The “capturing of savages” and human zoos bring back nightmares of colonial times
The remains of five of the 11 Kawésqar people captured in 1881 by German businessman Carl Hagenbeck and displayed throughout Europe returned to their homeland on Tuesday to memorable and emotional welcoming ceremonies.
Around the time of their capture in 1881, many native groups around the world found themselves enclosed behind bars and exhibited for Europeans to see. The Kawésqar people, an indigenous South American people from southern Chile, were no exception. Shortly after being captured in Tierra del Fuego the group was displayed in Paris. Later that year they were exhibited in Berlin’s zoo and in Leipzig, Munich, Stuttgart, Nuremberg and Zurich.
The remains of five of the 11 Kawésqar people, as seen in the illustration, returned to Chile Tuesday. Photo by Pehuén Editores (flickr)
Human zoos, also called “ethnological expositions” and “Negro Villages,” became popular in the 19th and 20th centuries as a means of public exhibitions of “primitive people in their natural state.” The exhibitions often emphasized the differences between Europeans and the “others.” Because of the settings and the inclination towards spectacle and entertainment, ethnographic zoos have largely been criticized as being racist. Still, they are a stark reality of colonialism and modern day anthropology.
The five Kawésqar skeletons of Henry, Lise, Grethe, Piskouna and Capitan — thus baptized by their European capturers — were discovered by documentary filmmaker Hans Mulchi and historian Christian Báez during the filming of their documentary “Calafate: Zoológicos Humanos” in February 2008 — a visual anthropological journey in search of the remains of those held in Europe’s human zoos. Báez and Mulchi later contacted José Antonio Viera-Gallo, Special Minister for the Presidency, Indigenous Affairs Coordinator and the person who took responsibility for organizing the repatriation of the bodies in an effort to secure the safe return of the remains to Chile. As part of the government’s involvement, the Magallanes (Region XII) government sent a delegation of five Tierra del Fuego indigenous descendants to Switzerland last Friday in order to assist in the retrieval of the skeletal remains in Zurich University’s anthropology department.
The Swiss anthropologist Christoph Zollikofer, who has kept the skeletons under his care, was to accompany the remains to Santiago’s Arturo Merino Benitez airport. The skeletons were expected then to be transported to the Second Aerial Brigade of Chile’s air force (FACH) where they would be given military honors and then be flown later to the southern city of Punta Arenas. The remains will ultimately be transported to the Karukinká Island in Tierra del Fuego, the island that is closest to their once home.
One of the oldest indigenous artisans in the far southern region, Rosa Catalán, 70, will receive the skeletons. The remains will then be anointed with oil, placed in the skins of sea lions, wrapped in reed baskets and buried in the island’s caves. This once-traditional burial ritual will be carried out in an almost three-hour-long private ceremony. “The funerary ritual is private, and we won’t let anyone in. This is when the elders are called in,” said Celina Llanllán, one of the Kawésqar community delegate members. Once the remains are within Kawésqar territory they are subject to Kawésqar rituals which, to the disappointment of film-maker Mulchi, do not permit audiovisual material. “I would love to gain the trust of the Kawésqar people and be able to document this ritual,” said the filmmaker.
“This repatriation act is an attempt to make amends with Chile’s indigenous people for the way they were treated,” said Viera-Gallo. “It is very important that Chile, who was responsible for these terrible injustices, admits to its monstrous act and works on reparation, even if only symbolically.”
Viera-Gallo drew parallels between the repatriation and the recent inauguration of the Museo de la Memoria, a museum that documents human rights violations committed during the 1973-‘90 military dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet (ST, January 12). “The Memory Museum is about the violations that occurred 30 years ago; this repatriation is about violations committed over a century ago,” said Viera-Gallo. “It is important to understand that Chilean history is marred by very violent periods of human rights abuses. It is thus important to remember what happened during the military period, but Chile also has to take responsibility of what happened in the South [of the country].”
The Kawésqar people were not the only indigenous groups in Chile to suffer such cruelty towards the end of the 19th century. Others include a Mapuche group and the Tierra del Fuego indigenous Selk’nam and Tehuelche groups. The Chilean government is working on finding their remains and bringing them back to the country.
Although considered mostly a thing of the past, human zoos were still in existence in the mid 20th century. More recently, many people in the southern German city of Augsburg were enraged at the creation of an “African Village” at the city’s zoo in 2005. Another incident happened at the Kolmårdens Djurpark — Scandinavia’s largest zoo — where visitors could witness a group of Maasai people performing traditional dances and songs.
In a separate comment, an anthropologist at The National Commission for Indigenous Development (CONADI) has recently questioned whether the remains of the bodies arriving in the country are those of Kawésqar or Yagane people, another southern indigenous group.
The idea of 'human zoos' is just so damn WTF. Didn't this happen in the US as well around the turn of the 20th century as well?