Angle On: Tom Sheridan

Roxane Ramos

When UA Anthropology Professor Tom Sheridan ’75 ’78 ’83 revised "Arizona: A History" (UA Press) for the state’s centennial in 2012, he drew on many perspectives to shape an integrated — and de-romanticized — narrative. A three-time alumnus with a joint appointment at UA’s Southwest Center, Sheridan has never been too long gone from the Sonoran Desert he loves, and it shows in his involvement in local water-and land-use issues and conservation efforts. “These days I’m more of an environmental anthropologist,” he says.

What were your impressions of Tucson as a boy? 
It was this dusty, forlorn place compared to Phoenix, where we flood-irrigated our lawns. Only one neighbor [in Phoenix] had desert landscaping. No one could imagine why you’d want a yard full of cactus.
What made you leave the Southwest after high school? I loved my boyhood summers in the Tonto Basin area, but Phoenix bored me. In the summer of 1968, a group of us went up to Oregon and picked strawberries, lived in a labor camp, hitchhiked down the coast, got thrown in jail …
What were the challenges facing Arizona 100 years ago and still, today? 
In both periods, there was tremendous fear of and discrimination against Mexicans. A hundred years ago, it came from the left, from labor unions who saw Mexicans as potential strike-breakers. Today, it comes from the right, from people who have little or no understanding of our borderland economy or Mexican culture. The other challenge, of course, is water. 
What do we need to know about collaborative conservation? With all the polarization surrounding conservation issues in the Southwest, efforts like Pima County’s Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan bring together ranchers, environmentalists, agencies, and sportspeople to find common solutions. 
If you were a tour guide for visitors to the Southwest, where would you take them? I’d start with the Grand Canyon, then the Hopi and Navajo nations, Monument Valley. I would drive down through eastern Arizona and those great high-country forests, and finally the Sonoran Desert. From Tucson, we’d visit Sonora — the missions, the people. Get a taste of rural Mexico.
Do you have a favorite writer? 
When I was younger, Camus and also Hemingway. These days, Cormac McCarthy.
A favorite movie? 
Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. In 1969, I’d just finished high school and thought, “Oh, Westerns, that’s so unhip.” And the movie just blew me away. 
A most memorable tequila or Tecate? 
Far too many to single out any one. (laughs) But Sonora is famous for its bacanora, agave moonshine. 
What are the most important qualities for an anthropologist to have out in the field? 
Empathy and curiosity; living with a group of people and trying to understand their daily challenges. You can’t truly be an insider if you’re not from that culture, but you try to understand the people and their lives on their terms. 
Do you have a philosophy of life? 
First of all, if at all possible, do what you love. Second, be of service. I think the best people have been beat up a little by life, but survived it with their dignity intact and are more humble, more tolerant because of their experiences. 
Tom Sheridan on horses and the early history of the Tucson area: