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The Yaqui history and culture


The Yaqui present us with a unique opportunity to understand the effects of outside cultural influences. The Yaqui have undergone major settlement changes, incorporated foreign concepts, and survived a wide diaspora. Their story is one of acceptance, resistance, and resilience.

The Yaqui traditionally occupied the lower 60 miles of the Yaqui River. This was a desert habitat in lower Sonora where the Yaqui settled in approximately 80 communities or rancherias along the edges of the river bottom lands.They practiced non-irrigation farming, but also dug ditches to irrigate crops during the predictable floods of the Yaqui River. Their crops included corn, squash, beans, and cotton. They also practiced hunting and gathering depending on the many wild foods of the desert.

Kinship was recognized bilaterally and they practiced exogamy. Ancient Yaqui tradition foretold a time when seeds would be planted and grown, and white men would arrive who understood the conflict between good and evil forces.

A fulfillment of this prophecy came in 1533 with the arrival of the Spanish. They were invited to share the land, but the thirst for conquest led to their expulsion by a large Yaqui force. This marked the beginning of the rancheria period that would last until 1617. In 1610, the Yaqui invited the Jesuits to return, an invitation that would change the world of the people forever. The Mission Period began in 1617.

In an effort to reduce administration of 80-some settlements, the Jesuits convinced the Yaqui to consolidate into eight towns centered around a church located in a central plaza. With 3,000-4,000 people in each town, religious ceremonies and common government systems helped to strengthen the Yaqui culture. People wove blankets of cotton and wool. Cane was utilized in a variety of ways including its use as roof and wall material. The Spanish introduced the ancient wattle-and-daub building technique, and the Yaqui built their new rectangular shaped homes in an irregularly spaced pattern (defying the Spanish grid plan) around the central church.

The Jesuits brought Christianity to the Yaqui in the form of pageants. This was a traditional method of introducing Christianity to natives, and the Yaqui embraced it. The Conquest of the Moors by the Christians, the Conversion of Malinche, and the Passion and Resurrection of Christ were accepted and integrated with traditional Yaqui beliefs, creating a unique syncretism of the two cultures. There was mutual trust between the Jesuits and the Yaqui that allowed an integration of cultural concepts unique in the New World.

Yaqui spirituality became a tapestry woven from the threads of traditional beliefs- the yoania (enchanted world) and sea ania (flower world), a great flood, the deer dance and deer songs, and the honoring of the dead- and Christian beliefs- the Blessed Virgin, the Passion of the Christ, and Catholic doctrine and liturgy. The Yaqui rejected the notion of hell, but the ancient spirits dwelled in heaven. Traditional elements survived while others became fused into a new synthesis.

In addition to changing Yaqui settlement patterns and religion, the Jesuits also taught the Yaqui agriculture. Though the Yaqui were farmers, they were given better tools, new crops, and domesticated work animals. The Yaqui river valley became the most productive area in all of Sonora-Sinaloa, both as an agricultural and a livestock producing region. These additions created an agricultural surplus that continued for more than a century and allowed the Yaqui more time for innovation, invention, and ceremony.

Yaqui social culture was also influenced greatly by the Jesuits. The introduction of ritual kinship changed the way the Yaqui looked at family. Previously, bilateral kinship was the norm. Wawaim was a term used to refer to community affiliation and as an aid to the reckoning of boundaries between Yaqui and non-Yaqui.

Ritual kinship brought with it the concept of ceremonial sponsors for Christian rites of passage, who were known as godparents. This evolved into a system of co-parenthood (compadrazgo) whereby an individual could have more than a dozen pairs of godparents who were obligated to all other godparents, the godchild’s parents, and the child himself. This notion of ritual kinship would prove to be invaluable in the restructuring of Yaqui society some 275 years later.

Another “kinship” tradition was that of the cofradias, or confraternities. These brotherhoods of laymen were dedicated to the service of the Blessed Virgin or a saint or other supernatural being. After the Jesuits were removed in 1767, the Yaqui fused this practice with their ceremonial sodalities. From this fusion, there emerged three important male sodalities, the Matachines, the Caballeros, and the Fariseos.

The Matachines, directed by a church governor, lorded over the summer-autumn season that was a time of relaxation and enjoyment of the blessings of the Blessed Virgin. The Matachines, a male dance group, wears bright, colorful streamers, and large headdresses in their appearances. The Caballeros and Fariseos are the sodalities that provide the drama of the winter-spring ceremonial season. A sub-group of the Fariseos, the Chapayekas, are an essential element in the Passion, playing the Evil Forces with helmet masks that move into the town in increasing numbers after Ash Wednesday. The winter-spring ceremonial season ends with the Day of the Finding of the Holy Cross, when the Matachines dance their lively Maypole dance. During the summer-autumn season, the town celebrated the supernatural patrons of the eight towns. These took place at different times in different towns, and were of equal importance to the Passion ceremony.

Present at all, or nearly all, ceremonies were Pascolas and the Deer Dancers. They were entirely outside church dominion, and operated under their own administrative officer. The Pascolas acted as ceremonial hosts and shared stories of the people, provided comic relief, and danced to up-beat, rhythmic music. The Deer Dancer performed the only surviving animal dance to celebrate the ritual of the hunt of the little brother deer.

As present day Yaqui culture continued to emerge, the town became the focus of Yaqui life. By the 1880’s the Yaqui had differentiated themselves from the rest of Mexico. They refused to accept the inferior position of peasants and rejected individual authority, preferring to be guided by their collective values. Everyone in the town participated in the town’s business, whether military, civil, or religious. The town was an entity unto itself. It was governed by five different authorities- the governors, the customs authority, the church, the military and the pahkome (fiesta makers). All were equal in power and worked together to conduct the business of the community along with all of the people of the town as a whole, except in times of war. A captain of the military was elected to run all of the military operations during conflict, though he had no authority to enter peace treaties.

By the mid-1700’s, Spanish settlers were increasing in number in Yaqui territory and they tried to exert power over the Yaqui towns. In 1740 the Yaqui and the Mayo collaborated to revolt against the settlers, and the Autonomous Period began. They spared the Jesuits, but killed or ran off all others. The Jesuits were expelled from Mexico by the Spanish church and the Yaqui became somewhat autonomous for the next 150 years. They became very vigilant in their efforts to remain in control of their land and their local autonomy.

The Mexican revolution and eventual independence in 1821 signaled yet another time of change for the Yaqui. The Sonoran and Mexican governments tried to impose their will on the people, but the Yaqui stood up for their independence. In 1825, 2,000 Indians drove out all non-Yaqui s from their territory. Over the next sixty years the Mexicans laid waste to the Yaqui, killing people, food, and livestock. They tried to settle the lands and impose the hacienda land system, using the Yaqui as laborers. In 1887 military occupation of Yaqui territory was established. Population of the area went from 20,000 Yaqui to only 3,000. The great relocation of the Yaqui people had begun.

From 1887 through 1906, thousands of Yaqui fled their ancestral homeland. They spread throughout Mexico and north into Arizona or other states. They feared deportation. They assimilated with the Mexicans and stopped some of their ritual ceremonies. They settled in church-centered urban communities in Tucson and near Phoenix in Arizona, and in some Mexican cities. The ritual kinship introduced centuries ago became an even more important factor in the lives of families broken up by the diaspora. In the 1970’s, there were 18 Yaqui communities that maintained their own churches, give them autonomy in their traditional way of life. In 1992, there were eight Arizona Yaqui communities having a total population of nearly 6,000 people.

The people still have a certain devotion to the eight original Jesuit era towns on the Yaqui River. They are the sacred wohnaiki pweplum (The Eight Towns).

In 1964 the Pascua Yaqui Association was able to persuade the U.S. government to grant them 202 acres of land to establish New Pascua Pueblo. In 1978 the federal government recognized the people of New Pascua and the Pascua Yaqui Tribe. Since that time there has been a movement to increase adult training and employment opportunities for the Yaqui people. Revival of the Yaqui language, renewal of traditions, and the survival of Yaqui culture are all being pursued by the Pascua Yaqui Tribe. Dance, music, religious drama and oral literature survive today as an important part of that traditional culture.

The Deer Dance survives and is performed in Yaqui communities to this day. It is the epitome of the essence of the Yaqui people and stands today as a shining reminder of a culture forged through acceptance, resistance, and resiliency.

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