From the first time I saw a photograph of these full-body transformations from the cultures down at Tierra Del Fuego, at the very southern tip of South America, I was amazed, struck particularly by the complete success in disguising/removing the humanity of the individuals by very basic means. The human form is so effectively altered by the shape of the headpiece/mask. The eyes (our most identifiable human feature) are removed. The simple geometric bodypaint designs achieve the fundamental tribal bodyart goal of breaking up the soft curves of the human body to make it un-human. They look like aliens. I think I first saw such photos in the Marks of Identity exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in 1999 (http://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/bodyart/index.html), and made a sketch of the figures in my notebook. Since then I’ve seen a few other old photos — but only photos, and never thought to see the real thing because these are dissipated cultures.
Yesterday I saw the real thing, two of the real masks, at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York, part of a fantastic exhibit of major pieces from their collection: Infinity of Nations. These two masks are from the Yamana or Yaghan culture, from the 1910s, whereas all the other photos I’d seen were from the Selk’nam or Ona culture. In his Historical Atlas of World Mythology, Joseph Campbell talks about these two cultural groups being closely linked in their mythologies and rituals. He describes these as deriving from very ancient hunter-gatherer origins, without much outside influence since their location was so isolated. http://www.nmai.si.edu/exhibitions/infinityofnations/
*Depending on the text, these two cultural groups are referred to by multiple names. The Selk’nam are also called the Ona. The Yamana are also called the Yaghan.
The masked figures appeared in initiation rites and were used to impersonate powerful spirits. Worn by already initiated members of the men’s lodge, they would appear to the younger male initiates as manifestations of spirits they were raised to be fearful of and the effect would be truly startling. The initiates would have to fight the spirits and unmask them to learn the truth, and then they would be told the story of world creation and the origin of the masks:
In the time of the Ancestors, all things walked the earth as people. The sun, the moon, the mountains, all were people. Women ruled, and to maintain their rule they created a secret lodge. Led by Kra, the moon woman, the would wear bark masks and bodypaint themselves and would appear to the men so disguised, saying they were the powerful spirits who stayed with the women in their lodge. They would frighten the men and order them to stay away. Kran, the sun man, discovered the deception. He and the men chased, beat and killed the women. Then they created the men’s lodge and their own spirit masks and disguises.
As a culture, the Selk’nam and the Yamana did not survive the encounter with Europeans. According to information that Campbell relates from Lucas Bridges, the son of an English missionary who lived there, there were about 8,000 Selk’nam in the 1880s, and less then 150 by 1947. They were killed both by exposure to European diseases and through an extermination campaign by ranchers who offered a bounty to hunters for killing the indigenous people.