Slaying The Deer Slayers In Mexico: The Yaqui Experience

The following is an excerpt from Lost Worlds of 1863: Relocation and Removal of American Indians in the Central Rockies and the Greater Southwest, recently published by Wiley-Blackwell by W. Dirk Raat, a retired professor of history who has taught at SUNY Fredonia, the University of Utah, Moorhead State University (Minnesota), and Arizona State University. Professor Raat has published nine books including Mexico’s Sierra Tarahumara: A Photohistory of the People of the Edge (University of Oklahoma, 1996).

By Kelly Hayes Raitt

Slaying The Deer Slayers In Mexico:

The Yaqui Experience

yaqui venado


itom Juaa Ania, itom ju’upa te jin’neune, bhueituk apo itom kokou,

kus ya’atakai, kovapo, itou weeka itom Su’a Achai’wai’ tavenasia.

“Defend our forests, and our mesquite, for when one dies, forming

a cross, as if it were our father, who cares for and protects us . . .”

          José López, Pueblo Yo’owe, Vicam Pueblo, 18801

What we want is that all whites and troops get out.  If they go for good,

then there will be peace; if not we declare war.

               “The Eight Yaqui Towns,” Cocorit Pueblo, Sonora,

 to General Luís E. Torres, Governor of Sonora, 18992


Porfirio Díaz itom bwa’avaen.  Yoemrata tehalvaen.

“Porfirio Díaz wanted to eat us. He wanted to finish off the Yoeme Nation.”

          Anselma Tonopuame’a Castillo, Yaqui Elder, 1960s3


Los Yaquis son un obstáculo constante . . . [comparándolos con] un siniestro

Renacimiento del ave fénix de las cenizas de las montañas.

“The Yaquis are a constant obstacle.” They can be compared to “the sinister resurrection of the [fabled] Phoenix bird [of antiquity] that arose [after burning itself] from the ashes of the mountains.” [the Bacatete Mountains of Sonora?]

          Ravings of an official government publication for Sonora, 1905-19074


The Yaqui experience stands alone among the indigenous history of the Americas. First, the Yaqui resistance to intrusions by Spanish and Mexican outsiders lasted from 1533 to the second quarter of the twentieth century. This was the longest opposition movement in American Indian history. Yaqui guerrilla warfare developed in the mountainous environment of the Bacatete in Sonora. The Bacatete Mountains (also known as the “Sierra del Yaqui”) are about sixty miles north of the Yaqui River with only a few passes into the mountains that are easily defended from above. The nearness of the United States border created an avenue for supplies and munitions and an escape route. In addition, during the late eighteenth century and throughout most of the nineteenth century, the Yaquis were exposed to Apache military maneuvers and strategies which  reinforced their own military tactics. Both the lengthy duration of the resistance, and the lateness of the discord (lasting until the early twentieth century in comparison to most North American Indian conflicts that were over by 1890), made the Yaqui resistance distinctive.

It was during the decade of the 1860s that witnessed the first serious intrusions by outsiders into the Yaqui River country when Mexico’s federal restrictions on foreign investment were loosened. By 1863 mining had received a new impetus when the government provided concessions for ore seekers to pursue mineral wealth in Sonora. Of the twenty mines that were initiated in the Guaymas district that year, fifteen were owned by either Frenchmen or North Americans.  Some of these mines were in or near Yaqui territory. By the end of 1863 the wealthy mining district of Los Alamos, southeast of the Río Yaqui, registered close to one hundred mines.

Other economic and military factors displaced the Yaquis. The victory of the Liberals after the bloody War of La Reforma (1858-1861), and the U.S. Civil War of 1861, followed by the French Intervention in Mexico in 1862, led to the first stages of modernization and the entry of foreign capital into Mexico, especially the Mexican North. Economic development in nearby Nuevo León y Coahuila and Tamaulipas (especially in Matamoros, which became a major entrepot for the transshipment of munitions from the European market and cotton from the Confederacy) spilled over to neighboring Sonora. Thus began the colonization of Yaqui soil and Yaqui resistance  that led to warfare, massacres, extermination, and deportation. Between 1887, when federal troops began the occupation of Yaqui tribal lands, and the end of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, the Yaqui population dropped from 20,000 to less than 3,000.

Another distinction of the Yaqui history was the diaspora. From the early 1880s until the mid-twentieth century, the Yaqui people fled from the twin evils of extermination and deportation and sought refuge throughout Mexico and the southwestern United States from Nogales to Yuma and Tucson and Sells, and from Tucson and Sells to the greater Phoenix area, as well as in southern California, the Baja peninsula, the Zuñi pueblos of New Mexico, and the mining camps, rural towns, haciendas, and ranchos of Sonora, Chihuahua and other Mexican locales.

Those who did not flee from the Río Yaqui area of Sonora were usually executed, imprisoned, or forcibly deported as slave laborers to the coffee plantations of Oaxaca and the henequen fields of the Yucatán. This dispersal was greater than what the Cherokees experienced in 1835 when they were removed from Georgia to Oklahoma, or that of the Chiricahua Apache who were transported from southeast Arizona to Florida prisons after 1886. As the late anthropologist Edward H. Spicer noted, the Yaquis “had become the most widely scattered native people of North America.”

A final factor that distinguishes the Yaquis from other native groups was the trinational and global nature of Yaqui labor and the henequen-wheat complex. (Henequen is a naturally grown fiber that, when processed, is used to bind grains.) Sonoran politics took on an international hue when agave fibers of sisal and henequen in the Yucatán were cut, gathered, packed and loaded by Yaqui slaves and then exported via Progreso and New Orleans to twine factories in the United States and Canada. This twine, often manufactured with penitentiary labor, was then sent to Midwestern farmers on the American and Canadian plains to be used in binders and other harvesting implements that would cut and bind grain for threshing. From 1880 to 1930, Yucatecan fibers, supplied by Yaqui and other indigenous labor, were critical for the North American agricultural revolution.

Although the Yaquis of northern Mexico steadfastly held and defended their land for decades, their impact was felt throughout Northern America and is significant because it brought Yaqui colonies into the US and cleared Mexican land for exploitation.



1        From the program “Old Pascua Museum Presents: Yaqui Journey: 1910-1920,” Tucson, Az., Old Pascua Museum, May 30, 2014.

2        As quoted by Edward H. Spicer, Cycles of Conquest (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1962), p. 79.

3        Felipe S. Molina, Avertano Olivas, Rebecca Tapia, Horminia Valenzuela, Wame Vatnataka im Hohhoasukame [The Ones who lived here in the beginning] (Tucson, Arizona: Pascua Yaqui Tribal Council, March 2003), p. ii.

4              As quoted from “Yaquis,” in Federico Garcia y Alva Editores, México y sus progresos: album-directorio del estado de Sonora (Hermosillo: Impresión Oficial, 1905-1907), n.p. by Evelyn Hu-Dehart in “Solución final: la expulsión de los Yaquis de su Sonora natal,” Seis expulsiones y un adiós: Despojos y exclusión en Sonora, coordinated by Aarón Grageda Bustamante (Hermosillo, Sonora: Universidad de Sonora: Plaza Y Valdes Editores, 2003), p. 156.


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