Inside the flower world of the Yaqui deer dance. Where indigenous and christian spirituality go hand in hand

The deer dance of the Yaqui and Mayo people of Sonora, Mexico, is said to be sacred and therefor rarely photographed. In Yaqui mythology, the deer represents good and the dancers tell the story of the deer, their little brother, and the flower world. In the flower world, all animals are our friends. It is believed that during a fiesta, the deer comes to the Yaqui people and they sacrifice him to the Gods, in return they perform a dance and a ritual in his honor and thank him for giving himself to their well being.

You can not go far into the Northern state of Mexico without encountering depictions of the deer dancer, it can be found on governmental buildings, as sculptures along the highway and even on prepackaged grocery items. For many Mexicans however, these images don’t do much more than remind them of their Aztec heritage and the indigenous people that once lived there. For the Yaqui of Mexico and Arizona, however, these images represent a history of cultural continuity, tribal sovereignty and ritual sacrifice. In all the deer songs and performances, the dancers establish a connection with what they call the sea ania, the flower world, and seyewailo is the convergence of time, place, direction and quality of being that is for the Yaquis the essence of sea ania. The sea ania is described by most as a perfect image of the beautiful outside world, the beginning of life and the result of hard work. The sea ania is the embodiment of sacrifice. Every act of deer singing, ever since the first one was sung, describes the world of flowers and through the labour of singing and dancing the whole night, this world is temporarily re-created, contributing to the communities’ shared inheritance of these aboriginal states of being.  In singing the deer songs, Yaqui open the doors to others worlds. However, those other worlds don’t live separate from us, it is not a mythical story, but as real to the Yaqui as our day to day lives. And thus sea ania is the living beautiful side of our present world.

Ultimately, the deer dance represents the both elegant and profound struggle between good and evil and how to restore and maintain the balance with nature. Traditionally, deer dancing is associated with hunting as a means of securing the appropriate relation with the plant and animal world. Nowadays, the dance is performed in many different occasions and even during Catholic processions or holidays. The Yaquis were largely Christianized by Spanish Jesuit missionaries in the 16th century and have since been practicing a blend of their original polytheistic traditions and devotional Catholic spirituality. From the time Diego de Guzman and his band of Spanish slave traders encountered the Yaqui in 1533, they have regularly needed to defend their lands against Spanish, and later Mexican, encroachment and domination. Yaqui resistance was always strong and Yaquis developed a reputation as the fiercest fighters in the New World. But in the last decades of the 19th century the Mexican government launched a massive offensive and began to deport Yaquis to work as slaves on plantations in Oaxaca and Yucatan. It was during this time, roughly 1890-1910, that many Yaquis sought political refuge in the United States.The Yaqui who fled to the United States settled in villages and towns and on ranches along the Santa Cruz River in southern Arizona. Eventually major villages were established at Pascua and Barrio Libre in Tucson and at Guadalupe near Tempe. There they were able to live and continue their cultural traditions largely without fear of oppression. Stepping into Guadalupe during Holy Week or on December 12, the feast day of the town’s patron saint, Our Lady of Guadalupe, one is instantly transported into a new world of colors, song, and dance. In a beautiful example of cross-pollination, he Yaquis hold that when Christ was on the cross, his dripping blood was transformed into flowers and they refer to such events in their pahkos, which is the traditional name for the deer song.

The presence of post-Colombian influence is also noticeable in the repertoire and choreography of the deer songs. Deer dancers, pahkolam (ritual clowns), wear rattles around their ankles made from butterfly cocoons, honoring the insect world, and rattles from the hooves of deer around their waist, honoring the many deer who have died. The deer dancer wears a mask or headpiece made of large antlers, and the movements of the deer are beautiful and graceful as he proudly jumps around in an expression of freedom. The deer soon senses danger as a pack of coyotes draws nearer, and the movements of the dancer suddenly change, the sounds produced by the rattles around his ankles representing the sounds of the forest. To accompany the coyotes, the musicians performing this ceremony, traditionally play string instruments of European origin, such as the violin and harp. By contrast, the instruments used for the deer, are purely indigenous drums and five-tone reeds, adding another layer of ‘dark versus light’ to modern interpretations of deer dancing.

In the Yaqui homelands at the present time, deer hunts take place infrequently. Tribal elders emphasize the difficulty of hunting deer succesfully, the danger of interpersonally offending deer through inappropriate behaviour as well as the labour intensive preparation of the deer carcass for ceremonial and household purposes. In Potam Pueblo, a Sonora Yaqui reserve with a population of approximately five thousand individuals, deer have been hunted collectively only on a few occasions over the last couple years. Instead, ‘the people’, or Yoemem, perform their history through dance. Peaceful co-existence of both indigenous and Christian spirituality creates a cultural identity for both the Sonora and US based Yaqui, although some of their shared history is now somewhat scattered. According to the profecy of their singing tree thousands of years ago, the Yaqui would become divided into two groups: those who chose to be baptized and those who would maintain their pre-Christian beliefs and so remained immortal in the sea ania. Thus, nowadays, the deer dance and song are a means to reconnect these two groups and unify them over large distances more then ‘just’ a ritual of sacrifice.