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THE SERI INDIANS of Sonora Mexico

by Bernice Johnston

Ironwood Carvings

photo of coast

In the last two decades the Seri discovered a hidden talent for ironwood carving and this is the enterprise that has put them on the map today. People are sailing in from the sea in beautiful yachts, dropping from the sky in light planes, and churning up the desert in all manner of four-wheel drives and dune buggies to get to them.

For a long time Seri have carved objects out of soft woods, such as toys, boats, violins, yokes. Out of weathered ironwood they made such objects as musical rasps, bull roarers, yokes, and oar blades. As with most Seri objects, these were something they needed and used.

Until 1961, they had never carved anything of weathered ironwood for purely esthetic or nonutilitarian reasons. But this was the year that marked a turning point in their lives. One of the tribe, José Astorga, made friends with a visitor from Tucson, Arizona. José had seen Anglos writing on paper and accumulating little piles of sheets that blew away in a wind unless anchored with something heavy. So, he made a paperweight for his friend. Made of polished ironwood, it was a foot-long bridge from functional Indian equipment to an esthetic but still functional non-lndian object. Over this tiny bridge was to march a Noah's ark procession of ironwood sea life, birds, animals, reptiles, and humans.

photo of José Astorga José Astorga

The friend was so pleased with his paperweight that he encouraged José to try other things. José did. A typical Seri, he looked to the sea for ideas and made a turtle. Then he tried his hand at a porpoise. It was ugly. But he kept trying and soon produced an acceptable shape. Unfortunately, he made distasteful additions of eyes of pearls, brads, and tacks in following ones. Then he wandered off into a "thing" world of hair barrettes, hearts, spoons, bowls, and other odds and ends.

Eventually, he turned back to the sea and concentrated on fish forms, without sparkling eyes. Concerned friends gave him suggestions for improvements. Before long he had made just about every form of sea life he had ever seen. He went on to animals, and human forms copied from little clay figures found in the sand. His fame grew and he sold everything he made.

photo of Sea Life carving

As José became popular and more prosperous, others in the village saw the merits of this lucrative business and they began to carve things, too. Many became quite successful and presented a challenge to José, the father of the craft. Today, there are many fine carvers and the whole village has gotten involved as have people in other villages. Some Seri are excellent artists, some are good copiers, and others are just wood choppers. Today's production shows great advancement and many have completely mastered the craft.

photo of Aurora Astorga Aurora Astorga

photo of José Juan Moreno José Juan Moreno

Aurora, José's daughter, is one of the better carvers. She has an exceptional sensitivity for life forms and her animals and birds are excellent. José Juan Moreno, Fernando Romero, and Jesús Martínez were the top carvers a few years ago, but many others have now attained stature.

Ironwood, next to the leadwood of Florida, is the heaviest wood native to the United States. It grows to 2,500 feet above sea level in the deserts of southwestern Arizona, southeastern California, Baja California, and Sonora. This species of ironwood is Olneya tesota and it is the only species of this genus found in the Pacific southwest. Green ironwood is not used for the carvings.

Figures are made with crude tools. Machetes or large butcherknives are used to chop the basic outline out of a block of wood. The form is further refined with a large file or rasp. Hacksaws make necessary deep slits. Finally, sandpaper smooths the piece and it is turned over to the women and children to be rubbed with rags soaked in lard, kerosene, or whatever will put a shine on it. Breaks are patched with resin.

Friends are now bringing the craftsmen more sophisticated tools and the work improves. Carvers are being discouraged from using heavy oils and grease. Some workers have been experimenting with waxes and are now allowing the wood to retain its natural color, giving the grain more prominence.


Very beautiful work has been done by some of the carvers but as more and more customers appear, a few are inclined to hurry production. Consequently, all pieces are not well finished. Buyers who will insist on quality carvings can only help the Seri in their craft. If the carvers find that crude pieces sell as easily, the craft will deteriorate, the Indians will lose their reputations as fine carvers, and their new enterprise will be threatened. As weathered ironwood becomes increasingly harder to obtain, there is a possibility of an eventual end to this phase of their economy.

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The University of Arizona Press, 4/2/97 2:32PM