"I Was the One to Make the Peace": Roberto Thomson and the Seri Indians

By Ryerson, Scott H. | Journal of the Southwest, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

"I Was the One to Make the Peace": Roberto Thomson and the Seri Indians


Ryerson, Scott H., Journal of the Southwest


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. …

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"I Was the One to Make the Peace": Roberto Thomson and the Seri Indians
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