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Advice from the field

Passing on a Sense of Place and Traditional Ecological Knowledge between Generations: a Primer for Native American Museum Educators and Community-Based Cultural Education Projects
Compiled and edited by Gary Paul Nabhan


Many communities, especially those on Indian reservations near rapidly-growing urban areas, have demonstrated their commitment to ensuring that their sense of place, as well as their traditional ecological knowledge and values about native plants and animals, continue to be passed on to their children. The passing on of knowledge by word of mouth, and the passing on of values and skills associated with traditional cultures, while still continuing, has often been disrupted by a number of external pressures. Children’s attitudes, knowledge and behaviors toward animals, plants and their habitats may therefore be very different from those of the generations preceding them (Kellert and Westervelt 1977).

Instead of being regularly involved in learning from community elders about their people’s traditional ways of living well in the desert, most children today spend more time in schools, in transit to and from schools, and in front of the television (Nabhan and St. Antoine 1993). Over the last fifty years, more parents have abandoned traditional subsistence activities to work away from home for wages, and therefore have less time to teach their children their native language, customs, and skills (Zitnow 1990). It also appears that Native American children in the Southwest now spend less time alone or with peers in the desert, directly involved with the plants and animals native to their homeland (Nabhan 1997; Rosenberg 1997).

In a recent survey of 27 Tohono O’odham schoolchildren in southern Arizona, only 37% of the eight to fourteen year olds claimed that they had ever gathered wild foods, and 44% said they had been hunting with their parents or grandparents. However, 78% said that they had watched TV shows about wildlife, 56% had read books about wildlife within the previous year, and 74% have been to zoos, museums or botanical gardens in the last two years (Nabhan and Tanner, unpublished data). These and other indicators suggest that children – even those living in the most remote rural areas – are now influenced by many sources of information about the natural world over and above what their parents and grandparents teach them, or what they learn by direct hands-on experience. Figures 1 and 2 present data from a cross-cultural comparison of Anglo-, Mexican-, O’odham- and Yaqui-American students living in rural areas of southern Arizona and adjacent Sonora, all within miles of National Parks. These preliminary data clearly indicate that today’s schoolchildren do not necessarily experience the range of activities upon which their cultures’ traditional sense of place was formerly based.

It has been argued that traditional farming, hunting and gathering skills are no longer needed for survival as they once were. Yet some communities have recognized that such family-based activities serve as the most important vehicles for teaching native language, traditional stories and community values that reinforce a distinctive sense of place (Ohmagari and Berkes 1997). Skills such as traditional food gathering and processing, or basket making and hide tanning, can only be learned by “hands-on” instruction from elders, and there are specialized vocabularies which go with each of these activities. It appears that the native terms associated with place-based subsistence activities such as tanning hides or crafting wood implements are the realm within native languages which are most rapidly being lost (Zepeda 1983). Put in the context that 90% of the world’s native languages will be lost within the next century (Krauss 1992), the outlook for linguistically encoded traditional knowledge about place is not good.

There are numerous programs around North America that are encouraging native language retention, but few of them reinforce native language use in conjunction with traditional knowledge about the local environment through community visits to sacred places, plant gathering grounds, hunting camps or springs. The Sense of Place Project of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum has recently sponsored such outings in collaboration with Seri, O’odham, and Hispanic communities, in some cases taking children to such places for the very first time in their lives. The Sense of Place Project is committed to recognizing, celebrating and reinforcing local knowledge of place, plants and animals in the Sonoran Desert borderlands. In particular, one of our objectives is to work with communities wishing to pass on traditional ecological knowledge, and to reinforce it through their own communities’ institutions such as tribal museums and cultural preservation programs.

However, there are few communities which know the extent to which traditional knowledge about place, plants and animals is still being passed on from generation to generation or, conversely, the magnitude of loss of language, knowledge and hands-on experience which has already occurred (Ohmagari and Berkes 1997; Zent in press). There is currently no standard methodology for determining the rate or extent of traditional knowledge retention or loss about place, nor any surefire techniques for preventing or mitigating such losses which work in all communities (Ohmagari and Berkes 1997). Nevertheless, by carefully choosing one or more of the intergenerational survey methods suggested below, and establishing a benchmark assessment, communities can better determine the challenges they face in ensuring that effective culturally-sensitive environmental education occurs.

Determining goals, choosing appropriate methods

There are several possible objectives that a community may have for sponsoring an intergenerational survey of traditional knowledge retention or loss. Each objective may require a different kind of survey, or a combination of several different kinds of interviews and assessments. We will list some of the many possibilities below, providing short synopses of appropriate methods to go with them.

Retention of native terms/names for plants, animals, and places

As part of comprehensive community-based surveys of native language loss or retention, language educators may wish to see if there is differential loss of terms relating to the local environment, to its biota, and to traditional subsistence skills (Zepeda 1983; Zepeda and Hill 1995). For O’odham speakers, Hill and Zepeda presented a scrapbook of over a hundred photos from magazines and books which illustrated local plant and animal life and subsistence activities, then asked native speakers in O’odham to name or describe the objects and organisms while being tape-recorded. More than eighty plants and animals were pictured. They compared the names given by different ages of women to come up with a measure of lexemic (name) loss, but also analyzed the extent to which dialect distinctions were maintained, or loan words used.

One flaw with this method was that some of the photos were not detailed enough for interviewees to distinguish and name different species of prickly pear, or different kinds of beans. In addition, some sets of photos were used to elicit names of life-forms (such as fish) as opposed to showing local species (such as desert pupfish.)

Similarly, in a pilot survey of O’odham children paired with their grandparents in the Ajo, Arizona area, Nabhan and St. Antoine (1993) used a booklet of 20 line drawings of common plants and animals. However, it was difficult for all those interviewed to determine which “black bird” was illustrated – a boat-tailed grackle, a common raven, or a Brewer’s blackbird. If photos or drawings are to be used in such surveys, they should be of plants or animals not closely related to other local species. For instance, showing drawings of jojoba and saguaro might prove more productive than showing two kinds of mesquite trees, since the traits by which O’odham elders distinguish the two mesquites cannot often be seen in photos. For Rosenberg’s (1997) interviews of Seri children, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum photo archives were searched to obtain 40 color photos which showed distinctive local (often endemic) species close-up, with most distinguishing features visible. Even so, the identities of certain species of lizards remained so difficult to determine that the Seri had no consensus about their names (Rosenberg 1997), perhaps because they are traditionally identified as much by behavior and habitat as by morphology.

In order to overcome problems posed by using photos and drawings, Zent (in press) took Piaroa schoolchildren on walks through a five yard wide and 150 yard long transect of old growth forest located thirty minutes (by foot) from their town. There, he marked 50 different kinds of plants, and asked those interviewed to name and discuss the cultural significance of each marked plant along the transect. His forty-four respondents sorted into two groups, with a much higher competence level displayed among those over thirty years of age who grew up in such forests. Thus, the older the respondent, the more competent he was in knowing Piaroan names for plants; however, the more one participated in formal (Spanish-language) education, the less likely it was that the person would have the same level of naming competency that an unschooled person of the same age retained. In general, Zent felt that showing respondents live plants growing in the local environment meant that methodological problems in obtaining near-perfect identifications for all species were virtually eliminated.

Nevertheless, such surveys show that even O’odham women in their twenties and thirties recall only a fraction of the native names for plants and animals which older women in their communities still recall (Zepeda and Hill 1995). In the pilot survey near Ajo, O’odham children knew only a third of the native names which their grandparents knew for the most common plants and animals in their local environments (Nabhan and St. Antoine 1993). These initial surveys had small sample sizes and should be done in more communities before any final conclusions are made regarding ethnobiological knowledge retention among the O’odham. Nevertheless, they suggest that losses are occurring even in a group such as the O’odham which continues to have thousands of native language speakers. Fortunately, programs such as Tohono O’odham Community Action are giving young people opportunities to reacquaint themselves with native names for basketry and food plants, and for processing skills.

Retention of traditional knowledge and values of local wildlife

Educators may wish to know whether the way in which science is taught in schools is changing children’s values and perceptions of local animals. For example, a science teacher may lecture students about how horned lizards are harmless animals, but the children’s grandparents may simultaneously teach them that these creatures are dangerous and may cause human illness if mistreated.

Rosenberg (1997) devised a means of eliciting information from children and elders in the Seri community with regard to such knowledge, beliefs and values. She asked interviewees to sort photos of animals into groupings of which animals were good, beautiful or liked, versus those which are considered bad, ugly, dangerous or hated. She also asked the Seri about which animals were considered edible or poisonous. Finally, with regard to ceremonially important animals such as the leatherback turtle, she asked if children had been to the ceremony, whether they believed that leatherbacks can talk with the Seri, and whether leatherbacks can or should be eaten. Only two children under twenty had participated in the ceremony; among the 20 to 39 year olds, only 10% think that leatherback meat is eaten at ceremonies; this percentage increased to 44% in the next age group (40-59), and to 50% among those over 60 years of age (Rosenberg 1997).

Where there are differences of opinion – especially between different age groups – the usual assumption is that the eldest group’s answer is the “correct one”. However, there may even be differences of opinion among elders, as there is in this fifty/fifty split among Seri elders. Rosenberg (1997) did not attempt to use consensus analysis (Romney, Weller and Batchelder 1986) to determine which answer is shared by most members of a culture, but this additional analytical tool has proven useful in other studies (Zent in press). However, it may be valid to give more weight to consensus among elders relative to consensus among schoolchildren for certain kinds of information.

Retention of traditional ecological knowledge about natural resources

Traditional hunters, gatherers, herbalists, and farmers know far more than the mere names of plants and animals; they also know a lot about the ecological relationships among plants and animals, and how certain ecological processes such as fire or flood affect their distributions. Although all these relationships and processes are not necessarily given names, they are known in a way which can be elicited by interviews. Simple questions such as “Where does this animal live?” or “What animal eats this plant?” can help document such traditional ecological knowledge. In addition, Rosenberg (1997) asked children to compare the hunting and nesting habits of selected species (ospreys and pelicans) which are locally abundant. Because a single species of animal may eat many things or nest at different places within its territory, the range of answers may be different for children who stay close to a single home, versus adults who had a more mobile lifestyle while growing up. Any differences in outcomes from different age groups should be carefully interpreted.

Retention of traditional subsistence skills

Because the major means by which all traditional ecological knowledge is transmitted is through hands-on involvement in food-getting, basket-making, and land management, Ohmagari and Berkes (1997) have focused on how, when and to what extent children are learning the “bush skills” associated with their community’s heritage. They cite a learning sequence that they believe most children go through in learning the land- or water-based traditions of their community. The child becomes familiar with the fact that elders participate in an activity such as hunting waterfowl or harvesting willow for basketry; they then observe the hunting or harvesting. Next, they take initial steps in participation, assisting with the most basic tasks. They are then explicitly shown the entire sequence of a process by an elder, and are next asked to perform the sequence under the supervision of an adult. Finally, they begin to experiment with innovations so as to personalize the task, and they become equal partners with their instructors.

In two rural Cree communities, Ohmagari and Berkes (1997) asked women three questions about each of 93 particular “bush skills” involved in foraging, fishing, hunting and crafts-making:

Did you learn the particular skill?
If yes, who was your major teacher?
How old were you when you learned the skill?

Historically, most Cree girls learned such skills from their parents, grandparents and aunts. Today, it is becoming more common for women to learn these skills only after they have married, and then it is from those of their in-laws who remain most active in subsistence activities. It may be that a revival of interest in traditional ecological skills and knowledge is now going on among Cree individuals who missed exposure to such activities while they were young. Ironically, boarding school students were among those most active in learning these skills when they came home on vacation for extended periods, while the children who stayed at home and went to local schools tended to take the skills for granted.

For better or worse, many subsistence skills tend to be taught within a single gender, from mother or mother-in-law to daughter or daughter-in-law. There are exceptions of course; both O’odham boys and girls have learned certain kinds of basketry-making techniques. Nevertheless, it may be relevant in some communities to discuss with boys and girls different lists of traditional skills, with some items on both lists.

The following list is offered as examples of questions about some traditional subsistence skills commonly found throughout rural desert communities:

When is the best time of the year to harvest yucca leaves for baskets?
How do you prepare gourds for making rattles, ladles or masks?
What is the best wood to burn for baking clay pottery?
Why shouldn’t you hunt rabbits during the summertime?
When is the best time of year to cut mesquite for making termite-resistant posts?
When can desert tortoises be found sleeping in caves or crevices?
How can you remove spines or stickers from prickly pear cactus so that you can eat them?
How big should wild greens (quelites) be when you pick them?
If you harvest creosote (greasewood/hediondilla), do you take the root or the green branches?
If you harvest night-blooming cactus, do you take the root or the branches?

Retention of traditional songs, stories and vernacular maps that reinforce a sense of place

Traditional stories about places and songs about plants and animals continue to be shared in most communities, whether or not they are still offered in native dialects. In certain cases, these cannot be shared with outsiders, at least not during all seasons. Nevertheless, it is possible to simply ask children and adults if they themselves have sung songs or told stories about coyotes, tortoises, eagles, cacti or other species.

When permissible, asking for a description or summary of the song or story helps to verify that children are speaking of the same narrative that elders are speaking of, and not one from a Coyote and Roadrunner cartoon. Rosenberg (1997) was able to determine that Seri elders knew two and half times as many songs about animals as did the children, even though there was not nearly as much difference in their competency in simply naming the animals in Seri. Only a third of the children and teens could say a tongue twister about coral snake coloration that was performed by virtually all Seri over the age of forty.

With regard to sense of place, it is not merely the names of particular locations that matter; it is also the events that took place there and the stories about them (Basso 1996). Certain elements which modern mapmakers would never include have great prominence on hand-drawn “vernacular” maps by traditional peoples (Hine and Hill 1986). For instance, eighteen of twenty-four Seri mapmakers marked the area where their afterbirth was buried, and ten of them centered their maps of their land (terreño) on the exact place where their afterbirth was buried. Prominent features on the horizon and along the coast were more important than nearby towns, geopolitical boundaries or even roads (Hine and Hill 1986). It would be interesting to interview Apache youth regarding their knowledge of the stories recorded by Basso (1996) for the hundreds of place names in the Cibecue area. However, recent place-name work with the Hia-ced O’odham in southwestern Arizona suggests that few individuals under 50 years of age have ever had access to the majority of traditional sites in their former homeland, since much of it has become a bombing range where public access is restricted.

When asking community members to draw maps of their homeland, it is best not to give them a base map, or to predetermine which kinds of cultural or natural features should be mapped. The more open-ended the invitation is, the closer the drawn map may be to the individual’s own cognitive map.

Evaluating results, determining educational interventions

Regardless of which methods are used to determine the degree of intergenerational retention of traditional knowledge, it should be explained to the communities involved that these surveys are only first approximations intended to stimulate more reflection, discussion and educational action. Ultimately, the community’s collective feelings – not the statistics alone – are the best way to determine whether traditional sense of place and relationship to other creatures is being lost, retained or revived. Interviews and surveys should be thought of as means to catalyze more community discussion of the importance of language and land-use traditions, and what is at risk if these traditions are lost.

Communities need not despair if they become aware that changes are occurring at a much more rapid rate than they had previously assumed. Many communities have recently begun to experiment with means to slow or avert the losses of traditions. Immersion schools and after-school tutorials with elders have proven effective in slowing native language loss, or even reviving language use. Summer camps and field trips focussed on teaching children native traditions have been successful among a variety of cultures, from the Gwichi’in on the Arctic Circle in Alaska (Gildart 1997), the Haisla on the Pacific temperate rainforest coast of British Columbia, and the Tohono O’odham in southern Arizona deserts. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and the Ethnobiology and Conservation Team recently sponsored a series of field trips to traditionally-significant places, where Seri elders knowledgeable about songs and stories of those places shared them with children who had never before had access to those places (Rosenberg and Nabhan 1997).

Obviously, there are many other strategies for preserving cultural traditions about place other than the ones briefly mentioned here. And yet, we see many community organizations – such as TOCA on the Tohono O’odham Reservation – embracing the notion that neither native language nor stories can survive unless traditional interactions with the natural world persist to give them context, their sense of place. As TOCA’s Tristan Reader (1997) has recently written,

“... it is not enough to preserve a language, its words and its linguistic structures, its images and grammar. In order for a language to be truly alive and vital, we must also preserve the subjects of discussion. A living language means a language that is lived, a language that grows out of the ways in which people make their living and their meanings ... Cultural preservation requires that we rejuvenate traditional food systems, local economies and ways of interacting with the natural world.”

We encourage communities, their schools and museums, to sponsor means by which children learn not only their native language, crafts and ceremonies, but also the subsistence activities in the natural world from which these artistic expressions emerged.

We welcome hearing of activities and programs which have been successful in helping elders pass on their traditional knowledge and sense of place to younger generations.

Literature cited

  • Basso, K. 1996. Wisdom Sits in Places. Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press
  • .Edwards, J. 1995. Multilingualism. New York, Penguin Books.
  • Gildart, R.C. 1997. Gwich’in: we are the people. Native Peoples 11(2): 76-82.
  • Hine, C. and J. Hill. 1986. Seri Concepts of Place. Unpublished paper presented at the Southwestern Anthropological Association’s annual meeting, Las Vegas, Nevada, March 28, 1986.
  • Kellert, S. and M. O. Westervelt. 1977. Children’s Attitudes, Knowledge and Behaviors Toward Animals. Phase V. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington, D.C.
  • Krauss, M. 1992. The world’s languages in crisis. Language 68(1): 4-10.
  • Nabhan, G.P. 1997. Children in touch, creatures in story. Pages 59-80 in Cultures of Habitat. Washington, DC, Counterpoint Press.
  • Nabhan, G.P. and S. St. Antoine. 1993. The loss of floral and faunal story, the extinction of experience. Pp. 229-250 in S. R. Kellert and E.O. Wilson, editors, The Biophilia Hypothesis. Washington, DC, Island Press.
  • Nabhan, G.P. and T. Tanner. n.d. Results from O’odham high school student biology survey, 1992, Sells, Arizona. Unpublished data.
  • Ohmagari, K. And F. Berkes. 1997. Transmission of indigenous knowledge and bush skills among the Western James Bay Cree women of subarctic Canada. Human Ecology 25(2): 197-222.
  • Plotkin, Mark. 1997. Personal communication, Arlington, Ethnobiology and Conservation Team.
  • Reader, T. 1997. Recontextualizing culture: some reflections on the material roots of language and culture. Paper presented to the Lannan Foundation by Tohono O’odham Community Action (TOCA), Tucson, Arizona.
  • Romney, A.K., S.C. Weller, and W.H. Batchelder. 1986. Culture as consensus: a theory of culture and informant accuracy. American Anthropologist 88(2): 313-338.
  • Rosenberg, J. 1997. Documenting and Revitalizing Traditional Ecological Knowledge: The Seri Curriculum Project. Tucson, University of Arizona Master’s Thesis.
  • Rosenberg, J. and G.P. Nabhan. 1997. Where ancient stories guide children home. Natural History 7: 263-268.
  • Zent, S. In press. The quandry of conserving ethnoecological knowledge: a Piaroa example. in T. Gragson and B. Blount, editors, Ethnoecology: Knowledge, Resources and Rights. Iowa City, University of Iowa Press,
  • Zepeda, O. 1983. A Papago Grammar. Tucson, University of Arizona Press.
  • Zepeda, O. and J. Hill. 1995. Papago Dialect Survey. Unpublished, Tucson, University of Arizona.
  • Zitnow, J.D. 1990. A comparison of time Ojibway adolescents spend with parents/elders in the 1930s and 1980s. American Indian and Alaska Native Mental Health Research 3(3): 7-16.

This article is taken from a manuscript submitted to PPH by Gary Paul Nabhan, Director of Science Outreach at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Contact: Gary Paul Nabhan, Arizona-Desert Museum, 2021 N. Kenney Road, Tucson, Arizona 85743-8918, USA; Tel. +1.520.8831380, Fax +1.520.8832500 Website http://www.desert.net/museum/


Documenting and Revitalizing Traditional
Ecological Knowledge: Seri Survey

by Janice Rosenberg

One of the missions of the Transboundary Sense of Place Project’s has been to determine whether local knowledge about the Sonoran Desert region is continuing to be passed down from generation to generation. One tool used toward this goal is a photo-based intergenerational survey method developed by Sense of Place staff members, which can be adapted to various communities living in different desert habitats. It focuses on knowledge of animals which are either unique (endemic) to the region, or ones which are particularly important in native cultures’ subsistence, ceremonies and beliefs. In this article, I describe the methodology and results of a survey conducted in the Seri communities of El Desemboque and Punta Chueca, Sonora in 1996 and 1997.

Background information on the seri

The Seri Indians of Sonora, Mexico – who refer to themselves as Kunkaak (also spelled Comca’ac) – are considered one of the last surviving hunter-gatherer groups in North America. Formerly numbering in the thousands, this non-agricultural people once migrated seasonally among the islands and mainland of the Sonoran coast, relying solely on the naturally occurring resources of the desert and sea for their subsistence (Spicer 1962; Bahre 1967; Bowen 1976; Felger and Moser 1985). Although they have endured many socioeconomic changes over the last century, a strong sense of cultural identity has persisted in Seri communities. Felger and Moser (1985), whose ethnobotanical study of the Seri documents their vast knowledge of Sonoran Desert flora, noted that the Seri have continued to rely upon traditional knowledge for a considerable portion of their diet and medicines. Knowledge about the fauna has also remained critical to their survival.

However, the accelerated modernization of the twentieth century may be threatening these traditional “funds of knowledge”. Within the past forty years, changes in access to technology and in the environment have impacted the traditional lifestyle more drastically than two hundred years of hostilities with Spanish conquerors and Mexican ranchers. Today the Seri no longer depend solely on the desert and the sea for their survival. The majority now lives in the permanent villages of Punta Chueca and El Desemboque, which were constructed by the Mexican government in the l950s. Access to water is no longer as problematic as it was in the past, when depletion of the resource necessitated moving camp. Roads link these villages to commercial centers where supplies and medical care can be obtained. Food can also be purchased at the numerous local stores, most of which are owned by Mexicans.

Each village has a kindergarten, an elementary school, and a telesecundaria which delivers televised national curriculum for students in grades seven through nine. Most children attend school through sixth grade, consequently spending little time in the desert gathering food and firewood. Although Spanish is the official language used in the schools, the Seri are in a relatively strong position in terms of language preservation. Seri (aslo known as cmique iitom) is still the first language in virtually all Seri households. The sole exceptions are the few families in which the mother is Mexican and the father is Seri. Spanish is used for the purpose of communicating with outsiders, but most interactions among the Seri are done in their language. The children speak Seri among themselves. Even at school, where Spanish is the main language, several of the classrooms are bilingual. The 1997 introduction of a textbook written in Seri represents a major change; only recently has a standard alphabet and orthography been used by Seri educators.

The survey

In the words of sociolinguist Kenneth Hale (1992:36), “language ... embodies the intellectual wealth of the people who use it”. With this in mind, I wanted to determine not only whether people were familiar with the animals in the survey, but if they knew the names of the animals in the Seri language.

Individuals were shown 5” x 7” color photographs of forty species of animals, selected by Desert Museum staff for their identifiability, their presumed cultural importance, and their ecological representativeness of the Sonoran Desert fauna. Most but not all of these animals were photographed in their natural habitats. Community members were asked to identify each species and to answer specific questions about them. Interviews were conducted in both Spanish and Seri; each question was asked in both languages and the ensuing discussion was either conducted in Spanish or was translated into Spanish for my benefit. I conducted twenty-nine interviews, eight of which were focus group interviews involving two or more individuals. Of those eight group interviews, six involved pairs of individuals who were either sisters or married couples. The other two group interviews were done with different classes at school.

Individuals were asked to identify each species by its Seri name. Spanish names were also recorded. In cases in which a species was known by several names, individuals were prompted to give all the names they knew. In addition to species identification, I asked individuals which animals were eaten, which were poisonous, which they knew a song about, and which they liked. I also asked questions focusing on cultural, biological, and ecological aspects of specific species.

For species identification, I handed the interviewee one photograph at a time and asked for the name. The photographs were ordered in such a way that morphologically similar species (i.e. the mainland and San Esteban Island chuckwallas, and larval stages of two hawkmoths) were placed next to one another. After obtaining an identification for the first of two similar species, I would show the interviewee the next species and ask him or her to compare the two. Frequently the individual would modify the original answer at this point.

After the identifications were completed, I would hand the stack of photographs to the interviewee and ask him or her to sort through them in answer to the various questions I asked. This method proved more efficient than asking each of the questions for each individual species during the identifications. It also seemed to engage the participants actively and to hold their attention longer. Finally, this technique circumvented language difficulties, particularly with some of the elders who were not fluent in Spanish.

Criteria for selecting native species for discussion

The Sonoran Desert bioregion and, more specifically, Seri territory within that region, is characterized by a high degree of endemism of flora and fauna. The forty species in the survey are far from comprehensive. They were selected, rather, as representatives of these characteristic life forms and range from easily identifiable charismatic mega-fauna, such as sea lions and javelina, to the less distinctive species such as antlions and lesser night hawks. Nine of the species are mammals, eleven are birds, eleven are reptiles, two are amphibians, and seven are invertebrates. Five of the species are marine. It was not possible in all cases to identify species by the photos, but the morphological characteristics of the organism’s genus were very obvious.

Species were also chosen on the basis of presumed cultural salience based on work done by other researchers (Malkin 1962; Felger and Moser 1985) and preliminary interviews conducted by Gary Nabhan, Howard Lawler and others. Although the selection of photos was meant to serve educators in Indian, Mexican and Anglo communities, I will focus on attributes that made them particularly relevant in Seri communities. Eleven of the species were important sources of nutrition for the Seri, and many are still consumed today. Twenty-five species are mentioned in traditional songs, and at least three species are associated with specific cultural beliefs. For example, the coral snake was used in a traditional game

.Finally, two species of birds, the caracara and the phainopepla were included in the survey even though they are not found in the immediate area. The inclusion of extralocal unfamiliars is useful in determining the willingness of individuals to admit unfamiliarity with a species. The Sonoran pronghorn is an endangered subspecies which no longer occurs in Seri country but was included in the survey. Although this species was locally extirpated around the turn of the century and occurs only 120 kilometers north of Seri villages today, it was recognized by many of the elders.

Biographical data about survey respondents

Responses from individuals were recorded on data sheets which also included the following biographical information: age, years of schooling, and degree of bilingualism, place(s) of residence. When accurate birthdates were not available, I estimated them by attempting to place the date within an historical context or in relation to the birthdate of another individual. The amount of schooling is also approximate in many cases; attendance was often disrupted for part of the year when the families would relocate to fishing camps. Furthermore, at least one individual in the sample attended school for less than one year but later was taught to read and write by a missionary who lived in the community. I determined the degree of bilingualism in casual conversation and gave each individual a score. To determine the potential effect of exposure to other regions, I also noted the individual’s place of residence and the amount of traveling that each person had done outside the Seri community.

Between October 1996 and April 1997, I surveyed forty-one individuals ranging in age from 9 to 80 or more years. Representatives from both villages were included, although the majority lived in El Desemboque, where I rented a house. Because several families maintained residences in both villages, I noted only the primary place of residence during the interviewing period. However, it is important to note that these are not two distinct communities, and many individuals have ived in both villages.

All of the interviewees spoke Seri as their first language. Everyone understood and spoke Spanish to some degree and the majority was able to communicate in it with a fair level of competence. The years of schooling ranged from 0 to 10. There was no positive correlation between amount of schooling and age or degree of bilingualism, although only one individual over the age of fifty had attended school.

Survey results

Compared to studies of O’odham and Yaqui youth (Nabhan and St. Antoine 1993), I did not find a dramatic decrease in biosystematic knowledge among Seri youth. They were able to accurately identify most of the species, and could answer questions about easily observable phenomena. Nearly one quarter of the species in the survey were consensus identified by one hundred percent of the people I interviewed. There was a marked difference in their ability to amply answer specific ecological questions about habitat and feeding preferences of the less-visible species, however, and they tended to give more general responses (i.e. ‘lizard’ vs. ‘zebra-tailed lizard’) than the elders. Furthermore, the older generation was considerably better-versed in cultural knowledge such as traditions, songs, and legends about the animals.


The Seri survey suggests that while other kinds of “sense of place” information is not necessarily being passed down to younger generations in Punta Chueca and El Desemboque, the youth do know and use the Seri names for the local fauna, and still talk about these animals in their native language. Merely teaching Seri names for animals need not be the focus of culturally-based environmental education in Seri villages as much as other topics should be. For instance, songs and certain culturally-based beliefs are not being fully passed down. Fortunately, the Ethnobiology and Conservation Team, with assistance from Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum staff and the Smithsonian Institution, has made archival-quality recordings of Seri songs about animals for use in the Seri schools, and for general distribution to Seri families, as a means to promote appreciation and retention of the natural history lore embedded in Seri oral traditions. Field trips with elders and schoolchildren to former traditional hunting and gathering sites have also provided a means to transmit such sense of place lore.

Finally, the stories, drawings and songs presented by Seri schoolchildren themselves are being edited into a booklet for distribution to all Seri classrooms, as a means of reinforcing the oral transmission of traditional knowledge. These are but a few of the collaborations that the Seri community is involved with to ensure that its rich cultural legacy of desert and sea persists.

Literature cited

  • Bahre, C. 1967. The Reduction of Seri Indian Range and Residence in the State of Sonora, Mexico, 1536 - present. Master’s Thesis. Tucson, University of Arizona.
  • Bowen, T. 1976. Estado Actual de la Arqueología en la Costa Central. Pages 347-364 in Sonora: Antropología del Desierto: Primera Reunion de Antropología e Historia del Noroeste. Mexico, Centro Regional del Noroeste.
  • Felger, R.S. and M.B. Moser. 1985. People of the Desert and Sea: Ethnobotany of the Seri Indians. Tucson, University of Arizona Press.
  • Malkin, B. 1962. Seri Ethnozoology. Occasional Papers of the Idaho State College Museum number 7.
  • Nabhan, G.P. and S. St. Antoine. 1993. The Loss of Floral and Faunal Story: The Extinction of Experience. Pages 229 – 250 in S. Kellert and E.O. Wilson, editors, The Biophilia Hypothesis. Covelo, Island Press.
  • Spicer, E.H. 1962. Cycles of Conquest: The Impact of Spain, Mexico, and the United States on the Indians of the Southwest, 1533 - 1960. Tucson, University of Arizona Press.

This article is based on a thesis by Janice Rosenberg, who completed her Master’s degree at the University of Arizona in 1997. For additional information – including a list of interview questions used in her study – she may be contacted through Gary Paul Nabhan at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum


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