Although the Yaqui homeland is in Sonora, along the banks of the Rio Yaqui, there has been a Yaqui presence in what is now Southern Arizona for several hundred years, and the Yaquis are federally recognized as an Native American tribe.
Today there are six Yaqui communities in our state: one in Guadalupe near Tempe, one in Marana, and four in the Tucson area. The main reservation of Pascua Yaqui nation is to the south and west of Tucson. The ancestors of many Arizona Yaquis arrived here around 1900, fleeing from a Mexican government genocide program.
Yaquis are best known to outsiders through their complex and beautiful Native Christian ceremonialism, and especially their Lenten and Easter ceremony. Lasting for forty days, this is a drama depicting the persecution, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Introduced to the Yaquis by Jesuit missionaries in the early 17th Century, it was adapted to a Yaqui sensibility. It is indeed a drama, but rather than featuring individual actors speaking lines, the narrative is expressed by the silent marching and counter-marching of members of religious organizations. I’ll write more about it in the spring.
The Yaqui Deer Dancer is justly famous. Crowned with a deer head, wearing a belt of rustling deer hooves, and holding a gourd rattle in each hand, this solo dancer mimics the actions of a young deer, shy and alert. He is assisted by a small group of singers who play on rasping sticks and and a water drum.
He is joined by other dancers called pascolas who take turns doing solo step dances, first to harp and violin, and then to a flute and drum played by the same musician. These dancers and musicians can appear at educational and cultural events like Tucson Meet Yourself.
There will in fact be a large Yaqui presence at Tucson Meet Yourself this year, including musicians, dancers, instrument makers, carvers, painters and embroiderers. Such occasions present excellent opportunities for an introduction to Yaqui culture, but respectful visitors are always welcome at any one of the villages during the Easter and other public ceremonies.
By the way, the Yaqui name for themselves is yoemem — “the People.”