The Primeval Revelation

Chapter 3: Hunter-Gatherers In Tierra Del Fuego

Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire) is the cold and windy tip of South America where anthropologist Father Martin Gusinde, SVD, made repeated contacts with several hunter-gatherer tribes. Whether their ancestors once came from Asia via Beringia, then gradually wandered all the way down from North America, through South America, until they could go no farther; or whether they perhaps came by way of island hopping over the South Pacific, we cannot say, I believe. In either case, their ancestors must have encountered many an adventure during the long odyssey.

Anthropologist Gusinde made four expeditions to the Yamana Indians during the early 1920's, and several to the Ona tribe, also called Selknam. Eventually he gained admittance to the secret initiation rites of the Yamana Indians, the ritual during which elders educate adolescents who are emerging into adulthood. I heard much of what follows from him directly when associating with him at Catholic University, Washington, DC in the 1950's, but will indicate the published sources where the materials can be found.. The quotation here is from his article in The Christian Family, January 1950.

Charles Darwin, at that time a theological student of twenty years, while on a voyage around the world on the Beagle, spent some weeks passing through Cape Horn and came into contact with several Indians of Tierra del Fuego. He labeled these Indians as a transitional form between animals and men, as man-eating creatures, devoid of any concepts of religion and morals. Some ninety years later (1920) the Government of Chile directed me to study and investigate thoroughly the natives of Tierra del Fuego. I was at the time director of the anthropological division of the State Museum of Santiago.

Watanauinewa Worshiped by the Yamana Indians

After Gusinde had gained the trust of Yamana tribals, they admitted him to participate in their secret initiation rites, called chiekhous. It is a kind of common schooling for boys and girls growing into adulthood. The candidates are taken to a separate location and placed in charge of specialists who do the training. His mentors escorted him to a longhouse designed for this purpose, fashioned with boughs and branches bound together by strips of leather and twigs. From one end to the other there was a long open fire which burnt and glowed without interruption. The candidates were assigned places on both sides of the fire.

They shoved me into my place and here I saw on either side my so-called sponsors, a man and a woman. The candidate is entrusted to their care during the entire period. My sponsors now began to work on me... I had to crouch down on the thin layer of branches on the ground, both knees bent, and hold my arms crossed over my chest, my head lowered...

His sponsors observed him closely, and occasionally jabbed him in the ribs for "misbehavior;" for example, for twitching when they put a beatle on his skin, or letting his eyes wander, or when he laughed - which things were out of order.

The candidates were also put through the paces of traditional occupations - flinging the harpoon, sneaking up on a seal lion, gathering eggs of cormorants from holes in cliffs. Women were taught how to steer a canoe, to dive to sea or lake bottom for sea urchins and snails. What interests us especially is the instructions. They are words of wisdom, not unlike Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament:

These instructions began around seven o'clock in the evening. Crouched on the ground we formed a half-circle around the old master, a venerable and awe-inspiring old man, who transmitted to us the age-old wisdom of the Yamana tribe. He spoke with the conviction of an old and experienced man. His admonitions dwelt on the clear and rich foundation or basic idea: each of us must become a good and industrious person...

Time and again he repeated to us: "Follow willingly and faithfully all the advice which we give you here even to the smallest detail. Follow these instructions through your entire life. Be industrious in your daily work. Do it willingly and quickly. Arise early in the morning... Be respectful of old people. Help the orphaned children. To the sick, who cannot rise from their bed of pain, bring food and refreshment. If a blind man meets you, take him by the hand and lead him to his hut. If he stumbles or is awkward, do not laugh..."

There is much more, all of which could have been written by Ben Sirach who instructed fellow Hebrews with maxims of wisdom and virtue and passed on to them a body of doctrinal inheritance. The Yamana instructor, similarly, told his candidates:

Do not mingle with the trash of other tribes. Do not visit frequently, but always be helpful when there is need. Be of few words. Remember, others also have a heart with human feelings. If you plunge them into sorrow they feel pain. No one likes to be talked about unfavorably...

The instructor repeated over and over that these teachings are not his own, nor were they invented by humans. They came originally from the Supreme Being, he asserted; from the Ancient of Days whom they call Watauinewa:

Time and again the old master pointed to the source of these admonitions as he explained: "All that takes place in these ceremonies is not the invention of the Yamana themselves. It comes from Watauinewa, who made them known and also prescribed chiekhous. We act exactly according to his instructions, for he watches closely. So, observe all these admonitions and suggestions. To neglect these duties will bring early death. Watauinewawatches carefully to see whether you obey and observe. This is his will."

There is little that we might want to improve in the goodness and truth of these admirable instructions. If our own ancestors, when they were hunter-gatherers 10,000 years ago, heard the same, we are thankful for that today. The assertion made by the Yamana elder, namely that the Supreme Being is the source of the instructions, is typically made by other hunter-gatherer tribes.

These tribals manifest a constant awareness of the presence of Watauinewa. They fear to offend Him, for He punishes with death. Nevertheless they consider Him to be a kind Father who can answer all prayers if He so wishes. One reason for their ambiguous feelings towards Him is the fact that if someone in the family dies they sense that Watauinewa must be displeased with them for having done some wrong. This rejection is hard for them to bear with equanimity. That is one reason for their great sorrow when one of their members dies and passes into the next world.

Yamanas Remonstrate with Watauinewa

The Yamana Indians claim to know very little about the condition of the soul after death. It therefore makes them sad when someone is taken away from them into the unknown. They also associate death with punishment from Watauinewa. That sets the stage for an orgy of grief and remonstrations against "My Father Watauinewa" after funerals. It so happened that death struck when Fr. Gusinde was among them. The woman who died was sick for many years already, so it must have been a relief for her and for all when she finally passed away. Nevertheless, in the logic of Yamana culture, Watauinewa took her life as punishment. There must be a reckoning with this ambivalence. After the funeral they all gathered in one of the houses because it was raining, and held their mourning service there. The report about Gusinde's impressions, as written by Koppers, appears in UrsprungII, 935-936 and is translated by the author. Individuals did not hide their feelings, but vented them spontaneously and sometimes vehemently, while others approved and supported them.

Every person who spoke - and all those present did this many times - addressed Watauinewa constantly, often, and for extended times. They all ascribed to Him totally the blame for this death. He is the more powerful one, against whose power none can prevail. Therefore they all felt amply justified, during their sorrow and great pain, to complain before Watauinewa, to reproach Him, to show their annoyance with Him, to scold Him, and to demand from Him an accounting for this deed of His, etc. While doing this they usually repeated ancient formulas which expressed their thoughts, formulas that were familiar to all present. Everyone present agreed completely with the speaker who complained against Watauinewa and reproached Him. All made the speaker's views their own with moving artlessness.

I want to repeat that I was astonished during this opportunity to see their deeply rooted belief in God being vented here so vehemently. Their religious conviction, the belief in their Watauinewa was situated very deeply in the hearts of these people. Here it became evident that this belief is a conviction which is certain and solid as a rock, and that all possessed it. With this they also brought to expression the fact that they acknowledge the almighty power of Watauinewa, His omnipresence, His indisputable right of ownership of all things visible, His unapproachable greatness which no one can touch, and finally the helplessness and powerlessness of the human creatures, who are in His complete and entire power and who may in no way whatsoever claim any rights against Him.

Because they had been so annoyed and argumentative during the meeting...their consciences reasserted themselves in the evening after they had all calmed down a bit again in their own huts. They turned to Watauinewa again and asked Him to forgive the words that they had uttered in their great excitement...

The mamalasemoina (mourning) lasted for seven hours. They people had tired themselves out somewhat, and all returned quietly to their huts. But there everybody continued to mourn, and their crying and weeping was heard day and night.

Schmidt observes that the sincerity, truth, and complete simplicity of their faith is striking indeed. European and American scientists of religion would not have believed it possible to find among those whom they consider to be "savages" this very internalized empathy with the Supreme Being, especially since it is apparently without profit. He describes the mourning as:

This passionate and troubled religious feeling which addresses such stormy complaints and even accusations against the One whom they nevertheless acknowledge as being above all things and all people in might and goodness; and then to find that touching tenderness which in a quiet and simple self-reflection becomes alarmed at one's own audacity and so begs pardon in childlike trust from Him, whom they had themselves still called "My Father" [Hitapuan] in their bitter complaints and accusations. We may finally realize, when faced with the fact that it was in the very last hour of this surviving remnant of this tribe, how many such beautiful flowers of people we Europeans have unconcernedly left to disappear, or whom we have even, surely too frequently, trampled into the ground roughly and cruelly (Schmidt, UrsprungII, 936).

Samples of Prayer of Yamana Indians

Prayers of Remonstration:

(After death of a child): "So there! He gave to me from above just to take away again. My Father!"
"I am annoyed with my Father! Talawaia!"
"I wish I could meet with Watauinewa in heaven. Where can I meet with Watauinewa of heaven? Talawaia!" (to demand an accounting).
"Oh, the One Above allowed the death of all my comrades of the Initiation." (His last colleague had died.)
"Talawaia! You who are above have snatched the father away from these orphans. Talawaia! Okay, so now you go ahead and feed them yourself from above, my hard Father. Talawaia!" (Distraught widow and mother.)
(This woman had fallen when walking barefooted on freshly fallen snow): "Please, my Father, graciously give us good weather! Why did you make me experience hardship, my Father? Why did you shut your eyes, my Father, from seeing the snow?"

Prayers of Thanksgiving:

"Thanks. My Father was so kind! I am happy with my Father."
"Wonderful! Summer is here for us! Thanks. The winter is gone."
"Ah! He looked after me. He did not take me away today, Watauinewa of the Heavens" (after recovery from sickness).
"Wonderful! My Father was kind to us. Graciously He saved the boat for us. We are happy with My Father." (After danger at sea.)


"My Father, if kind to me wonderful, I will return" (Before a dangerous journey).
"My Father, please, be good to me today!" (Before embarking on works and activities).

(Evening prayer): "Well, good then, all of us together; may My Father be kind every day!"

(Before dangerous journeys): "Yes, good-bye forever, if it pleases Watauinewa to take one of us."

Father Koppers explains that some of the words and phrases of the prayers are archaic, suggesting their great age. However, they also extemporize a prayerful expression of their feelings and needs at any time:

The lively inner relationship of the Yamana to their Supreme Being expresses itself in these warm and frequent prayers; we see that they bring all of the experiences of their lives, the joyful and the sorrowful, into an interior communication with Him, or of cult towards Him (Ursprung II, 931).

Temaukl Worshiped by the Ona Indians

Anthropologist Wilhelm Koppers, SVD, eventually joined Gusinde in Tierra Del Fuego to document more about the local belief in the Supreme Being, and how the tribals relate to Him. What follows is summarized by the author from Wilhelm Schmidt's Ursprung Vol. II, pp. 892-897.

The Ona tribe, also called Selknam, call their Supreme Being by the name of Temaukl, not Watauinewa as do their neighbors, the Yamana tribe. The Ona people spoke with profound earnestness and absolute conviction about their Temaukl. He has always been alone, and has no wife nor children. He is a Spirit, like human beings after they die. He neither eats nor drinks. No one can explain how He keeps Himself alive. He never feels tired, does not sleep. He lives above the firmament beyond the stars. He sees and knows all that goes on here. No one can hide from Him, because He sees everyone and everything. He hears exactly what every one says, knows even what one thinks and intends.

It is Temauklwho made the still undifferentiated earth and the empty firmament at the beginning. Further arrangements He then delegated to the first human called K'enos. Temauklthen withdrew. Others say, however, that TemauklHimself did some of the detailed work, and then delegated further work to K'enos, the first human. Temaukl rules from above with a power that nobody can oppose, and all have reverence for Him.

Temauklis the originator of all the prescriptions and regulations by which the lives of individuals are arranged, and by which relations with others are ordered. He made all these commandments known first of all to K'enos, who was commissioned, in turn, to instruct all the people. Temauklthen oversees the loyal fulfillment of all the commandments, down to this day. The older men, for example, warn the younger ones against consorting with the wife of another man by telling them: "The One Above is always very near; He hears everything that you whisper like that to a woman. He will punish you if you play with the woman and allow yourself to be touched by her. Pain will strike you in the loins. So don't become involved with the wife of another. The One Above is very near and sees you." There is hardly a phrase as frequently heard as this: "Temaukl punishes with sickness and with death."

At the time of death the soul of a person, the kaspi, is called by Temaukl and goes up to heaven where Temaukl lives. But the Ona Indians know nothing about conditions in heaven, whether they associate with Temaukl, or with each other. They know only that the souls do not return to this earth, so they have no fear of them. It is only the souls of sorcerers who do not go to heaven; these stay on earth to roam about until they enter another sorcerer.

To live peacefully with Temaukl it is necessary to observe all His commandments exactly. Then Temaukl protects the person who can be very confident.

People offer the first piece of meat to Temaukl as a kind of first fruits sacrifice. "This piece is for you," they say before they eat, casting a piece of meat outside the door. Prayers are short and to the point: "Temaukl, preserve us from grave sickness." "Temaukl, be gracious. Do not allow my child to die, who is still so young." They say that prayer is "speaking with the One who lives in Heaven." Temaukl is for them what God is for the Christians, explained an elder called Hotex to Father Gusinde.

Another elder by the name of Tenenesk informed Father Gusinde about the nature of Temaukl as follows:

"Temaukl was there before all... He is Kaspi (spirit) but not human; for He has no body. He made heaven and earth; but He never came to this earth. He had sent K'enos here. He Himself stays far away, behind the stars; there is His world, there He stays always... He knows what is going on here nevertheless... The kaspi (souls) of the deceased persons go up to Him" (reported by Gusinde; see Schmidt Ursprung II, 892 ff).

We leave the Yamana and Ona Indians to sample next the beliefs and activities of the Lenape Hunter-Gatherers who appear to have migrated from Asia across the Bering Land Corridor, then down from Alaska and Canada, across the frozen Saint Lawrence River, who eventually settled down in the warmer climes of the Delaware River drainage system where white men who had immigrated from Europe encountered them within historic times several centuries ago.

Next Page: Chapt: 4 The Lenape worship the Supreme Being
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