Los Seris & the Story of Ironwood Carvings

There are plenty of misnomers in the English language, and many can be found in and around Arizona and the Southwest. For example, horny toads are not toads and don’t have horns. Gila monsters are just lizards, not mythical beasts. Spiny oysters are not even oysters, though their shells, used in the creation of jewelry, are found in an array of colors. And ironwood, the heavy material used in fine carvings found in Mexico and the Southwest USA, does not contain iron. The origins of ironwood, a perennial flowering tree of the Fabaceae family scientifically known as Olneya Tesota is interesting. Its roots are (literally) south of the border.

 ironwood carving of the mythical animal jackalope
The jackalope, a combination of jackrabbit and antelope, is a mythical animal of the Southwestern US. It’s captured here in this witty pair by a talented Mexican carver

The ironwood tree, known in Mexico as palo fierro, is native to the Sonoran desert region which encompasses parts of Western Mexico, including the Baja Peninsula and Arizona. It’s an extremely slow-growing tree (although they can grow in excess of thirty-three feet) which is hard, dark, and dense; it will actually sink in water. Finely sanded, polished ironwood has a lovely satin finish, rivaling darker rosewood in its coloring and depth. Historically, it was used for charcoal and carving, but today is protected by the Mexican government and can only be utilized for carving. With incredible ingenuity and finesse, expert carvers work this extremely hard wood by hand and create amazing sculptures in a variety of animal and plant shapes, such as snakes, cacti, javelinas, elk, and scorpions. The pieces are finely sanded to give them a soft, glossy shine.

owl carved of ironwood
The owl, a popular subject for carvers, is rendered here in ironwood. Note the stylized feathers and rough, treelike base

The story of the original palo fierro carvers is a fascinating one.

Many groups of people native to Mexico lived there before and during the Spanish invasion. One group was the Comcaac, called the Seri by the Spanish. Instead of conforming to the Spanish religion and way of life, the Seri/Comcaac fled their original homeland and headed west towards the Sea of Cortez. In the 1930s it was rumored there were less than 500 of these people left in the world, and they were living primarily on Tiberon Island where they could fish. With good cause, the Seri/Comcaac are known for their fierceness; a few explorers and professors, visiting in the 1800s and early 1900s, never returned from Tiberon Island. Most assume they were killed. In the 1960s, the Mexican government decreed Tiberon Island a land preserve; anyone living there was forced to leave. Most Seri/Comcaac relocated to Punta Chueca and El Desemboque de Los Seris. While the Seri may be aggressive and cautious of outsiders, they have gained notoriety for their carving abilities. The Seri were the first to carve palo fierro; many of the pieces found in shops while traveling the Southwest come from their skilled hands.

Carved ironwood quail and coyote
The appealing grain and coloration of ironwood adds dimension to this hand carved quail and coyote

Not surprisingly, the first ironwood carvings were utilitarian items– bowls, utensils, and fishhooks— and not décor items. In the 1960s, Jose Astorga began to carve sea creatures, a familiar sight to the fishermen along the coast of Sonora, Mexico. These carvings were sold to visiting tourists; there became such a demand for them, it is said over half the Seri population participated in carving ironwood.  Today, the Seri still carve palo fierro, which is still in high demand. Unfortunately non-Seri carvers use electric power tools to mass produce the product which tourists buy. While there’s nothing wrong with these carvings, purchasing them means the livelihood of the Seri is threatened. The best course of action, when buying an ironwood carving, is to talk with the seller and see where and who made it. Many Seri carvers will sign their pieces.

The Pickle Barrel Trading Post has a wide selection of ironwood pieces in varied shapes and sizes. Besides plant and animal shapes, there are handsome, practical boxes, perfect for jewelry, keys, or pocket change. Ironwood carvings require very little upkeep; simply wipe with a dry, soft cloth. Besides a fine addition to home or office— or as a gift for someone special– your ironwood carving will serve as a reminder of the tenacity and grit of the Seri people who have survived a harsh past, but still endure today.

deer dancer carved of ironwood
Native American symbols and characters appear in ironwood carvings, such as this example of a Yaqui deer dancer in motion. The Yaqui are the of people of northwestern Mexico and Arizona

To see a wide selection of appealing carved ironwood animals, visit the Pickle Barrel Trading Post online at
https://picklebarreltradingpost.com/store/search?keyword=ironwood

— Cameron Vines

–Photos by Jim Lindstrom