"L'ombre de Chistophe Colomb turne elle-même sur la Terre de Feu..."

André Breton and Paul Eluard L'Immaculée Conception, Paris, 1961


My prolonged adventure in Tierra del Fuego began one evening in Paris (1964) thanks to Annette Laming-Emperaire, a well-known archaeologist. She told me about her many years working in Tierra del Fuego, and mentioned "Lola" whom she had heard was the one of the very few surviving Indians there. She also commented that she needed another person for her next field trip the following year. She was of course aware that I was not an archaeologist but thought I could be helpful working with her assistant. As I was already in the CNRS (Centre National de la Recheche Scientifique), I obtained permission from my director, then Claude Lévi-Strauss, to interrupt my field work in Honduras, and join her team in Tierra del Fuego for the three months' (November 1964 to February 1965) survey in the Chilean sector of the Isla Grande, Tierra del Fuego. During Christmas vacation, in the Argentine part of the island, I went on horseback with Enriqueta Varela’s son and daughter as guides and met Lola on the reservation near Lago Fagnano, where she was living alone in a small cottage.

At the end of the winter of 1966 in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, Kiepja, known as Lola, died. Her group is often called Ona, even though Selk'nam is their real name. Their mode of life is the most ancient of humanity, that of the Paleolithic Era, of hunters, gatherers and fishers. With Kiepja all direct testimony of the Selk’nam culture disappeared. Of the few surveyors of her group, she was oldest (approximately ninety) and the only one who had lived as a Selk'nam. Born in a tent made of guanaco skin, throughout her childhood and youth she dressed in guanaco fur, camped with her family on the beaches, in the forests, along the shores of lagoons and participated in the traditional ceremonies. A photograph of her was taken about 1905 by an Argentine author, Carlos R. Gallardo, when she still dressed in guanaco fur.

Almost at the end of her life, when I knew her, she seemed really happy to relive the ancient way of her youth, through her stories and her chants. But she knew that her world had disappeared forever.

She still identified with her culture and, though she could express herself in Spanish, she preferred to speak her own language. She was a person of exception richness, passionate and sensitive. She possessed a profound knowledge of the mysticism and mythology of her people. She was a shaman, a xo'on, the last Selk'nam shaman. N.1 For years she had practiced to acquire the concentration necessary to enter the world of the supernatural, to which only the shamans had access. Her maternal uncle passed on his waiuwen, his power, to her in a dream

During the greater part of the prehistory, humanity lived in small semi-nomad communities, scattered throughout the world, until the invention of agriculture made sedentary life possible. But due to diverse circumstances some groups never became sedentary and remained attached to their tradition of hunters, gatherers and fishers until the nineteenth century , in certain parts of the world, among them Tierra del Fuego. According to the archaeologists, people first arrived on the island some ten thousand years ago. N.2

The population of the Selk'nam numbered approximately 3,500 to 4,000 individuals, when the men of Euopean descent began to occupy their territory, the island called Isla Grande in Tierra del Fuego (Argentina and Chile). N.3 Since the late sixteenth century, their ancestors had had sporadic contacts with crews of ships and castaways. But they did not know where they had come from. According to their prophets ("fathers of the word"), strange men, like those their forefathers had seen, would finally destroy them. During the last decades of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth, the Selk'nam were decimated by the Whites. Many more succumbed from the diseases they transmitted, others were sent on ships to the mainland. Certain paid "Indian hunters", committed atrocities on their own before killing their victims. Other Selk'nam were killed in intercede battles, which had increased after the arrival of the Whites, as their hunting grounds were being fenced in by the colonizers, the remaining land was disputed among the Selk'nam themselves. The last combat which occurred at the beginning of the twentieth century was the most deadly. Then , for the first time, women and children were among the victims. This was the first and only time they fought one another with firearms. This was a period of intense anguish, despite the well-intentioned efforts of the Salesian missionaries and some other Whites to alleviate their distress. In the beginning the Selk'nam attempted to defend themselves and their land, with bows and arrows but it soon became evident that their only defense when attacked was to flee. But they had to flee by running, with their families, from men who were armed and on horseback. The Selk'nam were not always passive victims. Their offensive tactics was to undermine the enemy: steal from him, pillage his belongings, including their sheep, and kill him when possible. But the conditions were such that they were not able to acquire a clear consciousness of their situation. Most of the offensive actions were motivated to take vengeance on the enemy or to take advantage of some carelessness on their part. They lacked a coherent solidarity to confront their aggressors. Later a few of the women voluntarily went to live with Whitemen who had been among the professional killers of their people. And even into the twentieth century (as mentioned above) certain groups of Selk'nam continued their fratricide combats. Their offensive against the strangers was undeclared war against an overpowering enemy who was a friend at times, but who possessed a weapon, that was not really a weapon but was the most deadly of all - the imported very contagious diseases, against which the Selk’nam had no natural immunity and no medicine.

The occupation of the territory began about 1880 in the northwestern part of their island where the future owners of the land they acquired from the two governments which had claimed the Isla Grande in 1881 (Chile and Argentine) and gold prospectors who arrived from Punta Arenas (Chile) and from the Falkland Islands. Several years later (in 1886), from the northeastern section of their island, others arrived: namely an engineer by the name of Julio Popper and his aids to work the gold-bearing sand on a large scale. That same year a scientific-military expedition arrived, under the command of Ramon Lista. The Selk'nam who survived their attacks took refuge further the south. Even if they had wanted to flee to a safer place, to the mainland, this was impossible as they did not know how to navigate, to cross the Strait of Magellan.

They had to move to find food, mainly to hunt the guanaco, which was an arduous task even in normal times. North of the river Río Grande (which transverses the island from east to west), when the colonizers and gold prospectors had arrived, the movement men on horseback, and herds of sheep frighten the guanacos. They became disoriented and scarce. They too were being shot (to feed the new owner's dogs) and they too tried to flee to unoccupied terrain. The Selk'nam saw that though the guanaco was scarce, the sheep were not, nor were the horses. The theft of sheep, in particular, outraged the sheep-owners who did not agree to cease their genocide tactics until the Salesian missionaries began taking the "sheep robbers" to the mission established near in the area N.4 Some were forced into the missions, others went voluntarily to escape the genocide, but within twenty years the great majority had died of diseases they had caught the in the missions: namely measles, influenza, pneumonia, tuberculosis, diarrhea, small pox, flue and even alcoholism. These diseases spread to the country-side and decimated those who had taken refuge there or had tried to remain there. N.5

Referring again to Gusinde's figures of the original population ( 3,500 to 4,000) at approximately 1880, forty years later, in 1919 Gusinde noted the number 279 for the Selk'nam. There were probably a hundred or so more in the remote areas. Ten years hence the number was reduced to 100. In this interlude there had been two more epidemics (probably measles) near Lago Fagnano, where most of Selk’nam were living. In 1966 there were about thirteen adults, including the Mestizos whose fathers were White. All were over fifty and born shortly before or after their culture had been destroyed and spoke Spanish, and a few also spoke Selk'nam. The one exception was Lola Kiepja, who much older.

Despite the annihilation of her people by the Whites and epidemics brought to the island by them, Lola did not resent them, nor did she resent me. Sometimes she would call me her daughter, other times, when I would tie her apron, she would look over her shoulder at me and laugh while rocking from one foot to the other, saying ala ala, meaning that I was treating her like a baby.

I had first met Lola toward the end of 1964 as mentioned above. N.6 As an ethnologist, I hoped to be able to work with her, and was relieved to discover that contact was easy. On my first visit, she sang a lament, mourning the death of her mother. I returned the following day with a tape recorder and later spent the three weeks with her and a friend, Angela Loij, also a Selk'nam, in Rio Grande (a town on the Atlantic coast of the Isla Grande). Thanks to Angela's help as an interpreter, I realized that Lola had a great fund of knowledge concerning her culture. I checked her memory by asking her the names of Indians mentioned in the book entitled Uttermost Part of the Earth by Lucas Bridges, the son of the missionary Thomas Bridges. Some of those whom she remembered had died shortly after the turn of the century. As I was committed that year to other field work (in Honduras) I was obliged to leave toward the end of March.

Upon returning to Paris at the end of 1965 I played the tapes for Gilbert Rouget, the head of the ethno-musicology department of the Musée de l'Homme. He advised me to return to Tierra del Fuego to record again what I had brought and attempt to record other chants. There were only two known collections, both recorded on cylinders, containing a few Selk'nam chants: one dated from 1907-08, by Furlong, and the other by Gusinde.N.7 Also Claude Lévi-Strauss believed that this might be the last opportunity to obtain new data concerning a group which for decades had been considered extinct.N.8

In March, 1966, I returned to Tierra del Fuego.N.9 This time the main problem was the language barrier. Although adequate for her everyday needs, Lola's Spanish was rudimentary. While speaking it, she gave the impression of an almost childlike mentality, thus concealing her passionate temperament and complex nature, her bewilderment and profound sorrow. Her world had slowly sunk into non-existence as those around he had died strange deaths. Gradually she internalized the realities of her existence and feelings, while to strangers she became la reliquia (the relic).

The only place I could work with Lola was on the reservation and given the situation, it was not possible to bring another Selk'nam there to act as an interpreter. it was difficult for me to learn Selk'nam, partly because Lola could only translate isolated words. Moreover, Selk'nam is a tonal and glottal-stop language. Often was I was endeavoring to pronounce a word, Lola would frown, looking intently at my mouth, her lips moving soundlessly to help me along, and when my version finally came out, sometimes she would sigh in relief and laugh, saying eso es (that's it), as if we had won a battle against great odds.

From March to June I lived mostly on the reservation, on a sheep farm belonging to Luis Garibaldi Honte, of Haush descent, who offered me hospitality in his house, a few steps from Lola's cottage. He instructed his farm worker, a puestero, to supply Lola with lamb meat and other necessities. During the time I was there, there were just the three of us, though the puestero was usually away, working in the barn or riding horseback the fields. Every week or two I went to the town of Río Grande, for several days to study my notes and purchase supplies to take back to the reservation.

Lola had twelve children, seven with her Indian husband Anik (a Haush), and after his death, five more from her union with a Chilean worker. All of the children had died, most of them as adults. Her grandchildren, excepting one who live on the continent, had also died. She had one living descent in Tierra del Fuego, a great grandson, who had been adopted by Garibaldi and his wife.

Until she was in her early twenties, Lola had had little contact with Europeans. About 1900 she and her first husband, Anik, went to work at Harberton, a sheep farm on Beagle Channel, the south coast of the island. An Englishman Thomas Bridges, who had been a missionary among the neighbouring Yámana (Yahgan), founded the Harberton farm in1886. He and his sons , especially Lucas, were among the rare farm owners who befriended the Indians. At the beginning of the twentieth century and for several decades afterward, Lola and her family, like the other Indians, worked on the sheep farms during the Summer months and during the Winter they reverted to their former way of life hunting guanacos and periodically performing their great ceremony, called the Hain, which included rites of initiation for the young men, the kloketens.

During these years her mother and her maternal uncles (all shamans) trained her to become a shaman, a xo'on. One night, sometime during the year 1926, she dreamed that the spirit (waiuwin) of one of her deceased maternal uncles visited her and transmitted his power (his spirit) to her by means of his chant. His spirit had flown over Lake Fagnano (called Kami by the Indians) to seek her. This uncle had died on the opposite side of the lake from where she was then living. In her dream she heard his spirit singing: "Where are you, my daughter?" When she heard his call, she repeated it, thus awakening herself. At that precise moment, she said, his power (waiuwin) penetrated her "like the cutting edge of a knife". It was then that, in the traditional manner, she became a shaman, she had acquired his waiuwin, his supernatural power.

When I met Lola she had been living along on the reservation for many years, most of the time in a one-room cottage. She cooked her meals, gathered firewood, fetched water, and did other chores. She also wove baskets, and woolen socks which she sometimes sold. She had owned some sheep and a few horses, inherited from some of her children and from other Indians. But she told me that all of her animals had been stolen, some by two of the Indians, and the rest by White neighbours. But what she missed most of all was a favourite horse. Until about 196l, she would take long rides to visit friends or buy maté (herb tea) or food. But after she fell off the horse several times, Luis Garibaldi thought it wise not to allow her to ride. She never got over what seemed to her a gross affront.

Lola was aware that she was much more Selk’nam than the others. The difference between her and the others was accentuated because she was a shaman and was deeply influenced by the mystical and mythological traditions of her culture. Although some of the older Indians secretly admired her shamanistic power, they had no fear of her since she was not a full-fledged shaman. As was usually the case with a woman shaman, she did not have the power to kill. Over the years she had treated a few of the Indians, including Garibaldi, and even some Whites in shamanistic seances. But she did not always use her "power" when curing. Once I was frying potatoes and the grease splattered, burning my hand. Taking mine in hers, she rubbed cold water on the burn then blew on it for several minutes until the pain disappeared . When I complained of a backache she told me to lie face down on her bed. I did so and she pressed the aching part hard with the palms of both hands and blew on it with quick puffs. This treatment also relieved me.

She had several friends among her people, including Angela Loij, but did not see them often. She knew that most of the non-Indians on the island had little or no respect for her. But she was very responsive to those who liked her and joked with them in her broken Spanish.

When rain threatened, she often went outside "to cut the sky," as she would say in Selk'nam, to bring good weather. One day I called her attention to the cloudy sky, instead of taking her usual broomstick or cane to clear the sky, she took her meat knife, saying a knife was better. She insulted the clouds by sputtering, chanting and shouting at them (in Selk'nam) while making large sweeping movements, usually with a stick. Her purpose was to push the clouds away, toward the north, the sky of rain. On a cloudy or rainy day she would clear the sky several times if necessary, until finally that day or the next, the sun would reappear. When the effect was not immediate she would sometimes laugh, saying that the clouds, no quieren, meaning that they did not want to leave. When she insisted upon "cutting the sky" long enough, it would either rain or the clouds would disappear. Clearing the weather was one of the attributes of the shamans.

She was not very neat. She knew how to use a fork, but preferred to eat (meat) with her fingers. Although she disliked the idea of taking a bath, upon arising she would wash her hands and face. She swept her hut when she knew I was coming, but I have the impression that, when alone, she would not bother to do so very often. Without thinking, she would drop refuse on the floor or throw it out of the door for the dogs and cats. She had the habit of piling things pell-mell in the corners of her hut and on her bed. It followed that she spent a great deal of time searching for things, particularly her meat knife. These habits were largely culturally determined. She had been brought up to change campsites every few days or so, to dress in guanaco skins, to clean herself with dry clay or moss, and to possess only the necessities for existence, no more, no clutter.

In her later years she was given many useless things, particularly an excess of old clothes. She had a favourite man's suit jacket. As she had less ragged jackets, I asked her why she was so fond of it. "For the pockets," she replied. It had ten pockets, inside and out. This pleased her a great deal.

Lola was not concerned about the appearance of what she wore, as long as her clothes were more or less clean, warm enough, and had pockets. She was sensitive to the beauty of her face. Sometimes when I was combing her hair, she would look in the mirror laughing, saying (in Spanish and Selk'nam) yo olichen ( I pretty) or frown and say yippen, yo vieja ( ugly, I old ).

Although she ate meat three or four times a day with remarkable appetite, she would often ask if I could bring her fish and guanaco meat. I could not find either in Río Grande. But I did bring her two other items she asked for: butter and sweet vermouth. She ate butter as if it were candy and we usually had a an apéritif before dinner. Sometimes while I was away, she walked out to the side of the road to wait for me, even though she knew I was not due that day. When I asked her why, she said that she simply wanted to wait for me there.

She delighted to sing for the tape recorder, la máquina, (the machine) as she called it. One of the chants, we especially liked concerned an old guanaco. "Ra ra ra ra ra ", Lola would sing imitating the old guanaco.

The old guanaco (when he was still a man) said to his two daughters:

I am about to die. Bury me in the white earth (where the guanacos often sleep and rub their backs to rid themselves of vermin) but do not bury me deep in the earth, leave my head and shoulders free. After I die you must perform tachira (the mourning rite) and as you are going away singing of your grief, a man will approach you. He will look exactly like me but he will not be me. He will ask to make love to you, do as he says.

When he died the daughters did just as their father had ordered. As they walked away, while they were still singing the lament, the father jumped out of his grave, hot with desire to make love to his daughters. He sniffed their tracks and chased wildly after them, urinating as he ran (as if he had already been metamorphosed into a guanaco). When he caught up to them he said: "I am the one your father told you about. Come let us make love." One of his daughters ran on. When he made love to the other both became transformed into guanacos.

Lola almost invariable insisted that I immediately play back the tape when she had stopped singing. While listening she would often laugh, appear very pleased, and comment, olichen or ulichen (lovely or beautiful), saying that she wanted to record the chant again, right away. Often she asked that the tapes be replayed for the pure pleasure of hearing them repeated. She sang two of the laments so frequently (one dedicated to her mother and the other to her last two sons) that sometimes I would not record them, especially during the last few weeks when I was low on tapes and it was so cold that the batteries had to be taken out of the recorder every minute or so to be heated on the stove. But she wanted to be recorded each time she sang, and when I did not do so she was displeased.

Quite often when I greeted her in the morning, she would smile widely saying: "I found another", meaning that during the night she had recalled a chant she had heard many years earlier and she always remembered the name of the owner of the chant. She would ask me excitedly to hurry and get the machine ready lest the chant disappear from her memory before we could record it. Once recorded and we heard it played back, we were relieved. The chant had been saved from oblivion. She did not always want to repeat a chant. When I insisted, she would laugh and ask me why I wanted to record it again, in view of the fact that it was yippen (ugly) as she thought some were. At other times, however, she understood that her voice was being recorded to preserve the chants. She would say that she was recording for the Indians to the north (north of Magellan Strait). Of the ninty-two chants recorded that year, eighty-seven (the guanaco chant twice) were issued on four records in 1972 and 1978 .

Occasionally tourists would come to the reservation while I was there, and invariably, wanted to photograph her. Flanked by several strangers she would stand rigid, scowling into the camera. If not given anything for being thus bothered, she would become indignant. But she never showed her feelings to the tourists.

Twice in the last few years her hut had burned down. The memory of these fires terrified her, although she had not been burned. She was especially sorry for her pet cat who had survived the fire. Her last hut had been built on close to Garibaldi's main house so that she would not be as isolated as she had been. As winter set in, during the last year of her life, we spent more and more time huddled over the stove. Often she would overload it and burning logs would fall out. Exclaiming excitedly she would try to shove them back into the stove. Every night before I left I would say, hauk (fire) chon (water), reminding her to pour water over the stove before she went to bed.

Behind her hut there was a tepee-shaped, open-fronted structure made of logs, and covered with rags. Here, weather permitting, she would build a fire and sit beside it, weaving a basket. She told me that when alone she would go there, just to sit by the fire. Perhaps she felt closer to her old way of life there.

She frequently proposed that we go to certain places many kilometers away, confident that she could walk great distances. But we did take short walks to gather firewood or to visit places where she had lived or where her friends had camped.

She made me promise never to play the tapes for anyone on the island except Angela and one other friend. In January, 1965, during the three weeks we had recorded in Angela's house (on the outskirts of Río Grande), whenever anyone approached the house she became nervous and asked me to hide the recorder. The following year, on the reservation, we had very few visitors and she seemed less timid. She explained to me that the "others" (the Whites as well as some of the other Indians) would laugh if they heard her singing, that they did not understand.

In addition to chants we recorded basic vocabulary (which bored her), kin terms and proper and place names. At times she seemed to be secretly amused at me, as when, I recorded her imitations of birds. These interested me because many of the names of birds in Selk'nam are onomatopoetic.

What she really enjoyed were the chants. When singing those of the Hain, she would pantomime he dance steps and gestures of the spirit ( a man disguised with a mask and body paint) to whom the chant was being sung and especially of a spirit called Shoort, who during the ceremony frightened the women by chasing them and throwing things at them. Sometimes while imitating his rhythmic steps, she would stab me gently in the ribs with her cane, saying in a half-joking tone: "Shoort was very mean to the women."

When telling me about certain Hain spirits and the pranks the Indians played on one another during the ceremony, she would laugh until tears came to her eyes and then look at me still laughing and say qué salvajes (what savages).

A favourite account was one her maternal grandfather (Alaken) had told her mother. It concerned two xo'on (shamans) who were great liars. It all happened on the east coast of the island, near Cabo de Peñas, on a very cold winter day when everyone was hungry. The two impostors, Koin-xoon (shaman from Koin, the name for Cabo de Peñas) and Haipenu-xoon pretended they were ochen-maten, a xo'on alleged to have sufficient shamanistic power to kill a whale and bring it ashore. That day no one went hunting, as everyone expected a whale to arrive any minute. They all stood along the beach shivering. The two impostors pointed to the sea, saying they saw a flock of gulls, a sure sign that a whale was nearing. They leapt in the air singing the chant of the whale, while making believe they were tugging a cord, dragging a tremendous whale ashore. But it was all a great lie. There was no whale at all. The xo'on were making fools of everyone. The brother of Koin-xoon finally became angry and said:

Here I am wasting my time. I am hungry but instead of hunting with my teix [a snare used to trap certain birds], here I am hanging around the beach all because of these liars.

During my stay the first year, Angela sometimes pretended she was tugging an invisible cord, hauling the whale ashore, and Lola would become nearly helpless with laughter.

Toward the end of my stay Lola thought I understood a great deal more of her language than was the case. I endeavoured to grasp at least enough to make a few short comments so that she would continue talking. One of the words she repeated most often was koliot, (red cape), the word of alarm referring to the first policemen to arrive on the island who wore red flannel capes. An Indian would shout koliot when he sighted an armed rider on the horizon; the entire camp would scatter as best it could. She remembered the victims of the professional killers, especially on called Red Pig (Chancho Colorado) , who had been hired by one of the first European colonizers, José Menéndez, " Bad Christians - to kill the Indians," she would say.

She spoke time and again of her maternal grandfather, Alaken, who was renowned on the island as a great prophet (chan-ain). Other Selk'nam, with whom I spoke, confirmed that Alaken was highly esteemed because of his knowledge of the legendary past and his ability to predict the future by means of visions. He had been killed when quite an old man, along with two of his brothers, in retaliation for having stolen metal tools from the shack of some newcomers.

The epidemic of measles in 1924-25 had impressed her profoundly.

Dead-dead-dead. How many dead? Look at the cemetery - it is full. So many died, every day. Trucks would go by full of the dead. They all died of koliot-kwaki [Whiteman's sickness] - babies with their mothers, the poor things. They suffered - young girls not yet married, young men. The cemetery is large.

As if it had happened the day before, she described how certain men had been wounded or killed during the last combats ( usually skirmishes lasting a few hours). She spoke of one in which she had participated and which had provoked the one of the last combats among the Selk'nam.

During the late 1890s she and her family were camping near a hill called Teis, to the east of Cape Irigoyen (on the Atlantic coast of the island). She was a short distance from the camp when the enemy attacked. She was altered because her dogs began to bark and ran back to the camp where she saw her husband, Anik, wounded in the temple by an arrows. Pobrecito (poor fellow) she would comment, "his face got all swollen." Then a certain Asherton tried to abduct her. She resisted, attempting to escape from him. He became furious and ran after her, arrow in hand, shouting: "I'll kill you if you don't come with me!" Meanwhile Anik was about to be finished off when his cousin, Paachek, on the enemy side, intervened, shouting: "Don't kill him! He's my cousin." Paachek also saved her from being abducted. This battle took place when Lola , her kinsmen and others, (about twenty-six adults) were celebrating a Hain. Some thirty men from five different territories, determined to revenge the death of a certain Yehun-xo'on (a shaman and champion hunter), attacked them. Lola's uncle, Tael, had killed him with a bow and arrow. Tael, his son and one of Lola's brothers were among the six killed during this battle. Eight women were abducted, but five escaped afterward and returned to their group.

She had great admiration for certain shamans, particularly for one named Mai-ich, who several times had performed the most difficult of all the xo'on ordeals, which were demonstration of the shaman's power, his waiuwin. Mai-ich would insert a wooden-tipped arrow just below his collarbone and somehow pull it diagonally across his chest, withdrawing it at his waist. She would make gestures of terrible pain while telling about it. She often sang he chant he had sung while performing and once she repeated some of his words: " My body is in darkness. I am myself to pierce it with an arrow" This was the time when he had not sufficiently "prepared" the "channel" through which the arrow was to pass. He bled afterward, which should not have happened, had he been in complete control.

Once she became annoyed with me. I was showing her copies of the photographs that accompany Martin Gusinde's volume on the Selk'nam. Included among them are photographs of the "spirits" of the Hain, actually men disguised by paint and masks. When she saw the first of these, she pushed it aside, refused to look at the others. Scowling at me and said: "No es para los civilizados" meaning Whites should not see them.

The last weeks before I was to leave I wanted to take her out for a ride. The administrator of a large hotel recently built on the shore of Lake Fagnano had shown sympathy for Lola, so I told him of my wish. One day he came for us in his station wagon as he had promised. Lola dressed in her new clothes, took all of her money with her for fear that her hut might be robbed during her absence, which was very unlikely. We spent two days and a night in the luxurious hotel where, as winter was nearing, we were the only guests. Before each meal the administrator asked Lola what she would most like to eat. She invariably replied - fish. She sat for hours in front of the large fireplace chatting with us, with the men who were working in the hotel and with occasional neighbors who passed by. From the immense dining room, which overlooked the lake, she pointed out the hunting grounds of her grandfather, Alaken.

As the date of my departure drew near, she began asking me when I was to return. I told her I would come the following year if I could manage it. From what I tried to explain to her she surmised that I lived on a big sheep farm near Buenos Aires and that my "patron" had sent me to record voice because he knew a great deal about the Indians and liked them. She had never left the island but she knew that beyond there was a "big town" called Buenos Aires. She inquired time and again about my patron, asking if I were sure that he would send me back again. The more she inquired, the more I reassured her that I would return. My patron become "our" patron. On the day of my departure she gave me a basket she had recently finish. Previously I had offered to buy it from her, but she had always refused to sell it, saying she had promised it to someone else long before I came. Now she put the basket in my hands, saying that I was to give it to our patron.

When I returned to Paris I gave it to Lévi-Strauss, telling him it was from Lola. He put it carefully under a glass in his office.

That winter Lola refused to leave the reservation. Because of her age and failing health she had been taken to Río Grande the year before. But there she had passed the days sitting near a stove, drowsing when she was not being scolded by the mistress of the house for being sullen, lazy and dirty. This winter she was determined to stay in her country (it has been part of Alaken territory) and never leave again. I tried to persuade her to spend the winter with a very nice woman, Enriqueta de Santin, (whose mother was Indian). She was very fond of her and lived nearby. Lola refused. The last time I went to see her I took Angela Loij with me and she remained with her ten days after my departure. Then Lola was alone except for the daily visits of the puestero who brought her firewood, water and meat. The winter of that year, 1966, was unusually severe with temperatures of thirty degrees below zero and Lola was virtually snowed in from July until several days before her death in October. When she became ill, the puestero went on horseback to notify the Rural Police officer at a small lake called Kami (near Lake Fagnano). Using a tractor, they transported her to the main road and from there she was taken by car to Río Grande where she died in the government hospital a few days later. It was the end of the winter in Tierra del Fuego, 9 October, 1966.


1. Although "shaman" is a word derived from a Siberian language, it has become a generic term for a person who is gifted and trained to achieve contact with supernatural powers. Usually a trance is required to achieve this mental state. Here shaman is employed as synonymous to the Selk'nam word xo'on. Back

2. Laming-Emperaire, Annette, et. al. "Le site Marazzi en Terre de Feu." Objets et Mondes : 225-44.1972; Massone M., Mauricio, et al Perspectiva Arqueologica de los Selk’nam. Santiago, Chile,1993. Back

3. Martin Gusinde Die Feuerland Indianer, Band I. Die Selk'nam, Mödling bei Wein, 1931: 147. This first volume of 1,176 pages is the most important study of the Selk'nam. The complete work of Gusinde, on the three main groups of Tierra del Fuego, has been translated into Spanish in eight volumes and published by the Centro Argentino de Etnología Americana , Buenos Aires, from 1982 to 1991. Back

4. Especially the Salesian mission on Dawson Island (San Rafael), in the Strait of Magellan, established in 1889 . Their other mission, (La Candelaria) near the town of Río Grande on the Atlantic coast of the Isla Grande, was founded in 1897. Back

5. Important sources for the extinction of the Selk'nam are E.Lucas Bridges, Uttermost Part of the Earth,1987; Ramon Lista, Viaje al pais de los onas, Tierra del Fuego, 1887; Mateo Martinic "Panorama de la colonización en Tierra del Fuego entre 1881 y 1900" in Anales del Instituto de la Patagonia, vol. 4: 5-69,1973, and by the same author "El genocidia selk'nam: nuevos antecidentes." ibid, vol. 19: 23-28. 1989-90; Julio Popper, "Exploración de la Tierra del Fuego" in Boletin del Instituto Geográfico Argentino, vol. 8: 74-115, 1887 and by the same author "Apuntes Geográficos. Etnólogicos, Estadísticos e industrials sobre la Tierra del Fuego" in ibid, vol. 12: 130-70, 1891, The Bulletins of the Salesian Mission, published in Spanish, are also important references. Back

6. La Mission Archeologique Française au Chili Austral was directed by the late Annette Laming-Emperaire. Back

7. For the Selk'nam chants see the two articles by French musicologists Gilbert Rouget and Jean Schwarz

"Transcrire ou décrire? Chant soudanais et chant fuégien." in Echanges et Communications. Mélanges offerts à Claude Lévi-Strauss à l'ocassion de son 60 anniversaire." eds. J. Pouillon and P. Maranda, vol. 1, Paris : 677-706,1970 and the same authors "Chant fuégien, consonance, mélodie de voyelles." in Revue de Musicologie, vol. 63, no.l: 5-23,1976. An Argentine anthropologists, R. Casamiquela also recorded Selk’nam chants sung by Santiago Rupatini. Back

8. For example as early as 1928 the American archeologist Samuel K. Lothrop "The Indians of Tierra del Fuego" in Contributions from the Museum of the American Indian, vol. 10, 1928) wrote on p.25, "With the exception of a few mixed-bloods the Indians of Tierra del Fuego are probably extinct." Back

9. This field work was funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, New York in collaboration with the Laboratoire d'Anthropologie Sociale. Paris and the Département de musique of the Musée de l'Homme , Paris. Back



Whenever I sight a full Moon I see the face of Kiepja.

Kiepja the oldest of the last Selk'nam.

The Selk'nam, the far gone, disappeared, died and killed off people since a hundred years past in Tierra del Fuego.

I hear Kiepja chanting to the Moon, "Kreeh", imitating the call of an eagle while her spirit soars into the night to pay homage to Moon.

Moon, the potent, fearful matriarch of old, vanquished by the men, Sun and his allies.

Struck down and beaten by Sun, she escaped into the nocturnal void.

Moon, ally of women.

Moon furious and vengeful in eclipse.

Moon waxing, pregnant with the force of cosmic gravitation, mistress of the roaring tides.

Moon full of the glorious beauty of the nocturnal heavens, drenching the earth wit her gentle soothing brilliance.

Moon waning, humble and fugitive, drawing in her ocean boundaries.

Moon retreating to her secret abode only to suddenly reappear, a slim furtive provocation.

Kiepja whose life was like, so very like, the cycle of the Moon: timid, growing in passion, full of the magnetism of impulse, desire and intellect, then slowly waning, though ever symmetrically harmonious.

Buenos Aires

December, 1988


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