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. …