Back in the late 1960s, Susan Penfield and I were friends in graduate school at the University of Arizona. As often happens with friendships, we lost track of each other for about twenty years after she moved back to California to begin a career and start a family. I remained in Tucson doing the same. About fifteen years ago, I heard she was back in town, so I tracked her down and we renewed our friendship. Over the last decade and a half we have keep in touch, often discussing our memories of the "good old days." One day she said suggested putting together a book of articles by several of us who had had Doris Duke grant money to help with our fieldwork. During the summer of 1969, Sue had worked with the Mohave and I had worked with the Seri. I thought her idea had merit, although I knew it meant that I might have to write something. I had recently finished (thanks in large part to Sue's constant encouragement) the first piece of published research I had done since graduate school (Ryerson 1994). I was not sure I was quite ready to tackle another project.
Fortunately, Sue shelved her idea for a while, but occasionally returned to it. She discovered that far too little had come out in print from all the data that had been generated by Doris Duke-financed research. Finally, about two years ago, she told me I had better get busy. The main thrust of my fieldwork had been the historical development of Seri-Mexican economic relations during the middle half of the twentieth century; therefore, I had interviewed many non-Seri individuals. One such person was Roberto Thomson of Hermosillo, who turned out to be a very interesting and extremely underutilized source of information. I have chosen to use portions of the two interviews I did with him, along with documents of his that I collected, as the basis of this paper. In addition, one of Sue's ideas was to personalize the stories, to talk about the problems we faced doing fieldwork. This idea appealed to me; perhaps I have taken her commandment too much to heart in the following introduction to my sojourn in Seriland.
The spring semester of 1969 was my fourth in graduate school at the University of Arizona, and a busy one it was. Graduate students in the Anthropology Department were "expected" to take the comprehensive exams in their fourth semester, although few did. I, on the other hand, decided that I would give it a go, so most of my time was filled with reading for the comps. One little distraction was the fact that my draft board had finally caught up with me. They suggested that I should take my physical in the latter half of April. I acquiesced and fortunately they notified me a few weeks later that I had failed. I had no desire to do my fieldwork in Vietnam, having already selected the Seri Indians of Sonora, Mexico, as the group with whom I wished to work.
Why did I choose the Seri? There was no great theoretical reason; it was more a case of serendipity. I had first seen the Seri in April of 1968, while on spring break in Mexico--the trip included a stop at Kino Bay. At that time, I had no idea who they were, just some oddly dressed women who seemed to be very insistent about wanting to trade seashell necklaces for the dark blue paisley shirt I was wearing. No trade was made that day; many thousands occurred during the next three decades. I do not even remember if I noticed that they were not speaking Spanish. As I recall, I did not put two and two together until several months later when an article written by Hugh Holub (1969) appeared in the Arizona Daily Wildcat, our campus newspaper. Holub was a law student at the university, the associate editor of the Wildcat, and a student-activist. He was perhaps best known as the editor of The Frumious Bandersnatch, an underground newspaper. Holub, along with David Yetman, was extremely influential in bringing the new Seri craft of ironwood carving to the market in the United States, especially in Tucson. Yetman (1988: 8) summarized their roles as follows: "After I first visited the Seri lands in 1968 I began to import their ironwood carvings and market them in Tucson. I was joined in this effort by Hugh Holub ... who was instrumental in publicizing the sculptures." As I recall, it was Holub's article, part of his publicity campaign, which made me realize that those strange folks at Kino Bay had been Seri Indians.
A faculty member suggested that, should I pass the comps (which I did), I needed to start thinking about my master's thesis. I had been attracted to ethnic art long before college and I also had an interest in economic change. Someone, most likely Dr. Bernard "Bunny" Fontana, pointed out that the Seri were in a unique position in that they had gone from a hunting and gathering society to one reliant on a cash economy within the lifetime of some of the older individuals. The increasing popularity of their ironwood carving would only hasten this transition to a cash economy. By mid-February, I was seriously thinking about working with the Seri. I took advantage of "Rodeo Weekend" (1) to go to Desemboque to survey the possibility of doing fieldwork there during the summer. I met Ed and Becky (Mary Beck) Moser from the Summer Institute of Linguistics, who had been with the Seri since the early 1950s. They were very cordial and helpful in introducing me to people and making suggestions about whom to talk to concerning practical matters, like eating, during my future stay. In order to catch the Mosers before they left for the summer, I made the nearly four hundred-mile one-way trip to Desemboque once more in either late April or early May.
After informing the department of my intention to go to Seriland, I was awarded a small Doris Duke grant. The semester ended and I was faced with reality. Working with the Seri in their remote locality presented several problems that needed to be addressed. First, the reel-to-reel tape recorders that the department was lending out would not suit my needs; there was no electricity in Seriland. Ergo, I had to buy a battery-powered cassette recorder; these were rather new at that time (see Repp, this volume). Second, I needed to buy a new camera because my old one had been stolen. The Doris Duke money was disappearing quickly. Third, at that time I was driving a 1965 Chevrolet Malibu Supersport. This was a great car for paved highways, but two trips to Desemboque had made it very clear that it would no longer suit my needs. I had also decided to live out of my vehicle. This decision was made partly because of security concerns (it is hard to lock a tent) and in part because I have never liked tents much.
After school ended, the acquisition and outfitting of an affordable truck took up most of June. I had trouble finding what I was looking for in Tucson, so I made a jaunt to southern California to see what was over there. I finally decided on a 1968 Ford pickup. That was only the beginning; I needed a camper to go with it. In those days there were several companies in Tucson that built camper shells. I had a customized (extra-high) shell built so that I would not have to crawl in and out. In addition to the regular door in the back I had the shell made so that the entire back of it could be removed.
The inside of the shell still needed to be rigged out. Since cost was a primary concern, I enlisted the help of a friend, Kent Davis. (2) We installed a plywood floor and a two-foot-wide piece of plywood across the width at the front; this would be my bed. The camper came with upper cabinets all the way around, but I thought more storage space was needed, so we added crates from an army-navy surplus store behind the wheel wells. A Formica "sink cutout" served as my table. The carpet consisted of two dozen different colors and textures, remnants chosen for the cost savings, which was befitting of the times. We put them down with contact cement. Within an hour we noticed that we were both higher than kites because of the fumes from the glue, even though we had removed the cargo door. It was the 1960s, so we made the best of it.
I stocked up on supplies and some trade goods, including a beautiful, all-steel ax requested by Fernando Romero, one of the Seri carvers. I finally left Tucson on July 15 in the early afternoon and passed through Mexican customs, aduana, always a potential adventure, especially when one has lots of trade goods. I may have been loaded with supplies, but in many ways, I was totally unprepared. I had received little advice and certainly no training from the department. I think I had spoken with my advisor, Edward Spicer, only once or twice; perhaps this was their plan. I will let my diary/journal speak for itself regarding my first day in the field:
7-16-69 [written on the 17th] I arrived in town [Desemboque] sometime shortly before noon. I was pleased to see Fernando Romero. I was surrounded by the usual throng of people selling; I only bought one small dog [carving] for ten pesos. I gave Fernando the ax I had brought for him and then went to arrange for my meals. Lupe is in Hermosillo with a sick relative and Dora is taking care of her children. She (Dora) said that it would be alright [sic] if I ate there for 15 pesos a day (3 meals). The food is O.K., lots of beans and tortillas. I asked Fernando where I could live and he set me up behind his house. Everything was alright [sic] except that the cargo door had sort of ripped loose. After lunch I took Fernando and [Miguel] Barnett out to get some wood and their things [left] a little ways up the road. I had the door off and the camper filled with dust, about a quarter of an inch thick. It was rather discouraging. We then came back and I went to sleep for a while. When I woke up Fernando had a cut on his knee and he said that his ax was at the clinic. I didn't understand why it was there, but he asked me to get it for him. I went up there and had just entered the gate when Roberto Thompson [Herrera] (3) came rushing up, apparently very mad and using his best English. He said that I had no business with the people in the clinic and that Fernando was crazy and drunk. It appears that while I was asleep, Fernando had taken his new ax and thrown it through the clinic window or that he had threatened the woman in the clinic with it. Anyway, Roberto was mad and he told me that I couldn't live with Fernando, that I had to live up by the Co-op house, so I went back and got the truck and moved. Then I went over to see [Jose] Astorga and he told me that I should have lived over by his place. I told him that I didn't want to move anymore that day. I was feeling rather discouraged in that I had [screwed] up so soon. After dinner Roberto came to see me. It appears that he is sort of a professional informant and he made it quite clear that he expected to be hired. We agreed upon 3 hrs. a day for 15 pesos, with ten pesos for Sunday, a total of 100 pesos a week and not less than 5 weeks work. I then went to bed. (Ryerson 1969: 1)
That was quite a first day on the job. I spent the next nine days in Desemboque interviewing, but not recording, Roberto Herrera and then decided to go into Kino Bay. I made my decision to take a break from Desemboque because of the stresses of fieldwork; it was very hot and, at times, humid. I used to take the truck out to the "airstrip" so I could drive it fast enough to get the air conditioning to work for just a few minutes. I also had to speak a foreign language (Spanish), all the time and the living conditions were primitive. There was no gringo-approved drinking water, and I had to bathe in the ocean. I was lonely and, on the day I left, July 24, feeling ill. The next day, I decided to proceed from Kino Bay to Hermosillo.
Both Dr. Fontana and the Mosers had recommended that I get in touch with Roberto Thomson (Thompson) (4) in Hermosillo. He had been the jefe de vigilancia de la tribu Seri (i.e., Indian agent) for the Seri. He had baptized my main Seri informant, Roberto (Thompson) Herrera, thus giving him his name. Don Roberto was not home on the 26th, but I did contact him on the 27th, at which time I taped …