By Patricia Nieto Mariño
Porvenir, Chile, Feb 9 (EFE).- The lead-up to the unveiling of the latest Oscar nominations was a time of unaccustomed pride and hope for an indigenous people in the far south of Chile’s Patagonia region, a land of frigid Antarctic winds that is home to a small community struggling for recognition of its very existence.
Although Theo Court’s Spanish-Chilean drama film “Blanco en Blanco” (White on White) was not one of the five pictures nominated Tuesday in the Best International Feature Film category at the 94th Academy Awards, its selection as Chile’s Oscars entry has introduced many film-goers to the story of the Selk’nam native group.
“It brought visibility to a people who a century ago experienced a genocide that almost ended their more than 8,000 years of existence,” Jose Vasquez, one of the few descendants of a tribe many assumed had died out, told Efe.
“This film helps preserve our culture. I never thought I’d see my ancestors go that far,” he added while proudly sporting a traditional “koschel” hat.
A member of Covadonga-Ona, Chile’s lone Selk’nam community, Vasquez said his grandfather was one of the few to survive persecution at the hands of the mostly European settlers of that southern region.
All told, the late 19th-to-early-20th-century genocide in Patagonia’s far-south Tierra del Fuego archipelago – an area that straddles parts of Chile and Argentina and is nicknamed the End of the World – is blamed for the deaths of nearly 1,000 members of that native group.
Maria Constanza Tocornal, an anthropologist at Santiago’s Silva Henriquez Catholic University, told Efe that the Selk’nam are especially known for eschewing clothing and wearing red, white and black body paint and large masks that were associated with an elaborate coming-of-age ceremony for young men.
“They were hunter-gatherers and, although at a certain moment in history it was said they had died of hunger, that’s not true. It was other human beings who reduced their population,” she said.
The Selk’nam are largely viewed as a tribe that died out in the early 20th century, either having been killed in disputes with the “koliot” (white men) or having died after being confined by the government to Salesian missions on Tierra del Fuego’s remote Dawson Island.
While Franco-American ethnologist Anne Chapman said the Selk’nam disappeared with the death in 1966 of the last speaker of their language, Lola Kiepja, some descendants now say there were other survivors who spread to other parts of that far-southern territory.
One of these descendants, He’many Molina, she said she could not understand why she was taught in school that her culture was extinct.
“We experienced a double genocide, and now we’re all doing a work of reconstruction. We’re recounting what we remember from our grandparents and piecing together the puzzle,” said the head of Corporacion Selk’nam, an organization founded in 2015 to reunite descendants of that native group.
No official registry exists, but that institution says 11 Selk’nam families (roughly 200 people) are spread up and down the entire length of Chile.
Molina and her daughter, 30-year-old Fernanda Olivares, recently moved to Tierra del Fuego to revive their culture with assistance from Silva Enriquez Catholic University and the University of Magallanes, located in the southern city of Punta Arenas.
“We want to recover traditional activities like basketwork and archery. We still have a long way to go,” she told Efe.
Although 17 seats were reserved for indigenous groups on the convention now drafting a new Chilean constitution, the Selk’nam were left out.
Vasquez was invited in August 2021 to speak during one of the convention’s sessions and his words went viral on the Internet: “It’s difficult to say who I am because this government doesn’t recognize us.”
Molina said for her part that all of Chile has pinned its hopes on the new national charter, which if approved will be the first in the country’s history to recognize indigenous communities. EFE