The Indians had been the owners of Tierra del Fuego
for thousands of years. A hundred years ago the Selk'nam (Ona) numbered
probably between 3,500 and 4,000. N.1
Now only a few remain whose mothers were Selk'nam.
On 28 May 1974, one of the very last Selk'nam, Angela Loij, died.
Angela was born at the beginning of the century.
By then most of the Selk'nam had been killed by the Whites and or
had died from sicknesses which they had brought to the island. And
even after she was born others died in the country-side and in the
two Salesian missions (on Dawson Island and in Tierra del
Fuego, near the town of Río Grande). Angela was born north
of Río Grande, on a sheep farm which still exists called
Estancia Sara. She often told me about her family. Her father, Loij,
who worked as a peon, mostly fencing in the fields where the sheep
grazed. Her two sisters died as children on the Sara farm. Her mother,
another sister and her two brothers died in the Salesian mission
near Río Grande. One of her brothers, Pascual, about twelve
years old then, used to say: "I like to study. I want to learn everything."
Angela commented: "He already knew how to read when he died." Of
her four sisters, Teresa, only one who lived to be old enough to
marry and have children. Teresa's grand-daughter, Ermerlinda (who
now lives in Ushuaia) was very much loved by Angela .
I first met Angela in 1965 when I came to Tierra
del Fuego to interview Lola Kiepja on the Selk'nam culture, language
and chants. The following years I was very much concerned about
Angelas health and her economic situation. In April 1974,
when we said good-bye in her home in Río Grande, we planned
to meet again soon. She was to join me in Buenos Aires as my guest,
as she had two years before, in September 1972. We were looking
forward to being together again in Buenos Aires..
In 1966 Lola Kiepja died. She was the last Selk'nam
who had lived as an Indian. When I returned the following year,
Angela became my principal informant. We worked together for many
months in 1967, from 1968 to 1970 and from 1972 to 1974 when she
died. She was very careful about being precise when she told me
about the Selk'nam she had known and all that she had learned relating
to them. If the work progressed slowly it was because I purposely
let Angela freely associate her memories. The repetition and her
spontaneous comments corroborated the authenticity of the information
she gave me. Moreover by associating freely she was able to recall
subjects which I did not know about at all. Everything she told
me was important: be it of scientific value or simply friendly conversation
concerning everyday affairs. While we tried to identify
a bird with its Selk'nam and Spanish name, or locate a hill
on the map about which she spoken, we would talk about what we were
going to have for desert at lunch, when the wind might calm down
or just where her little dog, Pelisse, might be. I enjoyed being
with her, so everything she said was of interest to me. I often
went to see her, without planing to take notes or inquire about
the Selk'nam. I was relieved to see her happy. I also felt happy
to be with her, perhaps because nothing about her was superfluous.
She liked to reply to my questions. When she did
not know the answer she said she was sorry not to have paid more
attention to the conversations and comments of the old people. She
insisted than when she was young she was tul-laken , inconsiderate
or disrespectful - of the religious and mystic beliefs of her ancestors.
Her faith was not that of her group. She was a Catholic. She loved
Christ above all. Even though she was upset and indignant when she
told me about the killing of the Selk'nam by the Whites, she commented
that the former were punished for having been so cruel to one another.
"God punished them, she said, by having them killed by the civilizados."
When she was very young she married an Indian
known by the name of Nelson N.2.
with whom she had two daughters and a son. One
of her daughters died at age sixteen. The other daughter and her
son died as young adults without descendants. Her husband died in
a prison in Río Gallegos, where he was serving a sentence
for having killed one of his cousins. Afterwards Angela lived for
a long time with an Argentine policeman. During this time one of
the Salesian nuns said something to her which she never forgot.
"You are doing wrong. God will punish you. It is a sin." Angela
laughed with a certain nostalgia. when she told me her reply to
the nun: "We live in a mundane world, Sister. I cannot manage alone.
God must pardon me."
Toward the end of her life she lived with a Chilean
worker. Even though she was about twenty years his senior, this
union lasted quite a while, until 1969 when he died. Then the judge
in Río Grand granted her the possession of the small wooden
house where they had lived together. This was where she died suddenly
of a heart attack, the dawn of 18 May 1974.
During the years when we knew each other, she
told me about more than three thousand Indians, whom she had know
either personally or indirectly. Even though she did not remember
the names of all of them, she almost always knew their kin relations
and thereby I could place them in their genealogies. Many of the
three thousand appeared and reappeared in diverse situations about
which she told me over the years and thus it was that little by
little her culture acquired a sense that went beyond the purely
ethnographic description and revealed different levels of what it
had meant to be alive then and living as a Selk'nam . Angela spoke
of one individual, then another, and another; in the context of
the missions, their family life, the camps, their loves and vengeances,
their combats, "Red Pig" and other White assassins, and the soul,
kashpix, which separates from the body at the hour of death.
She told me about the world before death existed, when the hoowin
people of primeval times inhabited the earth. She recited myths
that explained why humans exist, told me about the wise men and
prophets, especially Alaken, Lola Kiepja's grandfather, about the
shamans and their trips to the moon, the "spirits" of the great
ceremony called the Hain which were only men in disguise , about
a crazy man who thought he was a guanaco, about women who died when
they gave birth, about her last daughter Luisa and her son Victorio
who died of tuberculosis in Buenos Aires. She often recalled our
rides in the subway of Buenos Aires which she had pleased her so
much when she visited me there for a month in 1972. She spoke Selk'nam,
especially when I asked her to, but more often Spanish.
She did not know how to read or write and nor
much about the outside world either. But her enthusiasm for life
had taught her a great deal, not only about local politics but also
about the attitudes of different people she knew. She realized right
away when someone was condescending or ambivalent in their manner
of speaking to her. She also recognized when people really liked
her, especially her neighbors, several Chilean families, and others
for whom she felt real friendship. Many people in Río Grande
respected and admired her. She appreciated them and their spontaneous
gestures, as that of an Argentine neighbour who always greeted her
as " Hola paisana ".
Lola was really happy in the country side pointing
out certain hills to me by their Selk'nam names, as well as rivers,
and birds and telling me about the different families who had lived
here and there throughout the island. She often spoke of the ten
years she spent in the Salesian mission near Río Grande (the
second and last time she lived there) and the nuns who liked her.
During these years she spent hours conversing with the old Selk'nam
women, all of whom died there. They lived in the past, in the Selk'nam
world that no longer existed. They sought in the most hidden corners
of their memory to relive lost moments of that life and tried to
explain to themselves why it had ceased to be. "I was always rebellious,
Angela would say, when I was a child, and even in the mission. Though
the nuns would get angry with me, I would tell them that the meals
were inedible. And how we worked there: sewing, washing the sheets,
making mattresses! I wanted to learn to read and write but I had
no head for it." When all the old women died and Angela became the
last Selk'nam in the mission the director suggested that she leave,
and return to town ( Río Grande). So she left. She worked
for years in town washing clothes. The old settlers spoke of her
as the best laundress in town. "White, white, the clothes would
become when Angela washed them." But she earned little and had to
rent a room, or live with her employers. These years of hardship
lasted until met her last husband and went with him to live in the
country. She spent happy years near Lake Fagnano and on the sheep
farm nearby, called Carmen. In 1964 her husband took her back to
Río Grande , to the house which he had just build and where
she died ten years later.
I want to remember Angela smiling like the last
time I saw her. I remember her beautiful hands, her sense of humor,
the anger and the pleasure she had to share her memories of the
millennial culture which is the most ancient tradition of all humanity.
1. This is the estimate of Father
Gusinde, the ethnologist who was best acquainted with the Selk'nam
and Haush. His great work was first published in German in 1931
and translated into Spanish in 1982. Back
2. This nickname was given to
him on the Harberton Farm by the Bridges. Back
POEM: MEMORY OF ANGELA
A year ago tomorrow Angela Loij died.
Tomorrow, one year.
The solar-earth cycle completed.
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
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,
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.
27 May 1975