We are always on the move. Migratory events have been a constant of human history, and our desire to explore and discover has led to our remarkable distribution across planet Earth today. Migration to new environments required adapting to new environments, and our social and biological adaptations led to the dazzling human diversity that we know and enjoy today. Yet just as it remains the case today in 2017, human migrations have also been a source of violence, as our unabated yearning for exploration and discovery brought groups together into contact and conflict. The underlying possibility of conflict is perhaps why migration remains such a controversial political topic today, just as it has for thousands of years.
When we look at the violent past of human migrations, we often draw an ambiguous line cutting off “history” from “modernity.” While children listen eagerly in excited fascination to stories of Genghis Khan’s murderous rampage across Iran, or of the pillage and rape perpetrated by the Vikings throughout Europe, we expect them to be more sombre when we teach the story of the Holocaust, or of the Rwandan Genocide. Through “modernity” we become a morally evolved being; we understand right from wrong in a way that those in “history” could not.
The conquest of the Americas is almost always placed within the “history” category, as is the demise of the native peoples it accompanied. This demise was one of the most catastrophic transformations in the history of the human species, entailing the complete obliteration of two titanic and ancient civilizations in both North and South America. As Europeans colonized, subjugated, and migrated into every square foot of land across the continents, both Mesoamerican and Andean civilizations collapsed, human biodiversity was threatened, and the sociocultural practices of entire peoples were forever lost.
Part of this great vanishing was accidental, and took place as an inadvertent consequence of the introduction of diseases such as the plague (spread mostly through trade) to which the natives had no immunity. Perhaps a greater part did not. Today (in modernity) the unambiguously dark past of mass murder, slavery, and rape that the conquest featured is widely recognized, even at the same time as its cruelest architects, such as Christopher Columbus, remain venerated figures.
Yet this myopic criticism fails to catch sight of the present. We are well acquainted with the horrors of the historic past, but far less conscious of the modern present. Even as many progressives began to mourn the absence of Native Americans in the early 20th century, the ongoing process of extermination and replacement was still in full swing.
Tierra Del Fuego is the name of an island chain off the southern tip of the South American continent, split between Chile and Argentina. The natives were known as the Selk’nam, and they numbered around 4,000 when Europeans first began to settle the area in the late 19th century.
The Selk’nam were notably peaceable, and foreign missionaries such as Austrian Martin Gusinde were able to visit Selk’nam villages freely, coming and going as they pleased. While many missionaries suffered horrific fates while attempting to convert the peoples of the Americas, Gusinde and his brethren were able to live amongst the Selknam, learn their language, and engage in deep spiritual discussion on Christianity in comparison with the Selk’nam religion. Gusinde became enamored of the Selk’nam, who he called a “wonderful tribe” and a “magnificent race.”
Yet Gusinde’s views were not shared by the other new inhabitants. Apathetic to the plight of the “troublesome Indians,” authorities throughout the Americas habitually turned a blind eye to the murder of natives. A gold rush in the 1880s prompted the mass arrival of settlers to the region, and soon thereafter Selk’nam were systematically hunted down and murdered, with some survivors enslaved, others kidnapped and shown as human exhibitions at the World’s Fair, and hundreds of others shipped off to a Chilean internment camp on Dawson Island, where most starved to death or were killed.
This was a genocide not substantially different to any other in its abject cruelty and murderous depravity. So-called “explorers” led expeditions into Selk’nam territory for the sole purpose of hunting down and killing as many of them as possible. Romanian immigrant Julius Popper took a photographer with him on one such excursion, and struck masculine poses next to the bodies of murdered villagers stripped naked for the camera.
The apparent banality of this photograph illustrates the most terrible truth of the Selk’nam genocide. No artifact of the ancient savage past, this collective effort of wholesale extermination was entirely modern. It took place with the tacit approval of Chile and Argentina, two modern nations whose constitutions supposedly upheld the right to life that the Selk’nam were so cruelly denied. The extermination was so successful that by 1930 there were a mere 100 left.
Gusinde was a vocal critic of the ongoing genocide, and lamented its brutality. Perhaps alluding to the rumored practice of raping captured Selk’nam women before immediately murdering them, he wrote “The pen hesitates to describe this systematic extermination.” What made Gusinde so different from his fellow Europeans who participated in the killings? Why did Julius Popper, who shared his culture, religion, and education with Gusinde, engage so wholeheartedly in the genocide of a defenseless people?
Knowing the answer requires us to recognize that the categories of “history” and “modernity” do not exist outside of history books. In reality, there has always been a Julius Popper, who we see reflected in the stories of Viking or Mongol brutality that children eagerly delight in. Genocide and mass murder are not parts of an ancient history we’ve outgrown — they are integral behaviors to the human organisms we inhabit. While it is indeed reassuring to imagine ourselves as evolved beings somehow distinct from the horrors of the past, the truth is that we all have within ourselves the capacity for evil — even genocide.
Admitting this capacity for evil is painful — yet it also gives us hope. For while there has always been a Julius Popper, there has also always been a Martin Gusinde. Our world today is just as it’s always been — containing not only nihilistic arsonists, but also those who would run into a burning building to carry a child to safety. Being human means that we have a choice — and understanding that the choices we make can lead even to genocide gives us the understanding and responsibility to be more like Gusinde, in the hope that atrocities such as the Selk’nam Genocide might never happen again.
Gardini, W. (1984). Restoring the Honour of an Indian Tribe-Rescate de una tribu. Anthropos, 79(4/6), 645-647. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40461884
Chapman, L. B. (2004, May 01). Angela Loij. Retrieved July 10, 2017, from http://www.thereedfoundation.org/rism/chapman/index.htm