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Though it reeks of gas, it will smell like flowers

By Raquel Padilla Ramos*

Traditional Yaqui embroidery

The Flower World, reflected in traditional embroidery, will belong to those Yaqui who protect the territory's integrity. (Photo: Raquel Padilla Ramos)

“He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment.”
- Treebeard, about the evil sorcerer Saruman in Lord of the Rings (J.R.R. Tolkien).


Let's call things by their real name. What is happening on Yaqui lands is a prolonged and systematic theft, occurring in phases that at times are slow, at others accelerated, sometimes subtle, sometimes violent, and is a theft that is favored by liberalism as the State’s economic policy. This is liberalism without the neo-, and we have to go back to the 19th century to find the origins of its dark intent. The Yaquis have continually had the land—land that was, according to their ancient truths, placed in their care by divine mandate— grabbed, wrested, seized and stolen from them.

In the last decade two megaprojects have contributed to this dispossession: the Independencia Aqueduct and the Agua Prieta Natural Gas Pipeline [1]. Both abuses have been carried out, as in past centuries, with private capital that has had at its disposal the State as a shield. It is because of this that José Luís Moreno speaks of institutionalized theft [2] when referring to the process through which the aqueduct has continued to operate.

Equally institutionalized is the land theft to build the gas pipeline. In spite of a judicial order to halt work on the project, construction has continued intermittently with support of the Sonora state government and its police forces.

The author of the Lord of the Rings, J.R.R Tolkien, wrote an epic scene in which the ent Treebeard, a tree-herder of Middle Earth, leads a general uprising in protest of the devastation of a forest by the armies of Saruman, a wizard who had fallen under the influence of the evil character Sauron.

Today in Yaqui territory, the tribal members of Loma de Bácum have assumed the role of Treebeard, defending their environment—their very being— and looking for ways to guarantee the survival of future generations in the face of an evil force.

It was the Lomabaqueños, or Baqueños, who filed a judicial complaint against the company Gasoducto de Punta Prieta in defense of their living environment, and they are the ones who have been criminalized, persecuted and harassed. It is in this atmosphere that Fidencio Aldama has been imprisoned since October after having been charged, without evidence, in a process that clearly points to him being a political prisoner.

In Loma de Bácum, the Yaquis know themselves to be bound to Nature because of the livelihood she has granted them and because of the gifts they have received from her. In order to understand why the Yaqui so fiercely defend their land, following is an ethno-historical summary of the Yaqui's knowledge of their surroundings.

In the second decade of the 17th century, through a process known as a “reduction”, the Jesuit missionaries decreased the eighty Rancherias that they had encountered along the Rio Yaqui to eleven towns, and then to eight [3]: the eight mystic, historic, and foundational Yaqui Pueblos. Under this new territorial reorganization, or more appropriately the restructuring of settlement patterns, the priests negotiated with the tribe, agreeing to respect most of the elements of the Yaqui culture in exchange for their religious conversion and acquiescence to life under Jesuit control [4].

Living in a reduction meant that the people had to settle in a town, form a single family unit (not several), and accept the new urban design. They would also recognize both the missionary and the new governing bodies created by the Spaniards as the ultimate authority. It meant living with certain order, security, and certainty, far from the perilous and rugged life of the outdoors.

In this way, the Yaqui people re-created their social imagination in order to recognize the church (teopo) as the center of their liturgical practices while never completely abandoning the intense relationship they maintained with the Wilderness World, juya ania, which was seen as sacred and divine, a place of inspiration sent by extrasensory forces [5].

Of course, Wilderness World was also that vast place that provided food, water, building materials, weapons, and folk medicines.

It goes without saying that within the outdoor dimension of the Yaquis, there were other sacred universes like the Ocean World or bawe ania, and the River World or batwe ania; these encompass all of life that in one way or another is linked to them, akin to an ecosystem. Within juya ania, there is also a dimension of the past, the yo'o ania or Ancient World, that connects the Yaquis with their most ancient ancestors and with mythic times and events. It is this world that not all of the Yaqui can enter.

The Celestial World (firmament) or choki ania also forms part of the Wilderness World, as does tenku anai or the Dream World (linked to yo'o anai). The existence of these worlds is a palpable demonstration that for the Yaqui everything is related and it is not possible to dismantle their nest (Toosa) piece by piece, neither for its exploitation nor sale.

Another possible Yaqui world exists within the sacred Wilderness World, its presence being related to the death of a person. It is a possible world in that it motivates good Yaqui to reach paradise (Looria). Only those that are able to faithfully achieve the yo'o lutu'uria (ancient truth) are capable of reaching there. This universe is known in jiak noki (Yaqui) as sewa ania, or the Flower World, and it is in this place where everything is in harmony and Little Brother Deer never stops dancing. Hence the title of this article.

Invariably, within the political structure of any Yaqui pueblo there is a figure that is in charge of guarding and protecting the territory. The Commander combines his authority with that of the Captain (a vestige of war times) to safeguard the Nest and protect the yoemia (the families, also known as the troop). The commander is assigned a troop (here in a military sense) made up of soldiers under his command and chosen according to the tasks that they are to carry out, as well as the weapons necessary in case there are problems [6]. Not only do the tribal authorities watch over what is tangible but also over all of the immaterial worlds that occur within the material world.

As we see, in the order of things, the Yaquis have a very different way of looking at their territory. For them it is not only a model of agricultural prosperity and a geographic area with economic potential. It is that space that the Yaqui culture inhabits and where everything that is Yaqui converges. It is the wilderness, the towns, the agricultural fields, the river, the coast and all of the dimensions that the yori (white man) is incapable of seeing. On losing a piece of themselves, the Yaqui run the risk of losing sight of their connection with the natural world, with their deities, and with their ancestors.

1 Bacatete, donde se oye la guerra. Documental dirigido por Mónica Luna, Canal 22, Año 2010.

2 José Luis Moreno. Despojo de agua en la cuenca del Río Yaqui, Hermosillo, El Colegio de Sonora, 2014.

3 Andrés Pérez de Ribas, Triunfos de la santa fe, Hermosillo, Gobierno del estado de Sonora, 1985 [1645].

4 Raquel Padilla Ramos. Narrativas de la guerra y la deportación yaquis (libro en proceso de publicación), México, INAH, s/a.

5 Enriqueta Lerma. El nido heredado: estudio etnográfico sobre cosmovisión, espacio y ciclo ritual de la tribu Yaqui, IPN, México, 2014.

6 José Luis Moctezuma. Yaquis, México, CDI, 2007.

*PhD in Mesoamerican studies, research professor at the Sonoran branch of the National
Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH); author of several books, including
de la guerra y la deportacion yaquis" (currently under publication), Mexico, INAH