At the time of Spanish conquest, the Yaqui and their neighbors the Seri and Mayo lived on the eastern side of the Gulf of California. Whereas the Yaquis and the Mayo languages are almost identical, they had very different reactions to Spanish encroachment. The Mayo attempted to develop friendly relations with the Spanish, while the Yaqui mounted effective armed resistance.
The Yaqui first came into contact with the Spanish in the 1530s when New Spain sent forces into their territory in search of slaves. Spanish accounts of the bravery and valor of indigenous resistance served to give the Yaqui a reputation as ferocious warriors.
Not all early contacts between the Spanish and the Yaqui resulted in violence. Some Spanish missionaries, for example, were warmly received. Later however, the Yaqui effectively fought the Spanish in a number of battles. Eventually, the Yaqui entered into a treaty with the Spanish in which each side made concessions. As a result, the Spanish agreed to respect the autonomy of the Yaquis, and, in fact, they made no effort to create forts or establish their hegemony in their territory for more than a decade. After that, they sent missionaries into Yaqui territory with no military escorts.
Yaqui Acceptance of the Missions
The Yaquis accepted the mission system more readily than did their neighbors. In the early 1600s, thousands of Yaqui people were baptized, and Catholic services became a common occurrence. By 1619, Church records indicate more than thirty thousand Yaquis had been baptized, and for more than a century, the Yaqui lived in peace with their neighbors and the Spanish.
The Situation Changes
In 1684, a rich vein of silver was discovered near the Yaqui homeland, and by the 1730s, the Spanish who lived on the frontier began to conflict with the indigenous population. Large haciendas appropriated tribal land, and in 1740, the Yaqui and Mayo tribes revolted. The indigenous people raised an army of more than six thousand and proceeded to drive the Spanish south. The Spanish retaliated by killing five thousand native people. At the same time, over one thousand Spanish soldiers lost their lives. Where the Spanish held control, they instituted restrictive measures that confined native people to their villages and forced them to work in the mines.
After this, the Yaquis fell on increasingly difficult times. Many left their home areas in search of work. These out migrations occurred at the same time that the Catholic missions also began to fail. Moreover, the Spanish exacerbated the situation by attempting to allot land to the natives in order to get them to pay taxes. The indigenous people of the region did not pay these tributes or taxes, and the Spanish were loath to start a war in order to collect the payments.
The Yaqui and the Mexican Government
When Mexico gained independence from Spain, all indigenous people were declared to be citizens of the new nation. As such, they were expected to pay taxes. When they refused, Mexico sent soldiers to enforce the new laws. Under the command of Juan Banderas, the Yaqui resisted Mexican control. Despite fierce resistance on the part of the Yaquis, Mexican forces eventually prevailed, and in 1834 the Mexican government executed Juan Banderas. His execution, however, did not stop the fighting. In the years between 1857 and 1862, the Yaquis were almost constantly engaged in warfare with Mexican forces. The Mayo too continuously engaged Mexican forces during these years.
Attempts to Pacify the Yaquis
Although the Mexican government was eventually able to subdue the Mayo, they found pacification of the Yaquis to be nearly impossible. In 1868, Mexico massacred 120 Indians who were held as prisoners in a church. Acts of cruelty of this magnitude finally forced the Yaquis to surrender. In the 1880s, however, the Yaqui resistance to the Mexican government again erupted in violence, and had it not been for an outbreak of smallpox, the Yaquis would have intensified their efforts. During these years, many Yaqui refused to surrender to the Mexicans. In the late 1880s, the Yaqui continued to harass Mexicans who settled along the western margins of Yaqui territory. Throughout the last years of the nineteenth century, and in the early years of the twentieth century, Yaqui guerrilla forces continued to attack Mexicans, and Yaqui warriors raided haciendas and other settlements as far north as Magdalena, just fifty miles south of the border.
Mexican Attempts to Exterminate the Yaquis
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Mexican government offered to sell Yaqui men and women to the large plantations as laborers for sixty pesos per head. As a result of these policies, thousands of Yaquis fled over the border into the United States where many families remain to this day. Moreover, Yaqui armed aggression against Mexico continued until the end of the 1920s.
Yaqui Presence in the U.S./Mexico Border Region
Throughout the nineteenth and early years of the twentieth centuries, the government of Mexico continued to seek ways to either assimilate or eliminate the Yaquis. Neither of these approaches was successful because many of the Yaqui continue to live in independent villages where they speak their language and practice their culture.
The Yaqui on the U.S. Side of the Border
In the late 1880s, many Yaquis moved from Mexico to Arizona and by 1890 established the village of Guadalupe, near Phoenix. At approximately the same time, others settled in a village called Pascua, located near Tucson. In 1964, the federal government deeded a little over two hundred acres to the people who lived in Pascua Village and, in 1978, formally recognized the Pascua Yaqui as a U.S. Indian tribe.
Currently, the Pascua Yaqui Indian Reservation, situated in the southwestern part of the greater Tucson metropolitan area, covers approximately 1,194 acres and accommodates a resident population of more than 3,400 people. Despite the challenges associated with persistent poverty among the Yaqui, over the last several decades the Tribe has engaged in robust economic development ventures, including several gaming facilities, a smoke shop, and an artisan shop. These enterprises now provide nearly 600 jobs on the Reservation and an additional 700 jobs in the greater Tucson community.
The Pascua Yaqui Nation is governed by a tribal council system consisting of eleven elected officials, and they now enjoy a tribal status with the federal government that is similar to that of most other American Indian Nations within the United States.
In order to be a registered member of the Yaqui Tribe, one must be able to prove a Yaqui blood quantum level of at least one-quarter.
Although the Pascua Yaqui have made great strides over the last several decades in improving economic opportunities for tribal members, many continue to exit at or below the poverty level. Moreover, gangs, drugs, and alcohol remain persistent problems that continue to plague younger tribal members.