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THE SERI INDIANS of Sonora Mexico

by Bernice Johnston




History

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The Seri Indians are known to have lived in the same area for at least five hundred years. Coronado's men met the Seri during their march to the mythical cities of Cibola in the 16th century, but their historians had little to say of the meeting. Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, the Jesuit explorer-missionary of the Southwest, also said little of his Seri contact in the 17th century.

In these early times Seri territory extended from Guaymas Bay to about seventy-five miles north of Tiburón Island, and inland almost to Hermosillo. There were about six known bands and the Seri population was estimated to be around 5,000. This seacoast area is a challenge to the hardiest of men. It is part of the Sonoran Desert that extends into Arizona where rainfall does not normally exceed two inches annually.

Because the Seri looked to the sea for their major sustenance, they made many of their camps on its shores. To hunt or obtain fresh water they traveled inland for great distances. Men covered this ground rapidly with huge ollas of water suspended from shoulder yokes. The Seri were swift runners. They had endurance and were capable of great surges of energy. Stories are told of their running down deer and other game, but this was an exercise in maneuvering and endurance rather than speed pitted against speed.

Following animals, hunting sea and bird life, and harvesting wild plant food meant a nomadic way of life that took them over their large territory. Seri existence was based on survival of the fittest. Only the hardy survived disease, hunger, and hardship. Only the expert survived the sea.

Seri were in contact with neighboring Indians and frequent conflicts sprang up between them. The only other notable contact they had with outsiders was in the late 17th century when Jesuit missionaries attempted to confine them to small areas around the missions in order to make good farmers and christians of them. This was not acceptable to most Seris. They had never been and to this day are not inclined to agriculture. But a few of them did give it a try. Those who attempted to leave the missions when differerences arose were pursued by Spanish military, returned, and punished. Whole families were arrested at various times and their women deported to Guatemala.

This injustice and the pursuits of the military began the history of Seri and Spanish conflicts. The Indians were forced to change camps often and flee. Consequently, much of their territory was abandoned altogether and they were forced to the water's edge. Their numbers decreased due to introduced foreign diseases, war, and starvation.

The tribe was composed of ferocious fighters and when engaged in hand battles with enemies they were quite vicious. If the situation was desperate enough they fought with tooth and nail. Exaggerated stories are told of their raking the flesh from a man's arm. These led to many erroneous accounts cannibalism. The tales survived and received much press coverage in the early days of this century when various people disappeared in Seri territory. No proof was ever obtained to substantiate the rumors of cannibalism. But sensational stories die hard and no doubt these stories will enjoy many resurrections. picture of Seri Indian

By the 1930s the Seri population had decreased to three hundred. Most of these survivors concentrated on Tiburón Island in the Gulf of California. That part of the Gulf that that separates Tiburón from the mainland and which is called El Infiernillo (Little Hell) Strait, is recognized as some of the most dangerous in the world. It is full of changing currents, eddies, and whirlpools, not to mention sharks and manta rays. The only water transport the Seri had was the balsa, similar to the reed boat used at Lake Titicaca on the Peru-Bolivia boundary in South America. These boats would be considered of doubtful seaworthiness by today's sportsmen, but they were expertly maneuvered by the Seri.

In the 1930s some Seri began to work with non-lndians at Kino Bay in a successful fishing cooperative. After World War II, the enterprise became less stable because of fluctuating markets, but survived to become the major economy. Gradually more and more Seri moved back to the mainland, and by the 1960s the island was virtually abandoned for much of the time. In 1965 the Mexican government established a game preserve on Tiburón Island and the Seri are no longer permitted to hunt there. Most of the tribe is now concentrated in a few camps north of Kino Bay. The largest of these is Desemboque. The Seri population has increased steadily, and now there is some intermarriage with non-Seri.

Today, Seri do their fishing from wooden boats equipped with outboard motors. Their catches are preserved with ice brought in by wholesale handlers who sell the fish in Mexican and United States markets.

The Seris had a school at Kino Bay in the 1920s and one at Desemboque for a few years in the 1940s. The present Mexican rural school at Desemboque was established in 1952.

Most Seri speak a working Spanish in addition to their native Hokan tongue. Their use of Spanish goes back to the early years of the Jesuit missions, around 1680.

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