Selknam people denounce salmon industry for abusing their ancestral heritage

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By Patricio Melillanca
Hema’ny Molina Vargas is a poet, writer and artisan. And she is an active member of the Selk’nam Covadonga indigenous community, "families that claim their right as descendants and heirs of the survivors of the genocide to the Selk’nam People" in Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia. She is the founder of the Selknam-Chile Corporation, which works to recover, revitalize and develop all aspects of this native people that suffered a genocide in the 19th and 20th centuries, and that even in these times has been impacted by the attempts to make them disappear.
In addition to her work to advance a law draft that is being processed in the Chilean Congress so that this people is recognized in the Indigenous Law as one of the community of pre-existing original nations in Chile, Hema’ny is also concerned about how the transnational salmon industry is occupying bays, fjords and channels to impose its cultivation centers, its processing factories and, above all, its form of industrial work in indigenous territories.
Oshēn (which means whale in Selkman) is the new premium industrially farmed salmon brand for an exclusive segment of the North American market sold by BluGlacier, a commercial alliance between the German investment group Schorghuber, -owner of a wide network of hotel businesses, brands of beverages and beers, construction and real estate at a global level-, and the Chilean company Blumar. BluGlacier is also the world’s first farmed salmon provider to accept cryptocurrency payments, in partnership with BitPay, the world’s largest player in bitcoin and cryptocurrency payment services.
Chilean salmon "is not a local species, it is not a species that represents history or ancestral food. It also does a lot of damage to intangible heritage, to our own language because first they did not ask for permission, second because they are not informed. Salmon is always going to be a salmon, so how are they going to tell Oshen, that (in the Selknam language) he is a whale. The incoherence of marketing, apart from being disrespectful, is ignorant."

Patricio Melillanca: Hema’ny, I am contacting you to get your opinion about a salmon company using the word Oshen to sell salmon.
Hema’ny Molina Vargas: This is a matter of cultural appropriation and the use of cultures that are believed to have no one to defend them. For us, basically as Selknam people, we have been believed to be extinct for a long time, so of course, if the owner of the house is not there, hardly anyone can claim for the use of what is inside the house. Unfortunately it hides behind all this use of cultural, patrimonial, material and immaterial elements, the disrespectful way it is used, without considering the meaning it has for peoples, for cultures, a word, an icon, or an expression, and permission is not requested or an investigation is made on the true meaning, which ends up being a transgression of any indigenous people or any culture. Unfortunately, we have an example of cultural appropriation and use and enrichment based on original cultures since the colonist arrived in America, so it has always happened and unfortunately there are no policies that are really effective for the protection of tangible and intangible heritage.

In the case of the Selknam People, has the Chilean government not yet acknowledged the existence of their communities?
There we must make a reservation of what is really recognition, because we are not in the Indigenous Law and we are very close to finishing this process to be able to enter that law. But if we talk about recognition, I could tell you that we already have at the state level and at the community level recognition, since we are recognized by our brother peoples, not only in southern Chile, but also by all the peoples that coexist in this country. That recognition is already there. And on the part of the State, since 2015 we are having constant recognition from the State of our existence since we have been invited to indigenous consultations and we have been invited to participate through ministries. In other words, there is awareness that we are present, what is lacking is a purely legal procedure, which is the integration of the people to a law that will grant us rights as indigenous people in Chile, which we do not have today.

What is the current situation with the Selknam language?
The Selknam language, which is the Selknam Cham, is highly violated, there are no fluent, recognized speakers, however there are reminders and obviously there is work on both the Argentine and Chilean sides to strengthen all these cultural aspects. The Selknam Cham language is a complete language. But it has stopped being used due to all this forced Chileanization, where we have gone through different historical stages in which at one time being indigenous was almost a crime, where there was a prohibition on having cultural and ancestral manifestations. However, this way of seeing has been changing and there is an opening not only from the Chilean State, but also from the Chilean population, which is to recognize that there were millennial peoples before the settlers arrived and this country as we know it was constituted today, which by the way is a new country of 100, 150 years. So there is a recognition of existence and pre-existence.
Are you able to work with communities that are on the other side of the border, in Argentina?
We have had the support of the Rafaela Ishton community. Since 2019, we began our political process here in Chile, first to avoid that our people are stoned with a memorial that indicated that there is nothing left, and then with the work of entering a project of our own in the Chilean Congress to demand that we be integrate into the Indigenous Law. The Rafaela Ishton community, and especially Mrs. Vanina Ojeda, has been fundamental in this support and in this connection with the Argentine community. We understand that there are two countries, but the Selknam people are only one and unfortunately we were victims of this genocide and of these decisions to separate the Island (Tierra del Fuego), into two nations, with different laws, in which the people there they inhabited for thousands of years were the only victims or they had no art or part, not even opinion and nobody cared. But today there is this link where there are jobs, which could not be said parallel, since they have many more years of work than us and in a very organized way. We as an organization have been working for a few years since the rearticulation of our town with the Selknam families that we have been swarming throughout the country for almost 100 years. It was only a decade ago that we began to articulate and work. Today, we are working with organizations, we are recognized by our peers and we are very advanced in the bill to be integrated into the Indigenous Law, so all this has paid off.

And what do you think then that companies that sell salmon, an exotic species in southern waters, use the word Oshen, which in Selknam, if I’m not mistaken, means whale.
I think it is an absolute show of lack of respect. First, as you say, it is not a local species, it is not a species that represents history or ancestral food. It also does a lot of damage to intangible heritage, to our own language, because first they did not ask for permission, second because they do not inform themselves. A salmon is always going to be a salmon, so how are they going to tell Oshen, that he is a whale, he has no relationship. Marketing inconsistency, apart from being disrespectful, is ignorant. It is an insult to our culture that they take the attributions that many companies have taken and that later have the nerve to say that they are helping us to make our culture visible.
What is the message that you would give to consumers who buy this product in international markets, in the United States, Europe, Japan, and other nations?
I tell these consumers that it is very sad that people buy this product without knowing what they are really buying. I would recommend that you investigate how the salmon is raised so that you know what they are bringing to your table. I would ask all consumers in general, not only international consumers, but also consumers in Chile, that we learn to consume, the value of what we consume and learn what it means to consume what is in our physical space, territorial. Because that way we boost the local economy. I think that these tremendous industries that do not care about the damage they do to the territories in order to sell a product that apparently looks very nice, because it is exposed in a false and deceptive way, in the end ends up doing a lot of territorial damage and people who lives in the place that is being destroyed and also to the people who are consuming it. Salmon is a product that is being sold with antibiotics, which because it is not a native species is stressed in small spaces where it is not free, where it is not its habitat and therefore should not be here and should be being produced in its own places where they belong. But unfortunately, commercial or business policies will always privilege certain sectors to look very civilized at the expense of sectors that end up being zones of sacrifice. Nature gives goods in all parts of the world and gives for many if one knows how to take advantage of that with respect.

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