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Ornaments of the Rio Yaqui and Beyond

For Yoemem, and neighboring indigenous nations, land was and continues to be central to their survival, both in a material and spiritual sense.
Delberto Dario Ruiz

Issue #61, September 2002

Dead bodies swinging from trees leave spiritual scars difficult to erase in the span of a lifetime, much like the flag of violence and what it represents for subalterns as it wags from the tongues of politicians bent on more war. Or especially if it has drooped from flagpoles in too many penitentiaries housing a disproportional amount of people of color, not to mention those flags used to drape caskets of war victims.

The red signifies the blood this country has endured for over five hundred goddamned years of treacherous racism. Blue, the ever-increasing military and police state colors the voice of "hue-people" with notes that leaves one singing nothing but the blues. And finally white, the same "lovely white" Benjamin Franklin wrote about in Observation Concerning the Increase of Mankind (1751) — or more to the point white supremacy. To forget or deny such is true would be an inexcusable act and disrespect for those who gave their lives so we — the Yoemem and other subalterns — could continue to exist and resist.

Yoemem and Bodies of History

Some of the bodies from previous centuries that come to mind as I write now: the countless Yoemem hanged throughout Sonora, and the countless Yoemem rounded up and shipped to Oaxaca and the henequen plantations in Yucatan. Yoemem were signaled out for deportation and a life of slavery for no other reason than being Yoemem, caught up in a global division of labor with whites on top and others on the bottom.

Darkness by Alexander HughesIn the late 19th and early 20th centuries the Yoemem endured the porfiriato plan of pan o palo (bread or club) under which President Porfirio Dìaz's regime carried out programs to rid the Rìo Yaqui valley of Yoemem. Couched in the terminology of pacification, such a program is more accurately descried for what it was — violent violations of basic human rights. The underlying issue was land for capitalist ventures and equated concepts of value. In this case, as in similar cases, the value of Yoemem lay on their willingness to accommodate the colonizers' political, social and capitalist desires.

For Yoemem, and neighboring indigenous nations, land was and continues to be central to their survival, both in a material and spiritual sense. Such ways for viewing and interacting with the land for Yoemem and their neighbors, had long been practiced before Spaniards, then Mexicans and finally US citizens and Europeans forced their capitalist avariciousness and glaringly bankrupt spiritual entities upon and throughout the Amìricas.

As a Yoemem, these accounts are difficult for me to talk about and even more disturbing to write about. The humans who I write about here are my ancestors-many who guide me now as I write these words. Leslie Marmon Silko's punctic passage from Almanac of the Dead shocks, jolts and saddens the reader as she recounts the brutality of the military campaign against Yoemem, Geronimo and other "native" threats to the Mexican government:

...hanging in all the lovely cottonwood trees along the rives and streams throughout this land. Swaying in the light wind, rags of clothing flapping the shrunken limbs into motion. They try to walk, they try to walk — the feet keep reaching long after the neck has broken or the head has choked. In those days the Mexican soldiers were not particular about how many they killed so long as they were Indians . . . They were all hunting the Apaches running with the man they called Geronimo. That was not his name. . . The man encouraged the confusion. He has been called a medicine man, but that title is misleading. He was a man who was able to perform certain feats.

Missing from most historical accounts in Mexico and the US is how Apaches and Yoemem were forced to engage in struggles for survival. Most narratives depict the Apaches and Yoemem as "hostile factions." However, in contrast to whites, Yoemem and Apaches were not motivated by a racist-colonialist-capitalist endeavor to create an empire; instead their actions are about survival and about the desire to be left alone. Apaches and Yoemem who successfully outmaneuvered Mexican and US government military forces are rarely portrayed as formidable thinkers. Their beautiful aesthetic that aided thinking about and negotiating the horrible persecution they faced on a daily basis is glaringly overlooked. Instead we are consistently bombarded with the "heroics" of the great settlers, the original cannibals — those who came to conquer.

White Supremacist Narratives

Such master narratives continue to be disseminated through racist grade school and high school curricula across the nation, designed to bolster a white supremacist agenda while simultaneously discounting a more accurate depiction of what, how and why the United States was founded upon — white supremacy. Such narratives would have us believe the "pioneers" (not invaders) experienced tremendous hardships — and I suppose they may well have. Missing, however, is that whites would not have lived without the critical assistance of Native American generosity and knowing. One glaring problem with such Euro-centric ways for conveying the histories of the Amìricas is the effective and overwhelming veiling of those who experienced far greater hardships at the hand of the Euro-invaders and their relentless and glaringly repeated acts of violence.

The intruders were hell-bent on taking that which never belonged to them. They terrorized, raped, tortured, and killed. A thief, murder and rapist, regardless of motive, remains a thief, murderer and rapist in contrast to racist justifications attempting to minimize and discount such acts as mirroring those of other societies that came before. Such responses to the genocide carried out by Europeans across the Amìricas are nothing more than ploys to further obscure the truth. Hitler, Mussolini, Idi Amin, as others too numerous to mention here, are all complicit and in many ways mirrored and utilized similar methods for displacing, disposing and killing on a scale that can be described as calculated, brutal, extensive and appalling. Such acts can be accurately summarized as linked to what Silko and others call the, "witchery ways" devoid of conscious human feelings and their devastating consequences.

During periods of history when the US government extended its policies aimed at eradicating North American Indians, Mexican officials similarly focused on the Yoemem in the northern region of what is now referred to as the Sonoran state of Mexico. The Mexican government and transnational mine owners had long wished to oust the Yoemem from their rightful lands. The Yoemem, for their part, never relinquished their own desires to remain upon their land. Yoemem believe that the land was given to them by the Creator to care for. The land was not to serve them, but rather humans were here to serve the land. Yoemem, as other nations, paid dearly for their resistance to colonization and displacement. A great number of Yoemem women, children and men perished under the different Mexican political regimes that sought to eliminate them.

Resistance and Interconnection

How did the Yoemem survive and resist under conditions that can be succinctly described as relentless persecution and unwavering determination by outside forces to see them eradicated? One answer lies in the Yoemem staunch refusal to be dominated. In addition, Yoemem have always known where they are from and as Silko states "stolen" land cannot have a title:

Not by any definition, not even by the Europeans' own definitions and laws. Because no legal government could be established on stolen land. Because stolen land never had clear title.

From 1830 to 1859, then-governor of Sonora Manuel Gìndara was the main political force in Sonora. In Gìndara's final closing battles against General Pesqueira from 1857 to 1862, Yoemem were forced to engage in a continued military counter-effort against the Pesqueira faction. Pesqueira finally entered the Rìo Yaqui and Rìo Mayo Valley area in 1862 after first defeating Gándara. A staunch believer in enforced "peace" (much as we see with the current war on Afghanistan), Pesqueira and his assistant, Colonel Garcìa Morales, initiated a relentless campaign against Yoemem and Yoremem. Many were captured and executed; Yoemem lands, together with those of the Yoremem, were ruthlessly destroyed. Among the most heinous acts committed by General Garcìa Morales's and his forces was the burning of some 450 Yoemem children, women and men as they prayed for their lives in the Bacum church located along the Rio Yaqui.

Over the years leading up this particular massacre and those that followed, the Yoemem had "opened up a can of whup-ass." After defeating the Spaniards, not once, but three times, the Yoemem pressed for peace. Rarely do victors initiate peace negotiations with the losing side. This is but one example of how Native Americans have consistently demonstrated remarkable humanitarian restraint that challenges the self-professed superiority of the invaders. For Europeans, such acts read as signs of weakness or anomalies. From the subaltern side of the colonial difference, these initiatives are signs of a spiritual consciousness not fully comprehended by those blinded and maddened by the sight and smell of blood. In fact, with pomp and ceremony on April 15, 1610, General Hurdaide agreed to an honorable, if not baffling peace agreement. Perhaps his agreement becomes clearer when one considers how a defeat is usually enough to alter one's perception toward a perceived nemesis.

When the Yoemem were first invaded by dirty, foul-smelling, disease-carrying Spaniards in the 16th century they were an agricultural society dispersed in rancherias, or small settlements, throughout the Yaqui Valle in the southern part of Sonora. Linguistically, culturally and, "phenotypically" they share many commonalties with the Yoremem (Mayo) tribe, which lies directly south in yet another river valley. Yoemem, Yoremem and a dozen other tribes speak a language closely resembling that of the Aztecs. As a result, they have been lumped together under a classification the Spaniards referred to as Cahita, which is closely linked to the Uto-Aztecan language. They share this language with tribes to the south of them, as well as with the Hopis in the Four Corners region of Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico.

Linking these tribes through their linguistic commonalties points to their obvious interactions. In other words, prior to the arrival of the invaders from Europe, tribes had long-established forms for interacting and exchanging ideological and material forms. In short, concepts of political borders were virtually non-existent prior to the arrival of Europeans. What modernity and colonialism introduced — two sides of the same coin since 1492 — has been the establishment of native Others. Prior to this period there existed no notions of "race" as we refer to it. Hence, with the arrival of the Spaniards, entire ways for living foreign to the original inhabitants were suddenly and disturbingly imposed on communities that had markedly different ways of viewing the world, and all that makes up the universe-both tangible and not.

The most commonly-known Yoemem communities are the eight villages, or ho'ara as they are called in Yoemem. Others, like US and Mexican nationals, refer to them as los ocho pueblos. The eight ho'ara are the direct result of Jesuit consolidation of the dispersed population from over eighty rancherias into eight mission towns by the 17th century. The following words from Calabazas, one of the Yoeme characters in Leslie Marmon Silko's Almanac of the Dead, speak to concepts of space and place imposed by the various invaders and to a Yoemem Weltanschauungen antagonistic to such socially, politically and economically imposed Euro-constructs:

We don't believe in boundaries. Borders. Nothing like that. We are here thousands of years before the first whites. We are here before maps or quit claims. We know where we belong on this earth. We have always moved freely. North-South. East-West. We pay no attention to what isn't real. Imaginary lines. Imaginary minutes and hours. Written law. We recognize none of that. And we carry a great many things back and forth. We don't see any border. We have been here and this has continued thousands of years. We don't stop. No one stops us.

For Yoemem, their homelands were established by a divine fiat and supernatural sanctions. From East to West the names of the villages are as follows: Cocorit, Bacum, Torim, Vicam, Potam, Rahum, Huiviris and Belem. For millennia, a connection to the land has been of utmost importance to Yoemem culture. In their view, The Creator, in the Yoemem worldview, is directly responsible for having bestowed upon them the Yoemem lands. Deep-seated beliefs — of which a more powerful and resolute relationship cannot be found within Yoemem culture — affirm a sense of place and responsibility for maintaining a sacred spiritual relationship with the land and all of its inhabitants. As such, the Yoemem fight to survive does not include any desire to create an empire, to dominate others, or to subjugate humans to sub-human positions. In contrast to Western ideology, Yoemem worldviews are grounded in living with the universe and all of its inhabitants, and not in a constant cycle of destruction, greed and death.

Etehoi, Etehoi

Today, when overt persecution has been replaced by covert persecution, Yoemem culture and tribal solidarity are subject to more subtle change-producing forces, and yet nonetheless the basic context of Yoemem culture seems remarkably unrelenting. One explanation can be found in an adamant refusal to relinquish ceremonial practices. At the same time, oral stories passed down from generation to generation are also critical for reinforcing specific social identities amongst Yoemem. The recent historical novel Dreams of the Centaur (1996) by Montserrat Fontes describes a mother's attempt to maintain her family under oppressive conditions during the forced exodus of Yoemem from their lands under the death-dispensing regime of Porfirio Dìaz and his pan o palo policy. But most Yoemem stories come from an oral tradition. For more than a few Yoemem, these stories assist in remembering where we come from and where we must go. Etehoi, a Yoemem word for tellings, contributes to countering colonial discourses:

Etehoi, the Yaquis call it. Tellings. Etehoi is how Yaquis record events, according to Jose. He'd keep after Tacho, saying "Etehoi, etehoi," until he'd prodded the old man to tell him again of the Cajeme days. (Fontes, Dreams)

For Yoemem, these etehoi and bwikam chronicle events that contribute to creating almanacs for those here and those to come. As Silko also writes in Ceremony, "don't be fooled, they are not just stories." If we want to go to the moon, to paraphrase Silko, we have to know the stories.

Re-tellings like these are but a fraction of the violations inflicted upon, resisted by, and told by Yoemem. Sadly there are far too many more. It is my hope that in revisiting tellings we can build a better tomorrow. If not, then at least we go down fighting. Emiliano Zapata reportedly once said, although not in English, "I would rather die on my feet than live on my knees. . .". I too would rather go out raging against the "machine" than accept the racist discourses, policies, and sanctions resulting in material and spiritual caging of Others. In a country driven by violence it is not too hard to imagine that more of the same awaits us, for we live within the boundaries of a nation-state whose legacy is saturated in the blood of native Others.

Delberto Ruiz ( is a doctoral candidate in Ethnic Studies at the University of California - Berkeley.

Copyright © 2002 by Delberto Dario Ruiz. "Darkness" by Alexander Hughes, Copyright © 2002 Alexander Hughes. All rights reserved.