Walking to Magdalena


Walking to Magdalena

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

Seth Schermerhorn

New Visions in Native American and Indigenous Studies Series

258 pages
4 photographs, 1 map, 2 appendixes, index


April 2019


$60.00 Add to Cart
eBook (EPUB)

(Requires Adobe Digital Editions)

April 2019


$60.00 Add to Cart
eBook (PDF)

(Requires Adobe Digital Editions)

April 2019


$60.00 Add to Cart

About the Book

In Walking to Magdalena, Seth Schermerhorn explores a question that is central to the interface of religious studies and Native American and indigenous studies: What have Native peoples made of Christianity? By focusing on the annual pilgrimage of the Tohono O’odham to Magdalena in Sonora, Mexico, Schermerhorn examines how these indigenous people of southern Arizona have made Christianity their own. This walk serves as the entry point for larger questions about what the Tohono O’odham have made of Christianity.

With scholarly rigor and passionate empathy, Schermerhorn offers a deep understanding of Tohono O’odham Christian traditions as practiced in everyday life and in the words of the O’odham themselves. The author’s rich ethnographic description and analyses are also drawn from his experiences accompanying a group of O’odham walkers on their pilgrimage to Saint Francis in Magdalena. For many years scholars have agreed that the journey to Magdalena is the largest and most significant event in the annual cycle of Tohono O’odham Christianity. Never before, however, has it been the subject of sustained scholarly inquiry.

Walking to Magdalena offers insight into religious life and expressive culture, relying on extensive field study, videotaped and transcribed oral histories of the O’odham, and archival research. The book illuminates indigenous theories of personhood and place in the everyday life, narratives, songs, and material culture of the Tohono O’odham.

Author Bio

Seth Schermerhorn is an assistant professor of religious studies at Hamilton College.


"This is a holy journey, and the author enriches his account with interviews of various walkers that include discussions about songs, stories, and traditions."—S. J. Zuber-Chall, Choice

"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."—Jack David Eller, Reading Religion

"Walking to Magdalena is a book that demonstrates incredible insight and a recognition of a people’s ability to adapt to changes in their environment."—Keith Cook, Journal of Arizona History

“In the tradition of Keith Basso’s Wisdom Sits in Places, Seth Schermerhorn’s Walking to Magdalena grounds the study of Native American religion, and in this case Tohono O’odham Catholicism, in a profoundly sophisticated sense of place and deliberate movement across ancestral landscapes. Theoretically informed and tangibly grounded in respectful relationships with Tohono O’odham elders, Walking to Magdalena is as humble a book as it is game-changing. We come to think differently about pilgrimage, the indigenization of Christianity, and what it might mean to become fully human.”—Michael D. McNally, John M. and Elizabeth W. Musser Professor of Religion at Carleton College

Walking to Magdalena makes important contributions to the field of indigenous religious studies. The work will also be of interest to those doing fieldwork with Native communities, regardless of the specific field of research. . . . The writing is some of the clearest academic writing I’ve read. The author has a unique gift for writing direct, simple sentences, yet within an insightful, engaging narrative.”—David Delgado Shorter, professor in the Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance at the University of California, Los Angeles

“Seth Schermerhorn’s insightful work, Walking to Magdalena, is a wonderful piece of ethnographic research offering a poignant window on O’odham Catholic beliefs and practices. He was fortunate to become a friend and walking companion to the O’odham.”—Ofelia Zepeda, author of Where Clouds are Formed


“A sophisticated and engaging ethnography of O’odham expressive culture as it relates to pilgrimages to Magdalena; as an inveterate walker myself, Schermerhorn’s discussion of ‘being a good walker’ reminds us of the fundamental role that walking can have in the constitution of memory and history.”—Anthony K. Webster, author of Intimate Grammars: An Ethnography of Navajo Poetry

Walking to Magdalena makes a vitally important contribution to borderland studies, tracing the making and remaking of place and personhood of the now-transnational Tohono O’odham. It makes contributions to indigenous and subaltern studies and provides us with a unique set of Tohono O’odham voices.”—Andrae Marak, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Graduate Studies and professor of history and political science at Governors State University

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Tohono O’odham Pronunciation Guide
1. Personhood and Place
2. O’odham Songscapes
3. Walkers and Their Staffs
4. Walking to Magdalena
5. Writing O’odham History
Appendix 1: O’odham Religious History and the Magdalena Pilgrimage
Appendix 2: O’odham Speech Genres