Seri - Economy



Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The aboriginal Seri economy was based on hunting, gathering, and fishing. The relative contribution of each of these activities may have been quite different for the different bands, and surely varied with the season. Many species of plants were gathered, notably mesquite seeds, amaranth, cactus fruits, agave, and a marine seed-bearing eelgrass ( Zostera marina ). The most important game animals were mule deer and jackrabbits. Slow game included chuckwallas, iguanas, and desert tortoises. Some Seri groups relied heavily on sea products. By far the most important were sea turtles, hunted with a barbed harpoon ( balsas ) made from cane. Fish, including sea bass, mullet, groupers, snappers, and triggerfish, were speared with balsas or from shore. Shellfish and other littoral and intertidal creatures were sometimes gathered in quantity. Several types of large seabirds were stalked at night as they roosted. Gull eggs were collected in the spring. For coastal and island Seri, the diet probably changed little with the coming of the Spaniards. Those Seri who moved inland added cattle, horses, and other livestock to their roster of fair game during raiding, and thievery and soliciting handouts expanded their inventory of subsistence techniques. Farming was tried by some Seri at the mission of Nuestra Señora del Pópulo and later at the presidio of Pitic (now Hermosillo) but without lasting success. Nor did they adapt to wage labor on ranches in the late 1800s. By the early 1900s nearly all Seri had resumed a foraging existence on Tiburón Island and the adjacent coast. Commercial fishing, beginning in the 1930s, introduced cash, which the Seri began to use to buy commercial food imported by Mexican entrepreneurs. Some commercial fishing continues. In the 1960s the focus of economic life shifted to craft production for sale to tourists. Most food consumed by the Seri is now purchased in Mexican-owned stores. Although the new staples include wheat flour, canned meat, rice, beans, canned fruits, coffee, and soft drinks, some fishing and even gathering occasionally supplement the packaged diet. Dogs, cats, chickens, and some goats are kept as pets. They are not eaten.

Industrial Arts. The most important indigenous crafts were pottery making and basketry. Aboriginal pottery was seldom decorated but its thinness, hardness, and symmetry attest to consummate skill. Its quality declined as metal containers became common in the late 1800s. Today an occasional piece is made for the tourist market. Baskets, made by close coiling on a bundle foundation, were regarded as a woman's most important domestic item. Although baskets had been replaced by commercial containers, the recent tourist market has stimulated a renaissance of basket making. New forms and designs, along with refinements in technique, have won Seri baskets major prizes at North American tribal fairs. An entirely new craft, ironwood carving, appeared around 1960. The carved figurines, made strictly for sale, are representations of animals familiar to the Seri. The sale of these superb items has proved so lucrative that ironwood carving has become a near-universal cottage industry and the foundation of the modern Seri economy.

Trade. Some Seri may have traded salt and hides for maize. European goods were obtained by Seri who roamed inland, but the island people may have had almost no contact with the outside world.

Division of Labor. Hunting and fishing is exclusively men's work, whereas basket making, pottery making, and sewing are the prerogative of women. Otherwise the division of labor is not rigid. A man might sometimes gather plant foods, fetch water, and cook, but these are normally women's tasks. Ironwood carving is undertaken by both sexes, although men usually rough out the basic form. The few positions of temporary leadership recognized in the past went to men, but either men or women could become shamans.

Land Tenure. Seri oral tradition associates each of the former bands and their subunits ( ihizitim ) with a specific geographic region. Although sometimes construed as "territories," they probably did not confer exclusive rights of passage or use, for there was much movement and shifting residence throughout the entire region. More likely, band and ihizitim territories served as theoretical reference points that helped objectify the social identity of individuals. By the mid-nineteenth century the Mexican government had declared the Seri coast to be public land, and the Seri increasingly found themselves hemmed in by Mexican ranching and fishing operations. In 1965 they were evicted from Tiburón Island, which had been declared a wildlife preserve. In 1975, however, a 56-kilometer strip of mainland coast was designated a Seri ejido. The Seri were also given formal title to Tiburón Island, although their use of it is still restricted.


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