Ancient Tribe at a Crossroads

Ramona Barnett, who says she can't remember her age, is one of few surviving Seri who once lived on Isla Tiburon.
Ramona Barnett, who says she can't remember her age, is one of few surviving Seri who once lived on Isla Tiburon. (Photos By Manuel Roig-franzia -- The Washington Post)
By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 28, 2007

PUNTA CHUECA, Mexico -- Gloria Sesma clamps tough stems of desert limberbush between her front teeth, shredding the plant into the floppy strands she needs to weave graceful baskets.

Sesma's lifelong work has worn her top teeth down to tiny stubs, much like the teeth of other women in this remote Gulf of California village, home to Mexico's most reclusive indigenous people, the Seri Indians. She and her daughters adhere to traditional techniques, so it can take 10 months of shredding and weaving to make a single basket.

But Sesma's family also reflects new realities for the Seri, a tribe at a crossroads. While eight of her children married within the tribe, a ninth -- her son, Ezekiel -- piqued the family by breaking with tradition and moving away last year to marry a non-Seri woman.

Now, the Seri desire for insularity is being tested on a larger scale. The inevitable march of development is forcing the Seri to confront fundamental questions about their future, questions that will help determine whether one of the last truly autonomous tribes in Mexico melds into the greater society or stays walled off from the world.

"The community is really at this huge crux point," said Jay Roberts, a professor at Earlham College in Indiana who studies the Seri. "They're a case study for what's happening to indigenous people around the world."

The tribe's two villages -- Punta Chueca and Desemboque -- lie directly in the path of the largest Mexican tourist development in a quarter-century. Under a still-evolving plan, hotels and condominiums will sprout along the coastline in much the same way that another generation of Mexicans transformed Cancun and Acapulco from sleepy outposts to resort havens. Change seems inevitable here, whether the development pierces the Seri's land or merely spreads up to its borders.

The Seri hold dominion over more than 450 square miles of heavenly coastline, where for centuries they have scooped crabs, prowled the desert for medicinal plants and fought to keep away outsiders. They once lived nomadically, moving between fishing encampments on the mainland and their main settlement on Isla Tiburon, Mexico's largest island, which is separated from Punta Chueca by a narrow but treacherous waterway known as Little Hell Channel.

In the 1960s, the Mexican government declared Isla Tiburon a nature preserve and forced the Seri off the island, resettling the tribe in squat cinder-block homes in Punta Chueca and Desemboque. The tribe, which now numbers less than 1,000, lives in harsh desert conditions -- fresh water has to be trucked in, and there is very little modern plumbing.

The Seri make money off the scallops and crabs they take from Little Hell Channel, as well as their baskets and ironwood carvings. Under an agreement with the government, the tribe also receives income from the sale of permits to U.S. hunters, who pay $50,000 or more annually for the right to kill bighorn sheep on Isla Tiburon. The money doesn't go far, though, leaving the Seri in garbage-strewn villages.

Punta Chueca, a four-hour drive from Tucson, is a place of unexplained contradictions. Shiny new cars -- some allegedly stolen -- sit in front of ramshackle homes where the occupants sleep on dirt floors. Stray dogs roam about, while children with dirt-smudged faces go days without soap or water for bathing. Some youngsters return to homes outfitted with satellite television dishes and watch Mexican soap operas.

Though their territory is in Mexico, the Seri don't consider themselves Mexicans -- Mexicans, they say, are people who live outside Seri lands. There have been occasional gunfights between the tribe and authorities from the state of Sonora entering Seri territory to investigate crimes. Sonora's governor, Eduardo Bours Castelo, has complained about "the backwardness of the Seris."

"We're hardheaded," Sesma's husband, Ernesto Molina, 58, said one recent afternoon. "We don't even want visitors. We don't have much contact with the people of Mexico. Mexicans are not welcome here."

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