By Greg Niemann
In 1905 Professor Thomas Grindell and a party of three others never returned from a gold-seeking expedition to Tiburon Island in the upper reaches of the Sea of Cortez and the nearby coast of Sonora, Mexico. They had ventured to the heart of Seri Indian country, a small tribe characterized as “savages,” “beasts,” “animals” and even cannibals by outside visitors for many years.
Grindell’s brother Edward searched in vain for the party and his search adventure was published in 1907 in The Wide World Magazine. According to the story, “It is well known that the Seri are treacherous, and because of their crude manner of living and their fondness for raw food, they are believed to be cannibals.”
The Seri were wild nomadic Indians whose culture clashed with the European superiority. They were never agricultural, switching from a sustenance existence to hand-crafting tourist products, most singularly those heavy ironwood sculptures.
It is not surprising that the Seri attacked and killed domestic horses, burro and cattle brought to the area by their victors. They craved the flesh, particularly of horse and burro, and loved fat from the animals and the marrow from the bones. These practices helped establish the cannibal legend.
In the 1820s explorer Lt. Robert William Hale Hardy of the British Royal Navy made numerous trips to Tiburon Island. While he found no gold nor pearls on his trips, he did encounter the fierce Seri. “These people have always been considered extremely ferocious;” Hardy wrote, “and there is little doubt, from their brave and warlike character, that they may formerly have devastated a great part of the country...”
Hardy went on to explain how the Seri had developed a method of poisoning their arrows. Hardy, who brought gifts and provided medical assistance to the Indians, was so well received he was given free rein on the island. He even allowed a young woman to paint his face like the warlike Seri. He also was able to return in one piece.
The legend of the Seri continued. By the 1890s the Mexican-Seri relationship had deteriorated badly. The Seri had been not only ravaged by disease but methodically exterminated and only about 200 remained from a group that may have been as high as 5,000. The Seri survived by killing and eating the Mexican cattle and horses that had come into their homeland.
At least four outsiders before the Grindell party disappeared in Seri country and all were attributed to being murdered by the Indians. In 1894 a Mr. Robinson went to Tiburon to search for gold and never returned. Then in 1895, U.S. anthropologist William John McGee from the Smithsonian Institute who was studying the Papago Indians nearby had learned of the warlike Seri, a better and more aboriginal subject. He built a small boat about the size and shape of a coffin and headed for Tiburon at low tide. He noted a lot of horse bones and teeth in their campfire ashes, but never mentioned anything resembling human bones. He and his party too returned.
Grindell in his 1907 article perpetuates the cannibal myth and even “explains” how he feels they did it. He mentions an incident where his search party had come across a camp site where they found a “dance ring” surrounded a stake upon which were impaled only the hands of a white man, fastened by leather straps from a camera case.
In his explanation, Grindell theorizes, “The savages, I should explain, tie their wretched victim to this plank and as they dance, first one and then another will cut a piece of his flesh off....and it was into the hands of these human fiends that I feared the explorers had fallen.”
The hands, it was noted from carved initials on the leather and other objects, belonged not to Grindell’s brother and his party, but to two miners from Los Angeles, Miller and Olander, who were certainly murdered by the Seri. It appears, however, that most of the earlier Grindell party died of thirst in the desert.
The savage cutting off of the hands and the constant hunting of meat from cattle and horses does not automatically make them cannibals. The Seri shied away from certain types of food, for example not touching coyote, hawks and snakes. They loved seafood and pelicans, but would not eat shark (tiburon).
Perhaps the most thorough study of the Seri was done by adventurer/ writer and naturalist Charles Sheldon in 1921-1922. Sheldon’s considerable hunting skills were admired by the Seri and he was invited to Tiburon. He spent time with them and documented their lifestyles as the trained biologist he was.
Sheldon wrote: “The Seri are fierce and treacherous but if one approaches them in the right way, a person with tact and previous experience with such people can get along with them. The Seri have been known to commit theft and murder, and I would not care to have landed on Tiburon Island a complete stranger to them. They are well aware that strangers fear to come on the island for, at different times, three of the men asked me if I was not afraid of them.”
Yet, Sheldon concluded that even as treacherous and murderous as the Seri could be, “From all I could learn, they have never been cannibals.” Throughout Baja California and in Sonora on the mainland visitors can find those heavy ironwood sculptures. Up until the recent coarse copies that have flooded the market, they have all been the beautiful handiwork of a proud and ferocious people. We know they were mean and tough, but we don’t know for sure if they were really cannibals.