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Wed, Feb. 26

Rare Seri Indians to make Prescott appearance

In an adventure reminiscent of Indiana Jones, the director of Sharlot Hall Museum, Richard Sims, and two intrepid companions recently flew a small airplane into the wilds of Mexico.

Arriving at their destination, a sparsely populated coastal desert town, Desemboque, home to the Seri Indians, they circled the dirt landing strip, determined it unpredictable and flew farther south.

Landing the Cessna 182 at Kino Bay, the trio drove by land three hours back to the village.

They were there – the pilot, the museum director and the trader – to see the arts and crafts of the Seri people, but unspoken was the desire to see the intractable Seri Indians – intractable to Catholicism, intractable to Spanish civilization, intractable to technological commercialism, intractable even to learning Spanish, instead speaking their native Comcaak.

"They have maintained their ethnicity instead of assimilating," said Sandra Lynch, curator of anthropology at Sharlot Hall Museum.

The Seri live on the eastern shore of Mexico, on the Sea of Cortez –"Seri-land" to the infrequent visitor – all 650 of them who've hung on through the centuries of being hunted, of starving, or being intentionally scattered and exterminated, by sheer determinism.

Today, they live much as their ancestors have for the past hundreds of years. Their homes are of ocotillo branches and brush. They subsist off the land and off the sea, with few modern conveniences only now creeping into their lives.

Not so long ago they built plank boats powered by wind; now they have fiberglass boats with motors, Jim Lindell of Dewey explained.

But the Seri still create the beautiful arts and crafts they have for decades, some for centuries: ironwood carvings of turtles, sharks, seabirds, bighorn sheep; colorful limberwood basketry; distinctive shell necklaces from the sea.

Those are the items that the men from America were there to see.

Lindell, a trader, has been going there since 1973, and has promoted their meager economy by trading them crafts for cash, and for such commodities as tarps, tools, batteries and superglue. They call him Apótosi (man with horsehair).

"Their only method of exporting is via traders," Lindell said.

Director Sims went to Desemboque in the interest of being an anthropologist to see the Seris, a rare Southwest Indian tribe, as well as to convince a few of them to travel to Prescott, Ariz., a world away from their small village, to share their crafts at an Indian Art Market at Sharlot Hall Museum in July.

"They are colorful, isolated, a remnant culture of hunter-gatherers who are rarely visited by the gringo," Sims said.

On the balmy Sonoran coast, with the village women chatting among themselves in a rare language, Sims said it was a rare moment for a museum director and anthropologist.

He was struck by how comfortable they were in their homeland and their culture. They were friendly, as well.

"They have come to appreciate the value of their art," Lynch explained. They have such a poor economy, and seeing the prospect of selling their art, "I'd have a smile on my face, too," she said.

"We reach out to so many Indian cultures[for the market] – we're just reaching out farther," Sims said.

Twenty other Southwest Indian tribes will be represented at the Indian Art Market.

The art of the Seris is unique to their culture, Lindell said.

Their ironwood carvings are done by hand, with axes, files and sandpaper, as opposed to other Mexican machined carvings.

"The difference between Seri carvings and Mexican ones, is I can tell you who did them," Lindell said. "They are stylistically different. Something of 'animalness' emerges when a Seri carves it."

"It's almost surrealistic how they get the spirit of the sea animals in their carvings," Lynch said.

Ten Seri Indians: men, women and one child, are planning on making the trip to America for the Indian Art Market in a few weeks.

"It will be an epic trip to get them up here," Lynch said. "They are, even among Indians themselves, one of the only truly exotic tribes."

The Seris will share their ironwood carvings, limberbrush baskets colored with red, yellow and black and large-scale, colorful shell necklaces at the market July 8 and 9, as well as the natural root and mineral dye face-painting they do for ceremonies and celebrations and the songs they sing for every life event. "Their magic," Sims calls their music.

"I never thought I would get a chance to meet Seris," Lynch said. "It is an arduous jounrey to reach them, that's why it's a thrill. They are off the pages of paper now and all of a sudden are real people. We can see them, meet them, see their art."

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