Walking to Magdalena

Personhood and Place in Tohono O'odham Songs, Sticks, and Stories

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Seth Schermerhorn
New Visions in Native American and Indigenous Studies
  • Chapel Hill, NC: 
    University of Nebraska Press
    , April
     258 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Life is a journey, we sometimes say—one that we make and that makes us. This is especially true and explicit among the Tohono O’odham people along the southwestern US/Mexico border, who walk the pilgrimage to the town of Magdalena in Sonora, Mexico. In his enjoyable and highly readable study of the pilgrimage, Seth Schermerhorn emphasizes this very point—“it is not people who make journeys; rather, journeys make people” (111). He further illustrates how O’odham Christians “have made Christianity their own by embedding it within their ancestral landscapes” (23), thus inscribing the religion into the land, and the land into the religion, as they walk.

As Schermerhorn acknowledges, much of the literature on pilgrimage has privileged the destination (the end) over the journey (the process), and his book nicely rectifies that oversight; in fact, Magdalena hardly figures into his narrative at all, since, as he asserts, “the arrival is anticlimactic” (9). The attention is focused on how personhood and place are literally constructed in movement, so appropriately the first chapter examines O’odham concepts of personhood, which, as in many indigenous societies, is gradually acquired or accumulated over time rather than granted at birth. Noting the spatial turn in social science, the author introduces the reader to the emplacement of persons and of collective history—including the injection of Christianity into O’odham cosmohistory (the intersection of religious cosmology and factual history) —stating that movement, “and walking in particular, become that which mediates time and space, making landscapes that are actually lived in” (37).

The subsequent chapters investigate various ways in which the O’odham inhabit and fill their space. The second chapter, for instance, gives us song, arguing that “O’odham evoke movement and make journeys through songs such that O’odham song sequences constitute a form of mapmaking” (53). As Schermerhorn illustrates with several examples, O’odham songs are characteristically quite short (only a few lines) and “filmic,” suggesting snapshots of experience that can be combined into individual and collective memories. Like all cultural narratives and objects to a greater or lesser degree, these memories “encode historical knowledge” (54). Speaking of objects, the third chapter surveys the neglected subject of O’odham walking sticks or staffs, which “are treated as though they were sentient beings” (73), and which absorb and accumulate the owner’s history as they are used and decorated over the course of multiple pilgrimages. In Schermerhorn’s words, “as seasons pass, O’odham become seasoned and staffs get historied” (95).

The fourth chapter provides an anticipated consideration of walking itself as a way of being in the world, a form of enskilment and self-formation. This is particularly relevant for O’odham culture, where Schermerhorn convincingly contends that “pilgrimage” is a less valid category than the local concept of “being a good walker”—which describes not only a way of moving the body properly but also “maintaining proper kinship relations with one’s kin as well as with other entities in O’odham landscapes” (98). Not surprisingly then, being a good walker, quite literally, expresses “the disciplined, sensuous maturity of O’odham elders, with a life full of experience and a body full of knowledge and skill” (99). Following Marcel Mauss’s famous analysis of body techniques, the chapter presents tales and reflections about O’odham walking along with some amusing if painful comparisons between the slow, graceful, and modest body hexis of O’odham and the jerky, immature, and immodest movement of Mexicans and Americans.

As mentioned above and stressed throughout the book, the Magdalena pilgrimage is a Christian pilgrimage, and a central theme of the book is how the O’odham have made Christianity their own, which is the topic of the fifth and final chapter. Contrary to the presumption that Christianity necessarily entails a radical break from the cultural and religious past, but consistent with more recent literature that discovers continuities between “traditional” religion/culture and Christianity, Schermerhorn insists that Christianity is traditional religion for many O’odham believers and that instead of “disrupting O’odham values . . . Christianity strengthened O’odham values and helped O’odham be more O’odham” (132). Of course, according to the author, there are competing versions of O’odham history, and the Christianization process is incomplete, but the present condition is not syncretism or hybridity, “but a unified—though certainly not monolithic—Christianity that is a ‘way of life’ that continues to be meaningful to many Tohono O’odham today” (141). In this regard, I think it would be productive to view the O’odham case through the lens of Kimberly Jenkins Marshall’s concept of “resonant rupture” developed through her Navajo research, with the caveat that the Pentecostalism of Navajo country is decidedly different from the Catholicism of the O’odham (Upward, Not Sunwise: Resonant Rupture in Navajo Neo-Pentecostalism, University of Nebraska Press, 2016).

Walking to Magdalena is a fine ethnography that contributes to the emerging understanding of embodiment, emplacement, and religious co-existence or layering in contemporary cultures. Schermerhorn demonstrates a mastery of several bodies of academic literature, including anthropology and religious studies. The frequent and repeated mentions of the disciplines of cited researchers—such as “philosopher and literary theorist” Mikhail Bakhtin or “anthropologist” Sarah Lamb—suggest that the book was composed with at least a thought for students and general readers, but it is nonetheless valuable for scholars in numerous fields.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jack David Eller retired as Associate Professor of Anthropology from the Community College of Denver.

Date of Review: 
February 27, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Seth Schermerhorn is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Hamilton College.


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