A FAMILY TRADITION / YAQUI EASTER

// Yaqui Easter is an active event, full of movement and color.


At noontime of a sunny Saturday in April, I park our car among the warehouses north of downtown Tucson, Arizona. My wife and I button our sleeves and adjust our broad-brimmed Panama hats against the desert sun. We walk west along a lane, Sahuaro Street, past a row of brick bungalows, built since 1980 to replace the ubiquitous small adobes of old-time Tucson. Beyond the bungalows, the lane opens out toward a long, level plaza of bare earth.

This plaza is the focus of a small Yaqui Indian village, five hundred people surrounded by a city of half a million. The plaza has been raked smooth, and a row of green cottonwood withes marks its boundaries. At the front of the plaza stands a wide, low, white stucco church, its eaves festooned with flowers.

The village is named Pascua, the Spanish word for Easter.

In this plaza, every spring, Yaqui people perform an Easter ceremony—an intricate, elaborate reenactment of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a pageant full of dancing, piety, music, pantomime, beauty, and even some clowning, to the tune of Yaqui music and poetry.

In their celebration of Easter, the Yaqui people mix the stories and traditions of the Flower World of ancient memory with a pageant retelling the Gospel of the life and crucifixion of Jesus as Jesuit missionaries taught it. The schedule of Yaqui Easter varies—we never know for sure what will be happening when we arrive.

Already, a group of Yaqui women stand at an outdoor pulpit near the church, sharing a microphone with a Roman Catholic priest to recite, in Yaqui, Spanish, and Latin, the Gospel, the heart of the Christian message: "Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again."

On the roof of the church, a Yaqui man in sunglasses sits near the bell. He has sat there every Easter Eve for the thirty years we have been going to Pascua for Yaqui Easter.

Like every Yaqui man, woman, and child, he has a role in the Easter ceremony, a family tradition passed down through the generations. All year long, Yaqui participants practice their roles.

The Yaqui people welcome visitors who participate in the Easter ceremony as observers, to witness the ceremony in a spirit of reverence. It has become our own family tradition, every year on Easter Eve, Easter Saturday, to accept the welcome of the Yaqui people and to witness the pageant in a spirit of reverence.

We dress modestly, in long trousers or skirts—no shorts. Also, at the request of the Yaqui people, we leave our cameras and cell phones at home, so that we may be fully present, not distracted, but simply watching and listening to the pageant before us.

On the far side of the plaza are bleachers, already full of seated spectators, most of them Yaqui people, some women holding parasols against the noonday desert sun. 

A vivid painting of a bare-chested man once hung on a long, shaded wall behind the bleachers—it has recently been removed for repairs. The man in the painting wears, as a headdress, the antlered head of a deer and holds a large gourd rattle in each hand. He crouches—he seems keenly aware of the rich wilderness that surrounds him.

A sparkling stream runs through that wilderness, and wild animals—a skunk, a jackrabbit, a fawn, an owl, a gopher, the bearded mask of a mountain goat—hide in an abundance of large roses and other colorful flowers.

 That painting represents the Flower World, the ancestral home of the Yaqui people in central Mexico, as interpreted, with patience and skill, by the Yaqui painter Daniel Leon.

On our side of the plaza, a group of musicians play fiddle, guitar, a small archaic harp, and a drum made of half of a gourd placed upside down in a bowl of water. Half a dozen men in white clothing and tall, ribboned crowns, along with a young apprentice, shake gourd rattles, step and turn, step and turn, keeping time to the music.

Another man crouches, shakes his rattles, and begins to dance. Solemn, alert, bare-chested, poised, he is the man whose portrait once hung on the wall across the plaza. He is a symbol representing the Yaquis. For a time his likeness appeared on the license plates of the state of Sonora, Mexico. He is the deer dancer.

Accompanying the deer dancer are deer singers who perform a deep repertoire of deer songs of the ancient Yaqui Flower World. The songs reflect the beauty of living along the Yaqui River in southern Sonora, Mexico, and also recall the heartache of bloody conflict with Spanish invaders.

At a food booth we buy burros and bottles of water. We also purchase plastic bags of confetti to toss as part of the ceremony.

Yaqui Easter is an active event, full of movement and color.

We watch and listen.  And we know that we will see people we recognize, both long-time friends and participants in the ceremony.

One gathering of friends we see at Yaqui Easter every year I call the desert rats—men and women in khaki or jeans and wide-brimmed hats, chatting and grinning and tipping back their water bottles.

The desert rats are avid desert lovers, field scientists mostly--biologists, geologists, and anthropologists--fascinated by the way desert plants, animals, climate, rocks, mountains, and the cultures of desert people are deeply related to one another. They are a cheerful lot, and they love to find an excuse to walk around in the desert.

Seeing the desert rats at Yaqui Easter is like a family reunion. There are long pauses in the Yaqui Easter pageant, and we take those opportunities to catch up with the work and travels and lives of the desert rats.

We see how their children have grown. We're especially glad to encounter, at Yaqui Easter, a young woman, now conducting doctoral research in a desert far away, we first met riding in a kiddie pack strapped to her father's shoulders.

And we shake hands with new friends.

At the climax of the ceremony a company of men, each brandishing a wooden sword in one hand and a wooden dagger in the other, repeatedly march up and down the plaza, feinting an attack on the church. They wear caricatures of threatening masks, some of them comic or burlesque. We join the Yaqui people to repel these invaders by joyfully hurling handfuls of confetti at them.

After the defenders of the church repulse several attacks, they welcome the attackers to Christianity. The converts remove their masks, and family members bring them to the church. The plaza is covered with a snowstorm of confetti and, in jubilation, the man on the roof of the church rings the bell without pause.

There is such a variety of participants in the Yaqui Easter observance that it is difficult to take in more than one bit of the pageant at a time (Muriel Painter's handy guidebook, noted below, helps a great deal).

I recognize that it would require a lifetime of study and practice to comprehend the true depth, variety, complexity, mindfulness, beauty, and joy of the Yaqui celebration of Easter.

I can only say how grateful I am that the Yaqui people of Sonora and Arizona have allowed me and my family to observe the Yaqui Easter ceremony, year after year--to witness an event so wise and complex, so beautiful and respectful of the world.

If you wish to attend the Easter Saturday celebration at the Yacui Pascua village:

Go west on Grant Road, south on 15th Avenue one block, and west, on foot, on Sahuaro Street, which is the lane leading into Yaqui Pascua village. (The village is also called Old Pascua, to distinguish it from a Yaqui village named New Pascua, which lies in the desert several miles west of Tucson).

 

Three excellent books concerning the Yaqui Easter ceremonial are:

Muriel Thayer Painter, A Yaqui Easter (1971, 40 pp.).  A concise, very handy guide to the Yaqui Easter ceremonial.

Edward Spicer, Pasqua: A Yaqui Village in Arizona (1940, 325 pp.). The essential account of YaquI Pascua by a widely admired anthropologist.

Larry Evers and Felipe S. Molina, Yaqui Deer Songs / Maso Bwikam: A Native American Poetry (1987, 239 pp.) A clear and engaging collaboration between a Yaqui deer singer (Molina) and a literature professor (Evers) exploring the deep, complex culture in which Yaqui deer songs are taught and performed.

The University of Arizona Press publishes all three books.