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Hispanic American Historical Review 82.1 (2002) 170-171

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Book Review

Unknown Island:
Seri Indians, Europeans, and San Esteban Island in the Gulf of California

Unknown Island: Seri Indians, Europeans, and San Esteban Island in the Gulf of California. By THOMAS BOWEN. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000 . Photographs. Maps. Appendix. Notes. Bibliography. Index. xxxi, 548 pp. Cloth, $55 .00 .

Scholars who wish to investigate the history of people "without history," in the well-coined phrase of the late Eric Wolf, are often handicapped by the absence of written evidence. One alternative source category that presents its own difficulties and satisfactions is oral history. Thus Thomas Bowen asks if it is "possible--or credible--that a small band of Indians could have lived on this remote island [San Esteban], as the Seris maintain, and that the Europeans never knew about them?" (p. xxv). His answer, after sifting through the available evidence is a resounding "maybe."

Bowen introduces us to this "ethnohistorical puzzle" through stories recorded by the linguist Edward Moser in the 1950 s. One Seri with the auspicious name Porfirio Díaz claimed that as a young boy at the end of the nineteenth century he had lived on the island with his family for a time. According to Díaz, the island's inhabitants were distant relatives of the Tiburón Island Seri who spoke their language in an unusual way, preferred rocks to bows as weapons, and knew nothing of the outside world. These stories were corroborated by twentieth-century mainland Seris, who had heard of the San Esteban people from their parents. Remarkably, however, there are no European or Mexican accounts that speak of the San Esteban people. They were missed in the conquest and subsequent exploitation of the Gulf of California. In the final years of the nineteenth-century, a small group of Indians were rounded up and removed from the island, though it is unclear if these were part of an "untouched" band, or Seris from neighboring regions.

After establishing his puzzle, Bowen gives us 200 pages of history of the Gulf and Midriff Islands, unveiling the exploitation of the region by Spaniards, Mexicans, and North Americans from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries. As a result of this breadth, the book can seem unwieldy, an interesting but miscellaneous treatment of the Gulf's long history pieced together from a wide variety of secondary sources. After several hundred pages, we have traveled far from the original question.

The narrative finally returns to San Esteban Island, with a useful synthesis of environmental, archaeological, and ethnological studies that have been conducted there. One central question that is handled in compelling fashion deals with the [End Page 170] interpretation of the artifacts and ecofacts found on the island. Whether these brought by later intruders or manufactured and used by the San Esteban people whose existence is in question? Salient ecological concerns, especially the scarcity of fresh water, are brought to bear. Bowen uses conjecture when necessary: the metates found on the island had been used often enough to argue for continuous occupation, for example.

The author has assembled an impressive corpus of historical and archaeological evidence to complement the oral histories, although there is little in the way of unpublished archival documentation. Bowen knows as much as any scholar about the Seris, having authored the entry about the group in the Handbook of American Indians some years ago. Unknown Island benefits from published colonial sources, secondary literature from Bancroft until the present, and numerous private communications with anthropologists who worked among the Seri.

Bowen explicitly eschews "deep insights into social process or advances in theory" in favor of his "simple narrative," (p. xxxi) though the interdisciplinary nature of the work will encourage others to make theoretical connections. Although the book would not be appropriate for use in undergraduate classes, Unknown Island should find ready acceptance by specialists in Mexican indigenous history and ethnohistorians.


Richard Warner
Wabash College



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pp. 170-171
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Archived 2004
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