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Three performers on an outdoor stage: a man seated in a chair playing a frame drum and a whistle; a person dancing with jingle anklets, and a person seated on the ground playing a gourd drum.

Yoeme song and dance performance at the 1989 Smithsonian Folklife Festival

Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

  • “Like This It Stays in Your Hands”: Reconciling the Colonial Legacy of the Yoeme Religion

    The story begins with a talking tree and a disbelieved girl.

    In the arid deserts of Sonora, Mexico, a tree that reached from earth to sky began to hum. None of the wise men of the land could interpret its message until birds came to tell them of someone who could—a seven-year-old girl who lived by the sea named Yomumuli. Upon hearing the tree’s call, she began to translate a prophecy: men would arrive from across the sea, bearing crosses and new religion, and all the people of the land would come to worship their god after their priests baptized them in the rivers of the valley.

    Some were enraged; some were enrapt. Some accused Yomumuli of lying, claiming she had no divine gift. But soon the prophecy was understood to be inevitable. Those who refused the prospect of change took pieces of the river with them and went to live in the mountains, deep inside the earth, or underneath the sea.

    The prophecy did indeed come true. According to the story, those who left became known as the Surem—enchanted people who continue to exist among us in an invisible, liminal state. And those who stayed became the Indigenous Yoeme people, also known as the Yaqui. Today, they live primarily in the Río Yaqui valley of Sonora and the Tucson and Phoenix metropolitan areas.

    In 1533, Spanish captain Diego de Guzmán, while leading an expedition to explore lands north of Spanish settlements in Mexico, encountered the Yoeme. An elder drew a line in the soil which came to be known as the Holy Dividing Line in oral traditions. The message was clear: do not cross. The Spanish did not heed his warning. A century of violent conflict began.

    In 1610, the Yoeme came to a peace agreement with the Spanish; in 1617, they invited Jesuit missionaries to live among them. The nature of this invitation is historically murky, and the term “invitation” itself is contentious. A point of pride among the Yoeme is that they are “the only Native American tribe that has never officially surrendered to either the Spanish colonial forces, the Mexican government, or the United States”; the preservation of agency undergirds Yoeme retellings of tribal history. However, their invitation to the Jesuits was born out of necessity, a way to avoid further violence that had already claimed countless lives. It would be a mischaracterization to suggest the acceptance of missionaries was completely voluntary.

    On the first day, the Jesuits baptized 200. Over the next two years, 30,000—about the size of the present-day Yoeme population. Today, the official tribal name of the Yoeme diaspora within the United States is the Pascua Yaqui—the Easter people.

    Now, Christianity is inextricably woven into the fabric of Yoeme life. Any attempt at parsing the contemporary version of Yoeme religion into pre-colonial and post-colonial, Christian and Indigenous, is subject to intense scrutiny, disagreement, and ultimate uncertainty—even within the community. Some Yoeme today call for a return to pre-colonial ways of life; some take immense pride in their Christian religion and insist the two worlds must be held together, however tenuously. Many have adapted the word “syncretic” to describe Yoeme faith in its present state: a reconciliation of two different religious traditions.

    What is at stake is nothing less than the future of the Yoeme people. There is perhaps no one better equipped to speak to this than Felipe Molina, a Yoeme elder.

    A man in dark blue dress shirt and white cowboy hat, both embellished with pink flowers, sits on stage, singing into a microphone and playing a wooden percussion instrument.
    Felipe Molina performs Yoeme deer songs at the 2023 Smithsonian Folklife Festival.
    Photo by Phillip R. Lee, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    “The ancient traditions and the ancient people—they did many, many things that we do not do now. Now we are stuck mostly in the Christian way,” says Molina, who identifies as Christian.

    Only eighty-eight speakers of the Yoeme language survive today in the Tucson area, according to a census taken pre-pandemic. “COVID took many, many, many, many people,” Molina mournfully stipulates. “So maybe even less than that now.” Consequently, “we’re losing the culture, the traditions, and the history.” The threat of forgetting vital practices, rituals, and customs looms over culture bearers like Molina who feel a responsibility to preserve their tradition. Today, many Yoeme youth are unaware of or distanced from Yoeme culture.

    The Surem Way: Recovering a Pre-Colonial Past

    The story of Yomumuli and the talking tree is often cast within the mythic past of 10,000 years ago—a staging of ancient time where the magnitude of distance from the present takes precedence over the precise date. The prophecy of the Yoeme people has been referred to by scholars as a “technology of identity” and a “strategy of resistance”—in other words, a story fashioned for a functional purpose.

    The scholarly emphasis on the pragmatic purpose of the talking tree implies something else: story has become a valuable compensatory method of reclaiming agency over the presence of Christianity in the faith. Function by itself in no way invalidates faith—indeed, the two are often inextricably synergetic. But some are not as interested in a revisionary reframing of the past rather than a radical reimagining of the present.

    According to Molina, some Yoeme look at this story and question why it is those who stayed behind who are valorized and not the Surem who rejected Christianity. When asked whether anyone wanted to divest their faith of Christian influence, Molina says, “Some people want to go the Surem way. Some people are not afraid of [the Surem]—they accept them.”

    For the Yoeme, the Surem often served as symbolic, personified surrogates of a pre-colonial past. Some believe they are to be respected but ultimately avoided: “All of us have seen but nobody likes this animal [the Surem] that wanders about below us, ... he [who] comes from our ancestors, and they became like that because they did not accept the blessing,” one Yoeme elder is documented as saying by scholar Kirstin C. Erickson. The Surem shunned the word of God, whereas the Yoeme accepted faith. Christianization is thus characterized by some as a positive transformation, and there is no heritage to be found within the Surem. But to Molina, the Surem are not to be dismissed or rejected—they are “to be respected—sometimes they give us help.”

    Two men sit on stage in front of microphones, bot wearing brimmed hats with faux red roses. One points his index finger slightly upward.
    At the 2023 Festival, alongside Yoeme pascola mask maker Louis David Valenzuela, Molina gestures to indicate the height of the Surem.
    Photo by Sonya Pencheva, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    Molina tells the story of a personal encounter with the Surem: “My first cousin, he was working at night in a tractor, and then he said, ‘I’m going to take a break,’—you know, a coffee break. He stopped the tractor, and then he heard little kids playing in the middle of nowhere. He said, ‘What could that be? And so, he got scared.

    “Then, in the middle of nowhere, where there are no houses, a big light came overhead, over the tractor, and then went to the east. When he got home and talked about it, the elder said, ‘Oh, it was the little people [the Surem]. They wanted to give you something—some kind of help, a blessing. But you got scared.”

    Stories of obliviously dismissed blessings are commonplace within Yoeme narratives—in Molina’s book Yaqui Deer Songs, co-written with anthropologist Larry Evers, he tells the story of two hunters who attempt to shoot a deer three times. Each time, the deer falls and stands back up, staring curiously at the hunters. They later realize they had inadvertently rejected a potential divine gift.

    The first to reject a blessing, however, were the Surem. When they refused to be baptized, they carved out their own pieces of river to carry with them. In many of the folk stories of unaware Yoeme, they have clearly made a mistake and chased away an enchanted offering. But the decision of the Surem is more ambiguous, and their rejection is not something to laugh about sheepishly with cousins over coffee—its interpretation remains a contested battleground of Yoeme memory and identity.

    Deers and Lambs: Yoeme and Christian Imagery

    In Willa Cather’s novel of the American southwest, Death Comes for the Archbishop, a bishop staying with a Mexican family contemplates the inevitable negotiation between original Catholic imagery and the diverse, localized traditions it encounters. He compares the white fur of a goat to the woolen coat of agnus dei, the lamb of God: “The young Bishop smiled at his mixed theology. But though the goat had always been the symbol of pagan lewdness, he told himself that their fleece had warmed many a good Christian, and their rich milk nourished sickly children.”

    Many observers today attempt to draw a similar comparison between the lamb of God and the animal most sacred within the Yoeme tradition: the deer.

    Alongside his already impressive résumé, Molina is a deer song singer and among the last teachers of the vocation—skills he shared at the 2023 Smithsonian Folklife Festival program Creative Encounters: Living Religions in the U.S. Sung against the harsh scraping of serrated rattlers and the round, coarse beat of water drums, deer songs tell the story of a little brother deer—saila maaso—maturing into an old deer over the course of an all-night pakho, or gathering. These ceremonies are stewarded by pascola, ritual clown and trickster figures who entertain the crowds with jokes and stories in ornate masks. As the fire dwindles and the night sky lightens with coming dawn, the deer marches toward its death; humans must eat, and so the deer must be hunted. The ritual purpose of deer songs, then, is to ask forgiveness of the deer, to apologize for its death.

    The parallel to Jesus—or Jesucristo, as referred to in the Yoeme tradition—is understandable, prompting the question of influence. Both are martyred figures whose lives are told from birth to death and who sacrifice themselves for humanity. But the general scholarly consensus is that this connection is casual and unintentional. Evers and Molina note that “after more than three and one-half centuries of dialogue with Catholicism, not to mention various other versions of Christianity in this century, Yaquis continue to hold the figures of Christ and the maaso [deer] explicitly apart in their ceremonies.”

    A wooden mask with a red and white cross on the forehead, and a man in the cowboy hat out of focus in the background.
    A young Yoeme participants hands out sewa (handmade flowers) at the 1989 Folklife Festival.
    Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    Though Yoeme culture intentionally and carefully separates the two figures, it also recognizes similarities between the two, primarily through their association with the sea ania—the flower world. A sacred world that exists within an unseen, spiritual dimension, sea ania is “a place for the notions of the good and the beautiful,” according to Evers and Molina. Deer songs always describe the deer’s interaction with flowers and the flower world—the deer is the foremost icon of the flower world. In many Yoeme versions of the passion of Jesus Christ, “one of the most cherished images” is that of flowers pouring from the side of Christ when lanced on the cross. Evers and Molina document instances where deer song lyrics weave Christian imagery alongside those of the sea ania:

    “Over there in the flower-covered dawn world,
    when it lifts up brightly,
    Here, where the three crosses are standing…”

    Or in a song sung on Holy Saturday evening in an explicitly Christian ritual, the deer singer asks:

    “As you are going on the flower-covered earth,
    Do you not know the flower person?”

    The “flower person” serves interchangeably as an epithet for “both saila maaso and the risen Christ,” according to Evers and Molina. It is possible that the Yoeme recognized, understood, and sympathized with the sacrificial language of Christianity because they were already familiar with the martyrdom of the deer. The sea ania, intimately interwoven with themes of communal loss, forgiveness, and injustice, serves as an expansive realm capable of holding reverence for both figures.

    The deer and pascola even appear directly as minor characters within Yoeme passion plays during Lent. They defend Jesucristo from the sieging fariseos (originating from the Hebrew פְּרוּשִׁים —known in English as the Pharisees) and Romans. Jesucristo is said to have been crucified in the Sonora valleys, but how exactly he encountered Romans and Jews more than 6,000 miles away from their homelands is one of the many paradoxes of navigating a syncretic faith.

    Molina acknowledges this challenge with frank uncertainty: “If you read the Bible, he [Jesus] only went a 100-, 200-mile radius from where he was born. He didn’t go any farther than that.” He paused. “But according to our people, our ancestors, he was there [in Sonora]. There’s one place on top of a mountain you can go down, a little bit like a well, and his handprints are right there. I climbed down there. I put my hands in there. They say that’s where Jesus fell—he got his hands stuck there. My grandma told me that story.” Molina’s relationship to Jesucristo is first and foremost personal, mediated through relationships with his family and land, and secondarily historical.

    While the boundary between deer and Christ figure is more discrete, other cultural boundaries have become blurred. This is visible in the design of pascola masks, typically ornamented with a cross-like symbol at the center of the forehead. While one may assume the cross is a Christian image, it originally referred to the shape of the sun, appearing in a more rounded form—“the ancient way,” according to Molina. Over time, it has gradually elongated to resemble a Christian cross, though many are uncertain of its ultimate purpose. Many adherents to the Christian design believe that the pascola (or pahko’olam) are sons of the devil, and the cross is necessary to ward off its spirit from entering the soul of the mask wearer.

    A wooden mask with a red and white cross on the forehead, and a man in the cowboy hat out of focus in the background.
    Pascola mask carved by Louis David Valenzuela, in the background, hanging at the 2023 Folklife Festival.
    Photo by Sonya Pencheva, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    Molina recounts an afternoon when “my little grandnephew said, ‘Uncle, uncle, I learned about this mask—this mask is supposed to be for the son of the devil.’ I said, ‘Who said that?’ ‘Well, the teacher told me that.’

    “’You know, it’s good that you’re learning that story,’” Molina recalled telling his grandnephew. “‘But let me tell you the story that my grandfather told me—the ancient traditions.”

    The charged epithet “son of the devil” implies a moral evil, but in many traditional interpretations, the pascola is representative of an innocent mischievousness, known for generative prodding of communal boundaries, but ultimately a hospitable presence trusted with the responsibility of stewarding a pahko. Molina fears that amid the disputed negotiation between Indigenous and Christian semantics, some ancient meanings will be lost forever.

    “Before the Christian ways, we had no word for devil,” Molina noted.

    At times, it is impossible to classify whether a cultural tradition is pre-colonial. Evers and Molina have extensively researched the provenance of the Testamento, a written manuscript of Yoeme mythology and cultural history transmitted between different Yoeme copyists across the twentieth century. One of the stories included is the story of a great “universal flood”—while details vary between manuscripts, a collection of stories endorsed by Pascua Yaqui tribe leadership describes a flood of fourteen days and fourteen nights. According to this version, a prophet named Yaitowi was chosen by Díos—God—to survive the flood along with select companions; after the flood receded, the survivors made an offering to the altar of Díos.

    These narratives share remarkable similarities with other religiously foundational deluge stories as well—namely, Noah and the ark in the Bible, the tale of Utnapishtam in the Gilgamesh epic, and Deucalion and Pyrrha in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. All tell the story of a catastrophic flood sent by a God or gods for the purpose of renewal, with select human survivors who propitiate their God or gods through offerings immediately after the flood recedes.

    While claims of influence are east to make within the same geographic region—the Middle Eastern canon of Gilgamesh and the Bible, for example—they are more tenuous with fewer points of connection. It is also possible that similarities do not emerge from any direct influence, but, as anthropologist and philosopher Claude Lévi-Strauss suggests, there are universal laws to mythological thinking that lead to structural similarities between myths in all cultures. Accounting for catastrophic rainfall, after all, may understandably be attributed to a reckoning of divine intervention.

    Whether or not the flood myth of the Testamento is a gradually warped retelling of Noah and the ark or something that was developed well before contact with Jesuit missionaries remains a mystery. There are notable discrepancies between the two myths—for example, Díos notably orders the extermination of “all living things, alike beneath the sky, on the earth, and living in the water—even the birds who fly over the earth,” while a principal component of Noah and the ark is the deliverance of the animals. Molina argues that it is very possible that the tale of Yaitowi was independently developed: “Sonora is always flooded. Big rains come. There is something that people talk about a lot—death floods come sometimes. People get hurt. So that’s how they produced this story in Sonora.”

    Each tradition bearer must choose how to balance Yoeme and Christian aspects within their practice. Molina described how in a pahko gathering, one could always expect to find two altars: “one side Christian, one side ancient, always north” of the ceremonies. The two altars stand side by side in the soft light of the dancing fire, a silent yet constant dialogue stirred by their mere proximity.

    If one had trouble finding north, they could look to the night sky and follow the two outermost stars of the Big Dipper, a constellation revered in Yoeme faith. Seven bells hang from the pascola’s waist to symbolize the celestial fixture—or, at least, they used to. “My grandfather would say, the bells used to mean the seven stars of the Big Dipper, but now they mean the seven holy sacraments. It is changed from the ancient way to the new, Christian way.”

    “But,” Molina says, smiling, “you know, I still use both.”

    Close-up on a pair of bare feet wearing jingle bell anklets.
    Yoeme song and dance performance at the 1989 Smithsonian Folklife Festival
    Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
    A man, seated on the ground, plays a gourd drum placed in a metal bucket.
    Yoeme song and dance performance at the 1989 Smithsonian Folklife Festival
    Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    “Like This It Stays in Your Hands”: Finding a Path Forward

    What is lost when religions come together? Can syncretism lead to, as sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois argues, a “debased imitation” of the original?

    Religion often rests upon the premise of existing outside of time. So how can something eternal accept the premise of change? If religion exists transcendentally above the historical, how can it also be inextricably tied to human affairs?

    A solution for many faiths is that something essential remains constant between generations from the time of first contact with divinity. They value a systematic means of bridging the world of the human and the divine. Threats to the continuity of such systems are sometimes enough to split religions apart.

    But what if the connection to divinity is not mediated through any kind of ritualized transmission or documented tradition but rather through colonial conquest? The Yoeme faith grapples with this very question.

    Beyond resigning to a genocidal history, Yoeme faith subverts secular logic by anticipating Christianity with the prophecy of Yomumuli—everything has proceeded as intended from the timeless era of the mythic past. It’s a difficult and tenuous answer to the question, but, for many, it is the only way forward. The historical mode of explaining Christianity’s introduction to Yoeme faith fails to reflect the many centuries of conscious agency exercised by Yoeme cultural bearers over their faith. In this respect, the prophecy is the more “accurate” retelling to many Yoeme.

    In 1977, the U.S. Congress held extensive hearings to consider the status of the country’s Yoeme diaspora—those who fled Sonora after repeated persecution by the Mexican government—as an officially recognized tribe. The Yoeme were successful, and in 1978 they were recognized as the Pascua Yaqui tribe of Arizona. Throughout the hearings, Yoeme leader Anselmo Valencia emphasized an essential quality of the Yoeme people that had not been lost through centuries of violence:

    The Yaquis are Indians in every sense of the word. We have our own language, our own culture…all the songs sung and played are to the olden times—ancient Yaqui Indian stories… The Catholic faith and the various governments under which the Yaquis have had to suffer have tried for centuries to undermine our “Yaquiness,” but after 400 years they have not succeeded. We have retained our language, our culture, and our Indianness.

    But what exactly is this essential “Yaquiness”? Valencia places it in opposition to “the Catholic faith,” to him an alien intrusion which has “undermined” this indeterminate quality—but as Molina notes, such a separation is not always so simple.

    “I was raised Christian. Some people—they just practice the Christian ways. Some people just practice the ancient ways,” he says. “But it does not work. It must be together.”

    For the Yoeme, syncretism has posed obstacles—undoubtedly, traditions have been eroded, lost, and replaced by Christian counterparts. But to Molina, this does not mean the Yoeme have been victims without agency. There is a constant dialogue between past and present that the Yoeme are active participants within. By extension, it is the responsibility of each person to determine what their faith will look like and what it will include.

    Two men play percussion instruments, seated on an outdoor stage.
    Louis David Valenzuela and Felipe Molina at the 2023 Folklife Festival
    Photo by Sonya Pencheva, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    Molina, while adamant in his belief that both Christian and ancient faiths must be preserved, acknowledges he has but one perspective in the complex manifold of cultural reconciliation. He must negotiate and compromise with those who consider themselves solely Christian—or those like Valencia who want to divest their culture of Christianity entirely, branding it as a colonial vestige.

    In the Yoeme oral tradition, there is a phrase spoken by teacher to student that describes the responsibilities involved in cultural transmission: “like this it stays in your hands.” According to Evers and Molina, “when these words are said, the person receiving the knowledge is given blessings to receive the help of divine forces to work with the duty that has been given to him or her.”

    The indescribable ambiguity of the phrase speaks to the heart of the responsibility the Yoeme generation today must confront. What exactly is the “it” that stays in one’s hands? What is the “this” that is imitated and reflected? What remains and what is lost in the dialogue between heritage and identity?

    Each Yoeme tradition bearer finds their own answers. As they sift through a tapestry of history woven with resistance, grief, and joy, engaged in a constant dance between the past and present, they must decide what they will let go of and what they will hold onto tightly.

    Daniel Zhang is a former media intern at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and a sophomore at Yale University studying humanities.

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