The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1975, Volume 21, Number 4
James E. Moss, Editor
Thomas L. Scharf, Assistant Editor

Book Review

David J. Weber, Book Review Editor

Travelers Among the Cucapa. By Anita Alvarez de Williams. Baja California Travel Series, 34. Los Angeles: Dawson’s Book Shop, 1975. Bibliography. Illustrations. Notes. 161 pages. $24.00.
Reviewed by Bernard L. Fontana, Ethnologist, Arizona State Museum, the University of Arizona, and formerly editor of Ethnohistory, the quarterly of the American Society for Ethnohistory.

This is, quite simply, a beautiful book. The printing, paper, and binding are as fine as we have come to expect from Glen Dawson, and in the present instance we have a happy union between a compiler who is in love with her subject-the Cocopa Indians and the delta region of the Colorado River-and a publisher of impeccable taste and consummate skill.


Anita Alvarez discovered a few years ago that photographs and published literature concerning Cocopa Indians (she prefers the spelling and pronunciation used in Mexico, “Cucapa”) were scarce, scattered, and difficult to come by. They are not one of America’s better-known tribes. Her interest directed her to search libraries and archives and led her into correspondence and contact with scholars still living whose work had brought them together with these comparatively obscure natives of the lower Colorado. The decision was made eventually to arrange descriptive accounts of the Cocopa in chronological order, thereby letting the “explorers, entrepreneurs, soldiers, and scientists” speak for themselves. The fortunate result is the 34th volume in the Baja California Travel Series.

The chapters begin in 1540 with Hernando de Alarcon and Melchior Diaz; they continue through the 17th and 18th centuries (Orate, Kino, Garces, and Jose Velasquez); and they include five 19th century observers (Hardy, Pattie, Derby, Heintzelman, and Jacobo Blanco). The “modern” chroniclers are W. J. McGee, Newton Chittenden, Godfrey Sykes, Daniel T. McDougal, Arthur North, and Carl Lumholtz. Each description is preceded by a tiny introduction by Alvarez, and each includes summaries, condensations, linkages, or scholarly footnotes as the situation requires.

A final chapter tells us about the major ethnographic and linguistic efforts of E. W. Gifford, Fred Kniffen, William and Dorothea Kelly, Frances Densmore, Jesus Ochoa Zazueta, and James M. Crawford. A delightful epilogue takes us on a visit to 1970’s Mexican Cucapas with Onesimo Gonzalez Saiz, a Hardy River Cucapa leader, anthropologist William Kelly, and our guide, Anita Alvarez de Williams.

Most of this book’s brief chapters provide us with insight into what happens when total cultural strangers meet total cultural strangers: curiosity, bemusement, fear, anxiety, doubt, suspicion, and assertion of ethnic superiority appear in the cast of emotional characters.

Arizona Cocopas, living today in Somerton or on one of two reservations near that southwestern Arizona community, will be disappointed to find little or nothing about their 20th century history in this book. But the creation of their reservations and their recent expansion, to say nothing of new homes, a new cry house, new tribal office building, and what appears to be new hope for the future can await another time. This is a part of the story in words and incredibly fine old photographs of their Baja California and Sonora progenitors and kinfolk. I’m sure they join Mrs. Williams in wishing them well.