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Yaqui (pronounced YAH-kee). Their name came from the river, Rio Yaqui, along which they lived. Rio Yaqui most likely meant “chief river.” The tribe has also been called Cáhita, which is the name of their language. They refer to themselves as Yoeme, (sometimes spelled Yueme). The plural form of their name, Yoemem, means “The People.”


The Yaqui lived along the Yaqui River in Sonora, present-day northwestern Mexico. They claimed about 6,000 square miles (15,540 square kilometers) around what later became the Mexican cities of Sonora, Guaymas, and Ciudad Obregón. In the early twenty-first century the Yaqui reside in Mexico and on the Pascua Yaqui Reservation in southern Arizona. Some Yaqui still live in the Tucson area, although the city took over their original village in 1952. Yaqui reside in four communities in the Tucson area, plus Penjamo in Scottsdale, Guadalupe in Tempe, and High Town in Chandler.


Prior to European arrival there may have been as many as thirty thousand Yaqui. In 1760 about sixty-two thousand Yaqui lived in the Sonora and Yaqui River areas. That number dropped significantly to 11,501 by 1822. It reached a low of between seven thousand to nine thousand in 1932. In the 2000 U.S. Census, 15,632 people identified themselves as Yaqui only, while 23,414 claimed some Yaqui heritage. About sixteen thousand Yaqui resided in Mexico in 1993. In 1995 combined census figures reported 74,518 Yaqui in the two countries. In 2004 tribal sources reported an enrollment of 3,002 for the Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Arizona.

Language family


Origins and group affiliations

Descendants of the Toltec, the Yaqui traded with tribes throughout northern Mexico and the south-central United States, including the Comanche, Pima, Shoshone, Pueblo, and Aztecs. The Yaqui, along with many other groups in the Sonora area, spoke a dialect of Cáhita. During the 1700s many of these Cáhita-speaking tribes were absorbed into the Yaqui and Mayo communities.

Though the Yaqui are classified as a Southwest tribe, their lifestyle more closely resembled that of Native tribes to the north. They hunted and foraged, but also cultivated fields. They believed their land to be sacred. According to their oral history the singing of angels (batnaataka) had defined the boundaries in ancient times, so the Yaqui fought to protect their land from invasion. Known for their independence, they refused to be dominated and maintained their culture. They did, however, incorporate many Catholic beliefs and rituals into their traditional religious life.


Early Yaqui society

By 552 the tribe, descendants of the Toltecs, lived in small family groups from the Yaqui River in present-day Sonora, Mexico, to the Gila River. In addition to hunting and gathering, they grew vegetables and traded with other tribes. They traveled through what is now northern Mexico and the south-central United States to exchange goods with other tribes in those areas. Sometimes they even lived among these groups, but by 1414 they had become a distinct and united tribe.

Before the Europeans arrived the Yaqui lived in rancherías (small clusters of huts) scattered along the banks of the lower Yaqui River. These eighty rancherias were spread over a distance of approximately sixty miles (97 kilometers). Most settlements had fewer than 250 people who lived in dome-shaped houses close to the edge of the river.

Important Dates

1533: Spaniards led by Nuño de Guzmán enter Yaqui territory.

1609–10: Spanish and Native Americans attack Yaqui three different times; the Yaqui sign a peace treaty with Spain.

1740: The Yaqui revolt.

1821: Mexico gains its independence from Spain.

1880s: The Mexican government deports the Yaqui to work on plantations in the Yucatán.

1886: Almost four thousand Yaqui are captured by the Mexican army in the Battle of Buatachive.

1927: Another Yaqui uprising results in a settlement, and the tribe gains the rights to land along the Yaqui River.

1952: The original forty-acre Pascua Village becomes the property of the city of Tucson, Arizona.

1964: The U.S. government grants 202 acres to the Pascua Yaqui in Arizona.

1978: The Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Arizona receives federal recognition.

1982: The Yaqui tribe receives 690 additional acres.

1988: The Pascua Yaqui Constitution is signed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

1994: The Casino of the Sun opens.

Resistance to outside rule

In 1533 the first Spaniards entered the area led by conquistador Nuño de Guzmán (c. 1490–1544). The Yaqui asserted their rights to their territory by drawing a line in the dirt and insisting they would fight anyone who crossed it. The Spanish ignored the warning, but turned back when they lost many men. Over the next centuries the Yaqui continued to defend their land.

Beginning in 1609 a small force of Spanish soldiers, aided by approximately four thousand Native Americans, attacked the Yaqui. When that attempt failed, they tried twice more. Each time the Yaqui were successful in repelling the stronger forces. Nevertheless, they agreed to sign a peace treaty with Spain in 1610.

Lifestyle changes

Soon the Catholics built missions, creating the “Eight Towns.” The missionaries convinced the Yaqui to move to the vicinities around the eight churches and form permanent settlements. Adobe buildings were constructed, and the Yaqui changed from ranchería dwellers to pueblo, or town, people. (Adobe, pronounced uh-DOE-bee, is sun-dried mud made of a mixture of clay, sand, and sometimes ashes, stones, twigs, and straw.) They also accepted the Jesuits’ religious instruction. Although outwardly tribe members appeared to be Catholic, they continued to practice their own religion and kept their traditional customs. They also did not consider themselves subject to Spanish rule.

When a Yaqui prospector, Antonio Siraumea, discovered silver in 1736, miners flocked to the area. Siraumea filed a claim, and the court decided he had a legal right to the land. Still more and more people joined the Silver Rush; many settled on sacred Yaqui land. By 1740 the Yaqui had banded with a neighboring tribe, the Mayo, to defend their land. These battles were to continue for almost two centuries as the Yaqui fought first the Spanish, then the Mexicans.

Yaqui leadership

During these ongoing clashes,several strong Yaqui leaders emerged. The first, Juan Banderas (c. 1795–1833), attempted to unite the Opata, Mayo, and Pima (see entry) with the Yaqui to form their own nation. For two years he gathered a force around him and succeeded in pushing the Mexican capital south, but he was captured and killed in 1833.

War took a heavy toll on the tribe. In 1868 a large group of Yaqui men, women, and children were disarmed and locked in a church. All night long the Mexicans fired on the church, killing 120–150 of the 600 people inside. That and a smallpox epidemic dropped the tribe’s numbers to four thousand. Still the Yaqui continued to fight.

Cajemé (1837–1887) followed in Banderas’s footsteps and encouraged the Yaqui to unite and declare their independence. A Mexican military leader and a Yaqui, Cajemé was honored with the post of alcalde mayor, and used his position to fight for Yaqui rights. He insisted that he would not recognize the Mexican government unless his people could rule themselves.

After his home was burned and his family terrorized, he retaliated by attacking ranches, the railroad, and ships in port. In response, the Mexicans, under president Porfirio Diaz (1830–1915), began a campaign against the Yaquis. Tens of thousands of Yaqui were sold as slaves to work on Yucatán plantations; a large number of the people fled to Arizona. They continued to support their relatives in Mexico, though, by sending guns and supplies. In 1886 almost four thousand Yaquis were captured during the Battle of Buatachive.

Cajemé was apprehended and executed in 1887, and the Mexican army occupied Yaqui land. The government sent surveyors to divide the land, but the Yaqui, who believed in holding all land in common, rebelled. Their knowledge of the rugged terrain of that area allowed them to hold off their better-equipped attackers.

Short-lived peace

In 1897 the Yaqui signed a peace treaty with Mexico, but not all of the people agreed with this action. More than four hundred of them went into the Bacatete Mountains to defy the government. Within a few years the Sonoran governor, Izabal, ordered Yaquis arrested. Men, women, and children were rounded up. If the prisoners gave information on the rebels, they were set free, but their fellow Yaquis despised them. Those who had no information or refused to comply were divided into three groups. One group was shot, one deported, and one set free.

Between 1902 and 1908, approximately eight thousand to fifteen thousand of the thirty thousand Yaqui were deported. Again many Yaqui took refuge in the United States. A few years later, other families moved to Arizona to avoid the bloodshed during the Mexican Revolution (1910–20).

In 1916 Sonora’s governor, Adolpho de la Huerta (1881–1955), who was part Yaqui, attempted to restore Yaqui land and resolve differences. The nation’next president, Alvaro Obregon (1880–1928), reversed those decisions, and fighting began again. The Yaqui’s final battle occurred in 1927 at Cerro del Gallo (Hill of the Rooster). Mexico set up military posts in all the Yaqui villages. Although the Yaqui ceased fighting, they still say they were undefeated.

Changes for the better

In 1939 Mexican president Lázaro Cárdenas (1895–1970) instituted many reforms. In addition to outlawing capital punishment (which in Mexico consisted of firing squads) and building roads, he also changed the policies toward the Yaqui. He not only granted the tribe official recognition, he also gave them title to their land.

In the United States, thanks to the urging of Congressman Morris Udall (1922–1998), the Pascua Yaquis were given 202 acres of desert land in 1964. On September 18, 1978, the Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Arizona received federal recognition. This meant that they became an independent nation and that they were also eligible for federal funding and benefits. This has improved life for the Yaquis.

The Yaquis, however, are trying to get both the United States and Mexico to honor treaties that allow the people free access between the two countries. Because ties between the Yaqui in both countries are strong, the people often travel from one country to the other to visit relatives or attend festivals. Present border policies make this difficult.

Yaqui Population: 2000 Census

In 2000 U.S. Census takers asked people in the United States to identify the groups to which they belonged. According to that census (count of the population), 15,632 people identified themselves as Yaqui, and indicated they belonged to the groups listed below. These numbers do not reflect Mexican Yaqui.

Yaqui Population: 2000 Census
TribePopulation in 2000
Pascua Yaqui4,004
Yaqui alone11,587

“2000 Census of Population and Housing. Matrix 7: American Indian and Alaskan Native summary file.” Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Data User Services Division, American FactFinder, 2004.


Creation story

The Yaqui believe the Creator made ocean animals first; some of which moved onto the land and became humans called Surem. At first these Yaqui ancestors dwelt in peace, but then God, speaking through a small tree, warned the people of future troubles. When the Surem heard that invaders would try to take their land, some turned themselves into a tall, strong people called Yo’emem, or Yaquis, and trained themselves to fight. The Surem who chose not to fight returned to live inside the mountain. Some say they turned into ants.

Yaqui beliefs

Early Yaqui lived in the world of Huya Aniya (or anía), realm of timeless events. This world was divided into four parts: the world of animals, the world of flowers, the world of people, and the world of death. None of this changed when the Jesuit missionaries arrived and converted the people to Christianity.

Prior to the arrival of the missionaries the Yaquis had been sunworshippers, so when Christian missionaries pointed to the sky in reference to God in Heaven, they thought the missionaries were speaking of Itom Achai Taa’a, “Our Father Sun.” Thus, the Yaquis accepted the Jesuits and integrated Catholic beliefs into their ceremonies and dances, among them the Deer, Pascola, Coyote, Raccoon, and Naji (Water-fly) dances. In modern times they still retain many of these traditions, but their dances center around Christian holy days. The goal of these rituals is to improve the world and eliminate harm or evil. Most Yaqui believe that their yearly Easter rituals play a major role in sustaining the world.


About fifteen thousand Yaqui speak their original language, Cáhita, part of the Uto-Aztecan family. Quite a few people are tri-lingual (speak three languages). Many Yaqui who live near the U.S.-Mexican border speak Spanish and English in addition to their native language. Many vowels and several consonants in the Yaqui language are pronounced similarly to Spanish.

One unusual feature of the language is called sound symbolism. The way Yaqui speakers pronounce certain vowels reveals how they feel about something. The pronunciation can show approval or disapproval. Certain words can also have opposite meanings; watching a speaker’s hands is the only way to tell what he or she intends to say. For example, laute is used for both “slow” and “fast.” Rapid hand movements indicate “quickly,” while leisurely motions mean “slowly.”

Yaqui Words

The Yaqui often use sounds or gestures to make their intent clear as some words have more than one meaning. On the other hand, they have many words for relatives. Names that describe kin on the mother’s side are different from those on the father’s. And males and females use different terms for most family members.

When greeting each other the Yaqui are very formal, even with close friends. Four ways to say “hello” are listed below under “Greetings.” Some common Yaqui words are also included.


  • Aman ne tevote em yevihnewi … “I extend my greetings.”
  • Lios em chania … “God preserve you.”
  • Lios em chiokoe … “God pardons you.”
  • Empo allea … “May you rejoice.”

Other Yaqui Words

  • o’ow … “man”
  • hamut … “woman”
  • halla’i … “friend”
  • maaso … “deer”
  • taa’a … “sun”
  • meecha … “moon”
  • vaa’am … “water”


The Sonora Yaquis still use the traditional form of government. Important issues are discussed at a village council, called a junta. Council members include five kobanaom (governors), the pueplo yo’owe (former governors or elders), the sontaom (military society), church officials, and members of ceremonial societies. This group makes all tribal decisions.

Problems that arise between members of different pueblos are solved through joint meetings of the councils of both towns. The opinion of the elders is always respected. Ritual and prayers are a part of every meeting. Traditional punishments included being put in stocks or receiving lashes from a rawhide whip that an official, called the alawasin, carried around his waist.

In 1934 the Pascua tribe organized under the Indian Reorganization Act and now has a seven-member elected tribal council that includes a chairperson, vice-chairperson, and a secretary. In 1988 they adopted a constitution. Biweekly council meetings and community meetings occur regularly in the council chambers in Tucson.


In the early days the Yaqui were farmers who grew corn, beans, and squash. Like the Pima (see entry) they also raised cotton and made cloth products. The people exchanged food, fur, shells, salt, and other goods with many of the Southwestern tribes as well as the Aztecs. Many who lived along the rivers also fished. In addition, for much of their history, they served as skillful warriors.

At the start of the twenty-first century the three major sources of employment for the Pascua Yaqui included tribal government, gaming, and tourism. Tribal government is the largest employer on the reservation. In the 1990s the Yaqui opened a bingo hall and casino. Since 2001 the Casino of the Sun has netted the tribe more income than any other enterprise; it also employs 442 people. Income from the casino funds many educational and social programs.

To attract businesses to the reservation the tribe offers tax incentives in addition to the state of Arizona’s special job training funds. They also operate several businesses of their own including a plant nursery, a pet lodge, a smoke shop, a gas station, and a plant that manufactures adobe bricks.

In spite of the strides they have made, the unemployment rate in 2000 was 18 percent; lower than that of many other reservations, but still much higher than the rest of the United States. Per capita income was only $5,921 compared to the average national income of $21,587.

Most Mexican Yaqui retain their traditional farming lifestyle. Many grow wheat in addition to the three staple crops—corn, beans, and squash. Most also raise livestock. Making and selling bamboo mats, willow baskets, or pottery adds to their income. Some receive government checks. The largest expenses most Yaqui have are the costs of their lavish ceremonies (see “Religion” and “Festivals”).

Daily life


Several generations often live in the same house. The oldest person in the household is the head of the family, and the opinions and decisions of these elders are respected. In addition to parents, every child also has godparents, who are part of the religious ceremonies surrounding a child’s birth (see “Birth and naming”). All of these people form a mutual circle of support that make up the larger extended family.


The Yaqui lived in rancherías, small clusters of houses, along the banks of the Rio Yaqui (Yaqui River). One of the most important features of their homes were the ramadas, or hekka, which were porches open on three sides. Posts held up a roof made of matting or thatch. Ramadas provided shade from the sun and a cool place to sleep on hot nights. The Yaqui built rectangular homes using mesquite poles, which had walls of either cane mats or plaited cane coated with mud. Mesquite rafters supported layers of cane to form the roof. Inside they had cooking platforms, shelves, and storage bins. Many people also had cages for pet birds such as parakeets or doves. Most houses had two or three rooms.

After the Spanish arrived the Jesuits encouraged the people to abandon their rancherías and live in pueblos (villages). The church, built of adobe, was at the center of each town, giving it a place of prominence. In modern times many people have cross-shaped porches in front of their homes to serve as a reminder of the importance of religion in their lives.

Clothing and adornment

Before European influence the men may have worn pieces of cloth wrapped around their lower bodies, sometimes secured to look like pants, like the costumes many of them wear now during religious dances. Soon, however, they adopted the typical Spanish dress of that time.

Men wore cotton clothes in a style similar to that of Sonora farmers, but they often carried knives, pistols or ammunition pouches on their leather belts. They tied colored handkerchiefs around their necks. A sombrero (wide brimmed straw hat) and cowhide sandals completed their outfits. In Arizona many men adopted the American custom of wearing boots and ten-gallon hats.

Women wore brightly colored cotton blouses and long, full skirts. Over them, they wore rebozos (lengths of cloth used as shawls). They usually draped a cloth over their heads as well. They braided their long hair and often decorated it with colored ribbons. In the early twenty-first century many women wear blouses embroidered with beautiful floral designs. These are a reminder to the Yaqui of the importance of the flower world (see “Religion”).


As farmers the Yaqui depended on their crops for survival. Corn, beans, and squash were their staple foods. The Jesuits taught them to grow a variety of fruits such as figs, peaches, mangoes, and pomegranates in addition to wheat, sweet potatoes, and spices. Other crops included garlic, onion, melon, and tomatoes. They also depended on foods that grew naturally—cactus fruit, bean pods, seeds, and wild greens.

Because the Yaqui lived near the water, fish was their main source of meat. Those who lived near the ocean added shellfish to their diets; oysters and swordfish were especially popular. Men rarely hunted, but if they did, they generally went after small game like rats or rabbits, or sometimes a deer. After the Spanish introduced them to raising livestock, they had ready supplies of cattle, sheep, and goats for both meat and milk.


Traditionally Yaqui children were trained to be cooperative and think first of the group. The students’ culture and beliefs often conflicted with what they were taught once they attended public schools. For example, while schools stressed competition, the Yaqui believed in working for the benefit of others. Cultural differences caused difficulties for many Yaqui students. In 1985 a group of educational researchers identified some of these problems, and many schools adapted their teaching methods to accommodate Yaqui learning styles.

On the Pascua Yaqui Reservation students in grades K–12 attend Tucson public schools. Younger children have a preschool or Head Start program. Adult and continuing education classes are also available. In addition the Yaqui have support services for those who need help or tutoring, scholarship programs for college, and a computer lab where community members can access the Internet as well as take classes to improve their knowledge. The tribe also has language development programs to pass on tribal knowledge and history to the next generation.

Healing practices

Yaqui healers used both herbs and prayers to cure illness. They also needed to be skilled in identifying witches. They used dreams to do this, then held the proper ceremonies to heal the village or person who had been afflicted.

Some Yaqui today still use the ancient healing methods, which may date back as far as 2000 bce . According to one present-day healer, however, most of this sacred knowledge has been kept secret since the Spanish arrived and was only passed down privately in oral traditions. Though modern healers do not rule out surgery or medicine as last resorts, they believe most illnesses, including emotional and mental problems, can be cured with plants.

This science of healing is based on a reverence for, and understanding of, plants. As Grandfather Kachora, a Yaqui healer explains, plants “are living things full of energy of many kinds. They are filled with information and knowledge. It is possible to listen to a plant in such a way that this knowledge is imparted to one and assists one.”

Along with the benefits of herbs, Yaqui healers also depend on spiritual assistance from the Great Spirit. Purifying the body and mind is an important step in the healing process. A sweat lodge, or temescal, is a building for this purpose. Water is poured over hot rocks to create steam. Inner cleansing may also be practiced by fasting (not eating or drinking).

Many Yaqui in modern times rely on both traditional and modern treatments for illness. On the Pascua reservation the Yaqui Healer’s House combines an alternative medicine program with community health services such as diabetes programs, mental health services, substance abuse programs, and a dialysis center. In addition to a health clinic, they have two hospitals operated through the Indian Health Service.


Along with the intricate and brightly colored floral designs embroidered on their clothing and their pottery-making, the Yaqui are known for their mask-making. These masks are worn during religious ceremonies. Made from wood or paper, they are decorated in a variety of ways to represent different animals (butterflies, bulls, goats, owls, bats, and rabbits) or characters. Others have stylized designs. Although these are works of art, there are certain taboos associated with them. Masks are sacred and should never be given away or sold. They also may not be touched by other people, nor should they be stared at closely.

Music, dance, and drama are an important part of these ceremonies as well. As with many things in the Yaqui culture, music reflects their dual heritage. People may sing alabanzas (Spanish word for hymns) and use European instruments such as the harp or violin. Yet the songs of the Deer Singers and the accompanying instruments—tenevoim (strings of rattles made by sewing pebbles into cocoons of the giant silk moth), deer hooves, tampaleo (a small water drum played with one stick)—are clearly from a more ancient time. Their drama and dance also merge traditional beliefs with Catholism (see “Festivals”)


Birth and naming

Godparents had a very important part in Yaqui society. Though this idea is partially based in Catholic tradition, godparents had a much larger role in the tribe. A person could have many different godparents, and it was customary for godparents to take on the responsibility of caring for at least three children in the same family. This practice of having multiple godparents began after the Yaqui fled to Arizona during their ongoing battles with the Mexican government. Some have suggested it came about because people had separated from their families, so they created new ones through the godparent relationship. Another possibility may have been that, with so many Yaqui being killed and deported, a child might lose many godparents over the years.


The bride’s pascola (“old man of the celebration,” who acts as host) wears a pink scarf and ties his hair up with a pink ribbon. The musicians at the groom’s home are similarly adorned. The pascola, pretending he is a girl crying about leaving her parents’ home, carries a basket of toiletries as the procession walks to the groom’s home. Other family members carry bundles and baskets of food—tamales, tortillas, sweet bread, and vannaim (pudding).

At the groom’s home they place the food on a blanket on the front lawn by the patio cross, which is decorated with paper flowers and ribbons. The groom’s family stands behind the cross; the bride’s family, in front. A sister-in-law tells the bride this is the patio she will sweep. She also shows her where she will cook and wash dishes. The mother-in-law shows the bride where to grind corn.

Then the bride is taken to the room where the groom is waiting. They stay there and eat, while the rest of the party dines outside. Afterwards the couple goes outside to be counseled and advised. The pascolas (entertainers) continue all afternoon (see box “Easter Ceremony Participants”).


Deer Dancer

On important occasions such as religious holidays, weddings, funerals, and death anniversaries, a pahko is held. A pahko is a fiesta, or celebration, that usually lasts from dusk until dawn. The central part of these festivities is the Deer Dance. Long ago this dance was held before the people went out to hunt deer. Its purpose was to ask the deer’s forgiveness for killing it and to thank it for providing food.

The Maaso, or Deer Dancer, wears a white cloth covering his hair with a deer head mounted on top. Shaking gourd rattles, he dances to music from rasping sticks and a water drum. The Maaso dances alone, although other performers surround him. Some of these performers include the Moro (master of ceremonies); pahkolam (“old men of the fiesta” who give sermons, joke with the audience, and act like clowns); a violinist and harpist; a tampaleo (musician who plays the drum and flute at the same time); and deer singers (usually three men, one of whom plays the water drum, which represents the deer’s heartbeat).

The Deer Dance

In this story Walking Man is traveling through Seye Wailo, the wilderness where people go when they dream. The Yaqui believed the best songs came to people from Seye Wailo, or the Flower World.

One day, as Walking Man was out, he heard a sound from a hilltop. It was like a sound he had heard before at the time of year when the deer are mating. It was the clattering of antlers. He knew that the bucks would fight in this way during the mating time, striking their antlers together. But it was not that time of year and this sound was different. It was a softer sound and its rhythm was like that of a song. He went to look, but he could see nothing.

The next morning Walking Man rose before the sun came up and went back to that hilltop. He sat quietly on a fallen tree and waited as the sun rose. He began to hear that sound again, and he looked carefully. There not far from him were two big deer. They had huge antlers and, as they stood facing each other, they rattled their antlers together. Near them was a young deer. As Walking Man watched, he saw that young deer lift its head and lower it. It ran from side to side, leaping up and down. It seemed happy as it did this. Walking Man knew what he was seeing. He was seeing the deer do their own special dance. Though he had his weapons with him, he did not try to kill them. He watched them dance for a long time.

When Walking Man went down that hill, he had a thought in his mind. There were songs coming into his mind. When he rose the next morning, he went out to walk and as he walked he found a newborn fawn where its mother had left it hidden among the flowers. He made a song for that fawn. Then he went to the village and gathered some of his friends.

“I am going to make songs for the deer,” he said.

He took two sticks and put notches on one of them so that he could make the sound of the deer’s antlers. He showed one of the boys in the village how the young deer danced and had the boy dance that way as they played the deer song and sang.

So it was that the Deer Dance came to the Yaqui people, a gift from the deer, a gift from Seye Wailo.

Bruchac, Joseph. “Native American Animal Stories,” from Keepers of the Animals by Michael J. Caduto and Joseph Bruchac. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing, 1992.

Pascola, or Easter Ceremony

Each Friday in Lent (the weeks before Easter when people prepare for the holiday by giving up certain foods or bad habits) the participants go to the church for prayers and services. On Palm Sunday (one week before Easter) the Fariseos and Caballeros go door to door to collect money and food for the fiesta.

Rituals and church services occur every day during the week leading up to Easter, each one symbolizing the life and death of Jesus. The players enact all of the important events including the crucifixion and resurrection.

On Holy Saturday (the day before Easter) the Maestro and male singers set up in the fiesta ramada (a roofed shelter with one open side) along with the Pascolas and the Deer Dancer. After they have opened the ceremony, the Matachinis alternate dancing with rest periods and perform throughout the night. A straw Judas (the man who betrayed Jesus) is hung, and people throw flowers or confetti to “kill” the Fariseos.

To conclude the drama the Fariseos are draped in black, and their faces are covered with black scarves. Chapayekas wave their swords, bells are rung, Pascolas throw flowers, and everyone sings and dances. The Fariseos rush around trying to get into the church, but are repelled each time. Finally they run to the straw Judas, who is set on fire. They all throw their masks and weapons into the flames. Then their godparents throw coats over their heads and take them to the church altar to rededicate them to Jesus. Everyone else dances in celebration, then forms a circle around the church cross to listen to the Maestro’s sermon.

Easter Ceremony Participants

Two ceremonial societies—the Fariseos (foot soldiers) and Caballeros (usually horsemen)—take charge of the Easter Ceremony and do all the preparation and clean up. Fariseos represent the people who persecuted Jesus; their leader is called Pilate. Common soldiers, Cahpayekas, wear masks with long ears, short horns, and a long nose. They perform all acts left-handed and backwards and mock the other players. Because they are playing the part of evildoers, they hold crosses in their mouths so evil does not enter their hearts. They carry weapons and shake their belts of deer- and pig-hoof rattles, but cannot speak.

The church group plays the parts of Jesus (boys) and Mary (girls); their leaders are the Maestros, who preside over the religious services. Many women take part in these—women singers, altar women, girl flag bearers, and bearers of figures of Mary. Young children serve as angels.

Another important society is the Matachin dance society, composed of young boys who wear long skirts, embroidered shirts, ribbons sashes, and beads. They wear peaked cane caps with streamers attached to the top called sewa (flower). They carry gourd rattles and a feather to represent flowers. They serve as the soldiers of Mary, and their dance on Holy Saturday helps defeat the evil Fariseos.

Other festival dancers are the Pascolas, who wear bead necklaces ending in a cross and a cotton blanket around their hips and fastened below their knees. They tie their hair on top of their heads with red ribbon to look like a flower and have cocoon rattles, bells, and a carved wood mask with a long, white horsehair beard. The Deer Dancer performs with them. To close the fiesta, a Pascola gives a sermon.

Other festivals

Each town and church holds a Saint’s Day Fiesta to honor the patron saint for whom it is named. These celebrations are run like a pahko (fiesta or party) and include feasting, clowning, Pascola dancers, Deer Dancers, and an enactment of a drama.

The Arizona Yaqui remember their history on Tribal Recognition Day on September 18, the date they became a federally recognized tribe. Since 1999 the people have also hosted an annual Harvest Festival where they sell crafts, produce they have harvested, baked goods, and traditional foods. Live entertainment is also part of this gathering, which is open to public.

Current tribal issues

One problem the Yaqui face is that their tribe lives in two countries. In spite of that, the people have maintained close ties with family members and friends on each side of the border. They like to visit frequently and attend festivals in both Mexico and the United States. This freedom was assured years ago, but with the increase of border patrols, many people now have difficulty crossing the border. They are sometimes mistaken for illegal aliens.

In addition to border crossing difficulties, the Yaqui of Sonora, Mexico, are facing high rates of cancer and birth defects. Even very young people have been dying of cancer, and babies are being born with horrible deformities. Doctors have linked these deaths to the dangerous pesticides and chemicals used to spray the wheat and corn crops. Because many Yaqui work as farm laborers, they have been exposed to these cancer-producing agents on a regular basis. Most of these toxic chemicals have been banned in other countries, but Mexico does not have any import regulations to prevent them from being sold. Members of the tribe have begun holding educational seminars to inform people of the dangers of working with these pesticides.

Notable people

Juan Ignacio Jusacamea (c.1795–1833), also called Juan Banderas—Bandera means flag in Spanish—was a Yaqui leader. His flag was designed based on a vision. This vision also inspired him to lead the Yaqui to unite the Native American tribes of northwest Mexico. He hoped to create an independent people, but the Yaqui lost to Mexico in 1832, and Banderas was executed the following year.

José María Leyva (or José María Leiba Peres) (1837–1887) is one of the revered Yaqui heroes from Sonora, Mexico. Leyva joined the Mexican army as a young man. He was nicknamed Cajemé, “He who does not drink,” because he could go for long periods of time without water. He moved up to captain, then was later appointed governor. As a leader, he stood up for his people’s rights, and eventually went to war with Mexico. Historical sources note that Cajemé never tried to expand his territory, only defend it. He led the Yaquis in their fight against Mexico for many years until 1887, when he died in front of a firing squad.

Juan Maldonado (1867–1901) continued defending the Rio Yaqui territory after Cajemé was executed. People called him Tetabiate (or Tetaviakte), meaning “Rolling Stone.” He negotiated the peace agreement between Mexico and the Yaqui in 1897. Each year a celebration is held in his honor in July.

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Bogan, Phebe M. Yaqui Indian Dances Of Tucson Arizona: An Account Of The Ceremonial Dances Of The Yaqui Indians At Pascua. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2007.

Evers, Larry, and Felipe S. Molina. Yaqui Deer Songs, Maso Bwikam: A Native American Poetry. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1987.

Painter, Muriel Thayer. Faith, Flowers and Fiestas: The Yaqui Indian Year, A Narrative of Ceremonial Events. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1962.

Painter, Muriel Thayer. With Good Heart: Yaqui Beliefs and Ceremonies in Pascua Village. Edward Holland Spicer, ed. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1986.

Philip, Neil, ed. A Braid of Lives: Native American Childhood. New York: Clarion Books, 2000.

Chilcott, John H. “Yaqui Worldview and the School: Conflict and Accomodation.“Journal of American Indian Education, 24, 1 (January 1985).

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“The Great Yaqui Nation.” Manataka American Indian Council. (accessed on August 12, 2007).

“The Pasqu Yaqui Connection.” Through Our Parents’ Eyes: History and Culture of Southern Arizona. (accessed on August 12, 2007).

The Pascua Yaqui Tribe. (accessed on August 12, 2007).

“Seyewailo: The Flower World, Yaqui Deer Songs.” Words & Place: Native Literature from the American Southwest. (accessed on August 12, 2007).

“Vachiam Eecha: Planting the Seeds.” Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics. (accessed on August 12, 2007).

“Yaqui and Mayo Indian Easter Ceremonies.” RimJournal. (accessed on August 12, 2007).

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Ned Blackhawk, Associate Professor, Department of History, American Indian Studies Program, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Laurie Edwards

Laurie Edwards


views updated May 23 2018


ETHNONYMS: Cahita, Yoeme, Yoreme


Identification. The Yaqui, an indigenous people of southeast Sonora, Mexico, belong to a larger ethnic group known as the "Cahita." The great majority of the Yaqui nowadays live in the same region, but other Yaqui groups have settled in Arizona owing to the great Yaqui migration at the beginning of the twentieth century. Ethnographic literature has referred to all these people as "Yaqui" since 1645, when Andrés Pérez de Rivas wrote that people said, "Can't you see I'm a Yaqui?" He goes on to explain that this is what they used to say because the term meant "he who speaks in a loud voice" (Pérez de Ribas 1944, 65).

All Yaqui call themselves "Yoreme" (person or human); they also apply this term to Mayo Indians. When European missionaries heard of the similarities between the Yaqui language and that of the Mayo, they decided upon the native Cahita term to refer to both the language and its speakers.

Location. The original Yaqui group resided in a long coastal valley strip opposite the Sea of Cortés. The Jesuits, however, concentrated the population within eight villages from south to north along the Río Yaqui (27° to 31° N and 10.7° to 11° W). Their original territory has diminished considerably, and as of 1937 it has been restricted by presidential decree to an extension of 485,235 hectares, over which irrigation district no. 18 spreads. This semiarid zone consists of sandy clay and humic ground, with temperatures that vary from 0° C to 47° C; it includes a mountainous area, a coastal area, and an irrigated valley.

Demography. In the 1530s a population of 30,000 Indians was registered, a figure that decreased to 12,000 by 1830. After less than sixty years1830 to 1887, which corresponds to the period of the Yaqui warsnot more than 4,000 Yaqui remained in the valley. In 1905 there were 18,000 inhabitants. Because of the massive deportation and revolutionary wars, however, only 8,500 were left by 1930. According to the 1990 Mexican census, the number of Yaqui inhabitants of the state of Sonora has stabilized at about 10,000.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Yaqui belong to the Cahita Subgroup, which is a Taracahita Group from the Sonoran Branch of the Uto-Aztecan Family. The Cahita Language Group now consists of Mayo and Yaqui, which are mutually intelligible.

History and Cultural Relations

With respect to the pre-Hispanic period, a hypothesis of late Yaqui arrival in the river valleys is generally supported by the limited archaeological record as well as by colonial chroniclers. Approaches by the Spanish have been recorded since 1532. The first confrontations were with the ill-fated expedition of Diego Martínez de Hurdaide in 1607.

Toward 1610, the Yaqui accepted two Jesuit missionaries: friars Andrés Pérez de Rivas and Tomás Basilio. The Yaqui revolted against the missionary regime, however, and in 1741 a treaty was signed by which they acquired the rights to keep their own customs. Government would only be administered by members of their own group, and they would have total possession of their land as well as the right to retain their weapons. In 1767 the expulsion of the Jesuits brought the end of the relative peace the Yaqui had so far enjoyed and placed the communities under Franciscan governance. As a result, the Yaqui lost more territory to the colonists. By 1825, the Yaqui rebellion had begun. It would later mark the course of the relationship between the Yaqui and the subsequent regimes of the Mexican Republic. This period is often referred to as the "Wars of the Yaqui." It resulted in a drastic population loss and political imbalance, conditions that permitted the oligarchy, to continue colonizing the entire valley.

The genocidal offensive was intensified during Porfirio Diaz's rule, and thousands of Yaqui were expelled to Yucatán and Quintana Roo to be sold as slaves. Hundreds looked for refuge in Arizona, in the United States, where they have lived ever since in the towns of Pascua, Guadalupe, and Barrio Libre. The Yaqui participation in the revolutionary conflict was based on the promise by General Alvaro Obregón to return their land. The promise was not fulfilled, and a new revolt started. It lasted until the end of 1929, when President Emilio Portes Gil signed a peace agreement with the Yaqui that forced them to live under supervision by the army until 1936.

Through the agreements reached with President Lázaro Cárdenas, 485,235 hectares of land were ratified and acknowledged as exclusive Yaqui territory. Armed confrontations came to an end, and a period of reintegration began, during which several thousand Yaqui returned to their territories. In 1940 irrigation district no. 18 was created, and new plans for agricultural development arose. Owing to the construction of several dams, the river, a resource indispensable for production, was lost.


When the Jesuits arrived, the Yaqui resided in irregularly distributed settlements along the Río Yaqui. Such quarters consisted of wood-and-mud shacks in the form of domes. This pattern was changed by the missionaries when they moved natives into eight towns. Although two of these towns had to be abandoned on account of boundary struggles and floods, their traditional identity was preserved in the new settlements that replaced them. At present there are about one hundred hamlets and villages within the Yaqui territory, assigned for political, religious, and ritual purposes to one of the eight traditional towns. Traditional housing consists of only one or two rooms used for different purposes according to the season. Both walls and roofs are of reeds and mesquite mixed with mud.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Reliable sources indicate that precontact Yaqui were farmers who frequently had to emigrate because of floods. They grew maize, beans, calabashes, amaranth seeds, and cotton. They complemented such activity with hunting, fishing, and gathering, as well as raids on their closest neighbors. During the colonial period, labor was regulated by the missions. New crops were introduced, and production increased to such an extent that it was possible to satisfy local needs. During armed conflicts, the pacified Indians were left in charge of agriculture, whereas the "Broncos" alternated their fighting activities with work as laborers on haciendas. Nowadays the main Yaqui economic activity continues to be agriculture. Since 1940 the collective exploitation of the land has led to the end of subsistence agriculture and to a new need to sell farm products in order to buy food that was formerly produced locally. Other important economic activities are fishing and cattle raising (which are conducted through cooperative societies), wood cutting, coal mining, pitch mining, temporary migration, and the exploitation of salt deposits that have been in use since the time of the Jesuits.

Industrial Arts. The design and manufacture of ceremonial paraphernalia constitutes the main artistic activity of the Yaqui. This has no commercial purpose; the dancers and musicians themselves make the items for personal use. A few families are devoted to the manufacture of petates (sleeping mats), baskets, and reed crowns, while others make earthenware cups and saucers that are used exclusively at ceremonies.

Trade. From the time of the Jesuit missions, the farm produce from the eight traditional villages provided for other missions that were situated in less fertile territories. Currently, the crops and the catch are primarily destined for regional and national markets.

Division of Labor. Farm labor is primarily performed by men, but women help with certain activities during those periods requiring a larger labor force. Fishing, cattle raising, and work in the salt mines are almost exclusively done by male workers. Young women take teaching jobs and are employed as social workers and occasionally as home aides.

Land Tenure. Since the presidential acknowledgement of an exclusively Yaqui territory in 1936, the land-tenure regime has been communal. Every head of a family is assigned a piece of land on which to build a home and to work collectively in farming associations.


Kin Groups and Descent. Referring to the pre-Jesuit period, some writers, such as Ralph Beals, have suggested the existence of unilineal descent groups among the "Cahita." Currently, however, descent is bilateral and there are no exogamy rules between descent groups.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terminology is of a Yuman type and similar to the Opata, Tepehuan, and Tarahumara systems from the north of Mexico. The Yaqui system distinguishes relatives on the basis of the speaker's sex and relative age, particularly with respect to the first ascending generation.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. All marriage prohibitions have to do with blood relatives and compadres. It is traditional that the bride's and the groom's families reach an agreement and exchange gifts before the actual ceremony takes place. The majority of weddings are performed according to Catholic religious norms; however, this is not an indispensable requirement for the children to be legitimate. Common-law marriages and the separation of spouses occur quite frequently.

Domestic Unit. The basic residence unit is the ho'akame, or neighborhood, consisting of a group of relatives who live in one or two lodges. There are no rules for residence, and authority is entrusted to the oldest able-bodied adult male.

Inheritance. When the head of the family dies, the oldest adult is compelled to decide what should happen to the ho'akame in general; there is no individual assignation of the land or property.

Socialization. The domestic group as well as civil, military, and religious societies socialize the young. Adults teach traditions and customs to the young, beginning with the mother tongue. The grandmother helps the parents care for the children. Both boys' and girls' education is complemented by school-sponsored attendance at traditional festivities.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The Yaqui "tribe" includes every individual born within Yaqui territory or to Yoreme parents. Every Yaqui residing in a small village or quarter in the territory is assigned to one of the eight traditional towns, each of which is a political, military, and ritual unit. The Yaqui leader resides in Vicam Pueblo. The internal political organization of each of the eight towns is identical, consisting of five governing groups, or yau'uras: the civil authorities, the military authorities, the fiesta authorities (fiesteros ), the church authorities, and the Holy Week customs authorities (kohtumbre yau'uras ).

Political Organization. The highest political authority in each of the towns is comprised of the five elected governors (cobanaos ) of the civil authority, who are hierarchically organized and are complemented by a group of elderly men. They are responsible for economic administration, relations with external agents, and relations with the Mexican government. The governors of the eight towns do not assemble except on special occasions requiring decisions with respect to the entire tribe and its allies.

Social Control. The military authority is in charge of keeping order and carrying out punishments when offenses are committed during the ceremonies. When there is a robbery, murder, or assault, justice is in the hands of the state courts. The federal and state government have appointed agents in each town to act as police. The presence of these outside authorities has frequently caused friction.

Conflict. Yaqui history has been an almost uninterrupted series of armed strugglesfirst against the Spanish conquerors and later against a local oligarchy and the Mexican federal government. Since the presidential decrees of the 1930s, the Yaqui struggle has been directed at defining their southern territorial boundary and controlling adjacent marine resources. The governors of the eight towns keep in touch with the inhabitants at weekly meetings. Because of the success of this political system, other types of government imposed by the state have been rejected.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Five days after the first two Jesuit missionaries set foot on Yaqui territory, they had already christened five thousand Yaqui natives. Today Yaqui religion is a complex syncretism of native and Catholic beliefs. There are no contradictions whatsoever between them, nor any supremacy of one over the other. The Virgin Mary is identified with Itom Aye (Our Mother) and Jesus Christ with Itom Achai (Our Father). Jesus appears in myth as a Yaqui culture hero, to whom the Pascola, Deer, and Coyote ritual dances are attributed; the Matachines ritual dance is attributed to the Virgin.

Religious Practitioners. The church authorities are the trustees of the liturgy and ritual knowledge that underlie the cults of the patron saints of each town. They also preside over rites of transition. The members of a cofradía (religious brotherhood or fraternity) remain under oath and occupy hierarchical ranks. Their maximum authority is the liturgical master, or yo'owe. The yo'owe masters and the te mastian (liturgist) of every single town once assisted the missionary in his teaching, and they remained in charge of performing religious rites after the deportation of the Jesuits. Today a Catholic priest goes to each town on Sundays to say Mass. The "singers" are lower in the hierarchy. Following them are the women in charge of the altars and temples, then the young girls who carry the banners during rituals, and then the boys who participate in the Holy Week ritual and the Matachines.

Ceremonies. The people responsible for the fulfillment of the ritual cycle in every village are the fiesteros, eight men and eight women who are responsible for the celebrations in honor of patron saints. As in many areas of rural Mexico, there are two groups: Moors (who wear red costumes) and Christians (who wear blue costumes). The celebrations are a ritual contest between the two. The Yaqui ritual cycle follows the liturgical Catholic calendar but puts more emphasis on particular dates and defines two different periods very clearly: Lent and regular time. During Lent, strict prohibitions are imposed on the people and on the kohtumbre yau'ura. During the rest of the year, traditional rites and festivities are classified as follows: organization festivities, religious- and military-fraternity festivities, trade-union festivities, and required Catholic church festivities.

Arts. Yaqui dancing and music go together in their ritual practices. Matachines, Pascola, Deer, and Coyote dancers make a spiritual promise to perform after they are called to their vocation in dreams. The same happens to the musicians who accompany them. Poetry, literature, and plastic arts have evolved in all eight towns.

Medicine. Traditional curative practices coexist with modern ones. Traditional curers, most of whom are female, do not have a superior social status. This occupation is inherited from one of the parents or an ancestor who transmits knowledge of the supernatural, herbs, different types of illness, and curative rites. The main curative techniques are purification, preparation of herbal remedies, and kneading.

Death and Afterlife. Beliefs about death are blended with Catholic elements. Funeral rites, however, have a hallmark of their own. Four godfathers of death are in charge of the funeral rites. At the end of the year in which a person dies, a ritual takes place to commemorate the event.

See alsoCahita


Beals, Ralph L. (1943). "The Aboriginal Culture of the Cahita Indians." Iberoamericana (Berkeley, Calif.), no. 19.

Favila, Alfonso (1940). Las tribus yaquis de Sonora, su cultura y anhelada autodeterminación. Mexico City: Departamento de Asuntos Indígenas.

McGuire, Thomas R. (1986). Politics and Ethnicity on the Rio Yaqui: Potam Revisited. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Olavarría, María Eugenia (1989). Análisis estructural de la mitología yaqui. Mexico City: Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia.

Pérez de Rivas, Andrés (1944). Triunfos de Nuestra Santa Fé entre gentes las mas bárbaras y fieras del Nuevo Orbe. 3 vols. Mexico City: Layac.

Spicer, Edward H. (1969). "The Yaqui and Mayo." In Handbook of Middle American Indians, edited by Robert Wauchope. Vol. 8, Ethnology, Part Two, edited by Evon Z. Vogt, 830-844. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Spicer, Edward H. (1980). The Yaquis: A Cultural History. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.