A Moment for the Selk’nam

The Selk’nam lived in the remote southernmost tip of South America among the islands now known as Tierra del Fuego, the continent’s last tribe to be encountered by European explorers. Subsequently slaughtered to extinction by ranchers, the Selk’nam are remembered primarily for their elaborate male-initiation rituals, or Hain, whereby the young men of the tribe were ushered into adulthood.

Here’s how the ceremony played out. Adolescent males were beckoned to a dark hut, where they were brutally attacked by vengeful spirits, who were really elder tribesmen body-painted and dressed in supernatural costume. The young men’s task was to unmask the spirits, which, when they did, revealed them to be humans in disguise. (It’s thought Selk’nam women were never told the details of the Hain, specifically the nonexistence of spirits, of which they likely remained fearful their entire lives.)

The Hain, which sometimes lasted months, also involved tests of courage, resourcefulness, resisting temptation and pain, and overcoming fear, as well as instruction for their new adult responsibilities.

The last and comparatively small Hain took place about a century ago, photographed by the missionary Martin Gusinde. His photos below — published in the book The Lost Tribes of Tierra Del Fuego (2015) — show how mystical and frightening the spirits must have seemed to Selk-nam boys. 


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