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  • The Divided Yoeme (Yaqui) People
  • Christina Leza (bio)

Yoeme (Yaqui)1 roots lie in Northern Mexico, in the Yoeme homelands known as the hiakim. At the turn of the twentieth century, Porfiriato policies for treating the “Indian problem”2 in Mexico resulted in the Yoeme being subjected to genocidal warfare, deportation to distant southern Mexican plantations, and forced migration north into the United States. Many of the Yoeme who migrated to the United States settled together as communities in southern Arizona. Certain Arizona Yoeme communities who settled permanently in the United States would eventually gain federal recognition as a U.S. tribal nation, the Pascua Yaqui Tribe. This shift in political status from “immigrants from the Mexican state of Sonora”3 to a U.S. tribal nation ultimately resulted in correlated identity shifts for Arizona Yoeme as Pascua Yaqui lives were transformed by the Western colonial structures of tribal governance, U.S.–Mexico border imperialism, and dominant nationalist and regional ideologies about Mexican citizens as “Other.”

Holm, Pearson, and Chavis have proposed a revised version of Robert K. Thomas’s peoplehood model as a core theoretical framework for conceptualizing indigenous group identities and indigenous sovereignty. 4 The model is presented as an interconnected matrix of an indigenous people’s language, sacred history, land/territory, and ceremonial cycle, in which all four aspects of an indigenous people’s identity are intertwined and essential. The model, founded on Edward H. Spicer’s conceptualization of the Yoeme as a “persistent people,” provides a strong [End Page 5] basis for understanding the survival of certain indigenous group identities through time. It also provides concrete means for conceptualizing indigenous sovereignty outside of the Western nation-state model of citizenship and governmental power. This essay argues that while shared language, sacred history, ceremonial structure, and connections to the hiakim continue to unite Yoeme as a binational people across the U.S.–Mexico political border, U.S. border enforcement policies and other colonial mechanisms have created both physical and ideological schisms within the Yoeme community that threaten the Yoeme binational peoplehood.

The thoughts presented in this essay are based on fieldwork and interviews with Yoeme political activists and other border indigenous activists conducted in the Phoenix/Tucson area of Arizona from 2006 to 2012, and draw significantly from ethnographic and life history interviews with political activist and Yoeme ceremonial leader José Matus. Matus was asked to serve as a ceremonial leader in his teens and was told by his elders at the time that he, like other ceremonial leaders, would have the responsibility of protecting and passing on Yoeme knowledge. Born in 1951, he witnessed the transition of the Arizona Yoeme community to federal tribal status in 1978. As a ceremonial leader during this period, Matus was attentive to the community interests and politics that guided this transition and was actively involved in the recognition process. He considers this period of federal recognition work with other Arizona Yoeme leaders as his training in both Yoeme advocacy and broader community advocacy. In 2006, Matus was director of both the Coalición de Derechos Humanos (Human Rights Coalition) and the Alianza Indígena Sin Fronteras (Indigenous Alliance Without Borders), both nonprofit border rights organizations. At that time, Matus was sought out for his expertise on border-crossing procedures for Sonora Yaqui when entering the United States for tribal projects. As will be discussed, Matus’s knowledge of border policy and procedure has always been necessarily tied to his role as a ceremonial leader. And his dedication to border rights activism and border reform are critically tied to his ceremonial responsibility to preserve and strengthen Yaqui traditional knowledge.

Given Matus’s position as a ceremonial leader in the Yoeme community and his critical understanding of Yoeme border-crossing issues, his voice is a privileged one in this essay. By highlighting this voice, this essay also aims to bring forward a traditional voice that has been marginalized in public discourse on Yoeme border crossing. During the period of Spanish Jesuit occupancy in the Yoeme homelands, the Yoeme developed a leadership structure for maintaining traditional authority in balance with newly introduced Western governmental leadership roles through what Spicer referred to as the...


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