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Thu, Oct. 17

In Seri country with the trader, the pilot and the invitations

"Hisssssht! Hisssssht!" A Seri word, more of a sound really. Mostly used by Seri women to scatter the ever-present crowd of dogs and cats. In the Seri village of Desemboque, while savoring Angelita's cooking and relishing a soft breeze from the Sea of Cortez, I became somewhat fluent in "dog/cat go 'way." Say it with force, like "hush!" and drag out the "sh" sound and end it all with an explosive "t." Other Seri words were beyond me. I listened as the women talked under the shade of a large saltcedar tree. I heard linguistic patterns and sounds that were reminiscent of Navajo, but the Seri spoke a language unrelated to that group. Seri is part of the Yuman family of languages that trace back to the earliest occupations of the Lower Colorado River Valley.

"The Seri call this fish 'The Stranger'," said El Tratante (the trader). El Tratante, El Piloto (the pilot) and El Cochero (the driver) joined El Periodisto (this columnist) in a meal of fish fillets fried in lard, potatoes fried in lard, and plenty of cold cans of juice and bottles of water and avocados and tortillas. it was time to eat because the business of the day was completed.

El Tratante, speaking easily in his conversational Spanish acquired over 30 years of journeys to Seriland (he also threw in a Seri word here and there, like laying an avocado slice next to fried potatoes), had brought about an understanding. The Seri selected by El Tratante, with their Spanish language invitations on museum letterhead, were to expect our return in early July. At which time we will take them to Prescott, Ariz., for "el mercado de arte indio" (Indian Art Market).

Papers must be obtained. Mexican passports. U.S. visas. Communications with the U.S. consulate in Hermosillo began soon after the emissaries returned. No, there are no exceptions for the Seri. Unlike the O'Odham and the Yaqui, whose peoples live on both sides of the line and who have special papers to ease the crossing, the Seri would be treated like any Mexican citizen, even though they are "nativo" to their land, where they have lived for at least 400 years.

U.S. visas are $45. We are not sure what Mexican passports costs. This expense could be formidable for our Seri invitees. And they have a harvest of scallops to work. But they have recent income from their share of the fee for bighorn sheep hunting licenses, so gringos can stalk about on Tiburon Island. Still. El Periodisto wants to say "hisssssht!" to any doubts. We will benefit greatly from the cultural exchange – Seri artists at an Indian marketplace where so many other tribal artists will gather, July 8 and 9.

Arts and crafts must be made. "The inventory was low," said El Tratante, as he waved his empty cardboard box in the air while we sipped cervezas in the Prescott College compound at Kino Bay. He was looking for very special items, with the professional eye of a trader.

There seemed to be plenty of things to buy, judging by the lightness of one's wallet. When we climbed out of the van in Desemboque after a three-hour drive from Kino, we were immediately surrounded by Seri women gently urging the purchase of necklaces. All kinds of necklaces. Made of shell and bone and seed and more shell and many many colors of shell so rich they seemed dyed but no, "es natural, si!" they said. And carvings of ironwood and of stone. And the one thing the museum director was looking for, a sea turtle harpoon made from ironwood and purchased directly from its maker, the famous turtle hunter Guadelupe Lopez Blanco. And one big basket that will travel to Prescott in early July. A "canasta grande" in Spanish; a "saptim" in Seri. As the trader put it, nothing can be more rare, if you are a collector. A saptim is a product of a small cultural group; few people in that group weave them; and those few weave them very seldom. And they are of high quality and durability, the material being not grass, but the stems of a woody bush.

"Piloto natural," wisecracked the pilot, as El Periodisto handled the Cessna through some interesting thermals rising from the Sonoran desert floor and causing mild cabin excitement above the mountains on the approach to Nogales. (Stay cool, FAA, the hands of El Piloto were only inches from the controls.) El Piloto was an old hand at flying in Mexico. He knew other areas, other airstrips, paved and unpaved. We flew twice over the unpaved strip at Desemboque on the day of our departure from Prescott, but it was hard to read, even from a low pass. If we could land, it would save a six-hour round trip by van from Bahia Kino. It didn't look good.

The next day, in the van, the young cochero from the Prescott College marine ecology station had to squeeze past a truckload of federales on the dirt road into the coastal village. The starched-khaki troops and the rumpled gringos made that tenuous eye contact one makes when one does not want trouble, or even to bother with trouble. Both vehicles continued in their opposite directions. El Tratante said, "No doubt they heard of our fly-over yesterday, and were checking to see if contrabandistas were around."

The Seri Project, the effort to bring a little-known native group of the Greater Southwest to the Prescott Indian Art Market at Sharlot Hall Museum, July 8 and 9, began with an earlier column on the Seri that was basically the Yavapai College lecture notes of El Periodisto (this columnist). At the conclusion of that column, the question was asked, "Would anyone like to help?" And in response, El Piloto called up and said "I'll fly you," and El Tratante stepped up and said "I'll guide you." And here we are. We're close. The Seri are coming. A bit more help is needed, particularly with expenses related to hosting them. So, that question again. The phone number for the Seri Project is 445-3122. Ask for El Periodisto. Or if that is too much of a mouthful, ask for El Director.

(Richard S. Sims is director of Sharlot Hall Museum).

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