Tierra Del Fuego

excerptsA group of Indians. In one of these caves I saw the inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego for the first time. I had left the convoy behind at a certain distance and accompanied by two men, I had gone ahead, when all of a sudden, I found myself near a group of 25 or 30 Indians, followed by some dogs.Our first reaction was to protect ourselves by preparing our Winchester; then I saw that the Indians were doing the same with their bows and arrows, then we stayed still for a moment, looking at one another.I thought that it would be proper to wave a handkerchief as a sign of friendship, but the result was not the expected one, on the contrary, the Indians fled across the river.A woman. Only one of them was left behind, striving to carry something that seemed to be a very heavy burden. We surrounded him at once. It was actually a tall, strong woman about 38 years old, wrapped up in guanaco leather.As her face was painted in red clay and her mouth was white with foam, she seemed the embodiment of horror itself. Her face was contorted with fright, she was shaking, and from time to time, she uttered some sounds which seemed articulate to us. She kept on pointing to the south-west, undoubtedly to the purpose of making us aware of the bad Indians' presence. We tried to calm her down by speaking Tehuelche (the language of the Indians living in Patagonia) and making use of every dialect we knew, but it was impossible for us to make ourselves understood. It was as only as a sign of courtesy that she took the cookie I gave her; I found out later that Indians did not eat such things. However, she accepted gladly the handkerchief I offered her.It took us a long time to make her understand that she was free and she could go, and, as she was walking away, she kept turning around and pointing south-west.When we examined the burden that she had left behind, we found more than 400 dead tucutuco, wrapped up in straws and shrub twigs, which led us to the conclusion that this animal represented one of the Indians' main sources of nourishment.The next day we stopped at the Argentinean border, on the shore of one of the numerous little lagoons scattered around. San SebastianGulf wasn't probably very far. In order to make sure that it was so, I kept on going towards east, accompanied by 4 people. I had my camera with me in case there should be any interesting thing to see.All of a sudden, I noticed great restlessness on the fields. About 40 Indians were running in all directions. From a hillock we could make out something that seemed to be a big bunch of people who were carrying bows and arrows, as if ready to attack.The spectacle wasn't appealing at all, but after a moment of hesitation, we were forced to walk on, in order to conceal our fear which might have cost us our lives. I lined up my men within a distance of 10 meters from one another and we stepped forward all at a time, making friendly gestures.After a while I realized that our cautious attitude and the attempts to call a truce were useless since the ruthless Indian enemies turned out to be in fact about 50 dogs that had been trapped in a deserted camp made of some utterly shabby and primitive tents. This man-made camp was worse than the shelters that some animals were able to make for themselves.The Indian camp. The camp had about 14 holes in the ground, each about 20 to 25 cm in depth and one and a half meter in diameter. The architecture of these tents, which looked so terrifying from a distance, was represented by some twigs of Libocedrus tetragonus (present name: Pilgerodendron uvizera) that were fixed at the west of each hole, a few bunches of dry hay, and a few pieces of dry leather.A lot of dogs of all sizes, of a breed resembling the Australian Canis Dingo, were running in all directions and howling horrifyingly, frightened by our presence.The ground was covered by guanaco bones, shells, leather, tucutuco and pieces of bird flesh; in the middle of these remains, we could see a human body whose arms were moving and whose mouth was articulating some guttural sounds; its repulsive nakedness revealed to us that it belonged to a horrible old woman who must have been at least 75 years old.I tried to make friends with her with the help of a red handkerchief and a box of Swedish matches which she accepted; however, it was impossible for me to communicate with her somehow. I wasn't even able to take a picture of this strange sample of human being.Whenever she saw me getting my camera ready, by covering myself with the black cloth and bending the object lens towards her, she probably thought that her life was in jeopardy, for she showed a terrible fear.Her gestures were appalling, the movements-desperate, she would jump around, she would scream and seize the leg of the camera intending to break it, but fortunately, she wasn't able to do it. No matter how hard we tried, it was impossible for us to calm her down, so I finally gave up trying to get along with this race of human beings. I went back, accompanied by the ceaseless canine concert. The Ona Indian. The Argentinean Tierra del Fuego is inhabited by a race of corpulent, strong, brawny natives who can be more than six feet tall (1.80 m).Physical appearance. They have a light-copper skin that feels soft and greasy. They have wavy, matted, black hair, that feels like wool and falls around a haircut in the middle of the head. The face is oval, of the orthogonal type, and it reveals a narrow forehead, adorned by frontal protuberances, which, ending in two thick eyebrows, make the eyes seem small and energetic at the same time.Jutting cheek bones, a convex, almost aquiline, nose; a middling mouth, with small teeth covered in a yellowish layer; two or three strands of hair that make up a thin beard and two prominent, flapping ears, all these pertain to a physiognomy that reminds you more of the North-American Indian than the Tehuelche from the other side of the strait.Men's heads rest on strong, straight shoulders, propped by jutting, bulging, large chests; women have generally flabby, sagging breasts, although from time to time one could notice supple, round breasts, too.Women's arms are round and strong, men's are restless. Their rough hands have short fingers, ending in square, flat fingernails. The Indian's general appearance is heavy; the belly can be both round or flabby; it depends on whether one looks at it before or after he has had his traditional lunch.As for what I am about to tell you, mother nature was less generous with the Indian. Although his legs are strong and straight, they are not proportional to his trunk; his very thin thighs end vaguely in two feet of middle size. In spite of the rough climate that characterizes this island, its inhabitants, the Ona Indians, dress only in a blanket made of guanaco leather. They live in huts whose walls are made of twigs meant to protect them from the wind and whose ceiling, always adorned by the South Star, is nothing else but the sky. One can tell that Ona Indians are nomads by looking at their tents which can be easily transported from one place to another.In winter, when the hills and plains are covered in snow, their favorite dwelling is the southern shore of the MagellanStrait, as well as the eastern shores of Tierra del Fuego. This is attested by the innumerable deserted holes and shelters we came across on these shores surrounded by heaps of shells.In spring and summer, men dedicated their time exclusively to hunting guanacos and foxes, while women picked tucutuco by introducing sticks in the little holes dug by the latter; they also looked for fish and shells and peeled animal skins.At the beginning, when looking at a group of Indians, it was difficult for me to differentiate between genders; however, after having practiced a little, I came up with this unfailing rule: an Indian wearing a bow is a male, an Indian wearing a heavy burden is a female.In addition to a bow whose string is made of guanaco pizzle (Lama guanicoe), each Indian carries a quiver made of wolf leather (Dusicyon) containing up to twenty-five arrows with tips made of glass or sharpened stone.In addition to their equipment, they have a triangle of leather that they wear on their forehead and a bag of fox fur. I have often fumbled in such bags and besides eggs, cururu and other edible stuff, I almost always found iron pyrites or other kind of stone, a sort of dry fungus, and a tucutuco leather bag containing an important quantity of red paint powder.The only noticeable ornament that the ladies of Tierra del Fuego wear consists of a bracelet made of pierced limestone shells; such modesty makes the civilized male put more premium on them.Histological character. Ona Indians are very quick. Since they have to hunt guanacos, they get used to running very fast. As I was curious to see how long the distance between the feet of a running Indian was, I measured the clay mould left by one of them and I found out it was 190 cm long.The torments they submitted themselves to in my very presence, torments that belonged undoubtedly to some religious rituals, reveal strength of character and make me believe that they endure almost painlessly the fatigue, the cold weather, the famine and any emotional affliction; their resistance to undernourishment is indeed extraordinary. I recall a strange incident that took place at GenteGrandeGulf, at Mr. Stubenrauch's estancia. A sixteen-year-old Indian girl was kept prisoner there; during the first eight days of her captivity she refused to eat. It was only in the ninth day that, after having fussed about, she decided to have her lunch, namely a sheep that was brought to her. The lunch took three hours in a row, and when she stopped to rest a little, you could have mistaken her for a woman in a very delicate situation, if you hadn't known what had happened. It is true that the sheep had disappeared.It is at the same estancia that the Indian girl was noticed to have an excessively developed sight sense. She could see a person, a horse or a sheep, even when they were barely distinguishable through the binoculars. I found out about the way in which Ona Indians got the haircut I talked about earlier. They used a comb made of whale bone, resembling the small combs that our ladies wear in their hair; they put over it a burning piece of coal. The quick way in which they obtain even, beautiful strands of hair would be the envy of any nominee participating in a wig contest. As for Indians' intellect, it is not very developed if we judge it by the primitive tools they use in their work. These tools are generally iron pieces torn from ships drifted to the shore; they are wrapped up and tied to a piece of wood with leather straps. In order to dig the ground, they make use of a guanaco bone, and the only bowls they have are actually big seashells and whalebones (Trophon Buccinanops).They do not possess any rafts and don't fish, they just pick up the fish that the tide has thrown onto the shore; to this purpose, they make use of a fishing line ending in a bone tip.Weapons. It is only the skillfully balanced arrows and the baskets which the Indians make that show some kind of intellectual endeavor. With the help of pieces of glass picked up from the shore, they concoct a special tip which they mould and sharpen by applying the whole weight of their body on an iron dart. Using the same method, they make other kinds of stone tips.The baskets are strong and flexible, made of thick bulrush. The handle is made of guanaco's pizzle stretching from one side of the basket to the other. In order to catch birds they use traps made of whale bone, which is very thin and flexible and can be looped. These traps have the same purpose as the partridge hunter's famous trap; the only difference is that the animal enticed by the food laid there on purpose is trapped by its own weight, while in the other case it is the man who pulls the string. Estancia de Gente Grande. Throughout our expedition we tried to befriend the Indians whenever we ran into them; unfortunately, all our endeavours were useless. Instead of reacting positively to our good intentions, they kept having a defensive attitude. I looked for the cause of such a stubborn hostility and I believe I found it in what I am about to tell you: a couple of years ago, the English consul in Punta Arenas, Mr. Stuberauch, seeing the beautiful plains near Gente Grande Gulf, decided to set up a settlement for sheep breeding; a few houses were built, and they were isolated from the rest of the field by metal wire; sheep from the Malvinas (Falklands) were transported here, and a missionary coming from the same islands was asked to run this establishment.At the beginning the Indians were very friendly; the number of those who would gladly accept the gifts and the hospitality offered by the people living in the estancia grew day by day. It was then noticed that sheep had started disappearing. It was either fifty or one hundred sheep that had gone or a few horses; then, at a certain point, Ona Indians made their appearance dressed up in new cloaks, which were not made of guanaco leather, but sheepskin.Their behaviour denoted strong communist tendencies. It was useless to explain to them that sheep and horses belonged to the establishment and therefore they could not consider them guanacos. Indians were not aware of any concept of political economy; their only theory, which they expressed through gestures, after having long thought about it, was the following: everything was a guanaco, a sheep was a small guanaco, a horse was a big guanaco. Besides, they showed strong preference for the latter's meat.The Indians could not be persuaded to readjust their belief in this respect, so the policy had to be changed in the estancia. When they were caught red-handed by the guards, namely when they were in the process of stealing rams and horses, they were killed.By way of epilogue, I would mention that during the eight days subsequent to my departure from Tierra del Fuego, I was announced that twenty-three of our horses left in the gulf had been mistaken for big guanacos and had been sacrificed to the Indians' insatiable hunger.These incidents explain clearly enough the failure of our attempts to make friends with the Indians.During the first month of our expedition it was easy for us to get close to old women; the moment when I saw an Indian for the first time in my life, was the very moment when my horse, which had been very well aimed at, got an arrow into its head.Their poise. One strange thing to be noted is their posture and their way of walking. One day, as we halted on the left shore of Juarez Celman river, we witnessed a spectacle that reminded us of the pirates' appearance on stage in the Girofle-Giroflora operetta. On the other side of the river, on a sand bar, we noticed an Indian, who, after looking at us for a while, decided to continue his walk. He adopted a hilarious majestic poise, stiffened his body, straightened his head and walked tall, swayed alternatively his shoulders because of his solemn stroll. Once he arrived on the river shore, he lay down, after he had threatened us by revealing the bow and quiver hidden under his cloak.He had barely sat down when two other Indians came out in the open and, walking in the same way, came to sit near him, then another four, then eight people followed him, and in the end fifteen persons lined up along the opposite shore of the river.We had been watching one another for a while when the sentinel blew his trumpet. We noticed then that several groups of Indians were heading for our camp intending to surround us and I ordered fire towards the opposite shore. The Indians replied with their arrows which didn't reach us due to the wind that was blowing hard; our second charge made the Indians abandon their positions and caused panic among the other groups. As we were walking towards our tents we saw them running as fast as they could.The encounter. A few days before, we had had a more serious encounter. As we were hunting a guanaco, we found ourselves in front of eighty naked, red-faced Indians who were hiding behind some bushes. No sooner had we seen them than a shower of arrows fell near our horses, fortunately without touching us.We dismounted immediately and we replied with our Winchesters to the Indians' attack. It was an extraordinary fight. As we kept firing, they would bow their heads and give up replying, but as soon as we ceased fire, their would launch their arrows again.Step by step, we managed to stand in the wind's blow; the Indians were thus forced to withdraw, as the arrows launched against the wind are harmless. Only two Indians were left in the open.Unfortunately, we came across such incidents whenever we were forced to look for food on the island. Extraordinary Journeys, CD Press, 2001

by Iuliu Popper