Where Ancient Stories Guide Children Home
Rosenberg, Janice, Nabhan, Gary, Natural History
Squinting into the glare of the late afternoon sun, Ernesto Molina guided his eighteen-foot skiff along the Sonoran coastline of the Gulf of California, which separates the peninsula of Baja California from mainland Mexico. He was looking for a specific place in the Canal del Infiernillo-"Little Hell Channel"-named for the hot winds that blow there incessantly in the summer. Ernesto circled around until the triangular peak of Hast Iscl appeared directly below the ridge at Cabo Tepopa on the mainland. Then he turned to face Tiburon Island, the home of his ancestors, and carefully maneuvered the skiff until a distant crag on the island was lined up directly in the saddle of two smaller peaks. Satisfied that we were now in the precise spot he had in mind, Ernesto cut the engine.
"Here the water is about twenty feet deep." Ernesto pointed to the sea before us. "Directly below us on the bottom of the channel is a large rock. That's where the sea turtles linger during the day. The ocean bottom is sandy all around, so the sea turtles come here for shelter. And this is where my family used to hunt them with harpoons. My cousins taught me how to find this spot when I was sixteen." Now in his early fifties, Ernesto is continuing an ancient tradition of transmitting specialized knowledge of geography and wildlife to a new generation.
Ernesto is a Seri. This group of native people traditionally moved seasonally to hunt, fish, and forage, sailing in reed boats among islands in the Gulf of California and trekking between camps in the coastal desert of the mainland. Today the Seri live mainly in the villages of Punta Chueca and El Desemboque de los Seris in the Mexican state of Sonora, but they maintain scattered fishing camps both there and on Tiburon Island. The villages and most of the coastline between them make up an ejido, a communal land holding, established by the Mexican government. Unlike other fishing, hunting, and gathering cultures in North America, the Seri did not become farmers after they settled in the villages, and many of the 650 remaining Seri hold fast to their customs. Fishing is still a main occupation. Women collect limberbush branches for basketry, as well as shells, seeds, and seaweed for other crafts. Cactus fruits are regularly gathered and consumed, and jojoba is collected for commercial purposes.
At least 550 Seri remain fluent in cmique iitom, the only remaining tongue in their branch of the Hokan language family. The language preserves the ancestors' lexicon for describing the desert and the sea. To Ernesto, the specialized knowledge of the Seri, much of it incorporated in the language, is a family legacy, a treasure to be passed down to his children. The precise location of moosni me (sea turtle homes) or of patches of potent medicinal plants or of the freshwater upwellings where schools of fish gather (this last is still vital knowledge for Seri fishermen today) were once transmitted to children as they gathered and prepared food alongside their parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. But this apprenticeship, in which the young gradually and subtly learn ecological lore, is in danger of being supplanted as satellite dishes sprout in the desert and waves of outside influences threaten to inundate Seri villages. Ernesto and other Seri teachers are finding ways to assure that the younger generation enters the modern world bolstered with the knowledge their ancestors gleaned from centuries of living intimately with the land.
Like many of his generation, Ernesto began absorbing details about the natural world-including the habits of the five species of local sea turtles-while still a child. When he was six, his father and uncle brought him a young green sea turtle, a species for which the Seri recognize ten biologically distinct populationssome that migrate, some that don't, and each with a characteristic shape, size, and color. The men kept this turtle in a pool for several weeks so that Ernesto and the other children could observe its behavior. Ernesto remembers the experience clearly: "The sea turtle would rise up to the surface to take a breath, and then would swim back down to the bottom. We could hear it breathing."
This facet of sea turtle behavior was critical to the hunt. Ernesto's family usually hunted the turtles at night. After detecting the sound of the turtles' breathing, the hunters steered their boats toward it. Then they positioned their harpoons and watched for the turtles to break through the phosphorescent algae sparkling in the darkness to take another breath. Although it was easier to hunt during the day, that was also when young turtles would be active, swimming in the channel. At night, the immature animals would stay closer to shore, and only the mature, harvestable ones would remain in the depths. Hunting at night not only brought in larger turtles but also prevented the overharvesting of young turtles, thus assuring both good hunting and the survival of the species.
Our frequent visits to the Seri villages came about through our interest in education and in the languages and ecological knowledge of native peoples of the Southwest and Mexico. From our many conversations with the Seri, we realized that their knowledge of the natural world extends beyond such information as "how to capture an animal" or "how to prepare a limberbush splint for basket weaving." Conservation is also a theme. Seri lore is full of warnings against capturing desert tortoises when out hunting for other animals, against taking all the limberbush stems from one clump when collecting basketry fiber, and against harpooning winter-dormant sea turtles.
Today sea turtle populations have been decimated by commercial overfishing, the harvesting of females when they come ashore to lay their eggs on beaches in the states of Nayarit and Michoacan to the south, and the illegal but still active market in sea turtle eggs. Prohibited for a time from hunting turtles, the Seri are now allowed to take turtles for personal consumption. The animals are no longer harpooned or even actively hunted, but are used if they are brought up in commercial fishing nets.
When Ernesto finished his story of the green sea turtle he studied as a child, we remained quiet for a moment, imagining the 150-pound creatures rising to the surface of the water. Ernesto then began to sing a song that his mother had taught him about the sea turtles. As he sang, he mimicked the movements of the turtle's flippers with his hands. Such songs, he later explained, were an important part of his education as a fisherman: "Before learning about the biology of fish or turtles, you first have to learn about the `philosophy' of the animal. That's what the songs do they describe the essence of each animal or plant."
The Seri recall hundreds of songs about native plants and animals, many containing details of behavior and habitat, and others casting them as harbingers of violent downpours, treacherous currents, or devastating winds. Many of the songs are set in an ancient world that ended after a series of massive floods. As the singer typically reminds any children present, that was an era when animals were like people and could speak.
Legends, too, incorporate ecological knowledge and can carry conservation messages. We accompanied students and elders on a trip we had organized from the Seri villages north to the Sierra Bacha, the only area on the Mexican mainland where the endangered boojum tree grows. Seri elder Adolfo Burgos stopped a group of children as they ran up a hill to touch the strange, succulent, thirty-foot-tall trees for the first time.
"Be careful with them," he shouted. "Before, the boojums were peoplepeople called Cotootaj. Come down here, listen to me for a moment. There were once people who were trying to climb up to the tops of these hills because they were frightened. They were climbing because they were terrified of the tide that was rising. In that time, tidal waves came to destroy the world. The tide was rising up toward the top of the world, to finish it off. The Cotootaj were so scared that they were trying to escape. They were people then, but they were changed into boojums when the rising waters reached their feet.
"Today, if you even try to break off a branch from the boojum, a fierce wind will come. It's very dangerous to do such a thing. That's why it's important for all of us to respect this plant."
(Except for those at the Sierra Bacha, boojums now grow only in Baja California. Fossil records show that thousands of years ago, boojums were more abundant on the mainland coast, and that the range has contracted, perhaps during the time the Seri have occupied the region. The trees are now protected under law because of their scarcity and their vulnerability as slow-growing plants subject to illicit collecting. In any case, the Seri know that boojums are rare and do not want to see them become rarer.)
Rodrigo Moreno Mendez, an easygoing man in his late twenties, teaches first and second grades in the village of El Desemboque de los Seris, where he is also director of the primary school and president of the local fishing cooperative. Recently, we assisted Rodrigo and his students in putting together a book of traditional songs, learned from their grandparents, about animals. Thanks to support from the Ethnobiology and Conservation Team and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, classroom sets of the song books were printed and distributed to the schools. "It's important that we begin to value our own cultural heritage again," Rodrigo told us. "There's so much influence from Western culture through television and radio that we've begun to lose parts of our own culture. Kids today are more interested in imitating rock stars."
In his classroom, Rodrigo is mandated to follow the national curriculum set by the Secretary of Public Education in Mexico City. This year, for the first time, that curriculum included a supplemental textbook written by local Seri teachers in the Seri language. The primer features illustrations of the two Seri communities and highlights their traditions, legends, and songs. Rodrigo explained the importance of the new book. "In the past, the schools just taught about the national culture. It's important to learn about other cultures, but we need to learn about and value our own traditions first."
In its emphasis on natural history as well as Seri culture, the primer marks a departure from previously available instructional materials. In contrast to even relatively recently published textbooks, which portray the deserts of Mexico largely as sandy wastelands, the new primer celebrates the rich diversity of plants and animals in the children's Sonoran Desert home. But one new book cannot reverse the many other messages that Seri children receive from the outside world, messages that encourage them to disengage from the desert and its bounty
In the aural landscape of a Seri village, Mexican soap operas, pop music, and disc jockey jive compete with the traditional stories and songs. The average Seri teenager knows more Mexican corrida ballads than traditional songs, and tapes by heavy metal bands in the United States are in hot demand. Satellite dishes clutter front yards, and crowds gather nightly at the store in the Seri village of Punta Chueca to watch popular soaps. Seri students who continue their schooling beyond the sixth grade attend a telesecundaria, a school in which a televised curriculum is delivered to the village via satellite dish.
Do such outside influences actually dilute local knowledge? To find out, we devised an ecological survey and interviewed fifty Seri between the ages of nine and ninety. Roughly equal numbers of males and females were broken down into age categories so we could compare the ecological knowledge of children, young adults, middle-aged adults, and elders. Seri under forty could correctly identify 70 percent of animals in photographs we showed them, compared with an average score of 90 percent for the elders. When asked to list species traditionally important as food sources, those under forty noted 78 percent of them, failing only to mention those species, such as chuckwallas and rattlesnakes, that are no longer widely consumed. Yet fewer than half of the younger Seri could answer specific questions about what javelina eat, where the San Esteban chuckwalla could be found, or the horned lizard's special means of defense: squirting blood from a pore in its eyelid. Fully 100 percent of the elders knew this information. Furthermore, the majority of those under forty knew songs for 20 percent of the animals in our pictures. Their grandparents knew three times as many.
The critical cutoff age of forty makes sense; in the 1950s the Seri settled in permanent villages set up by the Mexican government and began attending school. Prior to that, they were still seasonally on the move. Most of the elders we interviewed had spent part of their childhood on Tiburon Island and part on the mainland. As elder Amalia Astorga described the former life style: "We'd stay in one place for two days or three, and then we'd start walking again. It never ended."
Today, most Seri under forty live only a few blocks from the house in which they grew up and very few spend much time exploring the desert. These changes may account not only for what people know but for how they are learning it as well. When we interviewed thirteen-year-old Blanca Montano Mendez about Seri names for local flora and fauna, she indeed could identify a photograph of a mountain lion as a xazoj. But she surprised us when she said she had seen one. Knowing that mountain lions are rarely spotted in the area, we asked if she had seen it up a tree or when she was walking in the desert with her father.
"No," she answered timidly, "I saw it in my house." Her father, fifty-eight-yearold Jesus Rojo confirmed her statement: "My kids love the nature shows on television. One week there was a special on mountain lions. That's how they learn about animals these days. My kids would rather sit inside and watch television than walk around in the desert like I did when I was a kid:"
We reflected on Blanca and the mountain lion the day that Ernesto showed us the daytime lairs of the sea turtles. If the Seri children spend so much of their time in front of televisions or lecterns, who will continue to refine the community's vast knowledge of the natural world and monitor the ever changing status of their natural resources? Ecologists are just beginning to discover the complex natural interactions of which the Seri have long been aware. Preservation of this knowledge is a vital step in conserving the biological heritage of the region, which is entwined with the survival of the Seri themselves. Is the lore of the Seri destined to atrophy, victim to what naturalist and writer Robert Michael Pyle calls "the extinction of experience"? Will their children be caught up in a cycle of disaffection brought on by diminished contact with the natural world at their doorsteps?
As Ernesto turned the skiff back toward Punta Chueca, we passed in front of a long stretch of sandy white beach. We noticed the slender, curved branches of ocotillo framing two huts built in traditional Seri style. When we pointed them out, Ernesto nodded proudly. "I built those myself last summer. Every summer I take my family to live for a month on the island. My sons and I dive for scallops nearby. We live beneath the ocotillo shelters and grill our fish over small campfires on the beach the way my people have always done. It's not enough for our children to just hear stories about how we did things in the past. I want them to experience it themselves. That way, they will be creating their own memories."
Travel and Reading To learn more about Seri culture, visit the Museo de los Seris in Kino Nuevo, the beachfront part of Bahia Kino, a fishing village on the Sonoran coast opposite Tiburon Island. Hermosillo, the state capital of Sonora, is a four-hour drive from the Arizona-Sonora border town of Nogales. Bahia Kino is an hour or so west of Hermosillo. A useful guide to this area is Mexico: A Travel Survival Kit (Lonely Planet Publications, 1995).
Saying It in Seri
While most Seri speak or at least understand Spanish and use it when communicating with outsiders, cmique iitom remains the Seri's first language. The language was standardized in written form in the 1960s by linguists Becky Moser and the late Ed Moser, whose spellings we have used here. Recently, Seri educators have been working to modify the spelling, making it conform more closely to that of Spanish. A note on proper names: when the Seri were settled in Sonoran villages, individuals were given the surnames, and in some cases even the first names, of Mexicans who lived nearby. To the best of our knowledge, most Seri also have a Seri name, usually a nickname, used by family members and close friends.
People of the Desert and Sea: Ethnobotany of the Seri Indians, written by Richard S. Felger and Mary EC Moser (University of Arizona Press, 1985), is the definitive book about the Seri. The authors note that the Seri names for flora and fauna reflect ecological connections. For example, some animals are named for their choice of habitat or food, flowers for their pollinators, and plants for the animals that eat-or in some cases specifically don't eat-them. Even names of algae reflect their associations with certain sea turtles. Here is a brief lexicon of examples: moosniil ihaqueepe, "what the blue turtle likes," is a particular marine alga. hehe icain, "plant's live thing," is Seri for the white-lined sphinx moth larva. noj-oopis, "what hummingbirds suck out," is Justicia californica (or in Spanish, chuparosa). hampja ihaap,, "pronghorn's tepary," is a local bean plant, Phaseolus filiformis (a tepary is a desert-adapted bean). hee imcat, "what the jackrabbit doesn't bite off," refers to two composite plants. hp imcat, "what mule deer flay antlers on" applies to three plant species. xtamoosn oohit, "what the desert tortoise eats," is the designation of four distinct species of desert plants. -J. R. and G. N.…
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Publication information: Article title: Where Ancient Stories Guide Children Home. Contributors: Rosenberg, Janice - Author, Nabhan, Gary - Author. Magazine title: Natural History. Volume: 106. Issue: 9 Publication date: October 1997. Page number: 54+. © American Museum of Natural History Dec 2008/Jan 2009. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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