In the Archives: A Poignant Drawing of a Selk’nam Man by Charles W. Furlong
Drawing of a Selk’nam (Ona) man wearing a guanaco robe and headdress made by Charles W. Furlong in the Heye Museum visitors’ sign-in book, April 25, 1914. Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation Records, box 595, folder 11. National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center, Smithsonian Institution.
In the Archive Center of the National Museum of the American Indian, I recently came across a pen-and-ink drawing of a Selk’nam (Ona) man—perhaps the portrait of a specific individual—created by Charles W. Furlong (1874–1967). It was drawn from memory and on the spot in a sign-in book when Furlong visited the Heye collection on April 25, 1914.
Though neither chartered nor open to the public, what had become known informally as the Heye Museum was the forerunner of the Museum of the American Indian–Heye Foundation, itself the forerunner of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. The “museum,” located at 10 East 33rd Street in New York City, was several floors in a loft building. There George G. Heye stored his private collection and showed it to, among others, prominent people in the field of anthropology, including Adolf Bandolier, Samuel A. Barrett, Franz Boas, J. Walter Fewkes, Walter Hough, Alfred Kidder, Alfred Kroeber, Carl Lumholtz, George Pepper, Zellia Nutall, Frederick Ward Putman, Marshall Saville, Charles C. Willoughby, and Clark Wissler. And from there Heye (and his mother) funded more than 30 archaeological and ethnographic collecting expeditions that literally spanned the Western Hemisphere.
Between 1904, when he began to collect systematically, and 1916, when he founded the Museum of the American Indian–Heye Foundation, Heye amassed well over 50,000 objects representing the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Included among them were Selk’nam and Yámana objects from the southernmost tip of South America collected by Furlong in 1907, 1908, and 1910.
Well educated, keenly intelligent, adventurous, an artist and a writer, Furlong had a remarkable career. He served in the U.S. Army during World War I. Afterward, he was the special military aide to President Woodrow Wilson, then a military intelligence officer in the Balkans, Near East, and Middle East. Before his military service, however, Furlong became interested in studying worlds “not yet documented,” beginning with a significant stretch of the Sahara Desert. Like Heye, he was a member of the Explorers Club. Founded in New York City in 1904, the Explorers Club was made up of men who “traveled the earth, the seas, and the skies,” and who gathered at lectures and annual dinners to share stories of their expeditions. It is quite possible, even likely, that Heye first met Furlong at this illustrious club.
When Furlong made his trip to the archipelago off the southernmost tip of South America, the Yámana and Selk’nam lived on the large string of islands called Tierra del Fuego (“land of fire”). The Selk’nam lived on the largest of these islands, Isla Grande, while the Yámana lived on the smaller islands to the south and west. These two peoples had surprisingly frequent, though extremely sporadic, contact with Europeans from the time of Ferdinand Magellan’s historic circumnavigation of the Earth. Magellan explored the coast of the tip of South America in 1520 when he sailed from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific through what is now known as the Strait of Magellan. Magellan is credited with being the first European to make that passage, but, of course, Yámana (and perhaps Selk’nam as well) boats were navigating those very waters long before his arrival. Yámana, in particular, were maritime hunters who harvested the rich marine life around Tierra del Fuego. The Selk’nam and Yámana were also the people whom Charles Darwin encountered on the second survey expedition of HMS Beagle during the winter of 1832–33.
The Selk’nam and Yámana were less impacted by European contact than many Native peoples. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, however, their populations virtually collapsed under the sudden and overwhelming increase of European settlers. Furlong wrote about his trip to “the southernmost habitat of man” with sympathy and intelligence in the February and June 1909 issues of Harper’s Monthly Magazine, which funded his expedition. He later wrote about the Selk’nam and Yámana, and other indigenous Fuegian peoples, in far greater depth in the January and March 1917 issues of The Geographical Review and in the March 1933 issue of The Geographical Journal.
Furlong was fully cognizant of the fact that the populations of the local indigenous peoples had recently and dramatically declined. Immediately after his first trip, he wrote in Harper’s Monthly that the “advance agents of civilization—bullets, drink and disease—have not only done their work, but have done it quickly.” Though he spoke in his articles of “the rotten rum and more rotten morals” of “civilization”—the ironic quotations marks around civilization are his—Furlong did not mention the fact that that gold had been discovered in Tierra del Fuego in 1879, leading to massive immigration and the burgeoning of settlements. And while he wrote of the Selk’nam that the “closest analysis of this splendid tribe was too often along the sights of a Winchester or Remington,” he did not write that Selk’nam were literally hunted down for money by European sheep ranchers who wanted their land. Despite the efforts of the few Church of England and Silesian (Roman Catholic) missionaries—seemingly the only outsiders who cared about their wellbeing—the Selk’nam and Yánama were all but annihilated during a 50-year period. Today, very few people identify themselves as Yámana or Selk'nam descendants, let alone as Yámana or Selk'nam.
In the 19th century, the 1882–83 French scientific mission to Cape Horn produced a number of striking albumen prints of Yámana. These photographs are housed in the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris. According to the Dartmouth College Library in Hanover, New Hampshire, where Furlong’s papers are archived, Furlong left behind phonograph records of speech and song of the Fuegian tribes, notes, correspondence, and hundreds of photographs, negatives, and lantern slides. The Selk’nam and Yámana objects Furlong collected are housed in several American museums, including the American Museum of Natural History, New York; Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Cambridge, Massachusetts; Buffalo Museum of Science, Buffalo, New York; Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts; and what is now the National Museum of the American Indian.
Between 1918 and 1924, Martin Gusinde (1886–1969), a German priest and respected ethnologist, lived among the remaining Selk’nam and Yámana. Gusinde made audio recordings and published several important ethnographic works. Anthropologist, Samuel K. Lothrop collected objects among both the Selk’man and Yánama for the Museum of the American Indian–Heye Foundation in 1925. In recent years, a small number of documentaries have been made incorporating remarkable vintage film footage of Selk’nam and Yámana. These are available from Documentary Educational Resources. A short, but extraordinary film clip was made in 1928 by the Italian missionary and explorer Father Alberto María d'Agostini; footage of the Selk’nam and Yámana begins a minute or so into the film.
Tragically, these materials together constitute what are among the few glimpses that remain today into the lives of the Selk’nam and Yámana, memory of whom—that they existed and in specific ways—Furlong inscribed in ink on paper when he signed into the Heye Museum on April 25, 1914—seven years after the Selk’nam and Yámana inscribed their lives, their presence, their reality on to his consciousness.
—Cécile R. Ganteaume, NMAI
Cécile R. Ganteaume is the curator, most recently, of the Circle of Dance exhibition on view at NMAI-New York. She is also the curator of the exhibition An Infinity of Nations: Art and History in the Collections of the National Museum of the American Indian also on view in New York, and is the editor of its accompanying book. She is a recipient of a 2011 Smithsonian Secretary’s Excellence in Research Award. She joined the National Museum of the American Indian in when it was established as part of the Smithsonian. Photo by R.A.Whiteside, NMAI.