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Dancing Home

David Delgado Shorter beautifully tells portions of the Yaqui/Yoeme tale

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Out of money and needing to get to San Carlos, my brother and I thumbed it from the Obregon City bus station. I wouldn't pick up those scruffy, half-inebriated gringos today, and I probably wouldn't have stopped back then, more than 10 years ago. But it didn't take long to find a ride.

A late-model pickup truck stopped, and we jumped in the back. We used up our Spanish while greeting the young driver and asking him how far north he could take us. He was headed to Guaymas. Perfect.

Soon, he motioned that he wanted to stop at a large outdoor market. We waited in the truck bed while he jogged into a covered area lined with stalls. When he came back, he had a gift for us: a keychain depicting a Yaqui deer dancer, the best-known symbol of an ancient people indigenous to the valley of the Rio Yaqui in Sonora. He told us that he wanted to make sure we knew who he was. In return, we gave him a half-bottle of Oaxacan mescal, just so he'd know who we were.

The Yaqui—or, as David Delgado Shorter refers to them in a fascinating new book, the Yoeme—are best known to Southern Arizonans for their casinos. A group of them came north in the 1880s, escaping Mexican persecution, and still live in Marana, in Guadalupe near Tempe, and in New Pascua. In Sonora, many Yoeme still live in eight pueblos on a portion of their ancestral lands. The traditional Yoeme continue to practice their rituals, mixing ancient, indigenous beliefs and Catholicism, and still live according to ageless religious obligations that constantly reinforce a sense of community and family obligation.

We Will Dance Our Truth: Yaqui History in Yoeme Performances, in its most challenging sections, argues that the Yoeme have over the centuries employed many different ways of remembering what it means to be Yoeme, all while resisting one threat after another to their continued existence as a distinct people since the 1500s. The Yoeme have written records, but they also tell the story of themselves—their "truth"—through ritual dances, prophecies and stories, burial rights and what Shorter calls "Mythistory."

The Yoeme believe that they descended from a tribe of 3-foot-tall immortals who escaped into the land itself, running from baptism. They believe a humming tree on top of a mountain foretold the coming of the Spanish. They believe that Mary and Jesus once walked along the Rio Yaqui. One of his Yoeme companions showed Shorter a handprint embedded in a rock that seemed to glow. It is said to be the handprint of Jesus.

I couldn't possibly do justice to Shorter's original and sensitive interpretations of Yoeme religion, myth, history and land, and how they all work together to create an enduring identity for thousands of people. But that's not even the best part of the book.

In an effort to bring more Yoeme voices into the book, Shorter includes transcriptions of interviews with Yoeme elders he has compiled over decades of visiting the Sonoran pueblos. It is ethnography in the raw. No amount of subtle interpretation could transcend the feeling of connection one gets from reading these simple dialogues—Shorter asking a question, often about Yoeme religion and ritual, and the unnamed elder answering.

Shorter also includes interludes into his own mind and method throughout the book, which are the second-most-interesting sections after the interviews. Printed in italics, they reproduce some of Shorter's narrative field notes—his thoughts about what he is doing, his love for his Yoeme friends, and his adventures traveling around Yoeme country, looking for the handprints and footprints of Jesus, searching for the site of the humming tree, joining in a Yoeme religious festival. I would love to read an entire book of just his field notes, which, for an ethnographer, is a high compliment.

If I'd known then what I know now about the Yoeme after reading Shorter's book, I would have made more of an effort to talk to our driver all those years ago. As it was, I just wanted to get home—which is really what all of this is about.

The Yoeme have kept their home intact, more or less, for centuries, mostly by wrapping their idea of home in a sacred mythology and then hiding it deep inside their hearts.

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