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

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April 2019


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April 2019


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eBook (PDF)

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April 2019


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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.


"With methodological sophistication, sound original arguments, emic sensitivity, and even a good dose of self-aware, self-deprecating humor, Walking to Magdalena may very well become a young classic in the study of Native American Christianity."—David J. Howlett, Journal of the American Academy of Religion

"This book will be of interest to those concerned with Native American Christianities, theories of pilgrimage, and the interaction between selfhood and place. Scholars of Tohono O’odham culture will be particularly drawn to this text, which provides such a careful analysis of material culture and song work."—Suzanne Crawford O’Brien, Material Religion

"The subject-matter of the book is original: a decade-long partnership with the O'odham, built on trust, offers the reader insights into contemporary, every-day, lived religious experiences of this Indigenous Catholic community. . . . The conscious revelation of self, as it sits alongside the presentation of the O'odham, allows the author to acknowledge his position as the author, without effacing the co-production of this work with his partners in the O'odham community."—Kathryn N. Gray, Transmotion

"Walking to Magdalena makes many original contributions to the anthropology of the Southwest, and readers interested in these theoretical discussions (from ontology to transnationalism) will profit enormously from poring over the rich and sensitive ethnography in this book. As such, this book makes a number of important contributions to anthropology—as well as to the allied disciplines of Native American studies, history, and religious studies."—Sean O’Neill, Journal of Anthropological Research

"Probably not since Ruth M. Underhill’s Singing for Power: The Song Magic of the Papago Indians of Southern Arizona . . . has anyone devoted a study to O’odham pilgrimage traditions. . . . Students of O’odham culture and history now have a worthy companion to Underhill’s seminal text."—David Martinez, Kiva: Journal of Southwestern Anthropology & History

"Twenty years ago, Michael D. McNally proposed a compelling framework for decolonizing the study of Native American religions. . . . Nowhere since has that approach found greater resonance than in Seth Schermerhorn’s Walking to Magdalena, a terrific new book that reformulates McNally’s historiographical method as ethnographic practice."—Maxine Allison Vande Vaarst, Western Historical Quarterly

"This is a worthwhile text that demonstrates the deep importance and meaning that O’odham and other Indigenous peoples convey as they complete their yearly walk to Magdalena."—Juan A. Avila-Hernandez, Native American and Indigenous Studies

"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

"This book, while not officially co-authored, is a 'co-labor' of love that focuses on O'odham voices, experiences, and the deep connections they have with their faith. . . . It is evident that the book is a labor of love to the O'odham individuals who are mentioned throughout, as their labor seems invaluable to the study. This book is recommended to anyone interested in Native American religions, Christian theology, linguistic studies, material studies, and the importance and interconnectedness of place and people."—Artemis King, Southwestern Lore: A Journal of the Colorado Archaeological Society

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

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