Words And Places native literature from the american southwest
 

Seyewailo: The Flower World
Yaqui Deer Songs

Yaqui Deer songs

Background

Yaqui History Yaqui people call themselves Yoemem , The People. Their homeland is along the Rio Yaqui Valley in the southern coastal region of Sonora, Mexico.

The Yoemen From the time Diego de Guzman and his band of Spanish slave traders encountered them in 1533, the Yoemem have regularly needed to defend their lands against Spanish, and later Mexican, encroachment and domination. Yaqui resistance was always strong and Yaquis developed a reputation as the fiercest fighters in the New World. But in the last decades of the 19th century the Mexican government launched a massive offensive and began to deport Yaquis to work as slaves on plantations in Oaxaca and Yucatan. It was during this time, roughly 1890-1910, that many Yaquis sought political refuge in the United States.

The Yoemem who fled to the United States settled in villages and towns and on ranches along the Santa Cruz River in southern Arizona. Eventually major villages were established at Pascua and Barrio Libre in Tucson and at Guadalupe near Tempe. There they were able to live and continue their cultural traditions without fear of oppression.

In the early 1960s a group of Yaqui people formed the village of New Pascua southwest of Tucson on 202 acres they received from the federal government. In September 1978 the Arizona Yaquis were legally recognized as American Indians and made New Pascua the center of their tribal government.

Throughout their history the Yoemem have gained a reputation as a fiercely proud and independent people.

The Surem

The Yoemem believe that they are descended from a tribe of small men called the Surem. Contemporary Yaqui leader Anselmo Valencia tells this story of how the Yaquis came to be separated from the Surem;

It has been many centuries, in times long gone, that the Yaquis were not as they are now. They were Surem, a very little people that lived in El Centro Surem in Sonora. The Surem were a peaceful quiet people who couldn't stand noise and violence. One day, the people noticed a tree that seemed to be making noises in a strange language. This tree was one big, ash-colored Palo Verde, which was growing in the middle of the region, on Omteme Kawi.

While the villagers gathered around, the leaders attempted to communicate with the talking tree. However, it was of no use, not even the most important leader could interpret the message. During the time a very young girl, Yomumuli, kept tugging at her father's hand and whispering that she could understand the talking tree. At first her father ignored her, then he became angry at her insistence: "All right, you will do it in front of the village and then you will be punished publicly for your foolishness."

So Yomumuli sat down close to the tree and translated word for word what the prophetic tree foretold for their future. It warned of the coming of the white man with armor and new weapons; it told of the coming of much strife and bloodshed against these intruders and others, and of much suffering for a long time among the Surem, but that they would eventually overcome their adversaries. It told of the coming of modern man's trains, "A road will be made of steel with an iron monster on it." It told much more to come then it said, "There will be much suffering for years, much noise and confusion. You must decide what to do. For those among you who cannot stand noise, you have a choice of leaving if you do not want to face such a future."

So, the Surem divided into two parties, and those who could not stand such a future walked away. Some say they walked into the sea and live there still. Others say they turned into black ants and live underground under the hills. Those Surem who stayed eventually grew taller and changed into the Yaquis as they are now, and they were strong enough to fight off the Spaniards when the time came.

These prophecies began to be fulfilled when the Spanish Conquistador Diego de Guzman reached Yaqui country in 1533. Mr. Valencia tells the following story from Yaqui tradition of the Spaniards' reception by the Yoemem and how Spanish religion, Catholicism, came to be a part of the Yaqui way of life:

The Invaders
It was a very long time ago, the people say, that a band of Spanish conquistadores rode toward Yaqui territory in Sonora. These Spanish soldiers were the "white invaders" predicted by the talking tree many years before, in the time of the Surem. They were armed and dressed exactly as foretold by the talking tree.

The Yaquis gathered to meet them. One of the Yaqui leaders drew a line along the ground, knelt and kissed it reverently, saying, "Up to this line and us far as the eye can see in these three directions, is Yaqui land. No invaders will be allowed to enter." They asked the soldiers to return from whence they came. When the Spanish soldiers tried to do battle with the Yaquis, there was such fierce fighting, that the Spaniards had to retreat hastily. They had never met such valiant fighters, they said. Thus, the Yaquis drove back the white invaders exactly as predicted, and they were well satisfied with that day's work.

Over seventy years later, some Mayos, cousins of the Yaquis, who had been converted to Christianity, came to the Yaquis and told them about the Spaniards who were peaceful and carried no weapons. The Yaquis asked that these peaceful ones be brought in, but that no armed man could enter their territory. They were converted easily because when the missionaries called their God "Our Father in Heaven," pointing upward toward the sky, then the Yaquis thought that here were others who shared their beliefs about "Achai Taa'a, Our Father, the Sun." And then, too, the missionaries' cross looked almost like the Yaqui sun symbol. The missionaries came and stayed on, converting the Yaquis to Christianity.

Yaqui Religion Yaqui religion then has changed dramatically since Yaquis invited Jesuit missionaries onto their lands in 1617. It consists now of both aboriginal Yaqui and Spanish colonial Christian elements which have been fused over the centuries to form a spiritualism that is wholly Yaqui. Under the direction of the maehto, the Yaqui lay priest, Yaqui religion is practiced communally on such occasions as saints days, weddings, funerals, and death anniversaries. The high point of the Yaqui ceremonial year is the lenten season during which the Yoemem add a dramatization of the passion and death of Christ to their version of the Christian lenten liturgy.

The Pahko On the occasions mentioned above (though only on Palm Saturday and Holy Saturday during Lent), a pahko is held. A pahko is a fiesta, a celebration of a religious holiday. During a pahko the deer dancer and the pahkolam perform. They express some of the oldest parts of the Yaqui religion. The pahko was originally held the night before Yaquis went out to hunt the deer. It was a way of begging the deer's forgiveness for killing him and of thanking him for giving himself up so that the Yoemem might live. Today the pahko continues to be held as an occasion of spiritual renewal for the whole Yaqui community. It is said all are blessed by the pahko if they attend with a good heart. The deer dance is the Yoemem's oldest and most visible expression of their religion. They would not, they say, think of themselves as Yoemem without it.

As a spiritual expression, the deer dance gives physical form to some of the most central and elusive parts of Yaqui religion. Yaquis believe in the existence of several otherworlds, and the pahko is intimately connected with two of them: the flower world (sea ania) and the enchanted world (yo ania).

The Enchanted World

The yo ania is a source of supernatural power. Some say World it is located in a cave in the mountains near the Rio Yaqui valley in Sonora; others that it is a place more mental than physical. Once within the yo ania an individual can acquire a talent like playing a musical instrument or singing without having to practice. The pahkolam are sometimes thought to be connected with the yo ania. The following story from Yaqui tradition was told by Mrs. Carmen Garcia and was recorded by her granddaughter Mrs. Mini Valenzuela Kaczkurkin:

Some time ago there was a pahkola who, when he first started out, was a very terrible performer. He was clumsy and unable to dance gracefully. He did not even know how to chat with his audience. The people only kept him on because they pitied him. One day he was requested to dance at another pueblo, so he set out alone, the others having gone ahead.

As he was traveling along, the pahkola heard the most beautiful music coming from the hills. There was a small cave there, and he heard the musicians playing so beautifully, so very beautifully, that he wanted to dance right then and, there. Then he said within himself, "But, what use is that beautiful music to me, I am so ungraceful."

At this point, a goat came out of the cave, a goat so frisky that it could not stand still. It went toward the pahkola, who stood and waited for it. The goat stood up on its hind legs leaning its forelegs on the pahkola's chest and licked the pahkola's face—first on the mouth then on the ears, and finally on the throat. He stood back and stared pahkola who waited calmly. The goat zoomed off and, turning very sharply, came charging at the pahkola, but the pahkola with arms crossed still waited calmly. The animal stopped short and the music stopped.

The pahkola, wondering over what he had seen, continued his journey. He began to think of many good jokes to entertain the people and his feet itched to dance right then and there. Thus he arrived at the village, where all was in readiness. He dressed and began his entertainment when -- cosa rara! -- the once ungraceful pahkola danced as no one has rivaled him. It is said that that goat was an enchanted pahkola. At any rate, the much-loved pahkola lived to dance beautifully at many fiestas.

The masks of the pahkolam are said to suggest the face of the goat or even of the Devil himself. During a pahko they bring the yo ania to Yaqui minds.

The Flower World By contrast with the darker powers of the yo ania, the sea ania or seyewailo is thought to be a place of complete beauty and harmony. It is thought to be located beneath the dawn in a place filled with flowers, water, and natural abundance of all kinds. The sea ania is the home of the Yoemem's little brother the deer, saila maso. It is a spiritual place, one that is brought into the minds of the Yoemem by the pahko.

The deer dancer at a pahko takes on the spirit of saila maso, little brother the deer. The songs of the deer singers describe the seyewailo and are expressions of its spirituality. Much of the regalia the performers wear at a pahko brings images of the seyewailo to Yaqui eyes.

Seyewailo means flower world. The opening sequence on this videotape, as well as the images of flowers used throughout are intended to suggest the connections with the flower world the pahko provokes in the minds of the Yoemem. They suggest that the spiritual dimension of the pahko is as real as the harmonies of the violin and harp or the rattle of the pahkolam's dance.

Place A pahko usually takes place in a pahko rama, a fiesta ramada. A ramada is a rectangular, roofed shelter usually open on at least one side. The pahko rama is said to become the flower world during a fiesta. The pahko rama you see in this videotape was specially constructed for this taping. It has been altered somewhat to permit better viewing and more light for the cameras. The pahko rama is usually closed on three sides and open to the east. It is divided into two halves: one used by the deer dancer and pahkolam; the other by the maehto (Yaqui lay priest) and the kopariam (the lady singers) who accompany him. It was not considered appropriate for us to include the maehto and the kopariam in our taping, so the rama we used in the taping consists only of the deer dancer's side. It is open to the east as usual but also to the south, and in the late afternoon, to the west to permit filming. This is a diagram of the pahko rama you see on the videotape:

The Performers

 
The Moro Usually eleven men have traditional roles at a deer dance. They are led by the moro. He serves as a master of ceremonies, directing and caring for the other participants throughout the pahko. It is the moro to whom sponsors come to arrange a pahko. It is common to have two moros: one for the pahkolam (moro ya'ut) and another for the deer dancer (maso moro). On this videotape there is one moro. He is the man with a straw hat who leads the pahkolam in to begin the pahko.

The Pahkolam The pahkolam are literally "old men of the fiesta." They have many roles during a pahko. They give sermons, serve as hosts, joke with the audience, and generally play the part of the clowns. An example of pahkolam humor appears on this tape just after their entrance into the rama. As they place their canes in the rama roof above them, the pahkolam address the canes humorously. Frequently, the pahkolam also mock and mimic the deer dancer and the deer singers.

Usually three pahkolam perform at a pahko. Each pahkola ties a knot of his hair together when he dances. This is called a sewa, a flower, and is thought to deflect evil. Usually the pahkolam wear a necklace (kokam). The cross on the necklace is thought of both as a Christian symbol and as a representation of the four directions of the universe. A blanket (pisam) and a string of bells (koyolim) cover the pahkolam's mid-section. Rattles made from butterfly cocoons (teneboim) wrap the dancer's ankles. When they dance with their masks on, the pahkolam play a hand rattle (senasom). The pahkolam always dance alternately to the music of the violin and harp and to the music of the tampaleo's flute and drum. The order of their dancing is always youngest to eldest.

The Violin and Harpist The string music to which the pahkolam dance is made by a violin (laaben) and a harp (aapa). The violinist and the harpist usually sit near the rear of the pahko rama. During the pahko they use several different tunings. Each tuning is used during a different part of the pahko; one (alabansa) from evening until midnight, another (campanilla) from midnight until dawn, and a third (partillo) from dawn to sunrise.

The Tampaleo When the pahkolam dance to the music made by the tampaleo they wear their masks and play their hand rattles. The tampaleo plays the drum (kubahe) and the flute (baka kusia) simultaneously. He traditionally sits at the front of the rama, leaning against a board planted in the earth as a backrest. Just before the pahkolam dance with their masks on, the tampaleo may often be heard tuning his drum by heating it over a small bed of mesquite coals which the moro deposits beside him.

The Deer Singers The deer singers (maso bwikleom) are sometimes called the people of San Luis (as they are in the opening sermon on this tape). Usually there are three. One plays a water drum (bakubahe), a half gourd (bueha) floating in a basin of water struck
by a drumstick (ba hiponia). The beat of this drum represents the deer's heartbeat. The water in the basin is made sacred during the pahko and is thrown on the crowd in the shape of a cross at the end of the singing. Two other singers play raspers (hirukiam), notched rosewood sticks, on half gourd resonators (bweham). The rasping represents the breathing of the deer. As they play their raspers, these men sing the deer songs. The deer singers generally sit just to the left of the tampaleo.

The Deer Dancer The deer dancer is said to become the spirit of the deer as he dances during the pahko. He dances only to the music of the deer singers. He is, without question, the central symbol of Yaqui identity. The deer dancer's ankle rattles are butterfly cocoons like those of the pahkolam. The cocoon rattles commemorate the singing of the insect world as they sound during the dance. The rattles around the deer dancer's waist are made from deer hooves. They commemorate all the deer who have died so the Yaquis might live. The dancer wears a Yaqui cross as a necklace. Like those the pahkolam wear it represents both the Christian cross and the four quarters of the universe. The white cloth on the dancer's head helps to hold the dancer's headdress in place as he dances. The headdress itself is made with the head of a whitetail deer. The scarf tied to the deer's antlers is called a sewa, or flower." Some say it suggests the rays of the Yaqui's father, the sun, and that in older times strips of deer hide dyed red were used to adorn the antlers. As the dancer represents the spirit of the deer, he must remain aloof throughout the pahko, not speaking or interacting with anyone when he is not dancing. In addition to these men who have specialized roles, others have important duties. The audience, which is very small on this tape, responds to the sermons of the pahkolam with the affirmative "heewi" and to their clowning with laughter.

Cycles of Dancing The pahko is usually held at night, beginning at dusk and lasting until dawn. Though we have reversed the temporal setting on this tape, we have represented the sequence of events at a pahko as accurately as we could. The pahko begins with the entrance of the participants: first the pahkolam, then the deer. The entrance is followed by a sermon which is given by the eldest pahkola. The pahko closes with the reverse: a sermon by the pahkola followed by the exit of the participants. Between the entrance and exit the pahko is organized around cycles of dancing which are repeated again and again through-out the night.

The experience of a pahko requires a patient, attentive presence, but there are moments of heightened climax. Sometimes late in the night the pahkolam perform traditional skits or plays for the crowd's entertainment. In these plays, the pahkolam may take on the roles of various animals -- raccoons, lions, coyotes. On this videotape the pahkolam play out a skit about coyotes who chase and capture a deer.

A Coyote Skit In the skit the pahkolam play two parts. First they are coyotes (note their realistic howls and carrizo plume tails); then Yaqui trackers who track the coyotes who are trailing a deer, thus tracking themselves. This skit is enormously popular with Yaqui audiences. They especially enjoy the pahkolam/coyotes' fight over the deer they "capture" and, of course, the pahkolam/trackers' comments as they track themselves. Contemporary Yaquis say that the skit is done strictly for the entertainment of the people and that it has no direct relation to the original pre-hunt purpose of the pahko. In viewing the coyote skit, a sharp eye and an open ear will reveal the traditional scatalogical inclinations of the pahkolam. It is also helpful to recall that the water drum and rasper are said to represent the deer's heart and breathing respectively. Notice how these instruments reflect the mood of the deer during the chase and capture.

Remember that time is compressed throughout the videotape. A coyote skit performed at an actual pahko might last several hours; the entire pahko an entire night from dusk to dawn.

The Spirit

The men who appeared on this videotape agreed to share an important part of their lives with us so that it might be preserved and appreciated by both Yaquis and non-Yaquis. We ask that all who use this tape treat the gift it contains with respect. To do otherwise would do a great disservice to these men and to their religion. After he helped us to understand Yaqui deer songs and sang them during the preparation of this videotape, deer singer Loretto Salvatierra left us with the following thoughts. We hope all who view this videotape will reflect on them:

In the beginning, like this,
our grandfathers, the ones that are Surem ,
the ones that first appeared here, left this inheritance.
Then the baptized ones received it and were given it.
Like this now it is taken care of in the songs.
It is known like this.
This is all that was told to us,
but we still work poorly with it.
Perhaps we are not taking care of it
like the ones who stood up to it in the beginning.
But for the births that are coming,
the people you are going to talk with about it,
like this the inheritance is left.
This is cherished and respected.
Now it is taken care of like this.
Like this we have worked our fathers' sacred request.
This is all the truth you asked for.
Like this it stays in your hands.

Return to the contents page for
Seyewailo: The Flower World
Yaqui Deer Songs

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