Though the 25th of November marks a dark time in their history, members of the Indigenous community Selk’nam Covadonga Ona are reclaiming the date as a ‘Day of Dignity’ in their ongoing struggles.
On this day in 1886, a massacre of Selk’nam families was carried out under the order of Ramón Lista, soon after his militia landed at San Sebastián on Tierra del Fuego (Karokynka). For this reason, it is known as the “Day of the Selk’nam Genocide” and recognized in the region as “Fueguino Indigenous Day.” The massacre was an act of genocide supported by British, Argentine and Chilean colonists who planned to seize the land for their own commercial use, killing and displacing the people who had lived there for thousands of years.
Subsequent massacres, combined with the arbitrary treatment of Selk’nam orphans and other deliberate attempts to erase Indigenous peoples from national histories, together exacerbated the myth that the Selk’nam people are ‘extinct.’ In reality, the Selk’nam struggle continues to this day: their campaign to be recognized under Chile’s Indigenous Development and Protection Law achieved a victory in the lower house of Congress as recently as July this year.
The Indigenous community Selk’nam Covadonga Ona working through the “Corporación Selk’nam Chile” are turning the 25th of November into a powerful day of commemoration: sharing Selk’nam histories, celebrating Selk’nam culture and memory, and reasserting claims to collective rights. In alliance with with Universidad Católica Silva Henríquez (UCSH) and Asodeplu (Chilean Assembly for Plurinationality and Decolonization), among others, the Corporación Selk’nam Chile will lead an event entitled, “The Selk’nam Fire Is Still Alive.” Organizers including Kallfü Nawel and Jose Vasquez Chogue have further highlighted the day’s significance through social media posts linking painful histories to their determination to create more hopeful futures. These actions add to the lives and work of more than 800 Selk’nam descendants currently collaborating to maintain their shared cultural, artistic, spiritual, territorial, and linguistic connections.
As Indigenous groups around the world continue to be threatened, today’s acts of reclamation by the Selk’nam community are powerful reminders of ongoing global efforts to protect the dignity of all peoples — particularly those who live with histories of violence and marginalization.
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.