Hardcover, 300 pages
Publisher: Thames & Hudson (March 2015)
Selected by Tank
In 1919, the German priest Martin Gusinde was sent to Tierra del Fuego, at the southernmost tip of South America. A missionary, he became the first Westerner to document the rituals and rites of the cold-climate aboriginal tribes at the edge of the known world. Taken over the course of four trips between 1919 and 1924, Gusinde’s photographs depict communities savaged by colonialism, genocide and imported disease, breathing their last gasps.
The destruction of the indigenous communities of Tierra del Fuego, particularly the Selk’nam, remains a forgotten chapter of European colonialism, and one of exceptional cruelty. Darwin, visiting Tierra del Fuego in 1832, coldly remarked, “Viewing such men, one can hardly make oneself belive they are fellow-creatures.”
All images © Martin Gusinde
Image 1: The Yamana people used harpoons with a bone tip to hunt seals, dolphins and sea birds.
Image 2: Selk’nam men dance to drive away storms and bring good weather, as part of the Hain, an initiation rite for young men between 17 and 20. The ceremony was the central rite of Selk’nam and neighbouring Haush society. Selk’nam mythology speaks of a time when society was matriarchal, and describes how the Hain was invented and performed by women, who pretended to be demons to terrify men into submission. When the men discovered this, according to myth, they usurped the women’s role in the ceremony, imposing patriarchy on the community. The women were slaughtered or transformed into animals, leaving only young girls with no memories of their mothers’ matriarchy. The men continued the ritual, keeping its origins a secret from their daughters.
Image 3: Elek, Ángela Loij and Imshuta prepare for dances in honour of the god Tanu. Each woman is covered in red ochre and painted with white motifs that represent her ancestry. The exploration of Tierra del Fuego in the late 19th century sparked a gold rush, and later brought waves of settlers to the island. The expropriation of lands by sheep farmers constituted what can only be called genocide – at one stage, companies operating in Tierra del Fuego offered a pound sterling for the hands, ears or skull of a dead Selk’nam. Providing those of a pregnant woman, together with the foetus torn from her body, fetched even more. By the time these photos were taken, the Selk’nam population had dwindled to around 500, from a mid-19th-century high of 4,000. Ángela Loij, pictured above centre, was the last surviving full-blooded Selk’nam. She died in 1974.