The Yaquis are a tribe of 30,000 people living in Sonora (northern Mexico) and Arizona (USA). At the turn of the century, thousands of them migrated to Arizona for political reasons. Their language belong to the Cahitan branch of the Uto-Aztecan group. Although we know relatively little about the archaeology of the area, the Yaquis and their ancestors must have practiced irrigation farming for centuries. Their staple crops were corn, beans, and squash; they also hunted and fished. Traditionally they lived on the banks of the Rio Yaqui in small and dispersed settlements, the so-called rancherías. Their country was part of 'la gran Chichimeca', the fringe of Meso-America. Because of their geographical isolation, the Yaquis were never conquered by the Toltecs or Aztecs. They probably had a fixed territory with well-defined borders when the Conquistadores arrived.
In 1533, the tribe had its first confrontation with the Spaniards when Diego de Guzmán and his soldiers were defeated by a united force of Yaqui warriors. More than seventy years later, in 1609, another Spanish party lost its battle with the Indians. Yet, the Yaqui were interested in Spanish material culture and proved to be eager converts to Christianity. They developed a new religion which contained both native and Christian elements. Jesuits established missions in the Yaqui country and the majority of the Indians became converts. The Jesuit presence had a profound influence on Yaqui culture and social organization. At the request of the missionaries, the Yaquis abandoned their widely dispersed encampments and settled in eight new towns which soon became part of Yaqui sacred geography: Potam, Vicam, Torim, Bacum, Cocorit, Huirivis, Belem, and Rahum.
Because of their northern location and military strength, the Yaquis were never fully subdued by the Spanish. Thus, they were largely spared the more brutal forms of Spanish exploitation such as the 'repartimiento de indios'. The Yaquis were able to pick and choose from Spanish culture for more than a century while their economy flourished. But in the eighteenth century, the colonial regime became more oppressive and the Indians were also faced with a growing influx of white settlers. In 1740 and 1742, two uprisings against the Spaniards marked the end of a long, peaceful era. Weary of European domination, the Yaquis asserted their wish to be recognized as an independent group and they continued to do so well into the twentieth century.
Mexico became an independent republic in 1821, and this event triggered nationalist inspirations among the Indians of the north. However, the attempts to create a pan-Indian federation in Sonora under the leadership of Juan Banderas were not received well by the new Mexican government. Banderas, a Yaqui, was finally defeated in 1832. The military confrontations continued, sometimes resulting in bloody massacres such as the one in Bacum. In 1868, the Mexican army set fire to a church in which hundreds of Yaquis had been locked up for the night. More than 150 prisoners were burned alive.
In 1872, Mexico became a dictatorship under Porfirio Díaz. Shortly after, a new Yaqui leader emerged who tried to unite the eight river towns by establishing a short-lived republic in the Yaqui Valley. His name was José María Leyva or Cajeme in Yaqui, 'he-who-does-not-drink'. Díaz accused the Yaquis of separatism, even though their little nation was older than the Republic of Mexico. War seemed to be inevitable and 4,000 Yaquis prepared for it by building a fortified village in the heartland of their country. The siege of this fort, El Añil, ended in a defeat for Cajeme in 1886. One year later, he was captured and executed in Guaymas. The Yaqui guerrilleros continued their resistance under a new leader, Juan Maldonado or Tetabiate ('Rolling Stone'). The Bacatete Mountains became a stronghold for the guerrilla faction, which had now become a minority. The Yaqui river towns were almost totally deserted as Yaqui dispersed throughout the rest of Sonora to become farm laborers, miners, or fishermen. The beginning of the twentieth century was marked by a clampdown on Yaquis resistance in Sonora. In January 1900, almost 1,000 Indians were killed in a massacre at Mazocoba, a rocky plateau in the Bacatete Mountains. It was a portent of even more serious developments.
Díaz encouraged foreign investments and modernization of Mexican society by urging white colonists from Europe and the U.S. to settle in the sparsely settled northern states. At the same time, a worldwide demand for products such as sugar, sisal hemp and tobacco stimulated the establishment of large haciendas in the south which came to depend on bonded or 'contract' labor. There is a clear connection between these developments and the systematic persecution of the Yaqui which began around 1903.
Because most Yaquis were not inclined to give up their fertile river lands, Díaz and his political allies wanted to remove them from Sonora. Outright extermination was considered, but finally the government opted for deportation of all Yaqui 'rebels' to the plantations of Yucatán and Oaxaca. The governor of Sonora, Rafael Izábal, organized regular manhunts throughout the state which culminated in a total war against the tribe in 1904-1909. Between 8,000 and 15,000 Yaqui prisoners of war were rounded up and sold as virtual slaves. Up to 60% of these people perished within the first year of their arrival because of the climate and inhumane working conditions. Thousands of Indians went into hiding, sometimes aided by their Sonoran employers who did not agree with Díaz's 'ethnic cleansing' policy. Others fled to Arizona and established new settlements there, especially near the cities of Tucson and Phoenix. Their cheap labor was in great demand among cotton growers and railroad companies.
With the onset of the Mexican revolution in 1911, de facto slavery in Mexico came to an end and Porfirio Díaz was forced to leave the country. Francisco Madero, the first new president, reportedly told a group of Yaqui survivors that they would receive some compensation for their losses and that their lands would be restored to them. During the course of the war, Yaquis joined the armies of all major factions. From all over the state, refugees returned to the Yaqui valley to resettle it while the encroachment by mestizos and whites continued. After the revolution, Madero's promises to the Indians were quickly forgotten. Former generals such as Alvaro Obregón established estates of their own and competed with the Yaquis for land and resources in Sonora. This led to renewed warfare against the Indians in 1916-1917.
The last military campaign, which started in 1926, was also the most destructive one. Thousands of Yaqui non-combatants fled to the Bacatete mountains and the army used bombs to ferret them out of their hiding places. In 1927, the Yaquis were finally defeated and the Mexican government established army posts in all their towns. The military occupation of the Yaqui valley would not be fully lifted until the early 1970s. The reform policy of Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-1940) brought some improvements for the Yaquis, whose ancestral lands were party turned into a reservation (zona indígena) by presidential decree. For the first time in Mexican history, the federal government agreed to the establishment of a separate territory for its native inhabitants.
However, the economic situation in the towns worsened because most Yaquis lacked the resources to farm their own land. In the early fifties, several large dams were constructed in Sonora which altered the course of the Rio Yaqui and other rivers in the vicinity. As a result, the Indians had to buy all the water they needed and this eroded their self-sufficiency even further. In the 1960s and 1970s, clashes with landless mestizo peasants took on alarming proportions as the government tried to strengthen its position in the communities.
The loss of culture has been extensive, yet the Yaqui nation still exists as a political entity in Sonora today. This is also true for Arizona. Most Yaquis who crossed the border during the turmoils of the Díaz era chose to stay there permanently. Major settlements like Pascua Village (near Tucson) and Guadalupe (near Phoenix) have sustained a steadily growing population of Indians since the early 1900s. Unemployment became a major problem in most communities after the mechanization of the cotton industry in the 1960s, and the situation is still problematic for many Yaquis. In 1978, Pascuans voted to organize under the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) and they became a federally organized tribe. Today, there are about 6,000 Yaquis living in the United States.
EDITORIAL NOTE: Human Rights groups have asked that the United States
and Mexico honor treaties which are supposed to permit travel across the US-Mexico
border for tribal members. They have had difficulties attending events between
the two modern nations. Every time immigration efforts increase on the US-Merica
border, the Yaqui, Tohono O'odham, Cocopah and the Kickapoo find it more difficult
to reach each other.