‘We hugged and we cried’

A lost tribe reclaims its identity







One of José Vásquez Chogue’s enduring childhood memories is of his grandfather on the doorstep of his home in Santiago staring at the night sky. “He would always face south,” Vásquez recalled. “He would point out the Southern Cross and show me the stars which represent our ancestors.” The older man had grown up on a frozen and remote island in Patagonia and was a member of the Selk’nam tribe. But Chilean history books had declared the people extinct. When José, captivated by the anthropological displays of Chile’s National History Museum, tried to explain his bloodline to a member of staff he was met with derision. “I told him that they were my people, but he didn’t believe me. We were taught at school that all our brothers were all dead.” The redrafting of Chile’s constitution has created the opportunity to set the history books straight. After Vásquez made an impassioned intervention at the constitutional convention last August, the government released funds for an anthropological, historiographic and archaeological study of the Selk’nam. The results of that study acknowledged the continued existence of the people and called for their legal recognition. “The Selk’nam people are not extinct, they are currently in a process of cultural reappropriation and recreation, and they have the right to reconstruct their own [historical] memory,” said Karla Rubilar, the minister of social development. If the government of Gabriel Boric legally recognises the Selk’nam, they could be eligible for land and legislative representation. When Ferdinand Magellan rounded the southern tip of South America in 1520, it was the campfires of Indigenous tribes, burning on the hillside, that gave the region its name: Tierra ra del Fuego (Land of Fire). The ma main island – now split between Chile le and Argentina – and the surrounding un archipelago had been inhabited bi for over 10,000 years by hunter-gatherer g peoples feeding on shellfish, h berries and guanaco, a relative of the h llama. Subsequent European exploration xp left a legacy of bleak place names – Port Famine, Useless Bay, Tortuous Passage – but the newcomers had limited contact with Indigenous people . On the Argentinian side of Tierra del Fuego, the mixed-blood descendants of the Selk’nam have been recognised by law since 1992 and 36,000 hectares provided to the community as ancestral lands. Last year, 25 November was recognised as the Day of the Selk’nam Genocide and flags flown at half-mast. “The Argentinian state came to exterminate, it was a genocide and now it is a day of mourning,” said Vanina Ojeda, a fifth-generation Selk’nam who is secretary of Original Peoples for Tierra del Fuego. “For years the state tried to make invisible the crimes of the past, now it has a duty of historical reparation.” In 1993 Chile enacted its Indigenous law, recognising eight peoples, including the Mapuche – who make up 12% of Chile’s population – and the Rapa Nui of Easter Island. In some cases land titles and limited legislative representation have been offered, but the continued ontinued expansion expan of timber, mining and agricultural projects projec – combined b with heavy-handed policing olici – has led to rising social tensions. Mapuche flags were a prominent nt symbol of Chile’s 2019 protest movements that coalesced around the goal of changing the constitution. In Chile’s 2017 census, 1,144 respondents self-identified as Selk’nam but they were dispersed across the country. In 2018 Vásquez attended a cultural event for Selk’nam. “We hugged and we cried because it was the first time we had met people from our community, our brothers and sisters,” he said. With the help of the community, he was able to gather further details of the life of his grandfather, Carmelo Chogue, who had spent his childhood in the Salesian mission on Isla Dawson, a remote island so inhospitable it was later used to intern political prisoners during the Pinochet dictatorship. In October 2020 Vásquez was able to visit Tierra del Fuego for the first time. When he crossed the Strait of Magellan, emotion overcame him. “I saw the land where my father had come from, I saw Isla Dawson and when I got off the boat the first thing I did was to take a handful of earth and grasp it tightly with my hand. Then I started to cry and cry.”