In May 1966 the American anthropologist Anne MacKaye Chapman was living near the ‘Indian reservation’ of Lake Fagnano in Tierra del Fuego. She was researching the culture of some of the most southerly indigenous people on earth, the Selk’nam (also Ona, Onawo) and Haush societies of Patagonia. After a century or more of colonization, few of these people with their distinctive culture and unimaginably harsh lifestyle remained. Chapman was speaking with one who did. Her name was Lola Kiepja, the last of the Selk’nam who had lived that destroyed way of life and knew the foundation myths of her people, passed down for thousands of years as they struggled to survive in the toughest environment on the planet.
One day, Lola posed a rhetorical question to Chapman: ‘Where are the women who sang like the canaries? There were many women. Where are they now?’ The Selk’nam woman was speaking of the foundation myth of her people, revolving around Kreeh, the Moon-Woman.
In the mythic period of the hoowin, before the human Selk’nam, all the landforms, the animals, birds and some stars lived on the earth as great shamans, known as hoowins. At this time, women ruled over men who carried out the basic tasks of cooking, childcare and water carrying, in addition to their hunting and related male activities. When young hoowinwomen reached the right age, they were initiated into the secrets of the matriarchy in a ritual held in the Hainhut. Here, the sacred fire burned and the women disguised each other with masks and red, white and black paint representing the spirits. When the women appeared before the men in these disguises, they believed that the women had the power of the spirits of the skies and earth, validating the female dominion of the males.
But on one occasion, while the women were in the Hain preparing for the ritual, three hoowinmen spied on them and saw that the women were only dressing up as the spirits. One of the men whistled to the other males to let them know that they were being fooled. When the females in the hut heard the whistle, they realised the males had discovered the truth and put out the sacred fire in fear of violence. It came swiftly.
The males attacked, killing the women, except younger girls and babies. Their leader hit the female leader, who was his wife, with a burning log from the extinguished fire. The heavens trembled. He hit her again, but not a third time, in case all creation and the heavens might be destroyed. Badly burned and raging with unquenchable anger, his wife fled the earth and turned into the Moon, pursued by her husband in the form of the Sun. Ever since, he has chased her, but never caught her. Each month, shereappears as the full moon, when the scars on her face from the burning log are clearly visible. Her anger at men is especially intense at eclipses and this is a particularly dangerous time for the Selk’nam of both sexes, who gather to ward off her often-lethal anger.
After the massacre, the males and surviving females travelled to the East sky to mourn. Then they travelled to the North sky, to the West sky and, after a very great time, came back to earth from the South sky. The males established a new Hain through which they subject the females to the same domination the men experienced previously.
Death came to the earth as the hoowinwere transformed into various heavenly bodies, wind, rain, snow, sea land and animals. At this time the first human Selk’nam were formed from two clods of dirt.
This is a condensed re-telling of a complex narrative cycle that includes other elements of Selk’nam mythology and cosmology. Like the creation stories of many cultures, this one includes the coming of death, as well as life, and provides an account of how the living world was formed from a preexistent epoch of spiritual beings. It explains the cycle of night and day and provides a validation of the patriarchal nature of human Selk’nam society, in contrast to the matriarchy that prevailed in the hoowin. In its depiction of male violence against women, it is a chilling tale with global resonance.
The Selk’nam are now usually said to be extinct, though their language is being preserved by at least one speaker.
Anne MacKaye Chapman, ‘The Moon-Woman in Selk’nam Society’ at http://www.thereedfoundation.org/rism/chapman/moon-woman.htm#back1, accessed September 2018.