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Sierra Magazine
Songs of the Seri

You packed up the panga, but did you remember the canticles? You'll need them to face the giant serpent in the Sea of Cortez.

by Gary Paul Nabhan

"He's wondering whether we've got everything we need," I yelled out to three other biologists over the waves crashing down along the Sea of Cortez coast. Or to be exact, the shores of the Canal de Infiernillo, or Channel of Little Hell, as the narrow straits between Tiburón Island and the Sonoran mainland are called. We waded knee-deep in its stormy waters as we loaded a Seri Indian panga with all the provisions we thought we might need during our next four days of island-hopping. The 16-foot skiff was not so full that it was taking in water, but then we had not yet gotten into it.

I glanced, embarrassed, at Alfredo, our elderly Seri guide. Just one generation removed from his ancestors' hunter-gatherer existence, when everything they owned had to be carried for miles on their heads or backs, Alfredo couldn't help but comment on how many material goods we were casually tossing into the panga: inflatable kayaks, wetsuits, life jackets, waterproof river bags, and puncture-proof water jugs. A two-burner cookstove, tarps, foldable lawn chairs, Thermarest pads, sleeping bags, and a chuckbox replete with wineglasses, dinnerware, tablecloths, lanterns, and candles.

A cooler stuffed with precooked turkey dinners, pumpkin pie, and cranberry sauce. Every field guide covering any set of critters ever spotted in or migrating through the deserts and seas of northwest Mexico. A profusion of tape recorders, cameras, binoculars, measuring tapes, thermometers, fishing tackle, lizard grabbers, and snorkeling gear. Finally, a half-dozen bottles of hot sauce and one of tequila in case of a sudden need to treat emergencies such as accidental wounds or bland food. We had hauled much of this paraphernalia from Tucson, a six-hour drive, and bought the rest in Kino Bay, the closest Mexican tourist beach to the two remaining Seri villages.

"Travel light," I muttered under my breath, as I finished off the last of the "lite" corn chips we'd brought with us across the Mexican border.

In turn, Alfredo and his sidekick, José-Ramon, each carried a single blanket, a canteen, and his own bottle of salsa in case ours was too tame. They brought two old life jackets, but hardly ever wore them.

What we sought in our waterlogged field guides, they kept in their heads and hearts. They were among the Seri tribe's first ecotourism guides, and we were among their first guinea pigs, trying out a new trip route. I had worked on field-conservation projects with the Seri for several years, as had my U.S. colleagues, but I wasn't sure what ecotourism meant to the Seri. We soon learned, however, that as "official guides" they have been authorized by the Comcaac, or Seri, community to sing us any traditional song or tell us most any story about the seabirds, fish, marine mammals, and reptiles that we might encounter over the next few days.

I only knew about one Seri song, and I was a little anxious that Alfredo and José-Ramon might not know it. The month before, Seri artisan Amalia Astorga had visited me in Arizona. Hearing that I was planning to go out to San Esteban Island, she looked worried.

"Don't go out there unless you are with someone who knows the song to placate Coimaj Caacol. He's the giant serpent that lives underwater between Tiburón Island and San Esteban Island. By writhing along on the ocean bottom, he churns up the water between the two islands. If you try to cross without giving him respect, he'll smash your boat to bits."

So the last thing I asked Alfredo before we left the mainland was whether we had traditional Seri life insurance.

"Seguros?" he repeated in Spanish, puzzled.

"Do you know the song to sing to make peace with Coimaj Caacol?" I asked.

He and José-Ramon looked at one another, then burst out laughing. "I know all the songs we'll need for this trip, not just for where Coimaj Caacol lives, but for other treacherous places as well."

Alfredo jerked the starter cord of the outboard engine, and it instantly cranked up to a full-tilt roar. José-Ramon gave the panga one last push off the gravelly beach, and lifted himself gracefully up over the bow. We were off, crossing the Canal de Infiernillo while California gulls, eared grebes, and brown pelicans took flight or rapidly paddled out of our trajectory toward Tiburón Island. We high-tailed it across the straits without hitting much choppy water, for the cross-tides were not yet pulling strongly. It was the kind of water that Alfredo could navigate blindfolded, without a single song. Not all water we would meet over the next few days would leave him as quiet.

We rounded the southeast corner of Tiburón and caught our first good glimpse of three other islands: Turners and Cholludo, both less than a mile off the south end of Tiburón, and San Esteban, much farther away. One of our crew, a marine biologist, had brought her tide charts, as she does on most marine voyages.

"I hope you aren't supposing that you can cross between the islands in that little inflatable kayak," Katrina teased me. "Do you see the height of that surf hitting the windward side of Cholludo?"

Out of the straits now, we faced what the Seri call the high seas of the Gulf of California—charcoal-gray, choppy waves clear to the cliff-ridden shores of San Esteban. Less than a mile or so to the south, the surf rose up white and wild like a banshee in an Irish ghost story. But we were not off the exposed, stormy coasts of Ireland; we were in the shelter of the Sea of Cortez, which was supposed to be buffered from the truly rough waters of the Pacific Ocean by the peninsula of Baja California. My colleagues all turned toward Alfredo, trying to read his face for an assessment of whether we could cross.

For several minutes, neither Alfredo nor José-Ramon said a word; they just peered intently at the wave patterns between the panga and the islands.

"Not today," Alfredo finally uttered, as he maneuvered around the boulders in the shallows along the south shores of Tiburón. "It will be enough merely to take you around the smaller islands in this kind of water. Tomorrow, we'll look at Coftecol again."

That is to say, San Esteban—Coftecol is its Seri name. The blessing and curse of Seri ecotourism is that the guides may know the English or the Spanish names for the islands, coves, or shoals you wish to see, but refer to them in Seri, or Cmique Iitom, the last remaining dialect of the Hokan language family in Baja California. And since less than a handful of outsiders can converse with the 500-some surviving Seri in their native tongue, destinations sometimes have an elusive quality.

"We can spin out to the leeward side of Has Xnois to see if you can go ashore there," Alfredo offered.

"Which one is Has Xnois?" I called to him. "Turners or Cholludo?"

"Which is Cholludo?" he responded, perplexed. "Roca Foca?"

"Turners is the bigger one. I think the Mexican fishermen call it Datil."

"That's Hastaacoj then. Too many rocks to go ashore when the tide is at this level. I can get you near to the smaller one, then we'll see."

Isla Cholludo—or Has Xnois, as Alfredo knew it—was as full of cactus as any island can be. Not only cholla cactus, as its name implies, but standing-room-only patches of saguaro, organpipe, sinita, cardon, and pitahaya agria. As Alfredo pulled the panga toward the lee shore, it became obvious that there were dozens of sharp rocks just below water level between us and the one small rocky strand where the boat might otherwise beach.

"Not today here either," Alfredo shrugged. "It's a shame. I wanted to show you a kind of lizard that is only here and on Coftecol; one that's not even on Hastaacoj, even though it is closer than Coftecol."

"What kind of lizard?"

"I'll show you tomorrow, if we make it to Coftecol," Alfredo said with a wink.

We cruised back to the southeasternmost cove of Tiburón, called Ensenada del Perro by the Mexican fishermen who were illegally camped there. Use of Tiburón, San Esteban, and the channel is supposed to be restricted to the Seri and their guests, but not all Mexican government agencies gave this presidential decree enough support to allow the Seri to evict invaders without fear of retaliation. In this case, our guides recognized a couple of the fishermen, and decided not to press the issue. As we let our Thanksgiving dinner warm up on the cookstove, we walked from our camp on the beach into a small valley. There, around campfires out of sight from the beach, we found one hawksbill sea turtle and four desert tortoise carapaces—endangered species that Alfredo guessed had been poached by non-Indian fishermen.

"They ought not to be able to camp here in Seri territory, even if they were given permits to fish offshore," Alfredo said calmly, with only the slightest trace of frustration pulling at him like an undertow. "This is too near some sacred places on the south side of Tiburón for it to be safe for people who don't know where they are."

As we sat on the beach at dusk and shared our Thanksgiving dinner, Native Americans and seafaring pilgrims side by side, I thought about what Alfredo said. He was disturbed by the sight of wanton killing of endangered reptiles within Seri homelands, but just as concerned that non-Indians could be hurt by naively messing with a power greater than their own. I wondered if the Wampanoag had the same concerns when they took pity on the poor people who arrived several centuries ago on the Atlantic seaboard with so little knowledge of how to be nourished by the bounty all around them.

I hoped that during future Thanksgivings I would remember the present scene: a handful of people from two dramatically different cultures sharing food, songs, and stories, acknowledging our mutual dependence on the wild lives all around us, lives that are so easily snuffed out by either ignorance or carelessness.

In the morning, the ocean appeared much calmer than it had the day before. As we packed everything into the panga, Alfredo pulled me aside and said, "I would like to make a tape of the entire sequence of canticos that we need to sing from our village all the way to Isla San Esteban for the crossing."

I asked whether the water-serpent song, the one sung to placate Coimaj Caacol, was one of these canticles. "Yes, but the others are sung when you spot certain landmarks. The one for Coimaj Caacol, well, you don't sing it in advance—you sing it only if you have trouble out in those waters." He nodded toward the southwest, then asked me to gather up the entire group.

"Just as Amalia told you, we have an obligation to sing these canticles to all the powers which are out there, before we make the crossing," Alfredo said. "Whether we are in a balsa made with our own hands, or in a big panga like this, we need to do this during the time of dangerous tides. Maybe not in every season, but in conditions such as this, yes. The canticles are to all the spirits active around here. We all need to get into the boat, and then I'll sing."

Four biologists huddled around Alfredo, while José-Ramon sat quietly on the prow. Alfredo then sweetly sang the first of the Seri ocean power songs:

Before going on our way/ We find ourselves still in place/
Before going on our way/ We aim to pass the mountain/
That comes in the midst of the path.

We all leaned toward him as if he were the lead in a gospel ensemble and we were the harmony section backing him up. When the singing was done, Alfredo and José-Ramon pushed off without another word.

As we made our way around the southeast corner of Tiburón once more, we could see that the sea was indeed calmer. We stayed on Tiburón's submerged shelf, and pushed past Turners and Cholludo without incident, watching ospreys nesting on the cliffs of Tiburón high above us. Then, as we approached one of the shortest distances between Tiburón and San Esteban—perhaps eight miles as the osprey flies—Alfredo turned southward and headed out into the charcoal-gray and night-blue waters of the deeper seas.

Alfredo had once again fixed his vision on tidal patterns and patches of waves between us and San Esteban. He didn't drive the boat straight toward the island, but stayed to the east of the most direct passage. We soon realized why.

About halfway across, I noticed that he was humming a song, barely audible over the outboard-engine roar. I caught his eye, and he smiled at me in recognition. Just then, a splash of water came over the prow. I looked immediately to the west and to the south of us, and noticed that we had hit the edge of a huge patch of rough water.

"This is where you must sing to Coimaj Caacol on the roughest of days, or else you won't make it across," he yelled up to us.

We entered a series of swells, and got a splash or two whenever Alfredo could not avoid being broadsided by a sudden wave. Considering the roughness of the surface, we took in very little water; Alfredo accelerated to get us onto a wave crest, then gently let us down the other side. Soon we were across it, speeding toward San Esteban's Arroyo Limantur, one of the few beaches where coming ashore would be easy. The only barrier now was the mass of sea lions sunning themselves on the gravelly strand.

"Hapoo," José-Ramon said, smiling at them. Although he was in his 20s, this was his first trip to San Esteban, and, he later told us, one of the few times he'd seen more than a dozen sea lions. When the ones blocking our path finally slid off into the water, we landed.

Sea-lion behavior is endlessly amusing; it was as though we were watching some plump prima donnas sunning themselves and gossiping about the quality of their vacation resort. Our party gradually turned its attention away from the regionally threatened creatures toward the island's other rarities. Craig was soon up on a ridgetop, checking all crevices for the San Esteban chuckwalla, a threatened lizard that he has helped to breed in captivity over the past decade. Laurie was sizing up San Esteban's endemic agave, the source of a bootleg tequila industry nearly a century ago, when taverns in Guaymas distilled the bases of its swordlike leaves. The Seri had roasted it to make mescal, not the beverage but a traditional foodstuff with a taste and texture like that of sweet potatoes crossed with sugar cane.

I set out looking for fishhook cacti, chuckwallas, and spiny-tailed iguanas, all rare species monitored by the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, where I work. I tallied the numbers of each as I encountered them, relieved that they had not become too scarce. Katrina was searching the tidepools for a hydroid that she had discovered several years ago: Samuraia tabuarasa. Later in the day, Katrina showed Alfredo and José-Ramon how to find this rock-loving invertebrate: "It's hard to see until the tide begins to come in, because it is all closed up." She tightened her fist, then gradually spread her fingers out wide. "Then, as the water splashes onto it, it opens up like a Chinese paper flower and kills any barnacles within range of its tentacles."

This cryptic organism was among the few on the island that Alfredo could not name and tell a story about. When Craig caught one of the giant chuckwallas by hand, Alfredo showed us how to sex it. Then he proceeded to tell how male chuckwallas "won" in a gambling game their buttonlike femoral pores, a peculiar marking that various iguanids have on their back legs. He explained to Laurie how the historic residents of San Esteban "sold" the rights to come and roast mescal to other Seri bands from Tiburón Island. And he told Katrina and me about aquatic games of "chicken" that the men here once played: driving their kayak-like balsa boats made from agave stalks straight toward the mouths of whales to see who could get closest, or swimming with sharks to see who could stay with them the longest.

Later that day, and the next as well, we turned our attention back toward the subtidal zone. We did not swim with sharks or enter the mouths of whales, but we did snorkel with sea lions, angelfish, and puffers. That's when I pumped up the kayak and paddled along the rocky coast of San Esteban, counting the sea lions sunning and swimming around me, and watching for whales farther offshore. Blue-footed boobies dropped off the cliffs, dive-bombing schools of fish in the shallows. Ospreys and turkey vultures circled in the thermals high above us, reeling in the updrafts of warm air rising off the island's hot volcanic rocks.

The Seri, with their encyclopedic knowledge of the islands' natural history, were the ideal guides. And the opportunity to make more frequent trips out to San Esteban and the other islands, I learned, meant more to them than a short-term job. Shark fishermen from southern Mexico had come into Seri waters, set out nets, and slaughtered dozens of San Esteban's sea lions to use as shark bait. The Seri were incensed, but lacked the resources to patrol all the islands within their territorial waters to prevent such massacres. Ecotourists, however, supply the money that enables the Seri to frequently monitor the plants and animals that they have a legal right to protect, to prudently use, or to spontaneously sing about.

The sea lions of San Esteban are still trusting; one surfaced beside me as I paddled along in the kayak humming the canticle Alfredo had sung to us earlier that day:

Wind, don't come/Wind don't come/
Keep the male hill in sight/Keep the female hill in sight/
The ones (that could be) shrouded in clouds./
You who are going asleep: wake up!/ You who are going asleep: wake up!/Don't sleep anymore, for the sea is making its foaming sound/
Hear the sound of the sea foam.

I closed my eyes and imagined the words of this song pouring from Alfredo's mouth. Its tune fused with the sea foam effervescing as it reached the shore.


Gary Paul Nabhan is director of science outreach for the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, and advises its Ethnobiology and Conservation Team in work with the Seri. His latest book is Cultures of Habitat (Counterpoint Press, 1997).

To find out more about ecotours with Seri guides, contact Mary Erickson, Sonoran Studies, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, 2021 N. Kinney Rd., Tucson, AZ 85743, (520) 883-3026, www.desertmuseum.org, or Cactus Turismo Receptivo, Edificio Carolina, 3ero Piso, Blvd. Navarette 165, Colonía Valle Verde, Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico 83200; phone 52-626-06636, fax 52-626-06714, www.cactus.com.mx.

(C) 2000 Sierra Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted without permission. Contact sierra.magazine@sierraclub.org for more information.


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