Tierra del Fuego, Spanish for “Land of Fire” is an archipelago located off the southernmost tip of the South American mainland, across from the Strait of Magellan. The nomadic tribes native to the islands, including the Selk’nam, Yamana, and Kawésqar, have lived there for more than 10,000 years, creating cultures and ways of life that have all but disappeared, due to both the endemic infectious diseases carried by Westerners, as well as by the militias paid by Europeans to erase the native population on well-organized human hunts.
It was not uncommon for white men to kidnap tribal natives and bring them to the capitals of Europe (including Paris, Berlin, and Zurich), where they were exhibited in zoos and parks, as well as held in universities to be studied. No less than Charles Darwin described his first meeting with the native Fuegians as being “without exception the most curious and interesting spectacle I ever beheld: I could not have believed how wide the difference between savage and civilized man: it is greater than between wild and domesticated animal, in as much as in man there is a greater power of improvement.”
Such extraordinary hubris seems pathological of the race that declared for itself the “white man’s burden” of “civilizing” native populations by employing their long-held foreign policies of genocide, pestilence, and psychological warfare. We are deeply fortunate that Martin Gusinde, a German priest and ethnologist, took an entirely different approach. In 1919, Gusinde was sent as a missionary to Tierra del Fuego, with the aim to convert the natives to Christianity. Instead, the opposite took place: Gusinde was one of the first Westerners to be initiated into the sacred rites of the native people.
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