Development of the Art
Timeline of the Seri Ironwood Carving Industry
1930: The entire Seri tribe lives on Tiburon Island, making occasional visits to the mainland.*
Early 1930's: As the fishing industry takes of, the Seri work with Kino Bay Mexican fishermen. A Seri village is established at Desemboque.*
1938: Seri fishermen enter into a cooperative with Mexican fishermen. Seri sell their catch to traders who supply them with food and supplies.*
Early 1950's: Jose Astorga carves small animals of pumice stone. He later becomes the innovator of ironwood carving.
1952: A rural Mexican school is established at Desemboque. Seri learn to read, do arithmetic, and speak Spanish.*
Late 1950's: Commercial shrimp boats begin to work in Seri waters, disturbing the ocean floor ecology. This results in fewer sea bass, red snapper, and other fish important to Seri economy.
Kino Bay, a Mexican fishing village, gains popularity as a resort. Tourism increases.
1961: Astorga experiments with ironwood carving. He focuses on utilitarian products: bowls, spoons, barrettes, and the occasional paperweight.
1963-4: Astorga first carves purely decorative items. Early subjects include depictions of sea life pleasing to the tourists who will buy his art.
April 1963: An American tourist speaks to Astorga about ironwood carving. She is making a desert tortoise doorstop and possibly gives Astorga the idea of carving animal sculpture.
1965: A hunting preserve is established on Tiburon Island, upsetting traditional Seri economy. The Seri are encouraged to settle more permanently on the mainland.
1968: "Slim," an American carpenter vacationing in the Kino Bay area, introduces an alternate finishing method for the ironwood carvings to the sea turtle fat currently used. His method of wet and dry sandpaper and paste wax is adopted for its shiny finish.
Fall 1968: University of Arizona students make monthly trips to Seri villages to purchase ironwood carvings. Before now, only the Astorga family carved and sold their work minimally. The ironwood carving industry takes off.
1970's: The Mexican government takes a promotional interest in the Seri ironwood carvings.
Half of the adult Seri population is engaged in carving. Several family members may work on a piece together: one carves, one finishes and polishes, etc. A family-worked piece averages one day to complete.
Seri basketry becomes commercial in response to the ironwood carving tourist art industry. Traditional shapes are modified to fit consumer demand.
Nov 1970: A seasonal nature in ironwood carving is noticed as birds, especially roadrunners, become popular with tourists for the next few months. Other animals are not sculpted during this time.
1972: Non-Seri Mexicans imitate Seri ironwood carving, sculpting animals outside the Sonoran environment and incorporating machine-assisted techniques.§
Aurora Astorga (daughter to Jose) first initials her work.
1974: BANFOCO becomes a large-scale buyer of ironwood carvings. The program seeks to provide a minimum monthly income and regular product demand for the Seri.
1980: Ironwood carving is widespread through Sonora and Baja California.§
1982: Ironwood is harvested from the edges of Tiburon Island.
1991: Wood prices continue to rise, increasing four-fold in a decade's time, reaching $300 per cord.§
19 May 1994: Ironwood becomes a protected species in Mexico.§
* Graburn, Nelson H.H., Introduction, in Ethnic and Tourist Arts: Cultural Expressions from the Fourth World, Berkeley: University of California Press.
Felger, Richard Stephen, and Mary Beck Moser, 1985, People of the Desert and Sea, Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
Ryerson, Scott H., 1976, Seri Ironwood Carving: An Economic View, in Ethnic and Tourist Arts: Cultural Expressions from the Fourth World, Nelson H. H. Graburn, ed. Berkeley: University of California Press.
§ St. Antoine, Sara, 1994, Ironwood and Art: Lessons in Cultural Ecology, in Ironwood: An Ecological and Cultural Keystone of the Sonoran Desert, Gary Paul Nabhan and John L. Carr, eds. Washington: Conservation International.