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Maney Publishing

Ancient and Modern Mayo Fishing Practices

Author(s): N. Ross Crumrine and Lynne S. Crumrine
Source: Kiva, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Oct., 1967), pp. 25-33
Published by: Maney Publishing on behalf of the Arizona Archaeological and Historical
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The Mayo Indians of Northwest Mexico have a fiesto

economy, which at first seems as though it should be incompatible with a conservation value for natural resources.
However a conservation ethic exists wheere other traditional
values and types of labor practices persist among Mayos. In
other Cahitan, or Yaqui and Mayo villages, the conservation
ethic disappears as commercial exploitation of natural resources increases.

The Mayo Indians, consisting of a population of some 45,000 to 50,000,

live along the banks of the lower Mayo River in southern Sonora, Mexico.
They have been referred to in the literature by the name Cahitan, which
groups them with the Yaquis, a closely similar group living to the north.
Cahitans have a fiesta economy, which means the distribution of goods in the

native economy takes place largely through religious feasts and celebrations.
They are also integrated into the national economy through wage labor and
market spending, but by far the greater amount of their income is distributed
in the context of the fiesta.

The idea of a fiesta economy at first glance would seem logically

incompatible with a conservative ethic, that is, an ideal pattern of preserving
natural resources from over-exploitation. Yet, we are able to demonstrate that,

in the traditional ethical system concerning resources, such as conservation

ethic exists, particularly in Mayo villages where other traditional practices

regarding resources and labor persist. Less conservative Cahitan groups

appear to be losing the conservation ethic as commercial exploitation becomes

This paper is limited to a delineation of one aspect of the conservation

ethic, that of exploitation of ocean resources. We will proceed by describing

Mayo full-time and part-time fishermen and fishing communities, their

activities, habits and beliefs.

In order to understand the Mayo conservation ethic in relation to

fishing and resources of the sea we must examine the range of Mayo communities, the technology of fishing, the economics of fishing, and beliefs
associated with it. The whole range of Mayo communities includes the four
following types: 1. small farming rancherias and villages, 2. settlements on
the outskirts of the large Sonoran and Sinaloan towns, 3. specialized fishing

villages and rancherias, and 4. groups living in the foothills whose main
economic activities are herding and gathering natural forest resources.
*We gratefully acknowledge that the fieldwork on which this paper is based was
financed by the U. S. Public Health Service and the Social Science Research Council.


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Our focus will be upon the fishing practices and beliefs of individual
families living in more or less traditional farming villages and rancherias

whom we will call fishing farmers or part-time fishermen. These communities are situated on or near the banks of the lower Mayo River within a

few miles of the Gulf of California. Thus it is possible for the farmers to
supplement their incomes by fishing. Since farming is an important orientation of these Mayos, we will refer to them as part-time fishermen or fishing

farmers. On the other hand we must take into account the groups of more

specialized or full-time Mayo fishermen who live in fishing villages and

rancherlas. This distinction, which appears to have had great historical

depth, is still important today. For example, the specialists who live in ocean

shore villages tend to fish from dugout canoes or plank boats with sails or
motors, whereas the fishing farmers or part-time fishermen tend to work from

the shore or as hired help on the large commercial non-Mayo boats.

In terms of settlement pattern both the full-time fishermen and the

part-time fishing farmers live in villages or in small rancherias of some

2 to 30 families. The typical mestizo grid settlement pattern which is not

functional for a fishing community scattered along a sand spit was not
accepted by the Mayos in general. One the other hand in the farm villages the
settlement pattern focuses upon firstly a church-cemetery complex with some

30 to 100 families scattered around this focus and secondly a competing

mestizoized area of town where the buildings are arranged on the grid
pattern with stores, plaza, and school.

In terms of housing, there are contrasts between Mayo fishing villages

and Mayo farming villages with part-time fishermen. The homes of the Mayo

fishing villagers in both the Mayo and the Fuerte River valley areas are
constructed near the ocean and are made of driftwood, canvas, and scrap tin

because the sand in the area is not useable for housing. This and the fact
that the housing is crowded together on sand spits gives one the impression
of a poverty-stricken community, which is precisely the attitude of the Mayo

farmers towards the more or less specialized fishermen. The traditional and
thus highly valued house of the farmer (who may also be a part-time fisher-

man) has been characterized by Charles Erasmus (1961: 207) in the following

Most housing in the country villages as well as much of the

third-class housing in town is simple cornerpost construction
with adobe of mud-and-wattle walls and dirt floor and earth

roof, and costs less than two thousand pesos or under a

hundred and sixty dollars.

House construction of adobe or jacal, the traditional farmer's home,

may be little more expensive than the farming villager's home, yet due to the

appearance of a much wealthier, cleaner community it gives the farmer a

feeling of superiority because he has an earth house and he raises food crops
such as corn.


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In terms of language use, many fishing farmers can speak either Mayo

or Spanish with ease, however, when we inquired about fish and fishing
terminology more often they would have to ask others the Spanish than the

Mayo name. When speaking of commercial marketing of the fish they

tended to go into Spanish whereas talking of the bawe aniya (the supernatural

realm, or world, of the sea) or the bawe hamyd?ola (the old woman [ruler]
of the sea), they spoke in Mayo.
Mayo fishermen and fishing farmers (bir6me, kuculhro and kucalgo,
Beals 1943: 18) use several techniques of fishing and practice several economic

uses of fish. A hand line with fish hooks (bwu?aruim) and baited with
sardines may be used from a boat to catch fish (kucum) such as corvina
(tosa kucu), red snapper (siki kucu), or shark (bawe yori). Also from the
boats they catch turtles (bawe mocik) and kauwama, a big turtle of the sea.

In the shallow waters along the shore they gather clams (hittam), crabs
(aca?akarim), and oysters (kunnas). There is a word, busome, for persons
who dive for oysters. Whether this role exists today we did not discover.

Lead weighted circular casting nets, temdhtim or "temeti hite" (Beals

1953: 18) may be used with the aid of a boat or cast from waist deep water.
These nets range in size from large ones around 6 feet in diameter used for

mullet (huhzb?ubo) and other small sized fish to smaller finer mesh ones

used for shrimp (bawe koce, kocem). Many Mayos weave their own nets
and one often can observe one of the men of the household or even a visitor
weaving as he chats. The net is gathered up from the center point and then

thrown so that it spreads into a full circle. When it sinks to the correct

depth it is then pulled up from the center point collapsing it like an

umbrella around the fish. If one fishes from the shore in this manner, we
were told that it is best to fish at night otherwise the fish will see the fisherman

and escape the net.

The Mayo fishing farmers whom we knew, stressed that they did not use
boats but rather used the casting net thrown in waist deep water or a weir

type of net, hiat hit"im, used in blocking a small estuary at high tide. Ralph

Beals (1943: 18) colleected the Mayo word, hiatome, for this type of weir
fishing and hiatua for fishing with nets in general. They block the estuary at

high tide with a large net. Then when the tide drops one may find the fish

mentioned above as well as the following edible fish: sea bass (witau),
Spanish mackerel (citaku), white perch (hor6hteme), needle fish (semaliku),
halibut (taskari kucu), mojarra (hosd?epa), and a species of perch (yabairau).
The complete procedure involves several days, at the time of the new
moon, usually three days and two nights at the ocean. The first day involves

traveling to the ocean and getting ready. When the tide is high the nets are

placed so that the estuary mouth is blocked. As the tide goes down one
gathers the fish from the blocked area (atciu). Ralph Beals (1943: 18)
notes the use of a hitium which he describes as a wickerlike scoop type of
net. It is used inside the atau to scoop up the fish. The Mayo fishing farmer
then scrapes, guts, rubs the fish with salt, and dries them.


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The obtaining of the salt has important implications. Salt is manufactured and sold in the community of Yavaros whereas the salt near the
homes of the fishing farmers, further up the coast from Yavaros, is natural

and free. We were told this with strongly negative feeling about the selling
of salt which the fishing farmers believe should be free and used only as
needed. Salt then for the traditionlists is conceived of as a natural free resource
and its use involves values which are part of the conservation ethic.

While the men are catching and processing the fish they also have
been gathering clams and oysters which they cook and eat during the time
they are fishing. One informant showed us the large pile of shells and the
charcoal of the fires which they built especially at night for light and to cook
the shell fish.

The Mayo fishing farmers also at times use a few smashed San Juanico
tree pods to stupify the fish within the estuary net. This type of fishing is
also described by Robertson (1964: 211) for the Mayos in the Fuerte River
valley of Sinaloa:
Some estuaries had large, deep pools to which part of the fish
retreated. Into these the Mayos cast handfuls of mashed San
Juanico berries. In a few moments fish would rise to the

surface, gasping for air, to be easily picked up by the


Jean B. Johnson (1962: 65-66) includes in his Yaqui grammar a text

concerning the use of the San Juanico pods.
The social unit which is involved in the estuary blocking type of fishing
among the Mayo River fishing farmer includes the male members of the ex-

tended family. However Beals (1943: 18) mentions that net fishing may
also in some cases have been a communal or group enterprise. In this case he
feels more than likely the village chief distributed the fish to the village
member. Robertson (1964: 219) also mentions another type of Fuerte River
Mayo communal fiishing which we did not observe:
Out in the shallow bay from the village of Ohuira the Mayos
had pooled their energies to construct a primitive fish trap,
a tightly packed brush wall exending fully two miles in an
incomplete semicircle from the shore, so that the fish at
incoming tide were diverted by this great wing into the space
between wall and shore; later with the falling tide to follow
the inside line of the brush fence, seeking their way to the

open bay, but finding instead cleverly constructed little

diversion fences which led them into brush pockets, traps

where they lingered too long until the tide left them stranded,

to be taken by the Indians. The fish were opened down the

back, spread to appear like a pancake, the flesh cut into long
ribbon-like strips, heavily sprinkled with salt, then sun dried.
When cured they were packed on burros to be sold in the upcountry villages along the Fuerte River.


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Mayos also recognize other ocean life which appears from time to time

in their nets or washes up on the beach and generally is not used as food
although some are used for medicinal or other purposes; for example manta

ray (abataka), the spine of the manta ray (abataka wica), sand dollar
(bawepanim), and star fish (bawe coki). A one handed (wepulai mammak)
type of crab (bo?otera) is not eaten nor is a catfish type of fish (omori).
It has no scale (ku kupek). Dolphins (huhteme) are respected and not
killed. It is said that they chase the sharks away, so one is safe when huhteme

are visible. Fish eggs (kuci kabam ki?ame) are also recognized.
After the several intense days of fishing the Mayo fishing farmer returns
home with his catch (batwepo ?am bo?bo?a). The following statement made
by a fisherman summarizes very nicely this technique of fishing:

Lunestu aman sakabare# Martestuk intok te seka?ana patiabare#

el Lunes vamos ir alla. el Martes vamos a tapar en un otro parte.

Monday we will go there. Tuesday we will block another estuary.
Miercolestuk kupteyo encim boobica in hoapo#
El Miercoles los espero alla, en mi casa.

And late Wednesday I will meet you at my house.

Economically fine fish are distributed in at least three ways They may
be consumed by the fisherman's immediate family or they may be traded or

sold to other Mayos, or sold on the commercial market. The emphasis on the
latter of these uses tends to go hand in hand with the disappearance of the
conservation ethic, and with changes in the socio-cultural integration of the
community. The Mayo fishermen living in the larger fishing communities

such as Yavaros tend to focus upon commercial fish, such as sea bass, red
snappers, shrimp, mullet and ocean turtle which may be sold fresh to
mestizo truckers or store owners, or specially in the case of the mullet may
be salted and dried. It is said they often rent boats and motors from wealthy
mestizos or North Americans.

Salted fish are traded or sold to other Mayos in the following kind of
pattern. A farming family goes on a short pleasure trip to one of these fishing

communities, where they have compadres. During the course of the chatting
they will ask which Mayo fishing family has salted fish available. A transaction which we observed involved mullet of around a foot in length which had

been split in half, rubbed with salt, and thrown over the flat roof supports

of a ramada to dry. The farmer gave the fisherman 4 pesos (320) and the
fisherman selected 8 fish which he wrapped in paper and gave to the farmer.

During this transaction much chatting was going on in Mayo. Thus in this

way the traditionality of the money-based transaction between Mayos is

maintained. On the other hand the fishing farmer's family consumes the bulk

of the fish he himself catches and divides with his partners leaving only a
few which he will trade or sell.

Fish are especially important as food around the Lenten season when they

are eaten every Friday and every day of Holy Week. During other times


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of the year fish may be eaten when it is available or other food is short, but
it is not thought necessary to eat fish on every Friday. As a matter of fact it
is felt that only the poorest families which cannot afford corn and meat must

rely on fish to sustain life, fish being thus a low prestige food. The quality

of fish as a food is cold (sebbe). Thus there is an additional number of

Mayos who eat fish if at all very rarely and refuse to fish at any time because

they believe that cold food will make them sick. Fish is cold in nature,
whereas some other foods, like Cokes, are hot, Mayos say.

Fishing and fish eating are also important for the Yaquis, living in the

river valley just north of the Mayos. The similarities in beliefs and techniques between Yaquis and Mayos can be seen in the following short quote

from Spicer's (1954: 49) monograph, Potam, A Yaqui Village in Sonora:

Yaquis say that there have always been a few fishermen

among them. At present there are three of four fishermen in
Potam territory who fish and gather shellfish regularly. Using
nets and wooden plank boats they fish close to the shore on
the Gulf of California. They use most of what they catch for
themselves, but also sell or trade parts of large catches to

others who dry and store them. Swordfish is most com-

monly caught in large quantities. Most families in Potam eat

oysters (koyum) at least during Lent and Holy Week. In the
winter season when there is little argricultural work to do,
small parties go regularly to the shore and gather oysters.

The oysters are usually baked in the shell. Almost every

every houseyard has a small pile of oyster shells accumulated

over the years.

In terms of ceremonial participation the fishing farmers are intensely

Mayo and participate in both the church cults and the cult of the animals of
the woods. Our friends still spoke of the bawe hamy'?ola, the old woman of
the sea. She commands (aeyeka) the sea life. If the resources of the sea are
wasted she is angry and causes storms. She must be requested for fish before

one begins fishing. She gives the fish as a gift to those who supplicate her.

This power, magla orutteata, which she has enabling her to command the
sea life and give fish, comes directly from Itom Acai, Our Father, God. Thus
one may logically assume that wasting the fish or taking more than one needs

personally is an attempt to take unfair advantage of the gift from the bawe
hamy6?ola and indirectly from Itom Acai, Our Father, God.

Ralph Beals (1943: 19) also mentions the bawe hamy6ra, the "queen"
of the sea and has collected the following songs which he reports are sung
before the fishermen go out to the ocean:

Yawe yoeme kuca sua,

Come people fish kill

Cikte yoeme kuca sua,

Siime yoeme kuca sua,

everyone people fish kill

all people fish kill


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This was repeated three times and continued with variations,

such as the following:

Elaposu tobelli tune,

leave nothing (variety of fish)

Elaposu tobelli yapasali,

leave nothing (variety of fish)

Cikte yoeme kuca sua;

etc. (all people fish kill)

The song continues naming various kinds of sea animals.

The man knowing these things best talked, warning everyone that they must not waste or wantonly destroy, lest the
sea "mother" be angry. Modern informants compared these
services to those of the maestro today for the benefit of God.

The ocean is a place somewhat feared by the Mayo fishing farmers

especially at night. Our informants often mentioned that fishing was difficult

and gave us the names of the biting insects which disturb the fishermen
while he is at the beach. Beals (1943: 18) mentions taboos associated with

fishing, "Men with menstruating wives, recent widowers, and those who
disposed of the dead could neither fish nor hunt."
Out near the ocean is an area in which are planted three Santa Kurusim,
Holy Crosses, where certain ceremonies take place and where one may visit
when he goes fishing, praying to Itom Acai, Our Father, God, for forgiveness

and protection and may take flowers as an offering. Also near this place
treasure was buried a long time ago. It is said to glow at night. Today nobody

knows exactly where it is, however there are large holes near the sleeping
and fire place where persons have dug looking for the treasure. There are
vampire bats associated with the treasure which will kill the finder or the
finder's children unless he has arranged for the removal of the treasure with

the ghost of the dead person who buried it. This involves obligating one's

soul to the devil or the dead burier of the treasure or may obligate the
paying of any debts which the ghost may have. Thus the ocean and the
shore is a place full of power which may be dangerous if the individual
does not know how to handle it. If one makes a great deal of money it may
very well be said that he has obligated his soul to the service of the devil
or the powers of the sea. Thus it takes a very brave, powerful individual to
be willing to stay near the ocean and to fish.
The Mayo conservation ethic is part of a relatively old and very traditional way of life. The names of the sea creatures are Mayo and not Spanish
loans. The old woman of the sea represents one of the absolute powers which
controls a part of the total Mayo world. Her stipulation that the resources
of the sea not be wasted is parallelled in the restriction which the powers of
the animals and natural resources of the forest world (huya aniya) place upon
their use.

No animals could be caught without the censent of their

chief. This would be withheld if the bones or flesh of deer

were fed to dogs or the flesh wasted. Bones should be burned.

Deer tails should be put up on trees or houses on the east


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side. Prayers were addressed to the deer "chief" asking

permission to kill deer. While on the hunt a man must not

let his thoughts wander, or evil might befall him. (Beals


Ralph Beals (1943: 19) also suggests that these beliefs and some of the
practices are old:

That the sea "mother" is ancient is attested by mention in

early documents; that the concepts are ancient as applied

to land animals is to be inferred. Formerly Mayo and
Yaqui "wizards" sacrificed a kind of tobacco (piciete) and
children to the "mother" of the shrimp at the start of the

shrimp-fishing season.

It would seem that this conservation ethic developed in precontact Mayo

society as a response to a relatively high density population relative to the

low level of socio-cultural complexity, possibly an incipient or tribal level.
There is evidence of specialized fishing villages and wide spread famines in

the Mayo area as early as the late 1500's and on into the 1600's (Perez de
Rivas 1944: 10, 12, 13). This all took place within an environment of
limited but rich natural resources which often were variable depending upon

the intensity of the flooding of the Mayo River. The ethic then would be
functional in conserving a greatly variable supply of natural resources.

In conclusion we should like to reconsider the distinction between the

Mayo fisherman and the fishing farmer in a slightly different light. A consider-

ation which will yield some insight into the question of the continued existence

of the conservation ethic in some places and its disappearance in others. In

terms of comparative data and the disappearance of the conservation ethic
we refer to the study of Yaqui fishing cooperative by Gilbert Bartell in which

the existence of a conservation ethic or similar belief is not mentioned.

Other differences noted by Bartell (1964) which seem to have appeared along
with the loss of the conservation ethic are as follows: 1. cement block houses
with electricity, running water, cement floors, and toilets, 2. a grid settlement pattern with four parallel streets, a school at one end and no church,
3. the use of motors boats, casting nets, and hand lines with hooks, 4. the
loss of most Cahitan names for fish and fish supernaturals and the use of the

Yaqui language only while trading salted fish with Yaqui farmers, 5. the
commercial selling for cash of most of the fish with only a few salted for
trade with other Yaquis, 6. the use of festizo clothing, lipstick, short hair
styles, and permanents for the women, 7. the feeling that fishing is enjoyable

and not such hot boring work as is farming and that the fisherman is of
equal status with any other Yaqui, 8. the contrast from the lack of ready
cash in the farmer's pocket to the Yaqui cooperative member who is paid for

his catch in cash and thus often has money, and 9. the contrast of the
intense Mayo ceremonial participation of the fishing farmer to the meager
participation of the Yaqui cooperative member who feels, "They [the tradi-


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tional Yaqui farmers] are backwards. . ... All of their ceremonials are old
fashioned. When we build our chapel it will have a priest and none of that

runnning around" (Bartell 1964: 288).

From this additional comparative data several suggestions may be made.
First Mayo and Yaqui fishermen are at the bottom of the traditional MayoYaqui social scale but have a natural resource which is readily convertible to
cash via the modern market system. Thus they tend to be somewhat more

open to mestizo introduced innovations. Second, in order to retain logical

consistency and yet to fish for more fish than they can themselves use and
to exchange this surplus for money, the conservation ethic either must be

rejected with the appearance of commercial fishing or have become so

weakened by this time that commercial fishing can become a conceivable
and even attractive alternative which they can accept. It would seem likely

that this was only one part of the whole complex of change noted in the
above data and that sorting out one casual factor would not provide an

adequate explanation of the differing retention and disappearance of the

conservation ethic or value for preservation of natural resources.
On the other hand the conservation ethic of the fishing farmer might be

seen as aiding in the integration of a traditional and very rational Mayo way

of life which is open to innovation in some areas and closed in others. In

this way Mayos can retain some certainty, some absolutes in a geographic area

of Mexico which is undergoing rapid technological change, and within a

culture and society which also is undergoing technological and social change.

Bartell, Gill

1964 Directed Culture Change among the Sonoran Yaquis. Ph.D. Dissertation,
University of Arizona, Tucson.

Beals, Ralph

1943 The Aboriginal Culture of the Cahitan Indians. Ibero-Americana: 19,

University of California Press, Berkeley.

Erasmus, Charles J.
1961 Man Takes Control. University of Minnesota, Press, Minneapolis.
Johnson, Jean B.

1962 El Idioma Yaqui. Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia, Mexico.

Perez de Rivas, Andres
1944 Triunfos de Nuestra Santa Fe, Book IV, Editorial Layac, Mexico.
Robertson, Thomas
1964....Southwestern Utopia. Ward Ritchie Press, Los Angeles.

Spicer, Edward H.
1954 Potam, A Yaqui Village in Sonora. American Anthropological Association,
Memoir No. 77, Menasha.


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