Singing the Turtles to Sea: The Comcaac (Seri) Art and Science of Reptiles / Edition 1

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The Comcáac, or Seri
Indians, are a native people living in the starkly beautiful and biologically rich desert of Sonora, Mexico. Reptiles of all kinds—lizards, crocodiles, snakes, and turtles—play a large role in Seri culture. Unfortunately, the long-term survival of the Comcáac and the future of many of these animals are uncertain. This book, written with Gary Nabhan's characteristic combination of lyricism and scientific insight, describes and preserves the richness of Seri knowledge about reptiles. Through stories, songs, photographs, illustrations of Seri arts, and discussions of Sonoran ecology, Nabhan demonstrates the irreplaceable value of this knowledge for us today.

Singing the Turtles to Sea vividly describes the desert, its phantasmagoric landforms, and its equally fantastic animals. This book contains important new information on the origins, biogeography, and conservation status of marine and desert reptiles in this region. Nabhan also discusses the significance of reptiles in Seri folklore, natural history, language, medicine, and art.

Winner of a MacArthur "genius" grant and the Burroughs Medal for nature writing, Gary Nabhan has had a long collaboration with the Comcáac and is uniquely placed to bring together the many voices that tell this story. The text is interspersed with his own lively adventures getting to know these indigenous people and with the insights of many individuals in their community.

This book is a magnificent ethnobiology that also succeeds in linking the importance of preserving ecological diversity with issues such as endangered languages and human rights. Singing the Turtles to Sea ultimately points the way toward a more hopeful future for the native cultures and animals of the Sonoran desert and for the preservation of indigenous cultures and species around the world.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Nabhan is the director of the Center for Sustainable Environments at Northern Arizona University and author of 12 books, including Coming Home To Eat. To write this ethnobiological study, over a period of years he interviewed many Seri Indians of Mexico about their beliefs and relationships to animals, especially reptiles, in their Sonoran desert environment. The title refers to a four-day ceremony held whenever a leatherback turtle is beached, after which the decorated animal is returned alive to the sea. This is not a quick read but a thoughtful, documented exploration of the relationship of an indigenous people to their natural environment and its reciprocal influence on their culture and language. The author takes pains to avoid "the first ecologists" stereotype of native peoples always living in balance with nature. He also points out that generations of close observation of and interaction with local animals provide knowledge complementary to and as valid as Western scientific approaches to the study of wildlife. Recommended for both public and academic ecological and anthropology collections.-Karen Fischer, Carleton Coll. Lib., Northfield, MN Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520217317
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 6/26/2003
  • Series: Organisms and Environments Series, #3
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 350
  • Product dimensions: 7.00 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.88 (d)

Meet the Author

Gary Paul Nabhan is Director of the Center for Sustainable Environments at Northern Arizona University and one of the founding scientists of the Amazon Conservation Team. He is the author of twelve books, including The Desert Smells Like Rain, The Geography of Childhood (with Stephen Trimble), and The Forgotten Pollinators (with Stephen Buchmann).

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Read an Excerpt

singing the turtles to sea

The comcaac (seri) art and science of reptiles
By Gary Paul Nabhan

University of California

Copyright © 2003 Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-21731-4

Chapter One

islands of uniqueness

Endangered Cultural Knowledge of Endemic Creatures

Both species and languages have evolved over hundreds or thousands of years to adapt to very specific environmental and sociopolitical contexts. If those contexts undergo unprecedented rapid change-as the world's environments and cultures are now doing-many species and languages will likely lack the resiliency to adapt to new conditions. In biology, island-dwelling species are hallmarks of such highly specialized, highly vulnerable lifeforms; and sure enough, exactly 75% of all recorded animal extinctions occurring since 1600 have been of island species. DAVID HARMON, "The Converging Extinction Crisis" (1996)

Our nostrils flared as we entered the smoky plume of the fiesta, walking into the gathering from the other side of the village's largest satellite dish. The acrid bite of woodsmoke from elephant tree and mesquite filled the sandy opening between the rows of houses on the northern edge of Punta Chueca. Because we arrived in the dark, we had no idea how the fiesta was staged or where we should stand. The meager light projecting out from nearby houses and from a lone cooking fire was barely enough to guide us between the circles of singing, gambling, dancing, and eating.

I told my friends to go on ahead while I let my eyes adjust. I took a deep breath and tried to figure out what I was doing out at midnight at a Comcaac puberty ceremony on the shores of the Sea of Cortés.

I could smell and hear meat sizzling on a grill hidden somewhere beyond my view. I meandered through the crowd, trying to find where food was being served, and ended up beneath a newly constructed ceremonial bower where the girl of honor stood. The bower of freshly cut branches inundated the puberty celebrant in the rich fragrances of ocotillo, red elephant tree, and desert lavender, but I could not identify them by sight at the time, the light was so spotty. A broth was cooling in a big pot nearby; I located it by following its vapor trail and savory smell. My vision blinked on and off as Comcaac fiesta-goers walked back and forth in front of two weak spotlights and the cookfire. At the same time, my nose took in a steady flow of aromatic information.

Earlier that afternoon, while we were working on constructing a sanctuary for threatened chuckwallas, the tribal chairman's wife had come by to invite us to the celebration marking her niece's passage into womanhood. Finishing up work after dark, we then went searching for the fiesta, and that is when we heard the partying on the other side of the satellite dish. The honoree looked no more than a girl, one perhaps prone to listen more to Latin rock on the radio than to her uncle's Yaqui-style pascola songs being sung a few feet away from her. She might have wanted to be at a Mexican-style quinceañera party where she could dance the cumbia with a prospective boyfriend, instead of letting the world know that she had recently made her passage into womanhood.

And yet there she was, giggling and whispering with her sister while boys her age danced to the pascola songs one by one, shaking the silkmoth cocoon rattles on their ankles, making their feet sing like those of flamenco dancers. She must have known how much the persistence of this ceremony meant to the elders around her, including her grandparents. By acquiescing to be the honoree, she was allowing her entire Comcaac community to maintain its spiritual traditions even as massive social, economic, and environmental changes were churning up all around them. As we kept an eye on her, one of her young, slightly inebriated cousins kept his eye on us. He would approach us and very seriously request that we sing an American song or recite our life histories into his tape recorder, so that he could "save" this event for posterity.

While most of my co-workers tried to shake this amateur anthropologist by inching into the crowd formed around the pascola dancers, my partner Laurie and I sat and tried our hand at the traditional gambling games. I teamed up with a former tribal chairman in the men's game of sleight of hand: "Which cane reed is filled with sand?" We were great at baffling the others, but poor at reading their poker faces when it came time for them to fool us. Laurie had better luck, winning several necklaces from women who sat around a circle made from slices of Organpipe cactus stems. Soon Laurie was invited by the honoree's mother to help herself to some of the feast food being served on the other side of the campfire.

A minute later, Laurie nudged me and whispered, "They're serving tacos made with Green Sea Turtle meat." She handed me a plateful.

"¿Caguama? ¿Carrinegra?" I asked, a bit incredulous.

Sea turtles had declined so precipitously in the Sea of Cortés that I had seen only a handful of their carapaces in Punta Chueca over the previous year, and those were from turtles accidentally caught in fishing nets. Two decades before, freshly butchered carapaces were ubiquitous, so much so that they were frequently used as roof thatch on traditional huts. The Mexican government finally placed a ban on commercial sales of all sea turtle products, but the Comcaac still have rights to capture Green Sea Turtles for ceremonial purposes.

"¿Qué tipo de moosni es?" I asked Ernesto Molina, who stood beside us nibbling on a turtle taco.

"Cooyam," he uttered between mouthfuls, referring to the younger migratory Green Sea Turtles that arrive from the south in the spring earlier than the rest.

Ernesto finished his taco, then asked us, "Have you tried their juice-the sea turtle broth?" He disappeared into the crowd and, when he returned, handed me a cupful of turtle broth. It tasted a bit like one of my favorite Mexican dishes, birria. The sweet broth was still cooling, and as it did, tender, oil-rich flakes of turtle meat floated to the top.

As I tossed my head back to down the last spoonfuls of broth, I saw for the first time what had been above us the entire evening. Tied to a branch directly above the men's gambling circle was the freshly butchered head of a sea turtle, dark green scales glistening in the meager light.

It dawned on me that we were participating in a sacrament, one that has been performed ever since the Comcaac first became seafaring people. By blessing this young woman's rite of passage with the meat and blood of moosni cooyam, they were linking her life to the very creature that swims through their culture's stories, songs, dreams, and diet.

I felt honored and humbled to be part of the communion. But as I looked up again into the face of the sea turtle shining in the firelight, another wave of emotion washed over me. Because I once shared quarters with a marine biologist who worked tirelessly to protect the nesting beaches of sea turtles, I had for twenty years boycotted any restaurants that featured sea turtle meat, eggs, or soup.

Caught up in the moment, perhaps flattered by the invitation to share sea turtle with Seri friends, had I suffered some ethical lapse, somehow forgetting that sea turtles are endangered? Or had I not let my ethics slip, but instead accepted a tenuous balance between how I express my concern for an endangered people and how I express my concern for an endangered animal?

The young Seri anthropologist reappeared with his tape recorder, which no longer held either tape or batteries. Nevertheless, he wanted to talk with me. He held the recorder up in front of my mouth.

"Well," he began, "tell me about your culture. What are your beliefs?"

A GRILLED MORSEL of turtle meat passes between hands, then disappears between two sunburned lips. Sacramental meals of sea turtle have been shared on the shores of the Sea of Cortés for centuries, especially among those seafarers known to others as the Seri. While those Comcaac families living along the central Gulf coast of Sonora have always savored sea turtle meat, they especially value the opportunity to participate in this ritual today, because it takes place less and less frequently. Turtle meat has become scarce.

It is a scarcity that would have been unimaginable to Comcaac seafarers a century ago. The five sea turtle species formerly abundant off the west coast of Mexico have recently been decimated by the loss of nesting habitat, incidental take by shrimp trawlers and drift nets, overharvesting by commercial turtle fishermen, and clandestine collection of turtle eggs on beaches. Each time I see a Seri friend partaking of this traditional food, I wonder how long it will be before such consumption is no longer permitted by federal or international law, or no longer possible as a result of the complete collapse of sea turtle populations. Comcaac children today seldom see the roasting or smell the sizzling of turtle meat, even though their grandparents grew up immersed in those sights, tastes, and smells.

Despite these declines, however, sea turtles and many other reptiles remain present in the region; fortunately, they also remain present in the songs, stories, and art of indigenous residents of the Sonoran coast (Fig. 1). Whenever I have gone with Comcaac fishermen to the islands of the Sea of Cortés, they have shown me turtles, tortoises, lizards, and snakes that I would be unable to see anywhere else in the world (Fig. 2). From fishermen and herbalists I have heard commentaries on natural history, local uses, and appropriate ways of harvesting that cannot be heard in villages of other cultures nearby.

I believe this unique body of cultural knowledge is worth paying attention to, as much as I believe that the endemic plants and animals of this coastal desert warrant our curiosity, care, and delight. Even if you or I never eat a Black Chuckwalla, harm a Regal Horned Lizard, or use a local saltbush to treat snakebite, the ways in which the Comcaac community engages itself with these plants and animals is worthy of our understanding.

Much of this ethnobiological knowledge can be expressed only in Cmique Iitom, the Comcaac tongue, which is considered a language isolate, unrelated to any other language now spoken in Sonora, or anywhere else in the world for that matter (Marlett 2000). It is also a body of knowledge restricted to the driest portions of the Sonoran Desert and the midriff islands in the Sea of Cortés (Fig. 3). That coastal desert, with the stunning beauty of its seascapes and rugged mountains, has a bewildering capacity to support a diversity of life-forms seldom seen anywhere else in such odd juxtapositions.

To place such cultural knowledge about wildlife and landscapes in perspective, it is worth remembering that the Comcaac are engaged daily with life-forms and land-forms not necessarily found in other parts of the world. Few members of other cultures, and even few natural scientists, have spent as much time observing certain unique reptiles and plants in their habitats as the Comcaac have. Mexico as a whole, and the Sea of Cortés region in particular, are rich in what biogeographer Eduardo Rapoport (1982) calls micro-areal endemics. However clumsy this term, it is all we have to refer to plants or animals limited to small geographic areas, with distributions covering no more than a 250-kilometer by 100-kilometer extent-an area so small that a Comcaac traveler could circumscribe their entire range within a week's walk. The Sonoran Desert has many species of plants, as well as some mammals and reptiles, with such small ranges.

Although no precise estimate exists for the number of micro-areal endemics within Mexico, fair estimates have been made of the number of species that are geopolitically endemic, that is, restricted entirely within the Republic of Mexico, or bioregionally endemic, found within bioregions that are centered in Mexico. The Republic of Mexico ranks second among all nations for harboring the greatest number of vertebrate animal species-at least 761-that live nowhere else in the world (Harmon 1995). It ranks fourth among nations for the size of its flora, which encompasses some 22,000 vascular plant species (Rzedowski 1993). Within "MegaMéxico 1," a bioregion defined by biogeographer Jerzy Rzedowski (1993) as Mexico plus the U.S. Southwest, desert scrublands and semi-arid grasslands host the greatest number of endemic species-at least 5,600-of any biome or habitat complex.

Significantly, Mexico is home to 230 languages unspoken beyond its boundaries, placing it sixth among nations in terms of extant cultural diversity and endemic languages (Harmon 1995). Because most unique cultural knowledge about plants and animals is "encoded" in specific terms for describing behavior, morphology, and habitat, assessments of linguistic diversity are often the first steps taken as scholars attempt to gauge a region's specialized ethnobiological knowledge.

Although the arid scrublands of Baja California and the Chihuahuan Desert region have lost most of the ethnic groups that lived there during the pre-Columbian and colonial eras, Sonora's indigenous desert dwellers have fared far better. Most students of Mexico's cultural history recognize the contributions made by the ethnic groups commonly known as the Yaqui and Mayo (Yoemem), the Seri (Comcaac), the Cocopa (Cucupa), and the Papago-Pima (O'odham), who collectively number in the tens of thousands today. The populations of most of these groups are larger than a century ago, though that does not mean that more people now speak their native languages. Nor does it mean that cultural knowledge about local plants and animals remains intact, for not all residents of the region have exposure to the plants and animals endemic to the desert and sea.

The Sea of Cortés region remains a prominent contributor of endemics to the biota of Mexico as a whole, though the Seri, Yaqui, Mayo, and Cocopa are the only indigenous groups still making a living along its shores. The islands of the Sea of Cortés, as well as coastal Baja California and coastal Sonora, are noted for their impressive roster of endemic fauna and flora (Tables 1 and 2). Of plant species unique to the region, 42.8 percent are known, used, or named by the Comcaac community (Felger and Moser 1985; Nabhan field notes). I have searched ethnobiological and linguistic literature for neighboring cultures' knowledge of these same organisms and have yet to find even 15 percent of the species on these lists that are named in other languages. Of course, names are merely the entry point into the domain of cultural knowledge that a community may share. And yet, if one culture does not even name an organism, while another not only names it but also has terms to describe its morphology or anatomy, it is likely that the latter culture has unique knowledge of the ecology and behavior of the organism in question.


Excerpted from singing the turtles to sea by Gary Paul Nabhan Copyright © 2003 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Key to Pronunciation of Words in Cmique litom
Introduction 1
1 Islands of Uniqueness: Endangered Cultural Knowledge of Endemic Creatures 14
2 Mapping the Comcaac Sense of Place: Seri Homelands and Reptilian Habitats 40
3 The Shape of Reptilian Worlds: Island Biogeography and the Herpetofauna of the Sea of Cortes Region 60
4 Naming the Menagerie: How to Sort One Snake from Another 98
5 Reptiles as Resources, Curses, and Cures: How the Comcaac Recognize Beauty, Utility, and Danger 118
6 What Eats from the Turtle's Shell, What the Turtle Eats: Comcaac Perceptions of Local Ecological Interactions 154
7 The Comcaac as Conservationists: Practicing What They Preach, and Benefiting from Alliances 178
8 The Historic Decline and Recent Revival of Traditional Ecological Knowledge 200
9 Accounts of Reptiles Known by the Comcaac 226
App Reptile Specimen Records from the Sonoran Coast and Nearby Islands 283
Literature Cited 291
Index 303
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