Words And Places native literature from the american southwest

Seyewailo: The Flower World
Yaqui Deer Songs

Yaqui Deer songs

For Comment and Discussion

Deer Songs Yaqui deer songs are religious expressions of the seyewailo, the flower world. In the deer songs saila maso speaks to the Yaqui people, or, as deer singer Loretto Salvatierra puts it "he does not talk, but he talks in an enchanted way." The concise, powerful images of this enchanted speech have an evocative power which even in translation on the printed page may remind the non-Yaqui reader of lyric poetry.

Compostion Deer songs may be composed by the deer singers, but most of them have been in Yaqui tradition beyond memory. Older deer singers teach and give their songs to younger singers so that the songs will not be forgotten.


In looking at the translations of the deer songs on this videotape we can see immediately that they share a two part structure. The first stanza is repeated over and over as the song is performed. The second stanza only once at the end of the performance. Carelton Wilder suggests that the first stanza of a deer song usually is a statement concerning this world, while the second stanza often relates the ideas in the first stanza to the seyewailo, the flower world. In this way the songs balanced outward structure reflects a similar balanced internal structure.


Of the images which appear in deer songs the most frequent is that of the flower, sewa. Flowers are more than just beautiful objects in nature to Yaqui people. They are a religious symbol of all that is good. They represent all the goodness and harmony that is present in the seyewailo.

To this aboriginal idea about flowers, generations of Yoemem have added a Christian concept. To the contemporary Yoemem, flowers suggest not only the flower world but also heavenly glory and divine grace. One basis for this connection is the apocryphal Yaqui story which tells of the blood of Christ flowing as flowers from the cross. Both heaven and the Seyewailo are places filled with flowers.

Theme There is no single theme included in all deer songs. But it is common for the singers to think of the deer as a little fawn who grew into a mature deer over the course of the fiesta. Notice how the deer is described in the first and the last songs here. As the pahko begins, he is a "little fawn." At the close he goes out as a mature deer, one "without small antlers."

There is no set corpus of deer songs which must be sung during a pahko but a few songs are traditionally sung at the open (the first song on this tape) and the close (the last two on this tape) of the pahko. In addition deer singers traditionally prefer to sing songs on certain topics during each of the traditional temporal divisions of the pahko: from the beginning until dark, from dusk until midnight, from midnight until the dawn, from dawn until the close. The idea behind these choices seems to be that the singers sing about the plants, birds and animals that the deer would see as he walks about at different times.

The Recording We originally intended to record a few songs from a Yaqui deer singer and ask him to talk about them as a way of hinting at their literary power. When we discussed this possibility with Yaqui linguist Fern Cupis in late winter 1976, she gently steered us toward the more ambitious goal of recording deer songs in the context of a pahko. Throughout the following spring and summer we explored that possibility with Mrs. Cupis and with Yaqui leader Anselmo Valencia, then chairman of the Pascua Yaqui Association. It was finally decided they should, proceed in the interest of educating non-Yaquis to an important part of the Yaqui way of life. It was agreed that to do this we should record near but not in the village of New Pascua so that the people might freely attend without a village obligation; that we should record the deer's side of the rama only; that we should record during the day; and that the performers should be the best available. We also agreed to provide an opportunity for all the performers themselves to review everything we recorded; to involve Yaqui people in the editing of a final program, and to return copies of the edited program along with copies of everything we recorded to the Pascua Yaqui Tribe. All of these agreements were met.

After several meetings with Mr. José Maria Valencia of Vicam, Sonora, we arranged to bring together a group of performers from Sonora and Southern Arizona at James S. Griffith's small ranch near the village of New Pascua. The major portions of this videotape were recorded there on October 20, 1976, under a rama constructed by us and the performers the day before. New Pascua is in a busy flight path from Tucson and jets may be heard periodically throughout this taping just as they are in the village.

A crew from KUAT-TV directed by Dennis Carr recorded the eyent on 2" videotape using three cameras. Mrs. Cupis, Mr. Valencia, and Larry Evers directed and coordinated the taping. Approximately five hours of material was recorded. Subsequently, we brought the principal deer singer, Loretto Salvatierra to Tucson from Vicam, Sonora, to re-record some of the deer songs and to advise us in editing. Throughout, Anselmo Valencia served as principal advisor and translator. He did preliminary translations of songs, sermons, and conversations.

Felipe Molina, a leader from the Yaqui settlement at Marana, Arizona, did the final translations for the tape and worked with us every step of the way in the final editing which was done by Michael Orr. Felipe Molina also helped to clarify most of the things discussed in the program and these notes. He serves as narrator of the program. Without his diligence and persistence, this videotape would not exist.

All original tapes recorded for this program have been archived in the Southwestn Folklore Center at the University of Arizona.

This program was made possible by a grant from the Education Programs Division of the National Endowment for the Humanities. It is part of a series on American Indian singers, tellers, and authors titled Words and Place; Native Literature of the American Southwest.

Related Readings

Larry Evers, ed., The South Corner of Time (Tucson: Univ. of Arizona Press, 1980) contains a large selection of Yaqui literature. Larry Evers and Felipe S. Molina, Yaqui Deer Songs/Maso Bwikam (Tucson: Univ. of Arizona Press, 1987) is an ideal companion text for this video.

Mini Valenzuela Kaczkurkin's collection of Yaqui traditions Yoeme: Lore of the Arizona Yaqui People (Tucson: Sun Tracks, 1977) is probably the best source on contemporary Yaqui oral traditions. The stories of the Talking Tree, the coming of the Spaniards, and the enchanted pahkola are quoted from it with the author's permission. Another good collection of Yaqui oral traditions is Ruth Giddings's Yaqui Myths and Legends (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1959).

The foremost non-Yaqui authority on Yaqui life is Edward Spicer. His Cycles of Conquest (Tucson: University of Arizona) gives a complete account of Yaqui history in the context of the histories of other peoples in the Mexican northwest and the American southwest. He has done several studies of Yaqui villages both in Sonora and Arizona, such as Pascua: A Yaqui Village in Arizona (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1940). His article "Highlights of Yaqui History," published in the spring, 1974 issue of The Indian Historian gives a very succinct account of the history of the Yoemem. Professor Spicer's The Yaquis: A Cultural History (Tucson: Univ. of Arizona, 1980) is the best single source on Yaquis presently available.

Carleton Wilder's The Deer Dance: A Study in Cultural Change, Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 186, is a short study of many aspects of the Deer Dance as it was performed in 1939-40 in Pascua. It contains texts of twenty deer songs. The Traditional Poetry of the Yaqui Indians is an M.A. thesis written by Amos Taub at the University of Arizona in 1950. Prepared under the direction of Spicer and Frances Gillmor, it considers literary aspects of some thirty traditional Yaqui songs.

The Yaqui lenten ceremonies are well described in Muriel Thayer Painter's booklet A Yaqui Easter (Tucson: Univ. of Arizona Press, 1971).

The Tall Candle: The Personal Chronicle of a Yaqui Indian (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1971) is the life story of Yaqui Rosalio Moises. It was edited by Jane Holden Kelley and William Curry Holden. Moises was grandfather to Mini Kaczkurkin, author of Yoeme (mentioned above). Kathleen Sands has recently edited Refugio Savala's life story The Autobiography of a Yaqui Poet (Tucson: Univ. of Arizona Press, forthcoming). Savala published sketches of Yaqui life in the 1940s and 50s in such places as the Arizona Quarterly.

The writings of Carlos Casteneda are not regarded as accurate portraits of Yaqui life by most Yoemem. As Spicer wrote in an early review of The Teachings of Don Juan, "It seems wholly gratuitous to emphasize, as the subtitle does, any connection between the subject matter of the book and the cultural traditions of the Yaqui."

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Seyewailo: The Flower World
Yaqui Deer Songs

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