by Casey Zweig -- March 20th, 2010
As the morning rays broke across the shore, we rose from our slumber to a perfect coastline with sloping mountains, flat sands and a sapphire blue sea. A group of Seri brought us to their desert oasis and inspired us with their history and local knowledge.
Tiburon is an island of special importance to the Seri; it is home to the site of the powerfully unifying circle dance. Upon landing at the island, Seris will immediately run to the circle and perform the dance. The circle dance serves to unify a nomadic people during war against an enemy; once you enter the circle, you pledge your allegiance and must fight with the group in the circle. The dance is not only used in war, but can serve during times of peace to similarly unite a group. Some Seri fishermen will perform the dance to pledge loyalty and camaraderie among their crew.
Cleotilde, a female elder in the community, demonstrated the particular hop and shuffle meant to mimic the hop of a raven jumping to a dead body. After she completed a full circle, we all crossed the boundary together to solidify the bonds of our group. It’s just crossing a line in the sand, but there was an unexplainable magnitude to this small act created by the spirits and conquests of those who had made the same step in the same place before me.
Next we needed to celebrate Michelle’s birthday! We asked Alfredo, a Seri elder, if there were any customs for birthdays and the closest thing he could think of was a puberty dance for girls when they hit a reproductive age. We were all thrilled for another dance, Michelle looked skeptical but willing. So for all of you bachelors out there, Michelle is now ready to get married and have babies.
We embarked on a beach walk to explore the coast and make some lunch. Alan and Omar, 12-year old Seri boys, showed us that they already knew how to pull up pen shells by the dozen and soon the whole family was involved in the preparation. The end of the shell is smashed so a knife can easily slide in and detach the mussel on one side to allow the shell to open. The mantle, abductor muscle and small “bellybutton” muscle are all edible. Xavier sliced an abductor muscle on the spot for some gourmet sashimi. The white flesh is mild with a slight sweetness and similar to the texture of a firm scallop. Alfredo made sure that all of the discarded shells were placed flat in the sand to prevent them from floating out to sea and landing on top of living pen shells, which could suffocate them. We added a lot of limejuice and chili powder to our bowl of pen shell and lunch was ready. Sushi lovers be envious, it doesn’t get any fresher than this.
We held our classroom discussion under our makeshift kitchen lean-to, resourcefully constructed after our original tent was damaged by the wind. Xavier spoke about his research and experiences with the Seri. I was struck by the way Xavier uses his research to also encourage cultural and ecological education in the community to preserve local knowledge and tradition. For example, he will need to employ someone to collect data while he is gone, but chooses to employ a grandfather and granddaughter to give the granddaughter the opportunity to learn valuable information that is otherwise lost with time. This explained why we had several generations of related Seris as our Tiburon guides and it was interesting to talk to people of different ages and experiences in the same community. Cathy spoke about growing up with the Seri and her lifelong research project of cataloguing shells from the region and learning their Seri names and historical use. Cathy and her husband Steve are linguists who completed the first cmiique iitom (Seri)-Spanish-English dictionary and started a writing program to teach and encourage several people in the community to record their oral histories. Cathy enriched our trip with her knowledge and stories – we were very lucky to have her with us.
Later in day, Cathy told us that she was talking to Cleotilde about a way to smoke mussels by lining them up in the sand and covering then with burning shrubs. Well, what if we got the mussels? Would she do it? Yes, but the next low tide to collect mussels would be too late, so we would have to dive for the mussels. Max went into mission impossible mode and was ready without being asked. Xavier is game for anything, especially if it involves fresh seafood, and Morgan and I also volunteered. We thought we would be wading in shallow water, but the water was deeper than anticipated and with strong currents. Max fearlessly jumped in determined to bring up at least 150 mussels. Xavier joined him and after the 2 of them could only pull up a handful of mussels while fighting to stay close to the boat, a quick cost-benefit analysis determined that my energy was best spent staying on the boat and sorting through the stuff they threw onboard. We managed to collect about 14 mussels, which was enough to witness the old cooking process and sample the result. It was a special opportunity for everyone, even Claudia, Cleotilde’s 18-year old granddaughter, was participating in the preparation for the first time.