Whales, beaching and shamans

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There was a close relationship between the Selk’nam and the whales. Could shamans make these huge animals get stranded on the beach? 
 
The history of the “fueguinos” people must be one of Patagonia's most tragic stories. Half way through the 21st century, the interior of Tierra del Fuego remained unknown, but the indigenous here were feared and had a bad reputation. Charles Darwin’s visit didn’t help either as he described them as being like animals, abject creatures, miserable and carnivorous. 
 
The history of the fueguinos continued with a tragic genocide involving hunting, deportation and death by illnesses that tragically brought these people to extinction in just a few years time.
 
Through the years there has been a recognition of this culture thanks to studies and publications about the Selk’nam, providing knowledge of a much more complex people than anyone could have ever imagined. 
 
Many theories which try to disentangle the ideological and cultural system of the Selk’nam are still under discussion, but possibly one of the least known cultural elements that lacks research is their relationship with whales. 
 
Farewell to rivalry 
Although the Selk’nam were hunter-gatherers, whose main prey was the guanaco, they also went to the coast for food. 
 
The archaeological evidence shows that the Selk’nam – or their forefathers—knew of and had been using whales in Tierra del Fuego for thousands of years. They didn’t hunt them or harass the whales at sea like their canoeist neighbors, because they didn’t navigate, but they did utilize the beached ones. 
 
Beaching was so important that it completely changed the territoriality of the local groups. Each group occupied a territory with pre-established geographical limits which had to be respected by their neighbors in order to live together peacefully. The people had the right to hunt, collect and settle camping areas on each territory. But when a whale was beached, the first indigenous to arrive at the coast lit a big fire as a sign for the others to participate. By tradition, everybody had the right to eat from the whale and even enemies refrained from fighting during that time. 
 
Sperm whales, pseudo orcas and pilot whales were true gifts from the sea for the Selk’nam who considered these animals a very appealing delicacy that gave them plenty of fat and meat to eat. And although they didn’t regularly store food, they made an exception for whales. They stored large pieces of whale fat and meat either in a swamp, in salty water wells or in streams, to ensure their survival during a hard winter. Besides the meat and fat, the whale bone remnants were used to manufacture several artifacts to help them live, such as tools, combs, and hunting weapons and they even used them as architectonic elements for their houses. 
 
Calling the whales 
Whales were such an important part of their lives, that it is no surprise that dolphins and whales were part of their worldview. You can find them in their myths, initiation ceremonies for youngsters and in the “shamanic” world. 
 
For example, it is believed that Xalpen, one of the most important spirits of Hain (their main ceremony), was a large shape - some 6 meters long - that possibly tried to resemble a whale. Some stories tell of a shaman that manifested himself as a whale to use his power to avenge people or of a man that was transformed into an orca to lead the whales to the coast to be beached. 
 
It is said that a shaman used to sing for 3 to 4 days to attract the whales to the coast with his powers. It is also said that during periods of starvation people encouraged the shaman to bring a whale to the beach. 
 
True or not, it is worth mentioning that there are two places on the island where beaching has occurred and bone remains of various species of cetaceans have been found: Lomas Bay (Chile) and San Sebastian Bay (Argentina). They both have the characteristics of true natural traps since the gradient of the seabed is imperceptible and in minutes there could be a low tide which would leave them unprotected on the beach. 
 
Today, it is impossible to predict when something like this could happen, but this does not imply that the Selk’nam couldn’t have managed to do it. 
 
- Evelyn Pfeiffer
 
Photo courtesy of Nuestro.cl
 
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