The Selk'nam genocide was the genocide of the Selk'nam people, indigenous inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego in South America, from the second half of the 19th to the early 20th century. Spanning a period of between ten and fifteen years the Selk'nam, which had an estimated population of some three thousand, saw their numbers reduced to 500.
The Selk'nam people, also known as the Ona (people of the north), were an indigenous people who inhabited the northeastern part of the archipelago of Tierra del Fuego for thousands of years before Europeans arrived. They were nomads known as "foot-people," as they did their hunting on land, rather than being seafarers.
The last full-blooded Selk'nam, Ángela Loij, died in 1974. They were one of the last aboriginal groups in South America to be reached by Europeans. According to the 2010 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger, the Ona language, believed to be part of the Chonan family, is considered extinct, as the last speakers died in the 1980s.
The Selk'nam had lived for thousands of years a semi-nomadic life in Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego (literally, "big island of land of fire;" its name was based on early Spanish explorers' observations of smoke from Selk'nam bonfires.) They lived in the northeast, with the Haush people to their east on the Mitre Peninsula, and the Yaghan people to the west and south, in the central part of the main island and throughout southern islands of the archipelago.
About 4,000 Selk'nam were alive in the mid-nineteenth century; by 1930 this had been reduced to about 100. Cattle breeders, farmers and gold-prospectors from Argentina, Chile, UK and USA had entered the region, and were joined by adventurers and other fortune seekers. The natives were plied with alcohol, deported and exterminated, with bounties paid to the most ruthless hunters. The large ranchers tried to run off the Selk'nam, then began a campaign of extermination against them, with the compliance of the Argentine and Chilean governments. Large companies paid sheep farmers or militia a bounty for each Selk'nam dead, which was confirmed on presentation of a pair of hands or ears, or later a complete skull. They were given more for the death of a woman than a man. In addition, missionaries disrupted their livelihood through forcible relocation and introduced deadly epidemics.
Repression against the Selk'nam persisted into the early twentieth century. Chile moved some Selk'nam to Dawson Island, confining them in an internment or concentration camp. Argentina finally allowed Salesian missionaries to aid the Selk'nam and attempt to assimilate them, but their culture and people were largely destroyed.
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