafts as they dedicated themselves fully to hunting and surviving . They did stand out making their own weapons to hunt such as bows, arrows, balls, the ropes of animal tendons, and they also made skeleton combs of whales or seals.

Language of the Selknam

Their language was called Selknam and it was a language that consisted of loud sounds and quite difficult to pronounce. The Selknam language disappeared completely when the last member of the tribe who spoke its language died.


Regarding their religious customs, they celebrated male initiation rites in which the elders of the tribe were in charge of revealing secrets to the younger ones, and this rite was known as h’ain . It was a ritual that was done for young people to become adults. They were a polytheistic people and they believed that a being superior to them was in charge of punishing evil .


The most important gods that the Selknam had were:

  • Temáukel : it was a preternatural entity that held ordained to the world.
  • K’aux: he was the creator deity of everything that surrounded them and was imagined as an old human who had managed to free the selknam from the tyranny of a primordial woman called Táiyin.
  • Quenos : he was the supreme god who watched over the order and good attitudes of the tribe, and the one who instilled each and every one of the laws to the Selknam.
  • The shamans or Kon : they helped hunters and cured diseases and their power came from the dead shamans, who appeared to them in dreams.
  • Goddess Jalpen : He was a warrior god .
  • Soortes : they were gods who helped them carry out their plans of chaos and destruction .


  • The sun and the moon that were known by the name Krenn and Kreen : they were very important to them. The sun, husband of the moon, always ran after her to punish her without reaching her. The moon represented an evil spirit that caused all the misfortunes of the town.
  • Shoort , covered his head with a cone and painted his body with white stripes.
  • Xalpen , Shoort’s wife, evil and aggressive who in her fury killed and ate men.
  • Hachai or Kotaix , spirit of the black rocks, represented with two horns.

Food of the Selknam

The Selknam fed mainly on birds , guanacos , foxes and cururos to which they added marine products such as fish and shellfish . They also consumed many wild fruits known as chaura and calafate.

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