South American Austral Religions in an Ethnohistorical Comparative Perspective
Podcast with Boris Briones Soto (14 June 2021).
Interviewed by Sidney Castillo
Transcribed by Allison B. Isidore & Sidney Castillo
Audio and transcript available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcasts/south-american-austral-religions-in-an-ethnohistorical-comparative-perspective/
Mapuche, Selk’nam, Indigenous religions, Comparison, Ethnohistory, South American religions
Sidney Castillo (SC) 0:03
And now we’re back to The Religious Studies Project! This time with a very dear friend and colleague of mine all the way from Chile Concepción; it’s Boris Briones this time. I have the pleasure to interview him for the podcasts. And he’s going to talk with us about indigenous religion in Peru and Chile, in the southern part of South America—Chile and Argentina. Boris Briones is a doctor in Geography and History for the University of Cantabria, in Spain. And earned his Doctorate in History, Anthropology, and Religion from Sapienza University of Rome in Italy. His doctoral dissertation was a comparative study of the Mapuche and Selk’nam, people from South America. He is also President of the Chilean Society for Sciences of Religions, has done work in the scientific divulgation of religious studies. Welcome Boris again, to The Religious Studies Project.
Boris Briones Soto (BBS) 1:06
Hello Sidney. Nice to talk to you.
So, I would like to start by asking you to situate the conversation—in this first question. How is the intertwining of historical and anthropological research—known as ethnohistory—can shed light on the religious manifestation of indigenous peoples?
Well, ethnohistory is a discipline that has a long time. Specifically in America many years ago, it was used to the study Chronicles, and the Chroniclers who wrote during the during the Conquest. But ethnohistory cannot only be used it to the study the Conquest but also to study the subsequent evangelization process that occurred in Latin America. There is much [to] research and much to investigate.
Ethnohistory helps us understand religion before religion. This means that by studying documents, such as Chronicles, we can approach the study of beliefs when they were not yet called religion. For example, when evangelizers were describing indigenous rituals, they did not call them religion, but today, through ethnohistory, we know about the real practices and the relationship between history and anthropology enters here. In South America, this relationship is still distant, but in Europe it is much closer. I think the future is, as a whole, to study religions and especially indigenous religions interdisciplinarily is very necessary. Probably many historians and anthropologists did ethnohistory decades ago, but they did not call it that because the discipline is formalized in Mexico in 1953.
So, now that we have a little bit of grounding in on what is ethnohistory, I would like to ask you the following: You have done research about the Mapuche and Selk’nam people from South America. Could you give us a conceptualization of the religion and their religious beliefs?
This is a very diverse and complex belief system. First, the Mapuches have a worldview that has changed a lot over time. The Mapuche religion of today is not the same as it was 200 years ago. This is because religious syncretism and evangelization have really influenced it. In the Selk’nam case, it is equally complex. Because it is a cultural group that is considered extinct, but we know that they still exist in Argentina, although not living in the same ancestral way. That is obvious. In both cultures, evangelization played a fundamental role in acculturation and cultural disposition.
From a comparative point of view, both cultures present similar ideas. For example, the idea of a Supreme Being—in Spanish “el Ser Supremo” and in Italian “[dell’]Essere Supremo”—the importance of the cardinal point, the elements of nature, the ancestors, and many other things. Also, these elements can also be repaired in many human groups around the world, undoubtedly comparative studies in religion helps us to seek a greater or lesser degree of generalization. Like mentioned by Annemarie de Waal, in the Mapuche case, it is still possible to carry off field work, because many of their ceremonies continue to this day. In the Selk’nam case, it is different, many of its traditional ceremonies, such as the Hain have been lost to time, many years ago. The last ritual practices were made around in 1923—a very long time ago.
Right or 100 years already?
I found this interesting because one of the groups that you studied for your thesis—you did a comparative study for your doctoral thesis—the Mapuche, they are still around and the Selk’nams are extinct, as you say. And yet there are many similarities between their worldviews. I have been reading your book that you kindly sent to me, Selk’nam De Tierra Del Fuego, which is one of the halves of your doctoral thesis, right? And here you see all of the things that you’re saying the importance of cardinal points, like the variety of deities around, and they had very limited mobilization through the Tierra del Fuego islands compared to Mapuche, where they were a continental population that were in a widespread in an area. Instead, the Selk’nams were more, almost in the same area, so to speak.
We must understand that religions are very broad and their study involves leaving many biases aside, such as religious religiocentrism. In indigenous religions, it is more complex due to mobility and nomadism, in the case of Mapuches and Selk’nams cultures.
Now, I would like to ask you, what similarities and contrasts you found when doing research about them comparatively? I mean, you talk a little bit of that, but I would like to—for the listeners—to dive a little bit more on that.
Yes well, as I mentioned before belief in a supreme being. Temáukel for the Selk’nams and Guinechen for the Mapuches. These two ideas may be influenced by the idea of God of Christianity, for example. However, there is another important thing. Both cultures gave a higher importance to the cardinal points, both to the East. For example, they oriented their ceremonial hats in that direction, to the East. Something important is the worship of ancestors, of spirit. They have many respect for ancestor and spiritually it is a central part of their lives. Another important point is that in both cultures, at least in the 18th and 19th centuries, atheism did not exist, there was no separation between daily life and religious life. This is very important. It was all a set of things. I think we need to continue investigating that I think we need to continue investigating that. I don’t have a concrete answer now… This is a first idea.
Right, because you did archive research on this for Selk’nam—extensive extensive archival research—for what I have seen in your book. With the first one like the Chronicler’s account, then the missionary experience by the Salesians. And like some of the late 19th century, early 20th century, a lot more kind of ethnographic accounts of that as well. What you mentioned just now is like the similarities between the idea of supreme being. It reminds me a little bit of what—for at least in Peru—the case we had like one of the earliest books about the local gods. The central Andes Dioses y Hombres de Huarochirí (Huarochiri Manuscript) which was compiled and translated by José María Arguedas in Quechua to Spanish. And there were so many parallelisms with Christianity and the local Gods because the book was written probably by someone that was already indoctrinated in religion. So, it had that kind of mindset.
My idea is to continue investigating that there is a lot of unpublished historical material. I would like to do ethnographic work with Mapuches in maybe postdoctoral studies next year when the Coronavirus has ended. But the idea of a Supreme Being is repeated in Latin America. I would like to study that more and the Mapuche and Selk’nams are an excuse to study indigenous religions now, but we need to study much more in that way.
So, continuing with the questions, we dive a little bit more into the subject matter. I would like to ask you: what challenges did you face while carrying out research? Especially since the Selk’nams were victims of state genocide throughout the 19th century as you put in your book. And then the Mapuche are continuously ostracized by Chilean and Argentinian governments.
This is very complex. In the Argentine territory, the Selk’nams are not recognized as such at the present, they are called descendants. In the case of Chile, the political persecution against the Mapuche is still stating. There are many Mapuche political prisoners today. They have only asked for constitutional recognition and the return of the ancestral territory that was usurped by the state and European immigrants in past centuries. Maybe 100 years ago. I had contact with some Mapuche during my research—in doctoral dissertation—the threat is that there is a lot of mistreatment in general. Some have had bad experience with the academy and others feel they have been used only. You know, in indigenous people in Latin America, it’s the same.
In the case of religious studies is more complex. In Chile, I was denied access to the Salesian archives, and the Navy of Chile denied me access to Dawson Island for research purpose. This last place was a concentration camp of the Selk’nam culture, protected by the state of Chile and executed by Salesian missionaries. But this should not surprise in the documentation we find the governor of Magallanes, in Punta Arenas, who in the early 20th century enslaved a large number of Selk’nams. And he [Manuel Señoret Astaburuaga] was a hero of the Pacific world you know, in Chile, Bolivia, Peru. He is considered a hero to this day, but the truth is that he was a sadistic tyrant and slaver. But the history of Chile especially in what’s military history tries that these things are not known. There is a newspaper from 1895 with heartbreaking scenes, sales of Indians on the street in the city of Punta Arenas, and are covered by the state of Chile are related. It is obvious that today they do not want to recognize any of that, because it’s a very [big] problem to the historical memory. It is very complex time.
And isn’t it a case of ethnocide?
You were going to comment on this a little bit more about the case of genocide in Chile that the Selk’nam and the Mapuche faced throughout their history?
Yeah. It’s an ethnocide. The Selk’nam population decreases with the arrival of the colonizers. They hunted the indigenous people—killed them—to occupy the island of Tierra del Fuego for livestock. It is an ethnocide, without a doubt, hidden by the states of Chile and Argentina
Speaking about that, just recently, this past year, and until the pandemic hit throughout worldwide, and also South America. There was like a social revolution that’s properly the name of what was happening in Chile. And also, in our countries of origin, but I think in Chile was more prominent. And I remember seeing one of the pictures in front of the whole brigade of the police and the military that were in the streets because they were counter-addressing the movement, that was in the streets—the protesters. There was also some people you know, dressed in Selk’nam painting, or they were using Selk’nam painting, and performing in front of the military and the police, like surreal images. And also, one of the other photos that I saw was in the middle of one big monument, they were climbing up people, and then on the top of the monument with the background that things were burning, like some of the buildings were burning and because of the riots, there was the Mapuche flag. It’s surprising because it’s somehow still now there is like this vindication in favor of the indigenous peoples of Chile and Argentina as well.
But I wanted to go back a little bit to the beliefs and practices side of both groups. You mentioned in your book about the Hain ceremonies in the Selk’nam. And also, one of the other things I would like to ask you is about the figure of the Machi, the Mapuche shaman, if that is valid to say. Could you speak a little bit more about those two elements?
Yes, first about the 2019 October Revolution last year, we had many problems. The police repressed and murdered many peoples. Indigenous peoples are synonymous with struggle. That is why they are used to it in protests. We are fighting for a new constitution in Chile. We are raising the demands of the indigenous people of our country because they are our demand say we are only land in Chile.
And well of Mapuche, Machi is a word that encompasses the feminine and masculine signs. Machi can be male or female. In the Mapuche world, there must be a prayer, consecration, to access the techniques of the Machi. From the arrival of the Spanish to the present day, the practice of Machi has been the responsibility of both men and woman which includes transgender condition. Many men by adopting the life of Machi assume a feminine identity, although not in all cases. Ana Mariella Bacigalupo, relates an initiation episode related to the Machi Marta, who before becoming a shaman, had the identity of a man named Bernardo. The initiation to which the Machi is subjected must be renewed once a year in front of its rehue (or rewe), which has been specially selected to fulfill this function. And it’s mandatory that the wood in which the rehue is carved is from a native tree. Mapuche shamanism is more distinguished by individual form of action with the affected whether is afflicted by some bad product of sorcery or regressions from a medicinal treatment. In the collective ritual aspect, the Machi must also officiate the ceremonies, as we saw in the case of the child sacrifices during the earthquake a few years ago. There are many occasions when the Machi goes into trance during ceremonies, generally reaching shamanic ecstasy with the use of the kultrung, it’s a Mapuche drum. The Mapuche religions have too many forms and it’s too much; it varies by individual form in the action, with the people affected by bad things.
That’s the case of the Mapuche. What about the Hain of the Selk’nams?
That you very thoroughly describe in your book as well.
Yes, the Hain. Well, the first, the original, the Selk’nams, as in many religious explanations about the beginnings of a certain culture. The story—the history—is loaded with mythology. There are supernatural beings who had contact with the earth, explaining or playing to certain parameters, they are talking about individuals in their cultural work. In the beginning, the world had no form. There was heaven and earth until the arrival of Kenos. The sky was transparent, only later did the clouds appears, nor did the sun exist. The sky was low, but one Kenos reached the earth he raised it. And most of researchers pointed out that the Selk’nam did not have any religions. But this is not really.
Polidoro Segers, in his expedition in 1886, pointed out and he said, “they have no religion or profess any cult” which applies to the Fueguinians, in general. But this is really a mistake of Polidoro Segers. According to Martín Gusinde, Darwin—Charles Darwin—will have pointed out, “we have no basis to claim that they perform religious service of any kind”. Another mistake. In reference to Temáukel as god or supreme being, Gusinde is the first to point it out, since the previous missionaries and travelers never had news of his existence. The first a person to be initiated in the Hain ceremony is Lucas Bridges. Also the Hain, also known as klóketen. It is considered the most important ceremony of the Selk’nam culture, and it is probably because of the ceremony that today the image of the Selk’nam in the collective unconscious is associated with the painted bodies and ritual masks. Selk’nam’s considered the ceremony to have originated in the time of the ancestors when woman dominated society.
At the time, Luna—moon in Spanish—was leading the rituals in the ceremonial hut and the men had no knowledge of what is happening in there. The Hain was considered an extremely sacred ceremony. So, it was unthinkable to speak of it to a woman or children, much less foreigners. Lucas Bridges was the first to document the ceremony. He noted that he had news of it during his long stays with the with the Selk’nam in Tierra del Fuego that the Hain meant school, theater, or lodge, he described that. In the ceremony reserved only for men; the young people who were to be initiated the young people who were to be initiated between 14 or 17 years old maybe, had to pass a series of tests and face to the spirit personified by other members of the tribe, who appeared with painted bodies and masks. During the ceremony, the young men had no knowledge that the spirits were other men only at the end, they took off their masks and laughed. At which time they told him the truth and forced him to keep their secret from the women. This is a very secret ceremony of the Selk’nam culture. Reserved only for men.
And in its core is a rite of passage to indicate the transition from boyhood to manhood? In other words, would you agree with that?
Yes, the Hain is that ceremony for male initiation to adult life. That’s correct.
Now that we know a little bit more about the religious life of the Mapuche and Selk’nam, I would like to ask you a final question.
What kind of impact you expect of making with the divulgation of your research with audiences beyond academia? Because you are promoting in Chile, the Chilean Society for Sciences of Religions and continuously having engagement with public in general, not only with the scholars, but also now since Corona times we have these livestream sessions you organized, the First Digital Congress of the society as well. So, what kind of impact do you expect to make, get out of the research that you’re doing?
I have been doing various activities outside the Academy. I really like this closure. I think it is important to make indigenous culture known. I think it is important to make indigenous culture now and realize that today they are still in the fight. An often, it is an invisible fight against the oppressive states, which has sought supremacy on its own economic benefit. Indigenous peoples are still alive in Latin America, and we must be aware of that to rescue their traditions and their stories and their history. To some extent, even if we don’t know it, we all have indigenous blood directly or indirectly. In this particular case, I would like Chileans to learn more about our indigenous peoples and consider them as subjects of law in a new constitution. And this is very important to the knowledge of Mapuches, Selk’nam, Aymara, Rapa Nui, the other cultures present in Chile, Argentina, and all of South America.
I think that is a perfect wrap up for this podcast. Because what we are all about here also in the RSP is public engagement of academia, not only talk among ourselves but transmit what we produce and what we know, towards the public in an effort to build religious literacy. And I think that the work you’re doing is very important in that sense.
Yeah. Thanks. Well, thank you very much for the conversation, and greetings to all listeners of The Religious Studies Project. It is a very nice project.
Thank you, Boris. We appreciate having you here. And also, we look forward to talk to you in a future.
Perhaps when you publish your second book, which will be about the Mapuche, right?
Yeah, maybe next year when COVID ends.
Perfect. That sounds great. Thank you, Boris once again, for being with us.
Thank you very much.
Briones Soto, Boris and Sidney Castillo. 2021. “South American Austral Religions in an Ethnohistorical Comparative Perspective”, The Religious Studies Project. Podcast Transcript. 14 June 2021. Transcribed by Allison B. Isidore and Sidney Castillo. Version 1.0, 14 June 2021. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcasts/south-american-austral-religions-in-an-ethnohistorical-comparative-perspective/
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