Antarctica Discounts
Home I Antarctic I Cape Horn I Arctic I Our Products I Contact


Expeditions to the Antarctic Peninsula, South Georgia,
Cape Horn, Falklands & Tierra Del Fuego

About the Ona Indian Culture in Tierra Del Fuego:

The Ona are an American Indian group formerly occupying most of the large island of Tierra del Fuego located between long. 65 degrees-70 degrees 31 min. W by lat. 53 degrees-56 degrees S, at the southern tip of South America.

Neighboring peoples with whom the Ona traded and intermarried were the Alacaluf and the Yagan. The Ona are often referred to in the literature as "Foot Indians," because they had neither canoes nor horses.

About 10.000 years ago when the last glacial age was finished, Tierra del Fuego was joined to the South American continent. and the Ona Indians (Selknam etnia) were able to cross over to Tierra Del Fuego.

They were hunters of birds and guanacos. More than 4000 Ona Indians inhabited the area, a tall race ( 6'2" average male height) and very good with the sling bow, arrow. They repelled the penetration of white man for almost half a century. (The average European in these times was about 5"6")

The Ona were divided into two main groups called Haush and Selk'nam, each of whom was distinct both dialectically and culturally. The Selk'nam were further subdivided into a northern and a southern branch. Both of these groups again differed somewhat in language and culture, and were not on the best of terms. There may have been an ecological basis for their differentiation, since the northern group occupied the treeless prairies north of the Rio de Fuego and the Rio Grande, whereas the southern group occupied the parklands and forest regions south of that line (Cooper, 1946: 108).

The language of the Ona has been classified by Greenberg (1966) within a linguistic group that includes Yagan, Alacaluf, Tehuelche, Puelche, and Araucanian. This group constitutes a branch of the Andean subfamily of the Andean-Equatorial language family (Steward and Faron 1959: 22). The previously mentioned linguistic differences between the Selk'nam and the Haush were quite pronounced, and it has been said that a Selk'nam could understand a Haush only with a great deal of difficulty.

Since the first European contacts, the Ona population has diminished disastrously. Lothrop (1928) estimates that around 1850 the Selk'nam population numbered about 3,600, and that there were approximately 300 Haush. Seventy-five years later, at the time of Lothrop's fieldwork (1924-25), he reports that there were only 60 to 70 Selk'nam and 2 or 3 Haush. Gusinde (1931) claims, however, that Lothrop was "inaccurately informed," for in Gusinde's census of 1919, he counted 279 full-blooded Indians and 15 Indian-White mixtures. By 1930, when Gusinde was writing up his field data, there were only about 100 full-blooded Indians left. It is likely that by the middle of the twentieth century, the Ona had ceased to exist as a distinct ethnic-cultural group. The reasons for the rapid decline and evident extinction of the Ona population are no mystery. They are clearly etched in the history of Ona-White relations, and range from the introduction of new diseases to deliberate campaigns of extermination against the Indians. Ona subsistence was based primarily on hunting, particularly of guanaco, which was the basic staple in their diet. They also hunted fox, small rodents called tuco tucos, wild fowl, and marine animals. Other subsistence activities included the gathering of edible fungi, plants, and berries, the collecting of shellfish and other marine products and, to a limited extent, fishing. Men did the hunting and fishing, while the women did the gathering. The Ona had no knowledge of agriculture, and their only domesticated animal was the dog.

The Ona country was divided into 39 distinct territories, each of which was held exclusively by a different migratory band ranging in size from 40 to 120 individuals. Exploitative trespass in a territory by outsiders was deeply resented and often led to bloodshed and war. Hunters from other bands were received as guests, however, and were allowed the use of the land. Property in things, such as clothing, adornments, weapons, tools, baskets, and playthings, was owned individually. Generally, property was acquired through labor, gift, or barter. Acquisition by inheritance was lacking, since an individual's personal belongings were burned at his death (Cooper 1946: 119). Because of the nomadic nature of the Ona, there were no permanent settlements. Instead, families traveled after game animals, settled for a few days at the spot where the game fell, and then traveled on. Huts were of two kinds; the ones used in the open, treeless, northern region were merely windscreens, while in the wooded south where timber was available, conical-shaped true huts were constructed.

An old photo of Ona Indians
and their beech bark tee pee
(They typically wore more clothes
than their neighbors, the Yagans)
Descent among the Ona was bilateral. Eskimo cousin terminology was employed, with all cousins being equated with each other and distinguished from siblings. The basic social unit was the independent nuclear family. Real authority among the Ona was vested in the male head of the family who recognized no higher authoritative head, and did not accept orders from any other man. The next and highest level of organization consisted of the patriarchal, exogamous band, with the nuclear families grouped into 39 such bands. Each band was independent, had its own separate, well-defined territory, and recognized the moral leadership of an elder in the group, who was not actually called a chief and had no real authority. His office was not hereditary and his influence was persuasive rather than coercive. In addition to the absence of chiefs, there also were no social castes or classes, no sibs or moieties, and no other organized group or secret society.

Gusinde states that, with the exception of band exogamy and a prohibition against consanguineous relatives, the Ona had complete freedom of choice in selecting a mate. Ideally, the farther away a bride lived the more suitable she became as a wife. After a temporary period of matriarchal residence, the couple, almost without exception, moved to live permanently with the husband's band. Although monogamy was the general rule, sororal polygamy did take place on occasion. But only a small minority of the older men had two wives and it was even more rare to have three. Sometimes a man would marry a woman and her daughter by a previous marriage. Public opinion, however, generally disapproved of polygamous unions. The average age of marriage was 20 years for a man and 15-19 for a girl. However, a man first had to be tested in the secret ceremonies of the kloketen before he was permitted to marry and a girl must have had her first menses. Divorce was relatively rare.

From the available accounts, Ona religion may have been monotheistic in nature with a belief in a supreme being called Temaukel. Prayers were addressed to Temaukel at the time of grave illness and two simple, almost non religious, sacrifices were made to this deity on particular occasions. Other elements of the religion involved mythological ancestors, forest spirits, and the kloketen spirits. The Ona also conceived of the existence of a human soul (kaspi) and its continuance after death in the realm of the supreme being. Ceremonialism was primarily confined to the kloketen celebration in which young men were initiated into manhood. Shamanism was well-developed among the Ona, the shaman being called xon or yohon. The call to office came through a dream in which the spirit of a deceased shaman appeared to a person, invited him to seek the vocation, and finally bestowed upon him its own special songs and power. Training for this office took two to three years. Since there was no shaman society or organization, each shaman worked independently, frequently in deadly rivalry with other shamans. The shaman cured, controlled the weather and hunting, and helped his group in warfare. He also functioned as a sorcerer and was often called on to bring harm to his own or his clients' enemies.

Gusinde (1931), is considered a classic in anthropological literature and provides a good summary of Ona ethnography.

Ona family on the big Island of Tierra Del Fuego

Onas on a tour of a "Big Island of Tierra Del Fuego" beach

Ona hunters with Guanaco skin cloaks

Onas hunting in Tierra Del Fuego

Some more old Ona Indian photos taken on Tierra Del Fuego Island

More on the Onas

Back to Tour of Tierra Del Fuego