Versión en español

The Seris
Edward W. Moser*

Many centuries ago a stream of people from Asia pushed across the corridor that bridged the Bering Strait and slowly moved southward along the western shore of the North American continent. Of the groups that over a period of several thousand years worked their way down into present-day Mexico, one that called itself the Comcaac 'the people' is believed to have entered the peninsula now known as Baja California. It is not known when they arrived there or how long they stayed.

In time, perhaps as a result of both internal and external pressures as well as the challenge of a new frontier, the Seris climbed onto their reed boats or balsas and pushed out into the sea that many generations later was called the Sea of Cortez. Heading for the hazy line of mountains on the eastern horizon, they traveled from island to island until they reached Tiburon which lies just off mainland Sonora. The Comcaac, whom the Spaniards would one day call the `Seri', had finally reached the shores of what eventually was to become their homeland.

Archaeological evidence indicates that an earlier people once lived on Tiburon Island. Whether or not the new arrivals found the island already occupied is not known. Different groups of the Comcaac probably reached Sonora at different times. Eventually these people came to be comprised of three dialect groups divided into six geographical bands. Oral tradition and archaeological evidence indicates that those bands occupied Tiburon Island and San Esteban Island and the coastal area of the mainland from Guaymas northward to Puerto Lobos. It is estimated that at one time they comprised several thousand people.

Internal and external struggles continued until after 1900. This, along with epidemics, brought about the extinction of two of the dialect groups and the end of the band system. By 1930 the Comcaac numbered only 160. Today the tribe numbers about 600 people residing primarily in the villages of El Desemboque and Punta Chueca, situated north of Kino Bay on the shores of the Sea of Cortez.

Desert Nomads

The habitat of the Comcaac is the desert and the sea. Covered with rugged mountains, the terrain is hot and dry. The lack of sufficient rainfall for agriculture and the absence of rich mineral deposits rendered the region uninviting to the Spaniards. Subsequent immigrants also found the land inhospitable and through the years only a few hardy settlers were able to develop coastal ranches prior to the introduction of deep-well irrigation.

The Comcaac, on the other hand, through centuries of desert living in an intimate relationship with their environment, developed a unique hunting, fishing and gathering society. The desert, truly hostile to the uninitiated, welcomed and enveloped these people who sought out and grew to comprehend its ways. Although they occasionally suffered from shortages of food and water, the extensive vegetation, the abundant game and the teeming life of the sea nourished them. The plants, the animals, and the fish gave up their secrets to these people who in turn incorporated them into their religion, their medicines and their songs, as well as their diet.

Only today is the scientific world learning the names that the Comcaac have given more than 400 species of desert plants and the extensive uses made of those plants. This includes the medicines derived from approximately 100 species and the foods from nearly 80 species. Ecologists are presently studying this new source of desert knowledge and are evaluating the possibilities of cultivating certain of these plants as new food resources for arid lands. The Comcaac, for example, are the only people in the world known to have harvested a grain from the sea (eelgrass), and eaten its nutritious seed. Another important contribution to science is the extensive body of knowledge concerning sea turtle biology and behavior that the Comcaac learned and passed down through the centuries. These data may play an important role in the field of sea turtle management and conservation.

The People

The Comcaac are a tall, handsome people. Proud of their heritage, they walk with grace and dignity. When visiting them in their desert-sea environment, one soon comes to feel that their presence there was somehow established with the full accord of nature itself.

Formerly both men and women wore their hair long. The unmarried young people often wore it braided. In addition the men wore a kilt over their trousers. Today almost all the men have chosen to cut their braids at which time they have also given up wearing the kilt. The women continue to wear their traditional full-length skirts and long-sleeved blouses.

The people's love of color is their trademark. Multi-colored boats and clothing of bright, rich color combinations join to form a vivid contrast to the blues of the sky and sea and to the browns and greens of the desert. Until recent years, delicate face paintings of red, blue and white added to this riot of color.

In order to really get to know the Comcaac, one must meet them in their own environment. To encounter them in their villages is a challenging experience. Meeting the events of life head-on, they are unique in their ability to lead the outsider to accept their point of view. Not noted for meekness, the people assume that every tourist is eager to purchase their craft items. Bargaining for distinctive baskets, necklaces and ironwood carvings is an experience not soon forgotten.

It has long been reported that the Comcaac were once cannibals. This accusation is absolutely false. Although in the past they were fierce warriors, the thought of eating human flesh was and is as abhorrent to them as it is to us.

Language

The colorful atmosphere with which these people surround themselves is accentuated by the rich and striking language that they speak. Characterized by song-like intonation patterns and staccato delivery, it never fails to fascinate first-time visitors.

The language of the Comcaac belongs to the Hokan language stock. However, since it is not closely related to any of the known Hokan languages, it is presently classified as a language isolate in that group. Other languages of this stock occur primarily in California. Like any other language it is fully developed and capable of unlimited expression. It contains 17 consonants and four vowels and has a verb morphology that involves a complex internal structure. That, combined with the non-Spanish consonant sounds that it contains, the occurrence of complicated sequences of consonants, and the important feature of vowel length, has in recent centuries frustrated outsiders in their attempts to learn the language.

The Comcaac speak Spanish in widely varying degrees of fluency. The men normally have more opportunity to learn and speak it than do the women. Except in special situations, the people converse with each other in their own language.

Social Organization

As with most people of low population density, the Comcaac have no formal political structure. In their remembered history their only known leaders were war chiefs whose tenure was restricted to the duration of a conflict. At all other times the nuclear family was the principal center of power, although the role of the shaman included a real measure of political and social control. As a result of their nomadic life with its attendant freedom from governmental control, the people, both men and women, have developed a fiercely independent spirit that they manifest to this day.

The extended family is the unit that forms the center of the social life of the Comcaac. The kinship system of these people embodies an exceptionally large number of terminological distinctions. Incumbent upon this system of kin relationships are several obligatory customs that place strict social controls on the members of the extended family.

One of these customs places an obligation on each person to share one of the two classes of commodities (material goods or food), when they are available to him, with specified members of his extended family. These specified people are obliged to share with him the opposite class of commodities when they are available to them. The women bear the greater burden since they are obliged to share items such as meat more often that the men. This custom has been an extremely effective means of ensuring a constant distribution of the supply of foods and goods. A build-up of individual wealth would be tantamount to acknowledging stinginess, a transgression of which no one wants to be guilty.

Another custom providing social control involves non-speaking relationships within the extended family. Each person is prohibited from speaking to certain of his relatives. In this matter the man is more greatly restricted than the woman. The man, for example, may not speak directly with his father, his uncle, his male siblings, his children after they reach the age of puberty, or with his parents-in-law and most of his other in-laws.

Ceremonial fiestas were held to celebrate a number of events in the life of the people. The most common of these was the puberty ceremony which was held for both sexes. Lasting for four days, it included dancing the pascola, playing a gambling game with traditional "dice" and eating communally. In recent years, the puberty ceremony has been held only for the girl, who remains in seclusion, her face painted with a traditional design by her fiesta sponsor. She abstains from eating meat and has to remain awake during the final night of the fiesta. Before dawn, some of her female relatives take her to the shore where they purify her ceremonially by washing her hair in sea water. She is now of marriageable age. Today several young girls have had the traditional Mexican style quinceañero fiesta.

Marriage among the Comcaac is not permitted between family members, including cousins. Parents usually initiate the marriage of their children. In the past, they often consulted a shaman in the matter. After the proposal has been accepted by the family of the girl, a period of six months to a year or more elapses during which the family of the young man will make a series of gifts to her family. This bride price will include a variety of things such as a truck, a radio, money, food, cloth, basketmaking materials, ironwood carvings, etc. The marriage takes place when the girl's family gives its permission. The ceremony now is usually held in the local church. In earlier times, no formal vows were exchanged. Then, as now, the young couple began their married life in a room built near the home of the boy's parents. The new husband is obligated to help maintain his parents-in-law as long as they live. Divorce is rare.

As with marriage, the local Christian church has affected some of the practices formerly associated with death. Until recently the burial was performed by one of the deceased's burial sponsors, who are specified male relatives. The burial sponsor painted his hands black to avoid the danger involved in handling the corpse. A few of the deceased's most-used possessions were buried with him. His house, often constructed of ocotillo and brush, was burned. The remainder of the deceased's material possessions became the property of the burial sponsor who in turn was obliged to give all of his equivalent possessions to the bereaved family. This exchange eliminated the spirit power that was said to contaminate the deceased's possessions from the moment of his demise. Today most of the Comcaac live in cement block houses built by the Mexican government, and so the houses are not burned or destroyed upon a death, but in certain instances have become the property of the burial sponsor.

Another institution that has recently affected the lives of the Comcaac are the Mexican Federal schools which offer normal education to the children in both villages. Formerly a child was educated through participation in family and group activities and through listening to endless hours of stories told by the old people. As part of their puberty ceremony, certain boys received special counsel pertaining to living peaceably with others.

Religion

Their traditional religion was animistic in nature, centering around the belief in a great number of spirits whose power was sought by each person during a vision quest. If successful, the person could become a shaman and use his spirit power to cure the sick, place curses and predict the future. No religious hierarchy existed. Worship of the sun as the eye of God and contact with the spirits were carried out in private on an individual basis. Fiestas were held for certain events to placate the spirits involved. Spirit power was believed to be associated with animals, certain objects, daily events, individual practices, and a great many natural phenomena. Many of their songs are associated with spirit power. Today the majority of the Seris are members of a Mexican Christian church.

Arts

Today great numbers of tourists are attracted by the distinctive art work created by these people. The most popular are the ironwood sculptures. As the Eskimos are well known for their soapstone carvings, so the Comcaac are famous for their exquisite carvings done in weathered ironwood. Sculptures representing sea lions, thin-winged flying birds, sea turtles, swimming sharks and porpoises, bighorn sheep and many other life forms are produced daily in the two villages. Many of these sculptures possess a flowing grace that instantly labels their creators as master craftsmen. The grain of the heavy wood is usually a rich blend of dark browns and yellows. Choice carvings, some selling for several hundred dollars, are sought out for private collections as well as for museums.

Although the Comcaac have traditionally carved certain artifacts from ironwood, the idea of sculpting life forms to sell commercially did not develop until the early 1960s. Both men and women began to carve figures, and soon tourists and commercial buyers were vying with each other to purchase the finest pieces. Before long the art of ironwood carving became a family industry and threatened to replace fishing as the leading industry of the people.

The heavy, weathered ironwood is either gathered by the Comcaac themselves or purchased from woodcutters. The sculptor selects a suitable block of the wood and, using a small hatchet or a shortened machete, chops out a rough form of the bird, fish, or animal for which the shape, quality and grain of the wood seem best suited. With a hack saw and wood chisel he cuts out narrow grooves and indentations. Then, using a wood rasp, he further shapes the piece and brings out the final lines of the sculpture. The smoothing of the wood is begun with a file, continued with rough sandpaper, and perfected with fine-grained sandpaper used with water. Finally, the sculptor gives the piece a glossy finish by polishing it with shoe wax. The object of art is then wrapped in a cloth from which it will be unveiled. before the expectant eyes of the next visitor to the village.

Ironwood carvings made by the Comcaac are now being widely copied and marketed in gift shops throughout Sonora and the United States. Only in the villages of Desemboque and Punta Chueca, and in reliable shops, can one be reasonably certain that he is purchasing a genuine carving of the Comcaac.

Basketmaking is another craft that has taken on commercial significance. The Comcaac have been making baskets at least since the latter part of the 17th century and are known to have used them as trade items in Hermosillo, Sonora, and on neighboring ranches during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Until recently most baskets were made for utilitarian purposes. Tightly-sewn, undecorated work baskets were used for a variety of purposes including transport, food preparation, pottery making, infant care and music. But the advent of metal and plastic containers, along with the increased salability of decorated baskets, terminated the production of work baskets. Today all baskets are made to be sold. These baskets are skillfully sewn from prepared strips of the flexible wood of a certain kind of limberbush or torote. Intricate patterns are made with several kinds of native dyes.

The Comcaac make colorful necklaces by painstakingly preparing and stringing sea shells, seeds, shark and snake vertebrae, sections of plant stems, clay beads, and flowers. Although these were formerly worn by the people themselves, they are now made for sale to outsiders.

Music

As musical as any indigenous groups in Mexico, the Comcaac have learned many songs from their ancestors. These songs tell of the sea and the desert as only they know it. The bird, the desert tortoise, the mesquite tree, the balsa, the whale—all have revealed their thoughts to the Comcaac in song. Instrumental as well as vocal music has been very popular in the past. The native instruments include the one-string fiddle, the musical bow, several types of flutes, the rasping stick, and rattles. Today these are seldom heard. The young Seris have adopted the guitar and are fans of Norteño music.

Economy

Only a few years ago the monetary income of the Comcaac was based almost entirely on marine resources such as fishing. While fishing continues to provide substantial income and food for many of the people, the sale of their distinctive artwork is becoming even more important. Pollution and overfishing, in some cases at distant breeding or feeding grounds, is taking its toll on certain local fisheries, particularly that of the sea turtles. In former times the green sea turtle was the single most important resource for the Comcaac.

Although until very recently many of the older people knew how to live off the desert and sea without depending on store-bought commodities, the Comcaac today have chosen to take their place in the modern world.


Notes:

* This is an unpublished document written in 1976, shortly before the death of the author. His wife, Mary B. Moser, updated it slightly in population figures and dress styles to make it contemporary for 1996.