Patagonia and the Selk’nam People

The Musée Quai Branly is an anthropological museum close to the Eiffel Tower.  It’s perhaps my favourite of the museums here.

Except when there are school parties visiting and then it isn’t.  Most of my least favourite places are those where my visit coincides with school parties.

There is currently a small, temporary exhibition on Patagonia; the vast, mysterious, seemingly empty area stretching across Argentina and Chile.  The area had long been set into the public imagination as one of giants and mysterious creatures.  The exhibition tells the tale of these representations in literature and accounts of exploration and travel.  It was as if the area were selected for housing all of the monsters and fears of the European audience.  Subsequent geographers and cartographers embellished their own maps and works with the fruits of their own imaginations.

It would seem that the main reason for the story of the giants came from the fact that the local Tehuelche people were nearly 6 foot tall and the Spanish were, well, technically short arses at around 5’1”

There was a genocide of the local Selk’nam or ‘Ona peoples during the gold rush, the drive to acquire farm land and in the Argentine drive to secure land.  Large farming companies paid £1 for each dead Selk’nam.  The £1 was redeemed against a pair of hands, a pair of ears or, later, a head.

Hunting the Selk’nam – note the dead tribesman in the foreground

As Julio Argentino Roca, the leader of the Argentine campaign put it

“Our self-respect as a virile people obliges us to put down as soon as possible, by reason or by force, this handful of savages who destroy our wealth and prevent us from definitely occupying, in the name of law, progress and our own security, the richest and most fertile lands of the Republic”.

The last of the Selk’nam people was Ángela Loij who died on 28th May 1974.


Ángela Loij with the anthropologist, Anne Chapman 

There are now around 5,000 Tehuelche people remaining in the area.

For me, the most visually striking part of the exhibition, was the selection of photographs by Martin Gusinde, a German born priest and anthropologist.  He was one of the few people to have witnessed the Hain ceremony of the young men of the Selk’nam.

The young men had been brought up to believe in the spirit world and were threatened with punishments from these spirits.  During the initiation ceremony, the young men had to confront these spirits in a darkened hut [actually the men of the tribe] and show their valour in the face of these terrors.  The men of the tribe eventually revealed the truth, there were no spirits and then the tribe’s creation myth was explained.


The exhibition runs until 13th May 2013.


2 thoughts on “Patagonia and the Selk’nam People

  1. Sorry to have missed the exhibition! Was in Paris while it was still up.

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