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Makers of Park City: Margot Wholey

PARK CITY, Utah — Margot Wholey didn’t know she was embarking on the project she was born to do when she chose to write her senior thesis on the Seri people and culture. She started traveling to their land in 1985 with a Prescott College coastal ecology course and returned there every year, receiving her B.A. in Photojournalism and Outdoor Education and Recreation in 1987. Her life took her to different places, but she has continued to return to Seriland over the past 30 years for months at a time, living with them and having been adopted by the people, complete with a Seri mother and brother.

When you look at her photography portfolio, you will see stunning photos of the Seri, but also quite a collection of luge photos taken at the Utah Olympic Park. Margot Wholey took a Learn to Luge course in 1999 and was instantly hooked on the sport. At the age of 36, she managed to win the U.S. Women’s Masters National Championship in Luge for the second time in a row. Most of the photos in her luge portfolio are from a fundraising project she started when her daughter competed in luge and attended the Winter School.

Margot Wholey holding her a self-published first book on the Comcaac Project in Cmiique Iitom.
Margot Wholey holding her self-published first book on the Comcaac Project in Cmiique Iitom. Photo: Neighbors of Park City

In 2006 a dream caused Margot to return to Seriland. She found that a lot of Seri had died. The Seri are semi-nomadic people who used to live on a very basic natural diet and lived to an age of 120 to 130 years. In the last two generations, their diet has changed to include fried bread and fried fish among other modern diet choices and their lifespan has decreased down to the mid-80s. Some of the elders asked Margot to help them preserve their culture.

She requested and received the permission of the Council of Elders in 2007 to embark on a multimedia cultural preservation project, called the Comcaac Project. The indigenous Comcaac/Seri community enthusiastically worked with her to record songs and stories and transcribe and translate them. It was important to Margot Wholey that everyone be equal in this project, so they decided on 20 songs per person, of which Margot would be allowed to use four for her publications. Margot received some grants for her work and self-funded the rest of this project. She took photos of the participants and gave them CDs of their songs with photo covers, plus CDs for them to sell.

While researching the Library of Congress as a possible depository for the cultural gems, Margot Wholey was recording, she discovered that the father of her Seri mom, Angelita Torres, had recorded four to six songs in 1942/44, which landed in the Library of Congress. Angelita Torres’s father had died when Angelita was just 16 years old. Margot contacted the Library of Congress on behalf of her Seri mother to obtain copies of those songs and was able to bring them to her 70 years after he died. Angelita Torres, herself, passed away in September 2018.

In 2009 one of the Seri elders came to her and told her, he needed to record the Story of the Giants. He was one of the few left that knew anything about them. He died just two months after his recordings were completed. In 2010 Margot flew in an ultralight over Tiburon island and photographed the geoglyphs he attributed to the giants. Luckily, 100-year-old Isabel Torres Molina had been told where to find them by her ancestors. The Comcaac Project has by now collected nearly 1200 songs, 300 oral stories, and a large photo library. In 2016 the Library of Congress acquired 1100 of the songs and subsequently a photographic portfolio of 80 images by Margot Wholey to preserve this unique ethnography. In 2018 Margot Wholey self-published her first book on the Comcaac Project in Cmiique Iitom (the Seri language), Spanish and English. It is available by contacting her via her website, MargotWholey.com. Several more books are in development.

Curve 13 at the Utah Olympic Park luge track.
Curve 13 at the Utah Olympic Park luge track. Photo: Margot Wholly, courtesy of Neighbors of Park City

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