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What’s Behind the Selk’nam’s Struggle Against a Rugby Team?

The Selk’nam Corporation is accusing several brands of cultural appropriation and trivializing their culture. A recent complaint is against the Selk’nam rugby team and its slogan. Official recognition would help the Selk’nam to gain more visibility and influence in policy-making.

A controversy surrounding Selk’nam culture, a rugby team, and sports brands is heating up in Chile. Selk’nam are indigenous peoples which were declared extinct in 1999.

What’s Rugby Got To Do With It

Last year a rugby team called Selk’nam was formed in the context of the founding of the Super League of American Rugby that aims to professionalize the sport in South America. Its initial line-up included six countries. The Chilean team is using the slogan “Let’s go Selk’nam, the hunt is not over yet.”

The surviving Selk’nam oppose the move, which they say is cultural appropriation. The slogan referring to a hunt appears especially tone-deaf since Selk’nam were hunted down by colonizers. Selk’nam also criticize that they haven’t been involved from the start. 

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A Day of Dignity for the Selk’nam People

In a statement in late April, the Selk’nam Corporation said, “after a year of using our people and culture without consulting or considering us, it is late to approach us with the intention of consulting or involving us in this sport activity that is unrelated to our culture, people or territory,”.

The statement also criticizes sportswear company Umbro, which designed and distributes the team’s shirts based on the tribe’s spiritual color patterns. Umbro tried to get the tribe’s approval, to which the Selk’nam Corporation replied: “we cannot endorse the insult that this sports company has done to our tribe and culture.”

The Selk’nam Corporation told Chile Today that “it was a player who contacted us on his own initiative by writing to us on Facebook… they wrote to tell us that they were doing what they could to teach our culture and that they wanted us to translate a phrase, so they could do a ‘war cry’ at the beginning of their games, something similar to the Maori.”

New Zealand’s All Blacks team performs the Haka, a Maori dance, before each match to intimidate the opponent.

“We responded and expressed our feelings over the use of the name of our people and our discontent with how they were teaching our culture, making it clear that we did not approve of their actions. After that, there was silence, so we decided to make our discontent public,” the Selk’nam added.

Also read:

Recognition for the Selk’nam Through Bill

Commercializing Indigenous Culture

After releasing the statement, the rugby team got in touch promising to discuss the issue further, but has not followed through.

The Selk’nam, meanwhile, said, “we don’t endorse the commercialization of our culture. However, we understand that there are cultural works that inspire and support us, when they consult us. We always listen to those who look and ask for a meeting, and when we don’t support something we tell it to their face and explain why it’s wrong.”

But “it’s different when someone takes the position of teaching our culture, tries to speak for us and commercializes it. Those types of activities are just disrespectful.”

Legal Survival

Indigenous Selk’nam arrived from Argentina and settled in Tierra del Fuego. Their body paint has attracted much interest. It changed daily and helped to express moods.

Colonizers decimated the tribe from 4,000 to 500 within 15 years, while contemporary anthropologists helped to  preserve Selk’nam culture.

The Selk’nam are struggling to gain protection under indigenous law 19.253. A respective bill was approved by the lower chamber but has yet to be discussed in the senate.

“Being added in the indigenous law is a legal procedure that would grant us the legal tools necessary to participate and be consulted in public policy that relates to the indigenous tribes that exist in Chile,” the Selk’nam told Chile Today.

“Without a doubt the biggest act for us would be for the state of Chile to recognize the genocide, with clear intentions of extermination, exile and the consequences that followed for the survivors and families. Recognizing it and apologizing would be a dignifying act toward us.”

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