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Book No. 57

To first story in the book press: 2491

To last story in the book press: 2551

Yaqui Myths and Legends

Giddings Ruth Warner

Yaqui Myths and Legends, Ruth Warner Giddings, 1959



Harry Behn, Editor

Illustrated by Laurie Cook

The University of Arizona Press Tucson, Arizona

Originally issued as Anthropological Paper No. 2, University of Arizona, 1959


This is a delightful collection of Yaqui folklore, illustrated with line drawings which invest Mexican folk-art motifs with quaint atomic-age cheerfulness. The Yaqui are part of the Southwestern Native American culture-group, and live in the Sonoran desert on the west coast of northern Mexico, opposite Baja California. The stories here are a mixture of ancient folklore blended with Mexican Catholic themes. Coyote and other zoomorphs walk in the same cycle of tales with figures such as Jesuschristo (who figures in several comic stories) and Columbus (who appears briefly as a villan).



No thorough collection or study has been made of the folk traditions of the Yaquis. Only about a score of Yaqui stories are to be found in published form. Alfonso Fabila has printed five stories and three songs (Fabila 1940: 202-205, 212-243). Spicer reviews a half-dozen stories and notes the existence of animal tales among the Yaquis of Arizona (Spicer 1940b: 197, 240-241, 254, 261-262). Beals has published a few Yaqui traditions about serpents (Beals 1933: 78-81) and thirteen myths and tales identified as Cahita (Beals 1945: 215-224). A brief resume of Yaqui tradition by one of their leaders has been printed in an appendix to a work by Holden, et al(1936: 216-231). In manuscript form, Johnson has recorded the Spanish and Yaqui texts of a small, well rounded collection of stories (Johnson 1940) and Wilder has contributed a collection and study of the Yaqui deer-songs from Pascua village, Arizona (Wilder 1940).

It is known that Yaqui society has been influenced strongly by Spanish and Mexican culture, judging from indications in historical records and from studies of the modern Yaquis.

In making this collection of stories it was the objective to illustrate two things: (1) the nature of the folk literature of the Yaquis and (2) the influences which successive foreign contacts have exerted upon Yaqui folklore.

Collections were made in Potam, Sonora from February through April of 1942 and during regular visits to Pascua and Barrio Libre near Tucson, Arizona from May to September of the same year. The notes on the narrators refer to this period.


Cultural Setting


The Yaquis are a Sonoran tribe. They are Cahitan-speaking peoples, affiliated linguistically with the Tarahumaras, Opatas, Conchos, Mayos, and other nearby tribes. Aboriginally, the Yaquis and the Mayos occupied the flood plain areas from the town of Sinaloa north to the pueblo of Cumuripa on the Yaqui River in Sonora (Sauer 1934: 79). Cahitans are of the Uto-Aztecan stock. Of the tribes which adjoined the Cahitan territory to the north, only the Hokan-speaking Seris were not Uto-Aztecans. On the east, the Cahitans were bordered by the Sonoran tribes of the foothills. These tribes separated the lowland Cahitans from the Tarahumaras of the plateau who were also of Uto-Aztecan stock. On the south, the Cahitan area was bordered by rude, barranca or coastal tribes such as the Guasave. These were possibly variants, culturally and linguistically, of the Cahitans. No equal number of people spoke a single language in northern Mexico (Sauer 1934: 22-28).

Brief History

Yaquis have been in close contact with European culture since the Spanish conquest of their region by Jesuit missionaries in 1617. The Spaniards influenced Yaqui religion through the work of the Jesuits, but they also instigated changes in the material culture and social organization of the natives. The Indians were gathered from scattered rancherías into eight large pueblos, each with its church at the center. Governors were appointed by the Spanish and new forms of civil rule were introduced. For the Yaquis, the period of Jesuit occupation was one of peaceful acculturation and material development.

In 1767 the Jesuits were expelled from the region. Foreigners exploiting the riches of the area brought the Yaquis to a state of unrest. The new Mexican government attempted to tax the Yaqui land. In 1825, Juan Banderas began a united Indian revolt against the Mexican inhabitants of the Yaqui region (Troncoso 1905: 112). For six years fighting continued intermittently and the Yaquis learned the use of fire-arms. Temporarily they drove out the Mexican settlers.

These early victories of the Yaquis can be attributed to the weakness of the politically disunited Mexican government. As Mexican internal unity was re-established, war without quarter ensued. This was the beginning of a century of intermittent strife between Mexicans and Yaquis.

In 1876, the great Yaqui leader, Cajeme, took advantage of Mexican disunity in Sonora to drive again the Mexican settlers from the Yaqui valley. When Cajeme was executed by the Mexicans in 1887, another Indian leader, Juan Maldonado Tetabiate, continued the revolt of his people. As the strength of the Mexican army increased, Yaquis were forced either into guerrilla bands in the rugged mountains of the region or into hiding as laborers on Mexican ranches, in mines, or on the new railroad which was being built. Indians in hiding secretly sent supplies to their troops in the hills, and the raiding continued.

In the early 1900's Governor Yzábal of Sonora inaugurated a policy of deportation against the Yaquis. Captives were sent to Yucatan to work on henequen plantations. Many executions took place (Calvo 1949: 96). Peaceful Indians suspected of helping the raiders were hunted out. Many were killed and families were separated. This caused a great reduction in the numbers and efficiency of forces in the mountains, since their source of ammunition was cut off. Mexican settlers filtered back into the Yaqui valley under protection of Mexican troops (Spicer 1943a: 23).

However, small bands of Yaquis still fought on until as late as 1927. Thus, for forty years Yaqui culture was forced into dormancy. A few Indians were living in the hills and many more were living and working with Mexicans and so were subjected to various foreign influences. Since 1927 some nine thousand Yaquis have returned to their region, repopulating many of their old pueblos and following the old way of life.

In 1937 the Mexican government's attitude changed toward the Indians. President Cardenas set aside for the Yaquis twenty per cent of their original territory (Fabila 1940: 194). Here they live today under Mexican military supervision, although they govern themselves in most ways.

Since the late 1920's the official Mexican policy has been more friendly and constructive, aimed toward educating the natives, improving their material welfare and attempting to break down past social barriers between Indians and the Mexicans. However, social barriers in the region are still very real. Slowly, the new policy of contact is inaugurating a period of acculturation for the Yaquis along lines of directed change. There has been and promises to be little decay in the traditional ceremonial life of the Yaquis which has survived the period of persecution and forms the backbone of Yaqui culture as it is being practiced today (Spicer 1943a: 28).


The feeling among Yaquis, wherever they may be, is that the true center of their culture is in the eight pueblos which cluster about the mouth of the Rio Yaqui in Sonora, Mexico. In recent years, five of the eight pueblos have suffered varying degrees of depopulation. The nine thousand or so Yaquis in their valley today live mainly in the Pueblos of Potam, Vicam and Torim. Various small rancherías are scattered along the river, Some Indians live in all of the traditional eight pueblos except one, Belen, which is deserted because of a complete lack of water in its vicinity.


The Yaquis are agricultural. Twice each year floods make the rich, alluvial land along the river ideal for crop raising. In order to farm, the river bottom is first cleared of a dense covering of underbrush, such as tuna and pitahaya, native bamboo, willow, large mesquite trees and cottonwood trees. The aboriginal crops of corn, beans, and squash are supplemented by foods introduced by the Spaniards and Mexicans. Wheat is grown in quantities enough for export. Cattle, horses, mules, goats, pigs, and chickens are now an added source of livelihood (Fabila 1940: 8-33). Some wild foods are gathered from the wilderness (called monte by the natives), such as honey, wild greens, and tubers. Snares are set for small animals. Larger game abounds in the foothills, and fish are caught in the Gulf of California.

Nearly all Yaquis live from the land, although the making and selling of bamboo mats, willow baskets, or wheel-made pottery supplements the economy. Also an important item in the support of nearly every Sonoran Yaqui family today is the wages paid every two weeks to most Yaqui men, as soldiers (Spicer, E. H. and R. B. 1942). This approximates a form of dole.

The greatest economic drain upon Yaqui families, outside of bare living costs, appears to be the expense of their ceremonial and religious obligations (Spicer 1940b: 44-47, 236-237). The fulfillment of all such ceremonial obligations is of primary importance to the community. In fact, when religious affairs conflict with farming or some other job, the job suffers. Since the church governor (teopo kobanao) works year round at official duties and has little time for farming, he is often supported by the people of the pueblo.

No great extremes exist in regard to wealth, although some are better off than others.

The Past

According to what has been reported of Yaqui culture in early times, they were an agricultural food-gathering and hunting group, living in rancherías scattered along the lower reaches of the Yaqui River. They used a wooden mortar in preparation of foods, hunted with bow and arrow (sometimes poisoned), clubs, and perhaps spears. A carrying yoke was employed, as it is today. Their clothes were made of skins. Tattooing and nose and ear-piercing were practiced. They lived in small, scattered clusters of houses, until the missionaries brought them into eight larger communities, each centering about a church. Their homes no doubt resembled the spacious, rectangular units with adjoining ramadas in which the Yaquis live today.

Social and Ceremonial Patterns

Spanish influence brought a greater development of agriculture and a gradual change to European modes of dress. During the last century the Yaquis adopted the use of fire-arms. The bow is now used only ceremonially and in hunting, sometimes by children. Lately, some modern mechanical devices have been adopted in the household, and a few machines are used in the fields. Some native craft work is still made by both men and women. Foreign crafts such as wheel-turned pottery and machine sewing are usual.

Today, the Yaqui social and religious patterns are strongly reflective of the Spanish culture which was imposed from the seventeenth into the nineteenth centuries. The Yaqui military organization, god-parent system, and much Catholic tradition and ritual were adopted from the Spaniards and merged with aboriginal practices to give a distinctive cast to what, by the late 1800's, was a well-integrated culture. Yaqui society is different from that of the Mexicans of the region not only because of its aboriginal aspects but also because it has retained antiquated traits of seventeenth century Spanish culture.

In Sonora the Yaquis still govern themselves in the old way. Matters of importance to the pueblo are discussed at a village meeting or council, called a junta. This is attended by the five governors (kobanaom), the ex-governors, or elders (pueplo yo'owe), the military society (sontaom), and the church officials and members of ceremonial societies. This body of civil, military, and religious leaders discusses and decides all matters. Cases involving people from different pueblos are treated by a joint junta of the pueblos concerned. Ritual and praying accompany the discussion at these gatherings. The opinion of the elders is respected. A Yaqui culprit's punishment may be measured in the lashes of the rawhide whip carried about the waist of an official called the alawasin. The stocks, also an early Spanish method of punishment, are known to the Yaquis.

The oldest man or woman in the household is considered its head. Often three generations dwell together in a household, which is the basic unit of Yaqui society. There is no apparent rule stating whether a newly married couple should live with the boy's or the girl's parents. The god-parent relationships, sanctioned by the church, are an important part of the social structure. These supplement the primary kinship circle and are a stabilizing factor in the community. These relationships have been enlarged and specialized by the Yaquis and provide each person with a wide circle of ceremonial kin with mutual obligations.

Little is known, from record, of the social and religious life of the Yaquis before Spanish contact. It is difficult, today, to determine which of their cultural practices are aboriginal survivals. Spicer suggests similarity between aboriginal Yaqui social and religious organization and that of the more advanced Pueblo groups of the Southwest. According to him, survivals in Yaqui culture indicate the "possibility of patrilineal clan (gens) groups, an important system of ceremonial societies somewhat similar to those of the Pueblos, and an elaborate ceremonial calendar and ritual" (Spicer 1940a: 22). The Yaquis' early kinship system, which is being partly replaced by the Mexican system, is considered Yuman in type. The relative age distinctions, evident in kinship terminology, are still remembered in terms employed for members of the elementary family. Although Yaqui interpretations of Catholic ritual surround birth, marriage, and death, often symbols of the earlier ceremonialism accompany them. The formal structure of aboriginal ceremony has disintegrated, but fragments of it remain interlaced with the new Catholicized religious organization.

Since Jesuit times, Yaqui community life has centered about the church. All village officials, civil and military as well as religious, have duties in the church. Both religious and social activities are centered about the events of the Catholic calendar and the performance of the ceremonies attending birth, confirmation, marriage and death (Spicer 1940b: 104-236, 95-116). These, rites and ceremonies take place both in the church and the household.


Yaqui Story Telling

Story telling among the Yaquis today is quite informal. There appears to be no socially determined time or place for relating the myths or tales except in the case ofpascola stories, which are told at fiestas. Nor are there special persons who are supposed to tell the myths or tales. Yaquis say that stories are most often told, by men or women, in the evenings when a group happens to be gathered in the ramada or in the house by the fire. They also tell stories when working in the fields. Some of the older Yaquis indicate that story-telling used to be more formalized in the time of their parents or in their own youth. They also believe that the folk literature as a whole was more familiar to all Yaquis in earlier times than it is today. Most of the Indians today know some myths and tales but no one person was encountered who knows all of the stories in this collection. The myths or legends and tales which appear to be of pre-Spanish provenience do not seem to be as widely known and, in some cases, appear to be only partially remembered fragments of more complete myth cycles. Even the Jesuit period myths giving origins for Catholicized ceremonies are not by any means familiar to everybody who participates in the ritual. It is a general observation that most Yaquis have slight knowledge of pre-Spanish myths and tales and that a broad knowledge of these is limited to old people, members of conservative families, and persons with special interest in the past or in folk stories. More widely known are the recent myths of warfare, of traditions which support Yaqui claims against Mexican encroachment upon their territory, and tales of the Jesuit and more recent periods, particularly the pascola stories.

The subject matter of myths or legends and tales, the traditional themes, characters, and beliefs, reflect a society which has been in contact with foreigners for three centuries. Although many stories show considerable foreign influence, they are usually given a Yaqui background familiar to the narrator. The style of wording appears to be more individual than formal. However, different narrators are often consistent about the sequence of events. Formal endings are not always used. Kinship and occupations of characters are frequently mentioned. Names are usually given. Geography is often related to the action of a story. Since these characteristics seldom occur in tales of foreign introduction, and since they are usual in the earliest type of myths and tales, most often told in the Yaqui language, this may indicate that such traits are remnants of a formal style of storytelling employed more commonly in the past.

The characters in early Yaqui stories are not elaborately drawn. They represent the common Yaqui social personality, conception of supernaturals, and the animals. New characters entered folk traditions as the Indians became familiar with Bible traditions, European history and folk stories. Eventually the Catholic pantheon merged with and partly submerged the aboriginal one; Spaniards, Moors, and the Devil joined Yaqui historical characters, and rogues, adventure-seekers, and kings of European folklore became a part of Yaqui folk traditions. The characterization of heroes reflects changing standards from early times to the present. For instance, heroes of early tales are often obedient, wise, powerful, and great leaders or hunters. In Jesuit-period myths and tales, they become pious or sinful, according to Yaqui-Catholic standards. More recent stories feature pranksters, merchants, warriors, or cowboys.

Subject matter may be drawn from traditional and modern tribal belief. Plots are generally simple, consisting of one or two related incidents.

The pascola story-teller is undoubtedly an aboriginal Yaqui institution. Today, he is only superficially allied with the Yaqui-Catholic religion through appearing at religious fiestas, at children's funerals, and as a dancer on the morning of Holy Saturday. His stories suggest that they are of an early kind which have changed only as the society about which they are told has changed.

Yaqui attitudes regarding their folk literature vary. Older persons in the group learned to know and respect ancient belief during their youth, from elders and from group influence, before the people were scattered during the Mexican persecution in the early 1900's. Such older persons and members of conservative families, often those who remained hidden in the mountains throughout this period, are better acquainted with ancient tribal traditions and value them more highly. All Yaquis associate their folk literature not only with entertainment but also with pride in their history and culture.

Primarily, myths and legends are considered entertaining history and the tales as pure entertainment. As a body, the folklore is not considered sacred, although it is associated with native religion and ritual. Some stories are of social importance because they point a moral.

Much of the history claimed by the Yaquis has been borrowed, but they consider it their own and do not distinguish between history and tradition. Recent stories about warfare with the Mexicans demonstrate the bravery of Yaqui warriors and the justice of their cause. Earlier legends concerning warfare are told today as expressions of their feelings about the cruelty or treachery of the Mexicans, or the superiority of the Yaquis.

Many legends reflect the Yaqui feeling that their region is rightfully theirs. Tales of ancient heroes or saints defining Yaqui territory in mythical times are told as proof that the tribe is justified in defending its land. Ancient myths are set in specific parts of the Yaqui region, giving significance to the spot where the talking tree stood, the pueblo where Jesucristo was crucified, or the waterhole to which a priest condemned an evil monster to live. The origin of the names of hills is described. The spirits of their ancestors, the Surem, are said to dwell in the sea, inside of mountains, or in the forms of ants. Other traditions say that serpents or spirits inhabit certain bodies of water, that the rain is an evil one-eyed god, and the shooting star a brave dwarf hunter. Animals are sometimes possessed of magic powers and should be respected. Some animals are described as culture heroes, such as the toli who introduced the first pascola drum and flute, or the badger who named the sun. The deer is able to make himself invisible, and snakes take on human form. The numbers three and four are magical. A special kind of wood in a bow or an arrow enables a hero to perform great deeds. The smoking of native tobacco inspires the power of prophecy. Witches have the ability to take animal forms. Such magical beliefs may appear in stories from any period, even the present.

Myth cycles about nature deities, animals, and magic were undoubtedly a part of Yaqui religious practice prior to their contact with the Jesuits. However, today, any sacred meaning in them has been transferred to the saints and Catholicized ceremony. Old Yaquis or members of conservative families still hold to many pre-Christian beliefs about the supernatural, but such beliefs are considered secular rather than sacred truths. There is no worship of nature deities. Evidently children today are not taught such beliefs, for they know little about personifications of the elements or the powers of the animals.

In a few cases nature deities can be identified with Catholic concepts. For instance, Yuku is often called the Devil, and Suawaka is sometimes called San Miguel. This may indicate an effort to rationalize the existence of both sacred and secular deities.

Yaqui moral standards, implanted by the Jesuits, are given sanction in certain tales. For example: heroes are often described as obedient or pious. Leaving a wife or having sexual relations with a person who stands in the compadre relationship promises dire results. Drunkenness, disobedience to one's elders, traffic with things of the Devil, or murder lead to an evil end.

The Yaquis feel that fiestas are both a means of worship and a kind of entertainment. The junta, or political gathering, is an element in so many stories that it may well have been the means by which Yaquis of the eight pueblos governed themselves since earliest times.

Yaqui social attitudes are reflected in stories derived from foreign sources. Even biblical figures become Indian in character in the retelling of familiar Christian lore.

In conclusion, Yaqui folk literature expresses the tribe's sense of superiority, the sacred and material value of their territory, and the antiquity and distinctiveness of their customs.

The Narrators

Ambrosio A. Castro

Age, 54. Born in La Palma, Sonora, and lived there or near Cocorit most of his early life. His father was from Cocorit and his mother from Bacum. During his youth he lived with his paternal grandmother, a curer or "good witch." From her, he learned many ancient beliefs and tales. His great-grandfather was said to have been a very famous pascola. Castro has many relatives and friends in the Yaqui pueblos and enjoys visiting about. At present he has no ceremonial affiliations. He fought under Generals Matus and Espinosa with the conservative Yaqui faction, but, later, when Yaquis were being hunted out and deported, he lived like a Mexican, away from the Rio Yaqui. He worked as a house man, a muleteer, railroad worker in Guaymas, and, much later, as a candy vendor and a handyman at the government agricultural school near Vicam. Now, when not farming with his family, he works as a traveling tinsmith, visiting from pueblo to pueblo. He is an extrovert type, mixes easily with all Yaquis, both conservative and liberal; however, some of the more conservative Yaquis mistrust him. He enjoys telling tales and composing poems in both Yaqui and Spanish, although he prefers to use Yaqui for this purpose. He has a special interest in the old Yaqui culture and has a remarkable memory for details. He refused to give detailed information on the geography of the Rio Yaqui for fear that it might fall into the hands of enemies of the Yaquis. He reads and writes both Spanish and Yaqui, having learned to do so when he was past twenty years of age. His information is reliable and of a wide variety.


Lucas Chavez

Age, over 60. Born in the Rio Yaqui region at Torim. Suffered considerably in his youth during the Mexican persecution of the Yaquis, lost his family, escaped to work on a ranch in northern Sonora, then worked his way up into Arizona on the railroad. Has since lived in Pascua, near Tucson, Arizona. Has a good memory for details of ancient lore which he heard in his youth. Can read and write Spanish, took part in the establishment of the village of Pascua. In Sonora he began his training as a temastiin the Yaqui church at Torim. In Pascua, he has acted as third maestro or temasti. Lately he has been influenced by Baptist missionaries in Pascua. His attitudes are bitterly anti-Mexican and pro-American. He speaks both Yaqui and Spanish. His information reflects a good knowledge of Yaqui-Catholic ritual and of Yaqui customs and mythology.


Rafael Lopez

Age, about 45. Born in the United States and lives in the Yaqui colony, Barrio Libre, near Tucson. He has no ceremonial affiliations or ceremonial kin. He remembers little of his native culture and hardly speaks any Yaqui. One of his sons is married to a Papago girl. His attitudes toward Mexicans and Americans are equally favorable. His home life resembles that of the Mexicans. He can read Spanish. As an informant, his value lies in the fact that he exemplifies the marginal type who has moved away from his culture, though he still thinks of himself as a Yaqui.


Maríano Tapia

Age, about 55. Born and lived in the region of the Rio Yaqui until the age of 15 when he was captured and put to work on a Mexican fishing barge out of Guaymas. Later, he came to Arizona where he has worked on the railroad and as an adobe-layer and plasterer, living in the village of Pascua. His wife and children are active members of the Baptist church in Pascua. His attitudes toward the Mexicans are unfavorable. He desires, but fears to return to his homeland. He regrets that his children show little interest in the ancient Yaqui tradition.


Juan Valenzuela

Age, about 55. Native of the pueblo of Rahum. He heads the pueblo-mayor group of Rahum, and is an ex-governor. He and his family took active part in wars against the Mexicans. They lived in the sierras when they were driven from their pueblo. He is now an active leader in the most conservative faction of Yaquis and one of the chief powers in the movement to re-establish Rahum in the place it had before the revolution. He has worked on the railroad as far north as San Francisco and knows Yaquis in the villages near Tucson, Arizona. Today he supports his family by farming. His attitudes toward Americans are favorable, but cautious. He trusts no Mexican and likewise is distrustful of many Yaquis, who, in his mind, are traitors to the Yaqui cause by compromising with the Mexicans. His knowledge of Yaqui-Catholic ritual is broad. He was the only informant encountered who knew some of the ancient Yaqui traditions by rote. He stipulated that the information he gave should be printed only in English and only in the United States, in order that Mexicans might not read it. He speaks and writes in both Yaqui and Spanish.

Since the greatest number of stories in this collection were told by Ambrosio A. Castro, those not designated as to source are his. Those told by Lucas Chavez, Maríano Tapia, Rafael Lopez, and Juan Valenzuela are marked with the initials



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