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  • William Neil Smith and the Seri Indians: Photographs, Letters and Field Notes
  • David Burckhalter (bio)


Answering a knock on my door one July afternoon back in 1970, I was greeted by two grizzled curmudgeons. I’d never seen either one of them before. They turned out to be Tucson stalwarts, anthropologist William Neil “Seri Bill” Smith and artist Ted De Grazia. Smith and De Grazia wanted to see color photographs of the Seri Indians (Comcaac) of Sonora. They were looking for fresh material to help illustrate a Seri exhibition to be presented that fall at the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles. I was a fledgling photographer and importer of baskets and ironwood carvings, and had been going to the Seri villages of Punta Chueca and Desemboque for just about a year. Their visit came as quite a surprise, to say the least.

Bill Smith and Ted De Grazia chose twenty of my color transparencies to be printed for the museum show. And so I was off to Los Angeles for the Seri exhibition opening and the book signing of The Seri Indians: A Primitive People of Tiburón Island in the Gulf of California, illustrated by De Grazia, the text written by Smith. What impressed me at the gala was not De Grazia’s spotlighted paintings of charming, though faceless Seri Indians, but Smith’s 16-mm color film showing the last Seris living as hunters and gatherers on Isla Tiburón (Mexico’s largest island, approximately 15 miles wide by 30 miles long). Bill’s movie was filmed during the 1950s with a grant from New York’s Wenner-Gren Foundation, later to be purchased by Walt Disney Studios. Watching this documentary, I could see Smith was a terrific photographer. The Seris seemed to know and trust him. I didn’t realize it then, but Bill also took photographs in 35-mm black and white and in Kodachrome transparency film. [End Page 1]

William Neil Smith was born in New York City on May 5, 1920, to the architect William Neil Smith and Florence Derby Smith. After his father’s sudden death in 1934, Bill’s mother put him on the train to Tucson for boarding at the Southern Arizona School for Boys, located at the mouth of Sabino Canyon in the Santa Catalina Mountains. Florence Smith later followed Bill from New York to Tucson, where she resided until her death in 1954. When classmates showed off painted potsherds, Bill realized the school grounds occupied the site of a prehistoric Indian village. Perhaps with insight gained from touring the ruins of Pompeii on a European vacation with his parents, he organized digs on school property during 1935 and 1936. Bill and his friends excavated a Hohokam pit house, uncovering nearby a child’s burial containing a painted ceramic bird effigy bowl. Bill Smith was thus launched toward a career in anthropology. Taking classes at the University of Arizona during 1939–1942 and 1946– 1950, Bill studied and worked under archeologist Byron Cummings, and then with the White Mountain Apache, photographing them with the guidance of social anthropologist Edward Spicer. He graduated with a BA in anthropology from the University of Arizona in 1948.

Nearly 20 years before Smith’s graduation, many Seri families had moved to Kino Bay on the Sonoran coast in the early 1930s to take advantage of the totoaba fishing boom. Totoaba, schooling fish endemic to the upper Gulf of California, weighing up to 200 pounds, were taken from 1910 to 1925 just for their buches or swim bladders, dried delicacies savored in Chinese soups. Mexican Chinese from Guaymas shipped the highly profitable totoaba buches to San Francisco and to China—while tons of meat was discarded to rot. During the 1930s, when totoaba flesh had been discovered to be delicious, Mexican and Seri fishermen caught the huge fish in staggering numbers to supply new markets created in Arizona and California. By the 1970s, fished-out totoaba plummeted toward extinction. Today totoaba are protected by Mexican law as an endangered species. With the establishment of this new marine economy in the 1930s, the Seris had proved themselves to be able, prolific, and dependable fishermen. However...


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