- Landscapes of Fraud: Mission Tumacácori, the Baca Float, and the Betrayal of the O'Odham
Thomas Sheridan writes, "O'odham wove their lives into desert rhythms with an intimacy we can barely imagine" (34). One might say the same of the way Sheridan weaves ethnographic time into the sad story of this indigenous people of southern Arizona. For Landscapes of Fraud is not so much a tale about the O'odham and their tribulations as it is a temporal reenactment of them—a lovely convergence of representational text with tempos, flows, ruptures, and frustrations now bygone, accessible only through the feat of imagination.
In this case, however, it is the moral imperative of Sheridan's duty to "excavate" that takes the reader from a posture of mere imagining into a sensibility of real-time intimacy (6). The book is a discovery of layers from the ground up, each one more splintered than the next. At the bottom is the earth itself. Here, the lifeways of the O'odham are traced through movement across the open plain, where practices and rituals keep tune with organic comprehensions of space and time in a landscape of community. At the very top, however, lie the landscapes of fraud, where the scene of capitalism is littered with fragments of subdivided land, stolen time, broken promises, and shattered lives. Perhaps we can never restore the reality of a people who was literally overlooked by speculators enthralled by shadows on the horizon; but by [End Page 783] heeding Lefebvre's call to cultivate "the study of natural rhythms, and of the work of the modification of those rhythms and their inscription in space by means of human actions," Sheridan makes the work of excavation more of a living experience, and less of a mourning for times past (16).
He begins three centuries ago, with the missionaries. As the order of Jesuit, then Franciscan, religious life jostled with the demands of colonists who laid their own claims on land—and as these groups contended with Apache warriors who periodically swept through swaths of contested territory—the O'odham found the natural cadences of their lives disturbed by competing sets of demands. Each of these lopped off some aspect of their free-ranging way of life. Sheridan focuses on the Spanish settlement at Mission Tumacácori. This was a concrete embodiment of a hierarchical order of divinity—an architectural performance that put God at the top and everything else in its proper place somewhere below. What was embodied in physical space was also reproduced through the structure of daily life: the abstraction of labor froze the movement of seasonal migrations; the mandates of order contained the flows and eddies of consensus that marked O'odham communal society.
In the meantime, land was starting to look more and more like a commodity. Rancheros and miners treated land as a means of production, and hence something that had to be partitioned so that rightful claims could be made on whatever the land generated. Taken to its logical extreme, the value of land came to derive not from what the land actually produced, but from what it could very well (and perhaps not so very well) produce sometime in the future. The Baca Float serves as a case study. Here, the agitations of capital gave rise to fits of buying and selling that drowned the O'odham's claims of autonomy under the clamor of sensational promises. Sheridan shows how the legal apparatus figured centrally in the marginalization of the O'odham, from laws that established the modern regime of private property rights, to the pronouncements of United States Supreme Court justices who, like the speculators, simply looked over the very fact of the O'odham's abject existence.
For all his success with the reproduction of historical time, it is actually the "spatiality of social life" that Sheridan holds out as his ethnographic concern (3). Whether time really does take a back seat to space is an open question...