The Seri are an indigenous group of the Mexican state of Sonora. The majority reside on the Seri communal property (Spanish, ejido), in the towns of Punta Chueca (Seri: Socaaix) and El Desemboque (Seri: Haxöl Iihom) on the mainland coast of the Gulf of California. Tiburón Island (Tahejöc) and San Esteban Island (Cofteecöl and sometimes Hast) were also part of their traditional territory. They were historically seminomadic hunter-gatherers who maintained an intimate relationship with both the sea and the land. They are one of the ethnic groups of Mexico that has most strongly maintained their language and culture throughout the years after contact with Spanish and Mexican cultures.
The Seri people are not related culturally or linguistically to other groups that have lived in the area, such as the Opata, Yaqui (sg.: Yequim, pl.: Yectz), O'odham (sg.: Hapaay), or Cochimí. The Seri language is distinct from all others in the region and is considered a language isolate.
Beside the Apache (sg.: Hapats, pl.: Hapatsoj) and Yaqui, the Seri are best known as fierce warriors for their stubborn resistance against subjugation by the Spanish (sg.: Casopin) and later Mexicans (sg./pl.: Cocsar).
The name Seri is an exonym of uncertain origin. (Claims that it is from Opata or from Yaqui were nineteenth-century speculations based on similarity to words in those languages and not with clear evidence.) Their name for themselves is Comcaac (phonemically /kom'kɑːk/, phonetically [koŋˈkɑːk]); singular: Cmiique (phonemically /'kmiːkɛ/), phonetically [ˈkw̃ĩːkːɛ]).
The Seri were formerly divided into six bands. They were:
- Xiica hai iicp coii or Xica hai iic coii ("those who live toward the north wind"), also known as Tepocas or Saliñeros, who inhabited a large area to the north of the other bands, along the coast between Puerto Lobos and Punta Tepopa and somewhat inland, constituting six subgroups with following camps: Zaah Hacáila, Pailc Haacöt, Xpano Hax, Haasíxp, Haxöl Ihom, Xapoyáh
- Xiica xnaai iicp coii or Xica xnai iic coii ("those that are to the south", "those who lived toward the south wind"), also known as Tastioteños who inhabited the coast from Bahía Kino to Guaymas.
- Tahejöc comcaac or Tahéjöc comcáac ("Tiburón Island people"), also known as the Seris or Tiburones, who inhabited the coasts of Tiburón Island, and the coast of Mexico opposite it, north of the Xiica xnaai iicp coii., constituting five subgroups with following camps: Hajháx, Cyazim, Sacpátix, Haanc, Hatquísa, Taij It, Inóohcö Quixaz, Xniizc, Tacáta, Heeme, Hast Hax, Soosni Itáaai, Xoxáacöl, Caail iti ctamcö, Hax Ipac
- Xoxáacöl (group of people within the Tiburon Island people group)
- Heeno comcaac or Heno comcáac ("desert people"), who inhabited the central valley of Tiburón Island.
- Xnaamotat or Xnaa motat ("those that came from the south"), also known as Upanguaymas or Guaymas, who inhabited a small strip south of Guaymas between the Xiica hai iic coii and the Tahejöc comcaac.
- Xiica hast ano coii or Xica hast ano coii ("those that are in San Esteban Island"), hast ano ctam (male), hast ano cmaam (female)), who inhabited San Esteban Island and the southern coast of Tiburón Island.
Three of the bands were further subdivided. Relations between bands were not always friendly, and internal conflict sometimes occurred.
Some bands were also living on the Baja California Peninsula (Hant Ihiin), they were called Hant Ihiini comcaac.
It has been said that these groups spoke three distinct but mutually intelligible dialects. It is thought that the first dialect was spoken by the Xiica hai iic coii, Xiica xnaai iic coii, Tahejöc comcaac and Heeno comcaac Bands and presently this variant is the only dialect spoken and is the ancestor of modern-day Seri. The second dialect was spoken by the Xnaamotat Band, but it is currently extinct and there was very little data collected regarding this dialect. The third dialect is also extinct and was spoken by the Xiica hast ano coii Band; it was described as sounding musical, as if speakers were singing instead of speaking (Moser 1963). Speakers sometimes make remarks regarding certain expressions being characteristic of particular Bands, especially of the Xiica hast ano coii Band. These communication differences were thought to have kept the groups from having much social interaction with each other.
After the Seri population was greatly reduced by conflicts with the Mexican government and the O'odham, and epidemics of smallpox and measles, the remaining Seris grouped together and the band divisions were lost.
The autoethnonym of the Seri people, Comcaac, was first recorded by United States Boundary Commissioner John Russell Bartlett, who was in the area for a short visit in early 1852. The word was included in the list of approximately 180 words that Bartlett archived in the Bureau of American Ethnology (now part of the National Anthropological Archive, housed at the Smithsonian). He recorded the word as "komkak", which reflected the pronunciation of the word at that time (although he missed the vowel length and did not indicate stress). Other word lists, obtained by other people during the last half of the nineteenth century, confirm that pronunciation. The phonetic rule by which the consonant /m/ is pronounced as a velar nasal in this context (after an unstressed vowel and preceding a velar consonant) may not have come about until sometime in the early twentieth century or researchers may have encountered slow-speech deliberate pronunciations for which the assimilation was held in abeyance. The singular form, Cmiique, was first recorded by French explorer and philologist Alphonse Pinart in 1879. He recorded the word as "kmike", which must have reflected the pronunciation of the word at that time (although he also missed the vowel length). The phonetic rule by which the consonant /m/ is pronounced as a nasalized velar approximant in this context (after a velar stop) may not have come about until sometime in the mid twentieth century.
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