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Cover Story December 14, 2006

  Untitled Document

They Say a Long Time Ago...

by lyle e davis


“They say a long time ago . . .” is a sure lead-in to a magical story time in the Pascua Yaqui Indian cultural tradition.

Storytelling is an important part of most Indian nations. Many of the stories have been handed down over the generations, some in an oral tradition, others in writing, others in the form of art work that tell a story.

And these stories seem to all make sense . . . sometimes a lot of sense.
Whether it’s Yaqui, Apache, Comanche, Hopi, Navajo, . . . they all seem to have a storytelling element within their culture.

One of the Yaqui stories:

The Creator made ocean animals and allowed some to emerge onto land. Some evolved into a short human form: the Surem. These are the early ancestors of the Yaquis. The Sureni lived in a time out of mind and were a peace-loving, gentle people who had no need for government. Life in the Sonoran (Mexico) desert was a harmonious perfection for the Surem until God spoke through a little tree and prophesied about new horticultural techniques, Christianity, savage invaders, and disunity. The Surem became frightened about parts of this message and transformed into taller, defensive farming people called Yaquis (Hiakim) or Yo'emem (The People).

It is said, "We had been told in a revelation from Heaven, that God had given to the Yaquis a homeland around the Yaqui River."

Indian history is fascinating. It becomes even more fascinating when you begin looking into the stories told by the Indians -. . . and when you explore the culture . . . and the art. The art, in and of itself, often tells stories.

One of the most interesting and unique art forms to ever come from Native American Indian hands is the “Storyteller.” For centuries the importance of passing on traditional beliefs and customs was held in high esteem by native cultures. From human to animal forms, “Storytellers” come in all sizes and shapes, contributing to their ever increasing appeal.

Sandy One local source of deep insight into the Indian storytelling, particularly of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Arizona is Sandy Whitefeather. That’s her Native American name. You and I know her today as Alexsandra “Sandy” Rees, CEO of the San Marcos Chamber of Commerce, and the wife of author, Tom Rees.

It is not generally known but our own Sandy Rees was known professionally as Sandy Whitefeather within the Pascua Yaqui Tribe. She is well known and respected within the Pascua Yaqui nation as well as among serious collectors of Indian art.

She also is a writer and lecturer. Her husband, Tom, says that “she’s beautiful, brilliant, fluent in Spanish and English, and she’s charming.”

Before moving to Southern California, Sandy and her husband lived in Tucson, Arizona. During their years in Tucson, the Rees’s operated a giftware ing Native American items, including jewelry. Sandy did a great deal of sculpture, specializing in her ‘wee Americans’ series of sculpted Indian figurines, examples of which are shown above. Eventually, the Sandy Whitefeather line grew to more than 1,100 different items.

Sandy has since left the manufacture and marketing of her figurines. She turned all of her figurines over to a marketing company who handle the sales and just pay her royalties. At one time she was the Marketing Director for the 3500 member Tucson Chamber of Commerce before moving to Southern California.

In February of this year she was made permanent CEO and now heads up the 600 member strong Chamber of Commerce. With a growing number of members whose businesses are based in Escondido or Vista but want to develop ties to San Marcos, a fast-growing city, she is kept more than busy at the San Marcos Chamber. Rees is fluent in Spanish, which she says helps her with networking.

As to her entry into the world of art . . . "I was one of those little Indian kids the late Ted DeGrazia used to paint," says Sandy, a third-generation Tucsonan and an artisan of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Arizona who now has an international following of her own. “Through DeGrazia, I became excited about Indian art and the storytelling. We began to paint and sculpt and built a line that became very popular and sold well. But that was yesterday. Today I’m totally focused on the Chamber. I still paint and sculpt, of course, but that’s not how I earn my living.

Over the years, Whitefeather had created more than 1,100 individual designs in sculpture and jewelry. Most of her work reflects her Yaqui ancestry, but she also produces contemporary pieces.

"I felt that I was preserving traditions," Whitefeather said.

Her various displays included figures, tribal lights, nativities, angels, tribal storytellers, Christmas ornaments, pots and Native American-styled costume jewelry.

Not only a talented sculptress, Sandy also wrote cookbooks. The first of the Sandy Whitefeather cookbooks was entitled Sandy Whitefeather's Chili Cookbook: The Joys of Native American and Latino Southwest Cooking.

It was over lunch, several months ago, that we learned of Sandy’s background and her involvement and commitment to Indian art and the culture and heritage of the Yaqui Tribe. Through her, we developed an ongoing interest in the Yaqui . . and in the art, not only of the Yaqui . . . but of the many other tribes.

We learned much about the Yaquis. They’ve lived in a number of areas in North America. By 552 AD, Yaquis were living in family groups along the Yaqui River (Yoem Vatwe) north of the Gila River, where they gathered wild desert foods, hunted game and cultivated corn, beans, and squash. Yaquis traded native foods, furs, shells, salt, and other goods with many indigenous groups of central North America. Among these groups are the Shoshone, the Comanche, the Pueblos, the Pimas, the Aztecs, and the Toltec.

The Yaquis trained themselves to fight, withstand pain, and die if necessary to protect God-given land and family life. By 1414, the Yaquis were organized into autonomous, yet unified, cultural and military groups.

spaniardIn 1533, the Yaquis saw the first white men: a Spanish military expedition searching for slaves. The Spanish who initiated warfare were soundly defeated, but took thousands of Yaqui lives. Between 1608 and 1610 the Spanish repeatedly attacked the Yaqui people. The Yaquis proved they could raise a fighting force of 7,000 within a few hours to successfully defend Yaqui land and cultural integrity.

From the earliest days of the missions in the Pimeria Alta, there was always a prevalent Yaqui presence. This area, named by the Spanish afer the Pima Indian nation (literally, upper land of the Pimas) and closely related Papago (or O'odham) peoples, encompassed parts of what are today southern Arizona in the United States and northern Sonora in Mexico.

Pimería Alta was the site of an important chain of missions established by the Jesuits in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and of a significant rebellion by the Pima peoples in 1751. Although their homeland was further south on the Yaqui River in what is today southern Sonora, they were always well traveled and famous for their talents and abilities at working with horses, cattle, and other livestock. They were also well known throughout northern Mexico as capable prospectors.

In September of 1736, Antonio Siraumea, a Yaqui prospector living at the Spanish mining settlement of Agua Caliente (about thirty air miles southwest of present-day Nogales, Arizona), discovered some extremely large pieces of nearly pure silver in the mountains about half way between the two places. Although his silver discovery became associated with the nearby ranch called "Arizona," and its fame lives on in the name of the present-day state of Arizona, the site where Antonio discovered the silver became known as the "Planchas de Plata" Canyon.

A frantic silver rush occurred and soon there were several hundred people on the site. Antonio filed a lawsuit to force the claim jumpers to pay him a percentage of their intake. The cavalry eventually intervened and forced everyone off the site until his court case, and other suits that soon followed, could be settled. Finally, in the fall of 1737, Antonio Siraumea was awarded the first legal claim to the site. At that time, he and his family began mining at the claim, providing an example of how original Yaqui surnames evolved into Spanish names in time. María Plancha Platas, who lived at Tumacácori in the latter part of the 1700's, and is included in the Mission 2000 database, was either a daughter or grand daughter of Antonio Siraumea.

artA peace loving nation, the Yaquis had asked the Jesuits to enter Yaqui villages to do missionary work and economic development. Most of the 60,000 Yaquis settled into eight sacred towns or "pueblos" and built churches.

All seemed to go fairly well until silver was discovered in the Yaqui River Valley around 1684. The Spanish, who treasured the silver stone, began moving into the area, began taking sacred Yaqui land, and treated the Yaqui people disrespectfully.

In 1740, the Yaqui allied with the neighboring Mayo tribe to force the Spanish out of the God-given Indian lands. For the next 190 years, the Yaqui people continued to fight the Spanish, and then the Mexicans (after they won their independence from Spain).

Juan Banderas was one Yaqui leader who tried to unite the Mayo, Opata, and Pima tribes with the Yaqui tribe in an attempt to force the Mexicans out of Indian country. He was caught with an Opata chief in 1833 and was executed.

By this time, the Yaqui people had suffered greatly. Many Yaquis left the Rio Yaqui area to fight in the Vakatetteve Mountains; others relocated to Yaqui communities in Arizona. Many more died in battles or were executed. In 1868, 600 Yaqui men, women, and children were captured near Vahkom Pueblo by Mexican state and federal troops. Their arms (bows and arrows and rifles) were taken, and 450 were locked in a church. During the night, the church was shelled. 120 of the people inside were massacred. But still, the Yaquis continued to believe in and fight for the right to land, autonomy, and freedom from harassment.

The Mexican government tried various tactics to defeat the Yaquis. Many were killed. Mexican troops would occupy Yaqui pueblos to keep watch over them. Yaquis were also deported to work as slaves in many distant areas of Mexico, such as Yucatan, Oaxaca, Vera Cruz, Mexico City, and Guadalajara.

The Yaquis continued to resist subjugation. By 1887, the Mayo tribe had stopped fighting. Smallpox disease had killed off many members of the Yaqui tribe so that only 4,000 Yaquis remained in the Rio Yaqui area. There were yet Yaqui who continued to battle the Mexicans. These were led by Cajeme, meaning "He Who Does Not Drink", and Juan Maldonado, who was also called Tetabiakte, "Rolling Stone". The Yaquis in Arizona sent guns and supplies to help the battle. Both Cajeme and Maldonado were eventually executed.

Significant Yaqui relocation occurred from the United States to Sonora and from Sonora to the United States during the 1880s. In 1897, a peace treaty was signed at Ortiz, Sonora between the Yaqui people and the Mexican government. But, after two years, war and deportation of Yaquis continued.

artYaqui families continued to live in the Gila and Santa Cruz River valleys, in spite of their trials and tribulations. Around the turn of the century, these families, encouraged by farmers, politicians, and internal preferences, began moving into larger communities. Guadalupe took early form in 1880. Old Pascua Village was established in 1903. The Sonoran Governor Izabal had a policy to arrest and deport both peaceful and rebel Yaquis. This forced Yaquis to relocate to the Arizona communities and to join old family groups already in residence. Many Yaqui families moved to escape the violence of the 1910-1920 Mexican Revolution.

In 1916, Mexico had a constitutional governor named Adolpho de la Huerta, who was one-quarter Yaqui. He made the first attempts to restore Yaqui land and stop the bloodshed. But, the next president, Alvaro Obregon, changed the policy, and the Yaqui-Mexican wars continued.

The last Indian battle with the U.S. Cavalry happened on January 8, 1918, at Arivaca. Troop E of the Tenth Cavalry, intercepted a group of American Yaquis on their way to render aid to Yaquis of Sonora, who were in the midst of unrelenting war. The Yaquis fought their last major battle at Cerro del Gallo (Hill of the Rooster) in 1927. They were defeated physically, and Mexican garrisons were established in all Yaqui pueblos and villages. But, even now, Yaquis say that morally, they are still undefeated.

In 1939, Mexican President Cardenas changed the attitude about the Yaquis. He granted the Yaqui tribe official recognition and title to their land.

The autonomous Arizona villages became larger, and by 1952, were surrounded by urban communities. In 1964, with the aid of Congressman Morris K. Udall, Tribal Chambers at Pascua Pueblo the Pascua Yaquis were recipients of 202 acres of desert land where Indian identity and sovereignty can be asserted and maintained.

On September 18, 1978, the Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Arizona became federally recognized: the Pascua Yaqui were not formally recognized by the federal government until 1978, when they achieved status as a created tribe, a designation that was finally converted to that of a historical tribe in 1994. In 1982, the Tribe acquired an additional 590 acres of land added to the reservation, and in 1988 the Tribe's first constitution was approved. The Pascua Yaqui Indian Reservation is located in Pima County, in the southwestern part of the Tucson metropolitan area, amidst the suburban communities of Drexel Heights and Valencia West, and adjacent to the eastern section of the Tohono O'odham Indian Reservation, known as the San Xavier Indian Reservation. It has a land area of 1,194 acres), and a 2000 census resident population of 3,315 persons, over 90 percent of whom are Native Americans. The community is governed by a chairman, a vice chairman and nine tribal council members. Police protection is provided by the Tribal Police Department, and fire protection is provided by six full-time firefighters and four reserves.

Mission 2000

One of the newest and most ambitious projects is Mission 2000. This is a database of Spanish mission records of southern Arizona and northern Sonora, Mexico, containing baptisms, marriages, and burials from the late 17th to the mid-19th centuries. As of September 2002 it contained nearly 6000 events, over 13,000 people and their known personal information. It is an on-going project taken from the original mission records and updated weekly on the Internet. Personal information about the people associated with each event (i.e., priest, baptized, parents, godparents, husband, wife, etc.) is included. The ethnicity of names include O'odham, Yaqui, Apache, Seri, Opata, Yuma, Mexican, Spanish, and various other European groups.

If you decide to visit:


The Pascua Yaqui Indian Reservation is surrounded by a variety of scenic drives and recreational opportunities. An hour away is Mt. Lemmon with hiking, skiing and other outdoor opportunities. A few miles north of the reservation is Saguaro National Monument. Other sights include San Xavier del Bac Mission, Old Tucson Studios and Kitt Peak Observatory. The nearby Santa Catalina Mountains and Rincon Mountains provide excellent hiking and camping opportunities.

The Pascua Yaqui Tribe opened a 9,000 square foot bingo hall in 1992. This facility was expended in 1994 to include a casino. The new casino also features the 4,400-seat Anselmo Valencia Tori Amphitheater (AVA). All gaming facilities are located southwest of Tucson.

jewelryPascal bracelet.

Amado Pena Jr.'s art focuses on Hispanic and Native American figures and has been described as capturing the essence of the Southwest. Pena, a mestizo of Mexican and Yaqui Indian descent, was born in 1943 and raised in Laredo, Texas.

artMestizo Series: Caballitos de los Americas by Amado Pena

artAmado Pena’s Painted Violin

winterWinter Traditional Dance and Costumes





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