At a time of renewed social struggles for the rights of historically marginalized groups, an indigenous campaign in Chile this week received some positive news. On Wednesday (24 June), the National Congress approved a bill calling for the Selk’nam people to be listed among the indigenous ethnic groups formally recognized by the State. This is the result of collective efforts coordinated by the Corporation Selk’nam Chile. Right now, around the world, countless numbers of people are mobilizing to stop multiple forms of violence that target people of color. For the Selk’nam, their struggle is against the erasure of their community.
The Chilean government considers the Selk’nam people extinct — victims of colonial genocide in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries across territory in Karokynka (Tierra del Fuego). Relatives of those who survived, however, have mobilized a cultural movement for legal recognition, fighting the “stigma of extinction” and affirming their presence as “un pueblo vivo y presente”: an active and living people. Recent months have been a critical time — both for ensuring their bill would move up through Congress, and for the country as a whole.
In October last year, Chile erupted with a social uprising against growing inequality, environmental injustice, and the ongoing protection of dominant elite interests. While the protests have reduced due to the coronavirus pandemic, the uprising is ongoing. The Las Tesis feminist collective, from Chile’s coastal city of Valparaíso, continue to build global networks against gender-based violence and police repression. Diverse social movements and academic groups have gone online to re-imagine what the country’s constitution might look like, ahead of a referendum on constitutional change rescheduled from April to October 2020. Among them are voices calling for gender parity, meaningful indigenous representation, and protections for the Rights of Nature. Amid these nationwide political protests, the Selk’nam campaign continued. Their bill now faces a vote in the Senate next month.
While the demand for recognition represents a need for justice and reparation, the legal component is part of a broader struggle that seeks to recover and celebrate Selk’nam culture (and to protect against its ongoing commercialization by museums, companies, and artists, many of who repeat the myth of Selk’nam extinction). Hema’ny Molina, the president of the Corporation Selk’nam Chile, is a member of the Covadonga Ona indigenous community which gathers together families of Selk’nam descendants. As a group, they engage in this broader struggle by sharing stories and ancestral knowledge — sustaining oral memory that continues to connect Selk’nam people across generations and countries.
Just as the traditional Selk’nam territories cross today’s international borders, so do Selk’nam mobilizations. In Argentina, the campaign for state recognition has followed a different history. There, the Selk’nam people have been formally recognized since the 1990s — and today they lend their support to those mobilizing in Chile. The Covadonga Ona community also collaborate with legal specialists within the Chilean Assembly for Plurinationality and Decolonization as well as with allies among Chile’s other indigenous movements — including the Chango and the Chono or Guaiteco people, who are at different stages in their own campaigns for formal recognition.
At present, there are nine indigenous groups already recognized under the 1993 Indigenous Law in Chile: the Mapuche, Aimara, Rapa Nui, Atacameña, Quechua, Colla, Diaguita, Kawashkar or Alacalufe, and the Yámana or Yagán. Were the Selk’nam to be included in this list, they would also receive representation through Chile’s National Corporation for Indigenous Development (Conadi) as well as protection of rights for prior consultation under Convention No.169 of the International Labour Standards regarding indigenous and tribal peoples. However, leaders in the Selk’nam campaign recognize that rights always have to be defended — even if they are in the constitution — particularly when violence and discrimination persists against minority groups. The broader goal is to strengthen the Selk’nam and other indigenous communities so they can support each other through difficult times ahead. As Hema’ny Molina points out, “formal recognition is only one step in the process… our struggle will continue.”
Tristan Partridge is a social anthropologist and Research Fellow in the Institute for Social, Behavioral and Economic Research at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His research addresses indigenous rights, collective action, and environmental justice.