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Cultural Setting


THE YAQUIS are a Sonoran tribe. They are Cahitan-speaking peoples, affiliated linguistically with the Tarahumaras, Opatas, Conchos, Mayos, and other nearby tribes. Aboriginally, the Yaquis and the Mayos occupied the flood plain areas from the town of Sinaloa north to the pueblo of Cumuripa on the Yaqui River in Sonora (Sauer 1934: 79). Cahitans are of the Uto-Aztecan stock. Of the tribes which adjoined the Cahitan territory to the north, only the Hokan-speaking Seris were not Uto-Aztecans. On the east, the Cahitans were bordered by the Sonoran tribes of the foothills. These tribes separated the lowland Cahitans from the Tarahumaras of the plateau who were also of Uto-Aztecan stock. On the south, the Cahitan area was bordered by rude, barranca or coastal tribes such as the Guasave. These were possibly variants, culturally and linguistically, of the Cahitans. No equal number of people spoke a single language in northern Mexico (Sauer 1934: 22-28).

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Brief History

YAQUIS have been in close contact with European culture since the Spanish conquest of their region by Jesuit missionaries in 1617. The Spaniards influenced Yaqui religion through the work of the Jesuits, but they also instigated changes in the material culture and social organization of the natives. The Indians were gathered from scattered rancherías into eight large pueblos, each with its church at the center. Governors were appointed by the Spanish and new forms of civil rule were introduced. For the Yaquis, the period of Jesuit occupation was one of peaceful acculturation and material development.

In 1767 the Jesuits were expelled from the region. Foreigners exploiting the riches of the area brought the Yaquis to a state of unrest. The new Mexican government attempted to tax the Yaqui land. In 1825, Juan Banderas began a united Indian revolt against the Mexican inhabitants of the Yaqui region (Troncoso 1905: 112). For six years fighting continued intermittently and the Yaquis learned the use of fire-arms. Temporarily they drove out the Mexican settlers.

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These early victories of the Yaquis can be attributed to the weakness of the politically disunited Mexican government. As Mexican internal unity was re-established, war without quarter ensued. This was the beginning of a century of intermittent strife between Mexicans and Yaquis.

In 1876, the great Yaqui leader, Cajeme, took advantage of Mexican disunity in Sonora to drive again the Mexican settlers from the Yaqui valley. When Cajeme was executed by the Mexicans in 1887, another Indian leader, Juan Maldonado Tetabiate, continued the revolt of his people. As the strength of the Mexican army increased, Yaquis were forced either into guerrilla bands in the rugged mountains of the region or into hiding as laborers on Mexican ranches, in mines, or on the new railroad which was being built. Indians in hiding secretly sent supplies to their troops in the hills, and the raiding continued.

In the early 1900's Governor Yzábal of Sonora inaugurated a policy of deportation against the Yaquis. Captives were sent to Yucatan to work on henequen plantations. Many executions took place (Calvo 1949: 96). Peaceful Indians suspected of helping the raiders were hunted out. Many were killed and families were separated. This caused a great reduction in the numbers and efficiency of forces in the mountains, since their source of ammunition was cut off. Mexican settlers filtered back into the Yaqui valley under protection of Mexican troops (Spicer 1943a: 23).

However, small bands of Yaquis still fought on until as late as 1927. Thus, for forty years Yaqui culture was forced into dormancy. A few Indians were living in the hills and many more were living

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and working with Mexicans and so were subjected to various foreign influences. Since 1927 some nine thousand Yaquis have returned to their region, repopulating many of their old pueblos and following the old way of life.

In 1937 the Mexican government's attitude changed toward the Indians. President Cardenas set aside for the Yaquis twenty per cent of their original territory (Fabila 1940: 194). Here they live today under Mexican military supervision, although they govern themselves in most ways.

Since the late 1920's the official Mexican policy has been more friendly and constructive, aimed toward educating the natives, improving their material welfare and attempting to break down past social barriers between Indians and the Mexicans. However, social barriers in the region are still very real. Slowly, the new policy of contact is inaugurating a period of acculturation for the Yaquis along lines of directed change. There has been and promises to be little decay in the traditional ceremonial life of the Yaquis which has survived the period of persecution and forms the backbone of Yaqui culture as it is being practiced today (Spicer 1943a: 28).

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THE FEELING among Yaquis, wherever they may be, is that the true center of their culture is in the eight pueblos which cluster about the mouth of the Rio Yaqui in Sonora, Mexico. In recent years, five of the eight pueblos have suffered varying degrees of depopulation. The nine thousand or so Yaquis in their valley today live mainly in the Pueblos of Potam, Vicam and Torim. Various small rancherías are scattered along the river, Some Indians live in all of the traditional eight pueblos except one, Belen, which is deserted because of a complete lack of water in its vicinity.


THE YAQUIS are agricultural. Twice each year floods make the rich, alluvial land along the river ideal for crop raising. In order to farm, the river bottom is first cleared of a dense covering of underbrush, such as tuna and pitahaya, native bamboo, willow, large mesquite trees and cottonwood trees. The aboriginal crops of corn, beans, and squash are supplemented by foods introduced by the Spaniards and Mexicans. Wheat is grown in quantities enough for export. Cattle, horses,

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mules, goats, pigs, and chickens are now an added source of livelihood (Fabila 1940: 8-33). Some wild foods are gathered from the wilderness (called monte by the natives), such as honey, wild greens, and tubers. Snares are set for small animals. Larger game abounds in the foothills, and fish are caught in the Gulf of California.

Nearly all Yaquis live from the land, although the making and selling of bamboo mats, willow baskets, or wheel-made pottery supplements the economy. Also an important item in the support of nearly every Sonoran Yaqui family today is the wages paid every two weeks to most Yaqui men, as soldiers (Spicer, E. H. and R. B. 1942). This approximates a form of dole.

The greatest economic drain upon Yaqui families, outside of bare living costs, appears to be the expense of their ceremonial and religious obligations (Spicer 1940b: 44-47, 236-237). The fulfillment of all such ceremonial obligations is of primary importance to the community. In fact, when religious affairs conflict with farming or some other job, the job suffers. Since the church governor (teopo kobanao) works year round at official duties and has little time for farming, he is often supported by the people of the pueblo.

No great extremes exist in regard to wealth, although some are better off than others.

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The Past

ACCORDING TO what has been reported of Yaqui culture in early times, they were an agricultural food-gathering and hunting group, living in rancherías scattered along the lower reaches of the Yaqui River. They used a wooden mortar in preparation of foods, hunted with bow and arrow (sometimes poisoned), clubs, and perhaps spears. A carrying yoke was employed, as it is today. Their clothes were made of skins. Tattooing and nose and ear-piercing were practiced. They lived in small, scattered clusters of houses, until the missionaries brought them into eight larger communities, each centering about a church. Their homes no doubt resembled the spacious, rectangular units with adjoining ramadas in which the Yaquis live today.

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Social and Ceremonial Patterns

SPANISH INFLUENCE brought a greater development of agriculture and a gradual change to European modes of dress. During the last century the Yaquis adopted the use of fire-arms. The bow is now used only ceremonially and in hunting, sometimes by children. Lately, some modern mechanical devices have been adopted in the household, and a few machines are used in the fields. Some native craft work is still made by both men and women. Foreign crafts such as wheel-turned pottery and machine sewing are usual.

TODAY, the Yaqui social and religious patterns are strongly reflective of the Spanish culture which was imposed from the seventeenth into the nineteenth centuries. The Yaqui military organization, god-parent system, and much Catholic tradition and ritual were adopted from the Spaniards and merged with aboriginal practices to give a distinctive cast to what, by the late 1800's, was a well-integrated culture. Yaqui society is different from that of the Mexicans of the region not only because of its aboriginal aspects but also because it has retained antiquated traits of seventeenth century Spanish culture.

In Sonora the Yaquis still govern themselves in the old way. Matters of importance to the pueblo are discussed at a village meeting or council, called a junta. This is attended by the five governors (kobanaom), the ex-governors, or elders (pueplo yo'owe), the military society (sontaom), and the church officials and members of ceremonial societies. This body of civil, military, and

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religious leaders discusses and decides all matters. Cases involving people from different pueblos are treated by a joint junta of the pueblos concerned. Ritual and praying accompany the discussion at these gatherings. The opinion of the elders is respected. A Yaqui culprit's punishment may be measured in the lashes of the rawhide whip carried about the waist of an official called the alawasin. The stocks, also an early Spanish method of punishment, are known to the Yaquis.

The oldest man or woman in the household is considered its head. Often three generations dwell together in a household, which is the basic unit of Yaqui society. There is no apparent rule stating whether a newly married couple should live with the boy's or the girl's parents. The god-parent relationships, sanctioned by the church, are an important part of the social structure. These supplement the primary kinship circle and are a stabilizing factor in the community. These relationships have been enlarged and specialized by the Yaquis and provide each person with a wide circle of ceremonial kin with mutual obligations.

Little is known, from record, of the social
and religious life of the Yaquis before Spanish contact. It is difficult, today, to determine which of their cultural practices are aboriginal survivals. Spicer suggests similarity between aboriginal Yaqui social and religious organization and that of the more advanced Pueblo groups of the Southwest. According to him, survivals in Yaqui culture indicate the "possibility of patrilineal clan (gens) groups, an important system of ceremonial societies somewhat similar to those of the Pueblos, and an elaborate ceremonial calendar and ritual"

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[paragraph continues] (Spicer 1940a: 22). The Yaquis' early kinship system, which is being partly replaced by the Mexican system, is considered Yuman in type. The relative age distinctions, evident in kinship terminology, are still remembered in terms employed for members of the elementary family. Although Yaqui interpretations of Catholic ritual surround birth, marriage, and death, often symbols of the earlier ceremonialism accompany them. The formal structure of aboriginal ceremony has disintegrated, but fragments of it remain interlaced with the new Catholicized religious organization.

Since Jesuit times, Yaqui community life has centered about the church. All village officials, civil and military as well as religious, have duties in the church. Both religious and social activities are centered about the events of the Catholic calendar and the performance of the ceremonies attending birth, confirmation, marriage and death (Spicer 1940b: 104-236, 95-116). These, rites and ceremonies take place both in the church and the household.

Next: Yaqui Story Telling