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The Yaqui in Mexico


The Yaqui, native peoples of northeastern Mexico, have settlements in the state of Sonora, bordering the Yaqui River. The Yaqui call themselves Hiaki or Yoeme (yoemem or yo’emem which means “people”).

There are many folk etymologies on how the Yoeme came to be known as the “Yaqui.”

The Yaqui are known for their struggle to preserve their traditions and their autonomy. They waged the most determined, enduring, and successful resistance against the dominant cultures of the Spanish, Catholic, and Mexican.

In Mexico, the Yaqui are the only indigenous peoples that never officially surrendered to the Spanish, or the Mexican authorities.


The Yaqui are speakers off the subfamily Cahitan language group. The Cahitan linguistic group is a group of about 10 mutually-intelligible languages, of the Taracahita family, of the linguistic Uto-Aztecan language branch. (The 10 languages were formerly spoken in the Mexican states of Sonora and Sinaloa.) The

Most of the Cahitan languages are extinct. Of the three Cahitan linguistic dialects, Mayo, Yaqui, and Tehueco; Tehueco has disappeared. The Yaqui and Mayo are the sole speaking survivors of  their language.

Yaqui is a tonal language, with a tonal accent on either the first or the second syllable of the word.

Yaqui Ancestral Lands

The ancestral lands of the Yaqui were originally in southern Sonora, Mexico, around the Yaqui River. The Yaqui people traditionally occupied the long coastal strip and valley southeast of the current state of Sonora, from the south bank of the Yaqui River to Cerro Tetakawi, north of the current city of Guaymas.

Long ago, the Yaqui migrated and traveled widely. It is likely they traveled to what is modern day southern Arizona, centuries before the 1500’s.

Early Yaqui Social and Religious Organization

The Yaqui had a complex social and religious organizational structure.

The Yaqui in Mexico lived in mid-sized communities in a settled agricultural community. Through their knowledge of the Sonoran Desert, they cultivated a variety of crops, including maize (corn), various bean and squash varieties, cotton, wheat, and more. Yaqui agriculture consisted of subsistence crops of corn, beans, and squash, and more.


There were about 60 thousand Yaqui and Mayo (of the 115 thousand Cahit speakers) inhabitants, when the Spaniards arrived.

1533 is recorded as the first year initial contact took place with Spaniards. The Spaniards were not welcome and the first confrontation between the two occurred.  This confrontation resulted in fatalities on both sides and Yaquis taken prisoner.

In October 1535, a Spanish expedition was sent to the Yaqui River. A formation of Yaqui warriors was there to confront the Spaniards.  Following the confrontation there were injuries and fatalities on both sides.

In 1608, another expedition group returned, accompanied by indigenous mercenaries. The Yaquis attacked at dawn.

In 1609, the Spaniards returned with 4000 mercenaries, then retreated. They feared all would perish.    

By 1610, the Yaqui accepted the presence of Catholic missionaries.

In 1615, the Yaqui initiated peace negotiations.

In 1617, the Yaqui extended their agricultural activities and accepted re-grouping in 8 localities. Under the influence of missionaries, they settled in church-centered communities. Children and adults were baptized in the Catholic religion.

For 118 years, the Yaqui were the most populated and prosperous indigenous peoples in northeastern Mexico.

Then in 1740, due to pressure of seizing Yaqui territory, there was a Yaqui rebellion.

In 1741, there was an uprising led by Ignacio Muni, Calixto, Baltazar and Esteban. This resulted in the signing of a treaty. Under this treaty, the Yaqui had the right to preserve their customs, their government was recognized, and the rights to full possession of their land and to keep their weapons.

In the 1760’s, the Yacqui continued to face dispossession of Yaqui territory by outsiders.

In the 1800’s, the Yaqui demonstrated that they were independent and self-governing during Mexico’s independence. The Yaqui refused to pay taxes to the Mexican government.

In 1825, led by Juan Banderas, the Yaqui revolted. With the idea of autonomous state, Banderas combined indigenous forces. Banderas was defeated and executed in 1833.

Mexican authorities continued with attempts to gain control of the Yaqui and dispossess fertile lands, and brutalities included a massacre in 1868.

Under the Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz, the Yaqui faced intense extermination by Mexican authorities. An open call to “colonize” was issued. The Mexican government invaded Yaqui territory, territories that belonged to the Yaqui since ancient times.

In 1882, the Yaqui took up arms. For several years the Mexican government repeatedly provoked the Yaqui remaining in Sonora, with the intent to seize their land for exploitation.  Insurrections continued as the Yaqui resisted the Mexican government. Under the leadership of Cajemé (Jose Maria Leyva), the Yaqui continued to struggle to maintain their independence.

In 1887, Cajemé was caught and executed.

Yaqui resistance continued but this persecution weakened them as they were impoverished.

Yaqui children, men, and women were captured and sold into slavery to owners of sugar cane plantations and tobacco planters in Oaxaca, and owners of henequen plantations in Yucatan.

By 1908, at least 5,000 Yaqui had been sold into slavery. Most enslaved Yaquis were worked until they died. 

Thousands more Yaquis were put on boats and shipped to San Blas, Nayarit. They were then forced to walk more than 200 miles. Many women and children died. The Mexican government established large concentration camps at San Marcos, Guerrero, where the remaining Yaqui families were broken up and segregated. Individuals were sold into slavery, sent to Veracruz, then transported to henequen plantations. Most of the Yaqui men, women, and children enslaved on plantations died there.

In the early 1900’s, many of the Yaqui remaining in the state of Sonora assumed the identities of other native peoples and merged with the Mexican population of that state.

In the 1930’s, the Mexican government restored much of the Yaqui’s lands.

In 1935, a Yaqui Irrigation Commission was formed in Sonora, Mexico. 

In 1937, the construction of the Angostura dam began with the purpose of controlling the irrigation of Yaqui territory.

In 1940, the 18th irrigation district was created. Irrigation was restricted to the valley areas, made up of the municipalities of Guaymas, Bácum, Cajeme and Empalme. Irrigation rights depended on the extent to which the Yaqui opened the lands they owned to cultivation. These irrigation projects shifted Yaqui agriculture to cash crops such as wheat and cotton, and the production of vegetable oils. 

In the 1950’s, subsistence farmers were grouped, and it became mandatory to sow wheat and cotton in irrigated common plots.

In 2021, the Mexican government issued an act of “Appeal for forgiveness to the Yaqui people” within the framework of a Justice Plan for the Yaqui Peoples. According to Mexican official statements, this Justice Plan seeks “to redress the injustices committed against this people”, including the persecution led by Porfirio Diaz, among other things.

The Yaqui Today

Habitat of Yaqui Land

In Mexico, the Yaqui live on land that is arid and semi-arid, in front of the Sea of Cortez.

Soil composition is sandy-clayey and sandy-humiferous.

Temperatures range between 0 and 47 ° C. 

The flora is cacti, mesquite, poplar, and reed. The fauna includes rabbits, deer, coyotes, foxes, ocelots, wild boars, vipers, scorpions, and sea lion on the coasts. In the sea there are oysters, shrimp, and various fish.

pachycereus pringlei cactus growing on rocky seacoast on sunny day

Civil and Social Authority

In 1958, the state of Sonora presented a convocation asking the Yaqui to decide on their social/political organization. They voted on a traditional system.

The Yaqui are organized around eight traditional villages. Each represents a political, military, religious and ritual unity. Vícam is considered the social/political center and a meeting place for the traditional authorities of the eight villages. The eight traditional villages are, from south to north: Loma de Guamúchil, Loma de Bácum, Tórim, Vicam, Pótam, Ráhum, Huirivis and Belem.

In their civil organization, the Yaqui is made up of five groups of civil authorities. There is a governor (cobanahuac), who is complemented by advisors that assist the governor, a Council of Elders, an elder (texmaxtimol), and a group of capable elderly women (cantadoras) who oversee decisions and activities. 

A military authority, which was originally a reserve army, consist of functions that are more ceremonial than warlike.

Partiers are responsible for the fulfillment of the ritual cycle. There are eight men and eight women who remain in office for one year.

Yaqui Family Life

Yaqui families arethought to be traditionally patrilocal and patrilineal, meaning families live in the homes of the male figurehead. Yaqui families trace their lineage through the male in each family.

Women are respected in the family and their vote equally counts.

Traditional dwellings are usually composed of three sections: the bedroom and kitchen, and a room called a portal. The traditional construction is a structure of reed and adobe, with dirt floor and reed or palm roof.

Currently, houses are made of cement and sheet material, they have electricity, drinking water, mail, telephone, and Internet.

The yard is used for animal husbandry; At the far end is installed the latrine, which is built with the same material of the houses.

Today, there are Yaquis settled in cities of the state of Sonora, that form their own colonies within the major cities. In these Yaqui neighborhoods, inhabitants make efforts to preserve the traditions and cultural roots.

The Yaqui flag has the following: blue, the strength of the people covered with the blue mantle of the sky; white, the purity of the blood of the Yaqui race; Sun, Father God who illuminates and gives life to the race; moon, Mother Goddess who protects us night and day; stars, the spirits that watch from beyond the four cardinal points of the Yaqui territory; cross, the new religion of the Yaqui; red, red blood shed for the defense of Yaqui territory and autonomy as a nation.

Yaqui Territory and Economy

Yaqui territory has suffered significant losses, and the struggle for water has not ceased.

The core activity of the Yaqui economy remains commercial agriculture of wheat and cotton. Of all the communal farmland (around 18,000 hectares), less than 5% is effectively exploited by the Yaquis. Farm modernization has forced them to rent their land and work as day laborers.

In 1958, a fishing cooperative was promoted by the government. Today Yaqui fishermen are organized into working groups of 15 men who report to the board of the cooperative administration. Large salt flats are also worked along the Yaqui coasts.

Currently, cattle have a pasture area of at least 15,000 hectares and livestock is a vial possibility of Yaqui economy. There are a dozen livestock societies in the highlands.

Other complementary activities are wood cutting, for which only the permission of the traditional authorities is needed. 

Many Yaquis migrate to the United States during harvest or planting seasons, but then return to Yaqui territory in Mexico.  

Health and Medicine

Among the Yaqui in Mexico, traditional practices and modern medicine coexist. Religious beliefs govern the practice of curanderismo; God is the maximum divinity of good, from whom the gift to heal is received, and who cannot be used in favor of one’s own offspring. Healing is commonly passed down in families, and knowledge is transmitted from one generation to the next. The Yaquis consider that disease can be caused in a natural or supernatural way that alters an individual’s health. Traditional healing techniques include cleansing, preparation of medicinal infusions, and sobas.

Religious Authority

Religious authority is a repository of knowledge of liturgy and ritual.

The religious authority (yoohue) is made up of a group of “teachers”, members of a confraternity. The highest authority is the liturgical master. This master is offered in manda since childhood by his parents.

The “brotherhood” of the Matachines is formed by two groups of men, the knights and the pharisees. These two groups exercise their authority during the celebration of Holy Week.

Yaqui Spiritual Tradition

The Yaqui’s rich spiritual and cultural tradition prevails today.  Understanding is based on obtaining total expressions of nature and oneself, with absolute clarity; in order to decipher at a state that is more than just knowledge, what each natural and personal force signifies, while being able to distinguish between allies and enemies of existence.   

The belief of the Yaqui is that the universe is composed of distinct worlds or places that are overlapping, called aniam. 

There are nine or more different aniam

sea ania: flower world

yo ania: enchanted world

– tenku ania: a dream world

– tuka ania: night world

– huya ania: wilderness world

– nao ania: corncob world

– kawi ania: mountain world

– vawe ania: world under the water

– teeka ania: world from the sky up through the universe

Many Yaqui rituals concentrate on improvement of these worlds, such to eliminate the harm that has been done to them, especially by people. Each of these has its own unique qualities and forces.

The Yaqui have a “founding” myth. This myth of the talking tree or rod refers to a time before the arrival of the Spaniards. An interpreter was sought who understood the sound of the talking tree. This is a function that is now performed by a woman. The myth describes the separation between the baptized who accepted Catholicism, those who refused to be baptized (surem), and those who fled to preserve yoania, a relationship with the world.

For many Yaqui in Mexico, beliefs are combined with Catholic practices. Many believe that the existence of the world depends on their annual performance of Lenten and Easter rituals.

The Yaqui religion is complex, juxtaposing native beliefs and practices with Catholic ones. Thus, there is an overlap of identity between the Virgin Mary with ltom Aye  (our mother), Jesus Christ with Itom Achai (our father) and the preeminence of other Catholic figures.

This inter-faith has songs, music, prayers, and dancing, all performed by designated members of the community. More than a dance, dance is a prayer for the obtaining of indulgence.

The different dances, represented for different festivals, carry within them associations and symbols that reflect a particular interpretation of Catholic beliefs.

The Yaqui deer song (maso bwikam) accompanies the deer dance, which is performed by a pascola (Easter) dancer.  Pascolas perform during Lent and Easter, and at other functions many times of the year. While often associated and interrelated at certain ceremonies, the numerous pascolas are distinct from the “deer dancer”.

Among the Yaqui, there are societies with significant roles in the performance of Yaqui ceremonies. These include: The Prayer Leaders, Kiyohteis (Female Church Assistants), Vanteareaom (Female Flag Bearers), Anheiltom (Angels), Kohtumvre Ya’ura (Fariseo Society), Kantoras (female singers), Officios (Pahko’ola and Deer Dance societies), Wiko Yau’ra society, and Matachinim (Matachin Society dancers).

Flowers are very important in the Yaqui culture, as they are viewed as the manifestation of souls.

pink and purple flower field

Author: AllGoodsOnline


Spicer, Eduard Holland. Los yaquis: historia de una cultura. Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

Etnografía del pueblo yaqui de Sonora. | INPI | Instituto Nacional de los Pueblos Indígenas | Gobierno | (