Tag Archives: Selk’Nam Natives

Human zoo: the example of the Selk’Nam natives

Human zoo: the example of the Selk’Nam natives

Hello hello!

How is everyone? I hope everyone is enjoying summer (or winter wherever you are). I recently came across some of the pictures included in this post and was horrified. To be honest, I found it very difficult to look at them. The pain in the faces of the individuals was just too great. But I started doing some research about the pictures and the context in which they were taken. What I found was even more disturbing: the existence of human zoos. Yes you read that right, humans being placed in enclosures, “natural habitats”, and being exposed like animals (not that I agree more with animals being enclosed and being displayed). So let us explore the concept of human zoos using the example of the Selk’Nam natives.

Selk'Nam natives 1899

Selk’Nam natives en route to Europe 1899

Who were the Selk’Nam natives?

I wrote “were” as the Selk’Nam natives are now extinct. The Selk’Nam natives were a tribe from Chile, part of 3 or 4 tribes that were taken to Europe to be exhibited. They lived in the Pantagonian region of Chile and Argentina, including the Tierra del Fugo islands (“land of fire”). They were actually one of the last Indigenous tribes of South America reached by the Westerners (when the government decided to explore and make use of Tierra del Fugo).

The Selk’Nams spoke a language called Chon and they were hunters and gatherers who were typically tall. They could adapt to any harsh conditions it seems. The Selk’Nam people were people with strong traditions. As in many native cultures, they lived as one with the land. “Mine” did not exist, it was ours. They lived at peace with Mother Earth and had their own ways of life. For example, their initiation ceremony, also called Hain, signified the passage of teenage males into adulthood (some resemblances to the Sunrise Ceremony for girls in the Apache culture). The teenagers had to go through several mental and physical tasks over months at an end, a process that was kept secret. They would paint their body, wear leather masks, emulating the spirits called into the ceremony.

Native women of the Tierra del Fugo

Native women of the Tierra del Fugo

Up until the late 19th century, the Selk’Nams had been left alone. But then the Spanish killed most of their games and took over the Tierra del Fugo to build large estates. The Selk’Nams were not familiar with the Spanish way of life, they did not understand the concept of sheep herd. Therefore, they began hunting the sheep, a gesture the ranchers did not appreciate. That led to Selk’Nams being hunted by the Spanish, who would receive their bounty when they would return with their victim’s ears.

Ultimately, the Selk’Nams became extinct over time. From a population of 3000 in 1896 to a population of 25 in 1945. Yes you read that right, 25! The last full blooded Selk’Nam, Anjela Loij, died in 1974. So there you have it, a whole nation who disappeared over time, killed, hunted and treated like objects to be gawked at. Let’s then look at how that happened.

Tierra del Fugo

Tierra del Fugo

The beginning of the human zoos

How can someone think it would ever be okay to exhibit human beings in a cage to be gawked at all day? That’s a hard question. But one needs to think about it this way. A more technologically advanced population (who lacks sensitivity it seems) finds a more primitive civilization who lives in ways they have never seen. Well, they must show that civilization to the world, to study them, to look at them, and to prove their superiority over them. Over time, civilizations have often assumed that if another civilization lives in a different manner, in a manner that is hard to understand, then they must be beneath them. Look at how Native people were treated over the years and still are: as being slow, not intelligent and stupid!! Sorry but that is just the truth. The wisdom of the ancestors was not respected. It was assumed they were dumb because they did not live in the same fashion, because they did not speak English well, because they took their time answering, thinking about the question and their answer. Oftentimes, they were treated like savages with nothing to say. So following that logic, putting them in a cage for entertainment is not that farfetched.

Selk'Nam natives

Selk’nam Natives

The year was 1889

So here we are in 1889, the year when, with the agreement of the Chilean government, 11 Selk’Nams were taken to Europe to be exhibited in human zoos. This included a 8 year old boy. Carl Hagenbeck is credited as the one who made zoos as we know them now (reproducing the animal’s natural habitat). However, Mr. Hagenbeck can also be “credited” as the one who began human zoos. It is said that he is the one who took those 11 Selk’nams to Europe to be exhibited  in a cage. How nice of him…I am sorry but I cannot help the sarcasm. But back then, the Pantagonian natives were a rarity. The Selk’Nams along with the Tehuelche and the Kawesqar were weighted, measured and photographed and were expected to perform every day. Sometimes 6 to 8 times a day. So that Europeans could gasp at those savages from across the ocean. Can you think of something more demeaning than that? I cannot. Needless to say, the Selk’Nams did not receive the best of care. Therefore, many of them did not make it back. Some did not even make it to Europe. Looking at the picture below, one can see that the conditions were more than sub-par. As the man in the picture basically looks like a lion tamer…Look at their faces….

Selk'Nams with Maurice Maitre-1889

Selk’Nams with Maurice Maitre in Paris-1889

I wish that was the end of it but no

Unfortunately, the Selk’Nams were not the only ones subjected to such humiliation. Numerous Indigenous people of the land were subjected to the same treatment. People of Africa, such as the pygmies, received the same treatment even in the 20th century. They were kept in enclosures, recreating “natural habitats” (as though Europeans knew anything about what that looked like). People were basically used for entertainment, expected to perform tricks (e.g. making funny faces, shooting at targets with arrows). Their lives were placed on display, paraded as curiosities. Talk about degrading.  Just so the “white rich folks” could be entertained and show to their children “what savages looked like”. As an animal lover, I am not a fan of zoos to begin with, a topic that induce mixed feelings in most. But a human zoo? That is crossing a major line. Look at the picture below. Some were taken in 1958!! And we are now left with extinct tribes that were forced (with the okay of the government) to leave their Mother Earth, their land, their traditions. For what? So that people could be entertained.

African girl in Belgium human zoo, 1958

African girl in a Belgium human zoo, 1958

Ota Benga

The sign in front of her exhibit read: Age, 23 years. Height, 4 feet 11 inches. Weight, 103 pounds. Brought from the Kasai River, Congo Free State, South Central Africa, by Dr. Samuel P. Verner. Exhibited each afternoon during September.

I leave you with the trailer of the movie “Human zoo” which tells the story of 25 Indigenous people from Chile who were taken to be part of the human zoos. A must watch. All my Relations