Fuegian Rites of Passage

Part of traveling to Tierra del Fuego is searching for clues to its mystical, unknowable past. Souvenir shops sell a postcard of abstract intrigue: there’s a naked man painted black. Fine horizontal white stripes cross his body from chest to foot. His face remains covered. So, what’s this all about?

For people who lived exposed to the elements, dependent on their wits and courage, initiation ceremonies were a big deal. Those of the seafaring Yahgan (or Yámana) were surprisingly similar to those of the fierce northern neighbors they wanted little to do with, the nomadic hunters called Selk’nam (or Ona to the Yahgan). Both celebrated a male rite of passage that reenacted a great upheaval when the men stole the women’s secrets to gain power over them. In the Kina, Yahgan men interpreted the spirits by painting their bodies with black carbon and striped or dotted patterns that used the region’s white and red clays. The Selk’nam undertook their Hain ceremony similarly adorned, taking young men into huts where they were attacked by spirits. In related ceremonies men showed their strength to women by fighting the spirits in theatrical displays, each acting with the characteristics of a specific spirit. These manly displays did not always achieve their desired effect of subjugation: one account tells of spirits dispatched to menace female camps that instead evoked hilarity.

With European encroachment, these ceremonies became more abbreviated and much of their detailed significance was lost. When the last Hain was celebrated in the early 20th century in the presence of missionaries, it had already crossed over from ritual to theater.