DER Documentary

The Ona People: Life and Death in Tierra del Fuego

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by Anne Chapman and Ana Montes de Gonzales
color, 55 min, 1977

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Tierra del Fuego, "land of fire," was first discovered by Europeans early in the sixteenth century. A group of islands that had separated from the southern tip of the South American mainland long ago, Tierra del Fuego had probably been inhabited by different groups of Indians for at least 9000 years. The largest island in the zone, the "Great Island," now divided between Chile and Argentina, was the homeland of the Selk'nam Indians, sometimes known as the Ona. Until their extermination began in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, there were between 3500 and 4000 Ona on the island. In 1919, Father Martin Gusinde counted fewer then 300, and by 1930 less than 100 Ona remained. By 1977, when this film was released, Angela, the last full-blooded Ona Indian, had died.

From the sixteenth until the end of the nineteenth century, shipwrecked sailors were the only Europeans with whom the Ona had to deal. During those centuries the Indians continued to live by hunting, gathering, and fishing. The guanaco, a species of "American camel," provided not only meat but also hides and furs for tents and warm clothing. Roots, berries, mushrooms, and eggs were collected by the women, and at times seals and stranded whales provided additional food. Groups consisted of from 40 to 120 individuals who shared a defined territory. They had no chiefs, but rather wise men known as "fathers of the word," and shamans skilled in healing, in trance, and in other forms of spiritual power.

Kiepja, or Lola as she was known in Spanish, was such a shaman. She was almost ninety when ethnographer Anne Chapman met her in 1964. Impressed by the shamanic chants that Kiepja sang, Chapman returned in 1966 to spend three months with her, recording almost 100 chants of mourning and of shamanic and other rituals. At this time Chapman began to reconstruct genealogies with Kiepja and to draw out her recollections of the past, communicating partly in Spanish and partly in Selk'nam. Kiepja died on October 9, 1966, in the government hospital at Rio Grande, at the end of an unusually cold winter. During the following years, Chapman continued her study with another Indian woman, Angela Loij. Angela was then the only surviving Ona (she died in 1974), and she knew a great deal about the culture of her ancesters, despite the fact that she was born at the turn of the century when the Ona were rapidly being destroyed. Chapman, encouraged by producer-director Ana Montes de Gonzales, decided to make a documentary film despite the death of Kiepja.

Much of the film is based on Angela's accounts of the past and her reflections on the present, as well as on the recollections of several mestizo Indians. Interviews are combined with a wealth of old photographs to reconstruct the tragic history of the destruction of the Ona. Beginning in the 1880s when Europeans first came to the island in search of gold, the story moves through the introduction of large-scale sheep farming, and the rapid genocide that ensued. The killings were managed by a diverse cast of characters, including a Romanian, a Spaniard, a Yugoslavian, a Portuguese, and perhaps most unforgettably, a Scotsman named McLellan but commonly known as "Red Pig." Red Pig paid a pound sterling for an Indian's ears, and slightly more for an Indian woman's breasts. It was, in his words, "too much trouble" to civilize these Indians.

In 1889, the narration tells us, a group of Ona was abducted to France to be displayed at an international exhibition, as "cannibals" in an iron cage. Nearly a century later, in 1968, Angela was brought, all expenses paid, to Buenos Aires. There she appeared on a television program as "Mrs. Angela," one of the last remaining Indians from the remotest corner of Argentina.

"And what do you do in your place of origin in Rio Grande?" asks the interviewer cheerfully.

"Nothing," she replies.

Kiepja herself was dead, but the film was inspired by her, dedicated to her, and framed by her images in still photographs and by her voice, chanting:

Here I am singing
The wind is carrying me
I am following the footsteps of those departed.

"All of us who participated in the making of this film intend that it serve the interests of peoples the world over who are presently menaced by the same sort of destruction the Onas suffered so relentlessly," Chapman wrote in 1977. "With the destruction of the Selk'nam not only did we annihilate our fellow human beings, enemies of no one, but we also lost a part of our heritage forever."

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Finalist, American Film Festival

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