ANGELA LOIJ: The Selk’nam Genocide

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Ona people (Selk’nam)

Today my mind is occupied with strange thoughts, they don’t seem to be my own…I have written this tale before only to delete it. Out of some sense of shock or disbelief. Shame as a human that we do this to others humans, and as a civilization of mankind, we are not learning from these horrid mistakes…

Maybe pain at how outrageous we are as a species. Maybe because I didn’t want to remember something like this, ever…or possibly it stimulates my imagination to wonder how many times this has happened, in the past — long dead forgotten tribes of people wiped out in genocides for the sake of progress, and the industrialization of the world. Which now seems to have gone mad.

And will it continue to happen? In my lifetime there have been the genocides by forced drought on African people, and so they die of starvation. There have been illegal wars like that of Iraq which has killed a million of the citizens of that country, and the purposeful brutal and bloody genocide in Rwanda in the mid nineties.

Reality is different from something fictionalized.
A story, a tale, is for bed time, for around the fire side. Something to tuck the kiddies in with on a cold winter night. A conjuring up from the depths of an imagination a separate and distinct other or altered reality. To entertain an interested ear and give sound to a silent voice…
But this tale is the painful truth. These stories are hidden. These tales are not told, they are the real face of the expansion of what is considered civilization. Progress. This the real reality of this fake world we live in…

My tale begins in Romania with the birth a week before Christmas of the year 1857, of one Julius Popper. Born to an Ashkenazi Jewish family. Julius lived well and had an excellent education and was a higher classed European male entering maturity at the Fin de siècle. He came from affluence. Julius Popper, achieving a degree in engineering – with an enormous egocentric ambition for the new world of the twenty century.

His aim was for this new century to be his time. He was young and he meant to make his mark and build a fortune and an empire. He had the disease that affects so many young men, he wanted to rule the world, he wished to become Caesar. Empires were being built around him. Knowledge was coming to Europe of vast fortunes being made and lost. Life was becoming the shark tank, in the new industrial world.

Mr Popper had fame as the designer of the modern outline of Havana, Cuba.
Julius who was known to the Spanish as Julio, and he was chasing after greater things, than simply this… Greater fame; greater fortune; power; money and the success of power.

Being an engineer was not enough. There was an ever-growing sense of the great explorer and adventurer within him. The dreamer who wished to conquer the world. Those desires grew. He wished to mythologized his own life, to a height greater than just a mortal man. He wanted to be a legend. He wished to be part of that club that he heard of so much. Those that were kings in their own empires.

Julius found himself in Argentina. The ends of the world. The last and lonely place.
South America, so seductive to Europeans, its history so full of life and the legendary stories of the great South American explorers; De Balboa, Cabral, Magellan, and Cook. Drake and the Spanish war criminal and killer conquistador Cortes.

Tierra del Fuego and the Archipelago is called the ‘land of fire’, because of the large bonfires that were made by the Selk’nam people, or Ona as they were called — the greater part of the Yaghan Indian tribes.

It is cooler in the southern reaches of South America, averaging about 6 degrees C. Those half-naked and hardy Ona Indians were very tough and did well in the southern climate, hunting the Tucu-Tucu and Guanaco, a member of the camel family. An animal like a lamas.

The Ona would spread a greasy mix they made on their bodies rendered from the Tucu-Tucu fat, herbs and other plant oils were added to this mixture, which help with enduring the cooler weather, conditioning their skin against the cold and wet and protecting it from bites from insects. They also had become metabolized to the climate over generations and generations.

Their land is the last place on earth, and passed that place, out before you, out beyond the great unknowns. The great Straits of Magellan a seemingly unreal place, another world — and Cape Horn, and some of the wildest seas on planet earth. And further out, the Antarctic ocean, and the vast open, and great snow and ice-covered continent itself. The bottom of the world.

The Selk’nam were a beautiful people, nomadic hunters. Children of the garden. Innocents. Naked as nature had made them, and with an understanding and deep love of their surroundings. They were far too trusting when first met, they were open and smiling. As we all use to be. With that natural sense to live in joy. Their children laughing and loving in the fields of play.
Seeing armed parties of organized European men entering their lands would make them defensive. Causing them to scatter and flee to safety. Become hidden.

The Selk’nam were the last open indigenous people the European encountered in their plundering and explorations of the South America.
A Yaghan sub group of the Haush people. They were distinct and separate from the Haush in their culture. Of the thousands of Indians that existed there at the turn of the century there are none alive today. None that are pure bloods. No Ona are alive. They are extinct as a pure culture. What are left are only four or five hundred of mixed breeds. European being one of the mix.

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Angela is in the center of three Ona women.

The last Selk’nam — a woman — died in May of 1974. Her name was Angela Loij. She was pure blood and saw the extinction of her entire race. From murder, genocide, disease and neglect and torture, to the death of their unique spirit from Catholicism, and the missionaries.
Having lived a long life, she had known upwards of 3000 of her people, she died alone and the last of the Ona.

It is now that we come to the story, inspired by that strange thought that just came to my mind this May-day. This 7th of May.

Angela, the last one. I have thought about this, deeply. To be, the last of your kind. Your world the reality of your people no longer exists.
I have thought about her so many times. Maybe those past thoughts, those imaginings, reaching out in the great cosmos opens something in me, and is what brings her image to my mind today. This May day, for no just reason. Other than she died in this month in 1974.

She was a beautiful young woman. There, naked, with Guanaco fur and the markings of

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Angela on the right, with a younger child at a young age.

her tribe. The markings of her individualism within her tribe. A pagan Venus.
I love that wild innocence, tribal and fierce. But true and without pretensions of the civilized world. That wonder, that true freedom and natural love and joy that we all lived and died by at one time in a great and lost past. She was an Eve. A first woman…and the last.

Julius Popper a short, bald, ambitious bastard, one of those irritable little ordinary men. Who make it to the positions of power through affluence. Subverting any notion of truth and good in themselves. Who seek power, through the misfortune and exploitation of others, they use fear and force, but have extremely limited imaginations. This rise as from this delusion that they are meant to rule. That greater arrogance that seeks something greater than what appears to their disappointed eyes in the mirror every morning. Julius was not that handsome, he was quite ordinary, and had failings of character. Not that physical beauty is a prerequisite for a good spirit and gentle and loving nature. Julius disliked himself, but knew that through great wealth, came great power. And a balance to his self-loathing.

Julius Popper knew about the Terra del Fuego Archipelago, a vast and wild area unexplored. He had heard the whispering, the rumors of gold. That sadness of South America that was caught in the myth of lost gold or ancients treasures. The beauty of this unique continent and the wonderful tribes of people and cultures came last, or were an obstacle in the way of the real value of South America…gold, gems, resources of vast wealth. The seduction into the unreal.
A propaganda, started back in 1500’s with the first explorers. The delusion of the soft yellow metal. The Indians who did not know the true and modern value of gold, but were more than likely sitting on vast hordes of it, used as trinkets to their own gods.

Julius was greatly aware of his unsatisfied end as a simple engineer. He had heard of the fortunes made. Emeralds, gold, copper and the mining of precious ores and minerals. He understood Spanish colonialism. That was the status of the day. And he had a great desire and belief that he would find gold in Tierra del Fuego.

He had come from a long line of men with similar ambitions, this identity had been indelibly stamp on every thing, the land, the reality, a prejudgment of the people who had lived in this incredible place for possibly ten thousand year. They were in the way…

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Ona warriors/hunters

Organizing a party of eighteen men. He as chief engineer, a geologist, a mineralogist and a small army. He headed into the wilderness. After fighting the thick bush, the forests and treacherous terrain, the insects, and the humid sweat, Popper and his mates came upon San Sebastián bay and Popper discovered gold on the beach of El Paramo. He claimed the area, register his claim, and proceeded in ripping and tearing the landscape apart. Like a hungry animal in a frenzy, Julio brought hell to the landscape.

Julius succeeded in unearthing very large quantities of gold. So much that he built a mint to house it. He was pulling upwards of two kilograms (4.4 pounds) of pure gold a day out of the ground at his peak. A vast amount. He was rich and powerful, arrogant and acute with the gold disease. Word got out, he became threatened by other gold seekers. But he had influence.

In Patagonia, Popper acquired a private army and he issued his own gold coins. There is even a stamp on it… money, gold money has great influence. When the peso took a dive in 1890 his gold coins were used as currency — in Argentina. He was close to the government. And had ideas of making headway to the Antarctic on behalf of Argentina to make claims on their behalf. He had fashioned himself as a robber baron. An up and coming…his empire was beginning become and expand. The gold disease, and the power it brought, was cementing the evil even deeper in him.

Now mining gold requires miners, and miners like to eat. So ranchers were brought into the area to raise sheep on land that belonged to the Selk’nam. Julius was diversifying. Sheep ranching was good profit. He was making money in all ways. And his empire grew and grew.

Ona land that had been their home for an eon. From a time before time was even counted. Was now being changed, and taken over by strangers. Ripped apart by destructive and poisonous gold mining methods. More and more people were arriving. Sheep, and the destructive and toxic mining processes for gold were changing paradise, into a polluted industrial world.

Now the Selk’nam saw no difference between hunting the Guanaco that ran freely and the white fuzzy sheep of the new rancher who were raising them as food for the hungry miners, and new towns people. And the fevered gold seekers flooding into Tierra del Fuego. For hunter gathers; animals running free were fair game.
And so the innocence of the Selk’nam gave in to hunting the slower moving sheep. The Tuca-Tuca, and the Guanaco, became less known and sought wilder habitat. The concept of ownership hadn’t crossed their minds. They did not know about ownership. As with most aboriginals, ownership of the land is an absurd concept. They hunted the sheep — and the rancher angered. Reporting losses to Popper and the mining managers. Julius was involved with the creation of laws against the Selk’nam people, and so a bounty was placed on the Ona people.

Payment of the bounty required proof, and so a pair of ears, or hands from a Ona were proof enough of a dead Selk’nam.
But for the new Europeans arriving with their culture and their clothing and stores, and manners and autocracies and towns to build. Opera halls, and theaters. Laws and traditions to be upheld. New found gold and the business of empire building. Earless, handless Ona walking around was not to be had. They stank from their way of greasing of their bodies, but now they were being caught, and those corrupted bounty hunters were not killing them first before removing the required anatomical parts as proof for the bounty. This was uncultured, and vulgar — the miners were cruel and hard men. Something had to be done about it. It was placed in the hands of the Argentina government. Who instructed Julius to take on the matter personally.

Popper had a solution for the problem, and determined to do something, and so with a private army given to him courtesy of the Argentinian government. The ‘Conquistador of Tierra del Fuego’ headed out and committed genocide. He had his army hunt down every last Indian and persecuted them relentlessly. He hunted down every Selk’nam and brought them the justice of a gun. He despised them, he hated them. They were primitive and weak in his eyes. They were sub-human. He never gave them a chance, from the moment he first saw them. They were non humans, they were uncivilized heathens to be enslaved or killed.
The Ona Indian were made extinct, except for the few that escaped and were taken into neighboring tribes.

This is called the ‘Selk’nam Genocide’.

Angela Loij was taken in by the Salesian nuns and converted through usual ways to Catholicism. Her pagan ways would have been beaten, humiliated and shamed out of her. And raised in the Catholic way, she lived a hard life. And prayed to Jesus. And understood the new concept of sin.
They took her real name, and with so many the church takes and names. She was given the name Angela, meaning angel. Ironic how Catholics make angels. And its a long road out of Eden.

But she never gave up on the memories of her people. Her people were lost in time and space. They were no more. Their stories, the Ona culture and their creation myths and traditions…gone now, forever. Angela kept these secretly and quietly alive in her until one day she met the gentle and loving Annie Chapman.

Annie had studied the people of the South America, she knew the Yaghan tribes, had studied the Selk’nam, she was a Franco-American ethnologist. She Met Angela Loij the last Selk’nam and recorded for posterity Angela’s story, her people’s story. In film and print, she carefully recorded the details.
Truth became so important to Angela. She knew she was one of the last, her story would die with her. That this must be recorded or written down so time might remember when it gets late. Their culture and ways. Their hardiness against a cold place. Their grace, and imaginings, their gentleness and joy. The place in the true history of the world. The story of a forgotten people, a long time ago in a far away place. At the bottom of the world.

Cruelly and inhumane, the disrespect for life itself. To exterminate a unique culture that we could have learned from, and for what reason… some gold coins? A single man’s ambition? His vain attempt at being, a man.  And sheep?

Without Anne Chapman we would have nothing of the Indians of Tierra del Fuego. They would have been forgotten like so many tales like this, that have happened so many times.
Studying the Indian was Anne Chapman’s life. Her writings and films about those people and others of Patagonia help keep alive what was meant to quietly go away.
Annie Chapman was a true hero, and a close friend of Angela Loij.

On the warm summer evening of June 5th, 1893. Julius Popper retired to his usual hotel room in Buenos Aires, alone as always…later on that evening he was visited by strangers — he was assassinated and laid on a Guanaco skin. He was found the next morning around 11:00 am, with his mouth agape, eyes open staring at the ceiling in terror. He was found by a fellow engineer named Belfort. Julius and Belfort had been working together on another project.
There is a lot of mystery around his death. His heart suddenly stopped it seems, the autopsy showed, it is believed he was poisoned. He had no prior heart problems. It is said he was killed by ‘men whom he had offended in the south’. Julius was dead at 36 years old. His empire had collapsed. It all fell into ruin. His name has all but been forgotten now.
As for the Selk’nam. I am remembering them.
I am remembering you Angela Loij.

 


 

POEM: MEMORY OF ANGELA

A year ago tomorrow Angela Loij died.
Tomorrow, one year.
The solar-earth cycle completed.
And then?
Then the timeless space of time.
Time without years time.
After tomorrow I can no longer imagine,
One year ago today… she was sitting at the table
(in her wood frame house on the edge of town) looking
out at the wind, toward the pebbled shore, at someone
passing by.
On year ago today… about noon she was walking down
the street (wide and unpaved) which parallels
Main Street, carrying her shopping bag.
On year ago today… I hear her say “Anita”
(my name in Spanish).
She was the last of her people.
The last of a tall powerful people.
Who had worn their hair long.
Who had dressed in animal skins.
The women gathered purple berries.
The men hunted with their long bows.
They who sang to the red tinted dawn of winter.
If only I could see into the phantomless space above me,
perhaps I could see time.
Time when they mourned their dead while
playing
with their infants.
Infants do not mourn.
Life time is born of death time.
But now she and all her people are beyond time.
Time beyond the clash of the great surf which batters
the cliffs of her land.
Time beyond the star full-nights of that land where America sinks
into the south polar sea.
Time beyond the split-off of a sphere or the solidification
of vapours which became the earth.
Time beyond all origins of known or existing galaxies.
Time without existence is beyond time.
Angela was her Spanish name.
Angel- a, feminine for angel.
The mystery is perhaps in the name,
in naming,
in speaking,
in language.
Loij was her Selk’nam name.
It was her father’s name.
It has no meaning, she told me.
“It’s just a name, an ancient name.”
The meaning was lost.
But the word was not.
Time beyond the ancient Indian name -Loij.
Time beyond all that was ever named or spoken,
all we name and speak today, tomorrow
and a year from tomorrow.
Time when we killed her people.
Time of greed and hate,
and pious voices behind iron bullets,
which tear the flesh and bleed
the heart until it stops.
Time when Whitemen slaughtered others and themselves.
Time of the White horror, when poetry must curse to be true.
Time moving through enveloping the space of all that is
and was or will.
Time within, yet beyond.
This time, Angela Loij and her people knew.
A year ago tomorrow Angela became that beyond time
which is within us.

-Anne Chapman

Paris, 27 May 1975

 

All images and writing are the copyright of Michael Burns.