In the early twentieth century the shores and desert surrounding the northeastern Gulf of California were isolated from and largely unknown to Euro-Americans, whose image of the area as treacherous and populated by “savages” was fueled by popular articles and pulp fiction. Overland access to the gulf was difficult because of the remote desert expanses, and any roads were just simple tracks made by the horse- or mule-drawn carts of a few small inland cattle ranches. Then, in the 1920s, commercial fishing expanded into the area and reached the shores of what is now Bahía de Kino, in Sonora, Mexico, long a place of traditional winter camps of the Seri (Comcaac) people. It was at this time that this small group, numbering in the low hundreds, began to emerge from an isolated existence into a world of significant change.
In 2006 I was sent a link to digital images posted online by the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology in Berkeley, California, made from photographs taken by anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber while on a short visit to Sonora in March 1930. The photographs were taken on Tiburon Island and at Estero Santa Rosa, a “negative estuary”1 on the mainland opposite the island. A number of them are of Seri individuals. In two of the photographs, some Seris and several non-Seri Mexicans are grouped around a flatbed truck with a conspicuous chimney-like tank behind its cab and a wooden crate structure at its rear (see figure 1).2 My interest was piqued, as I was unaware of a road, or most certainly a truck, in that area at such an early date.
I spent much of my childhood as well as time during recent years in the Seri village of Desemboque, and speak the language. While doing research for my book Shells on a Desert Shore (Marlett 2014), I found that seemingly mundane information sometimes leads to a fascinating trail in oral history. So, high on my list of questions for my next visit to Seri country were some about the truck. When I showed the photographs to several older Seri friends I got a response of immediate recognition—“That’s the Trooqui Treen!” Since I had never heard of the truck, the fact that it existed and was even remembered by a name intrigued me. [End Page 199] Here was a road to follow; here might be a bit of history, as indeed there turned out to be. I found a few people who recalled details that they had been told about the truck, such as what it looked like, where it was used, what it transported, and who drove it; there was even a woman who rode on the truck as a child, and told me her story. And, finally, having someone recall and sing a short song about the truck, composed by an early player in the story, certainly provided the crowning detail. Later I found a few brief notes mentioning the truck, made in the mid twentieth century by both my mother, Mary Beck Moser, and by anthropologist William Neil Smith, based on Seri recollections.3
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Traditionally a hunter-gatherer people, the Seris have long inhabited a remote area of the Sonoran Desert along the eastern shore of the Gulf of California. Relations between the people and the encroaching agricultural and cattle-raising world were often turbulent, and friendly [End Page 200] contact was rare.4 However, with the advance of commercial fishing into the area, interaction between the Seris and outsiders sharply increased.5
Several Seri individuals became better known as they related to outsiders, and in 1925...