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'People's Vengeance on a Disagreeable Medicine-Man'
We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be—Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night, 1961.
Minkiol was the most despised and feared shaman known among the Ona hunter-gatherers of Tierra del Fuego. “Incontestably this person was by nature a dangerous fellow,” writes priest and ethnologist Martin Gusinde, going on to discuss how Minkiol’s fellow community members reacted to him, and his own impressions of the man,
Since people were unable to defend themselves against him [due to his magic], they very obviously avoided associating with him; if he appeared unsummoned, he was met by the most unfriendly glances of rejection and discomfort. This mistrust that surrounded him on all sides, which could hardly be greater, did not seem to wound him so much as to encourage him all the more in his malevolent intentions against everyone. On me myself his whole appearance had a very unsatisfactory, not to say frightening, effect at our very first meeting. At that time his previous life was still completely unknown to me. Later, I too avoided him, as one avoids a person whom one regards as capable of bad acts of violence.
Many deaths and acts of misfortune were attributed to Minkiol’s magic, and he, far from denying such accusations, would often brag that he had indeed achieved these malicious feats, threatening anyone who complained with a similar fate.
In the winter of 1914, a young man named Kaukesmo died, and his father accused Minkiol of being responsible. Around the same time, a man named Halemink got sick, and Minkiol was similarly blamed for his condition. As threats towards Minkiol from irate community members became extreme, Minkiol sought help from the local missionary Zenone, “e cosi guella volta [Minkiol] sfuggi alla morte /and thus that time [Minkiol] escaped death/.”
Suspicion and fear of Minkiol had not died down, however. Some years later, the three-year-old daughter of a man named Martin had died, and he blamed Minkiol for her death. Only four months after this, another one of Martin’s children got sick. Martin begged Gusinde for aid, but there was little he could do, and the child soon died.
Almost as soon as his child died, Martin grabbed a cudgel, went into Minkiol’s hut, and began beating him while he had been lying in bed. Martin managed to strike a few blows before Minkiol managed to grab his own weapon and fight back. “Each of the two men had struck violent blows, but when the first drops of blood moistened the ground they suddenly stopped, and Martin left the hut.”1 Gusinde writes that, in the aftermath,
Martin came straight to me and hoped for some help from me. I succeeded in stopping the bleeding, but I did not have the means for further treatment, since the bony part of the nose was shattered and the cartilage considerably crushed in. Whimpering groans broke forth from Minkiol's hut. I would not have dared visit him and offer him my help that day, for the loud vituperation of the people against him continued until far into the night. All, however, seemed very satisfied over the deserved payment that had fallen to him as his share.
Minkiol had at least two fractured ribs from the attack. As soon as he was able to move, he left the camp, as he was not allowed to remain there any longer. “Subsequently these wounds also healed, but the hatred of the people against Minkiol did not die down.”
During the spring of 1920, the 12-year-old son of a man named Talemiot fell ill, and Minkiol offered to cure him. Rather than improving, however, the boy quickly died. A rival medicine-man, Tenenesk, who had previously blamed Minkiol for Halemink’s sickness back in 1914, began to incite the boy’s relatives against Minkiol, implicating him in the boy’s death. The grieving and infuriated family began to plot revenge.
Some three months later, two men [I presume relatives of the boy based on the description, but this is not clear in the text] casually invited Minkiol to go hunting. “All three were on horseback and carried guns. Upon crossing a brook, they inconspicuously gave Minkiol a slight lead: In a moment their bullets pierced him and his horse from behind, and the water swept the two corpses away.” Thus was the end of the reviled and feared Minkiol.
Obviously, I did not know Minkiol, all I know of him is what I have gleaned from the limited description of him provided by Gusinde. But his story was a tragic one. Minkiol seems to have been a man who found himself well-suited for a dangerous and unhappy role, and he played it to perfection. Constantly at the wrong place at the wrong time, he was perceived as a villain, and perhaps he saw himself that way as well.
A person is more than their genes or their instincts: your ‘self’ is an equilibrium that emerges in a social context. Minkiol appears to have been a recurrent victim of circumstance, whose main mistake may have been his willingness to take credit for such repeated misfortunates. His story demonstrates some of the perils of aggressively claiming powers beyond those of ordinary men.
Related post: The Social Dynamics of Sorcery.
One interesting thing to note is the killing of Minkiol might be considered an example of what some anthropologists, such as Richard Wrangham and the late Christopher Boehm, would consider ‘capital punishment’, and a ‘reverse dominance execution’, and maybe even the killing of an ‘alpha’, in this hunter-gatherer society.
But let’s take note of some key details. Minkiol was attacked by individuals seeking revenge for deceased kin, a much more common motive for lethal violence than any kind of ‘communal execution’ in hunter-gatherer societies. It’s not clear that Minkiol ever actually physically killed anyone—at least, there was no physical evidence, nor apparent motive, linking him to the specific killings he was accused of—the accusations being due entirely to his perceived malicious supernatural powers. And while these powers inspired fear, he was a hated and marginalized figure, not really an ‘alpha’.
And yet, this account is probably more typical of what some would consider ‘capital punishment’ in hunter-gatherer societies than the more popular conception of what 'reverse dominance executions’ entail. Vengeance may be socially approved, but it tends to be enacted in a way that is personal, usually more ‘blood revenge’ than ‘capital punishment’, even when it might be fairly described either way, as in this case.
Anthropologists Douglas Fry and Patrik Söderberg’s 2013 survey of lethal violence across 21 hunter-gatherer societies further found that within-group ‘executions’ were less common than revenge for a previous killing, a husband killing a wife, fights over a woman, interfamilial feuds, and intergroup disputes.
This is a good example of how violent conflicts are often regulated in hunter-gatherer societies. In this case, by convention, both combatants stop fighting as soon as the first drop of blood hits the ground. See my paper ‘The Invention of Fistfighting’ and my Works in Progress article ‘Why we duel’ for more on this pattern.