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"Graciously bestow upon all men felicity, the summit of which is the knowledge of the Gods." [Julian, Oration to the Mother of the Gods]

The true story of how the Yaqui people were conquered and converted to Christianity

“I’m Yaqui and Yaquis have been Roman Catholics since 1650. We were one of the first tribes in Mexico to actually peacefully absorb Catholicism.”
[Dr. Carlos Gonzales to CNS.Com (Christian News Services), Jan. 14, 2011]

The actual manner in which the Yaqui people were conquered and converted to Christianity is somewhat different from the impression given by Dr. Gonzales’ characterization of this historical process as the “peaceful absorption of Catholicism”. In fact, the conversion of the Yaqui is inseparable from the larger story of the violent, indeed, genocidal, subjugation of all the peoples of the Americas.

Mexican historian John P. Schmal has written a fascinating, detailed, and well-sourced article on The History of Indigenous Sinaloa. The State of Sinaloa (see map) is the region of modern day Mexico where the Yaquis lived when they first came into contact with Europeans and their Christian religion. The historical facts of how this “encounter” played out are not in dispute. Nothing substantive in John P. Schmal’s account is in any way controversial, other than the fact that some people would prefer that we just not talk about these matters plainly, openly and honestly.

A brief excerpt from Howard Zinn on the Spanish conquest of Mexico will help to place Schmal’s recounting of the story of the Yaqui and other peoples of Sinaloa in it’s proper context (taken from Columbus, The Indians, and Human Progress, which is Chapter One of Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States):

What Columbus did to the Arawaks of the Bahamas, Cortes did to the Aztecs of Mexico, Pizarro to the Incas of Peru, and the English settlers of Virginia and Massachusetts to the Powhatans and the Pequots.

The Aztec civilization of Mexico came out of the heritage of Mayan, Zapotec, and Toltec cultures. It built enormous constructions from stone tools and human labor, developed a writing system and a priesthood. It also engaged in (let us not overlook this) the ritual killing of thousands of people as sacrifices to the gods. The cruelty of the Aztecs, however, did not erase a certain innocence, and when a Spanish armada appeared at Vera Cruz, and a bearded white man came ashore, with strange beasts (horses), clad in iron, it was thought that he was the legendary Aztec man-god who had died three hundred years before, with the promise to return-the mysterious Quetzalcoatl. And so they welcomed him, with munificent hospitality.

That was Hernando Cortes, come from Spain with an expedition financed by merchants and landowners and blessed by the deputies of God, with one obsessive goal: to find gold. In the mind of Montezuma, the king of the Aztecs, there must have been a certain doubt about whether Cortes was indeed Quetzalcoatl, because he sent a hundred runners to Cortes, bearing enormous treasures, gold and silver wrought into objects of fantastic beauty, but at the same time begging him to go back. (The painter Durer a few years later described what he saw just arrived in Spain from that expedition-a sun of gold, a moon of silver, worth a fortune.)

Cortes then began his march of death from town to town, using deception, turning Aztec against Aztec, killing with the kind of deliberateness that accompanies a strategy-to paralyze the will of the population by a sudden frightful deed. And so, in Cholulu, he invited the headmen of the Cholula nation to the square. And when they came, with thousands of unarmed retainers, Cortes’s small army of Spaniards, posted around the square with cannon, armed with crossbows, mounted on horses, massacred them, down to the last man. Then they looted the city and moved on. When their cavalcade of murder was over they were in Mexico City, Montezuma was dead, and the Aztec civilization, shattered, was in the hands of the Spaniards.

All this is told in the Spaniards’ own accounts.

Zinn’s narrative above takes us to 1521, the year that Hernan Cortes became ruler of Mexico. Turning now to Schmal’s article (referred and linked to at the top of this post), we read that eight years later:

In December 1529, the professional lawyer turned Conquistador, Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán, led an expedition of 300 Spaniards and 10,000 Indian allies (Tlaxcalans, Aztecs and Tarascans) into the coastal region of what is now called Sinaloa. Before arriving in the coastal region, Guzmán’s army had ravaged through Michoacán, Jalisco, Zacatecas, and Nayarit, provoking the natives to give battle everywhere he went. The historian Peter Gerhard, in The North Frontier of New Spain, observed that Guzmán’s army “engaged in wholesale slaughter and enslavement.”

The Yaquis, however, were at first spared. But that did not last long:

In 1533, Diego de Guzmán (the nephew of Nuño) fought a brief battle with the Yaquis along the banks of the Yaqui River. “His force dispersed the Indians,” notes Professor Spicer, “…but he nevertheless seems to have lost heart for further conquest and did not follow up his victory. He was greatly impressed with the fighting ability of the Yaquis who opposed him.”

Thus, the small province of Culiacán, according to Peter Gerhard, “became a distant enclave of Spanish power, separated by a hundred miles of hostile territory from the rest of” the Spanish Empire. In 1562, the area was included in the newly established Spanish province of Nueva Vizcaya (which – at the time – included the modern day states of Sonora, Sinaloa, Chihuahua and Durango).

By the beginning of the Seventeenth Century, Spanish authorities had organized many of the Indians in Durango and Sinaloa into encomiendas. Although encomienda Indians were supposed to provide labor “for a few weeks per year,” the historian Susan M. Deeds [in her article “Indigenous Rebellions on the Northern Mexican Mission Frontier: From First-Generation to Later Colonial Responses”, see references at bottom of post] explains that “they often served much longer and some apparently became virtual chattels of Spanish estates.” She goes on to say that the Jesuits’ “systematic congregation of Indians into villages” starting in the 1590s encouraged the development of encomiendas by making Indians more accessible to their encomenderos.” In practice, Dr. Deeds concludes, encomiendas usually resulted in the “tacit enslavement of Indians.”

For the rest of the 16th Century, the region inhabited by the Yaquis remained “a distant enclave”, and the Yaquis successfully maintained their autonomy.

But the noose was tightening. In 1599 the Spaniards “waged a vigorous military campaign that subjugated the Cáhita-speaking Indians of the Fuerte river.” (see map) At about the same time the Acaxee, who lived inland in the the Sierra Madre Occidental in northwestern Durango and eastern Sinaloa, were subjugated, which involved not only conversion, but they were forced to cut their hair, wear European style clothing, and they were forcibly resettled under Jesuit supervision. After this, the Mayos, who live along the Mayo river, signed a peace treaty with the Spanish, allowing Jesuit missionaries access to Mayo lands. That was 1609. The Yaquis (who lived along the Yaqui river) were next.

The Yaquis drove away the Spanish in 1609, and when the Conquistadors arrived with a larger force in 1610, the Indios prevailed again. But then in 1617, the Yaquis also capitulated. Mass conversions took place immediately. In addition to conversion, the Yaquis were also forced to accept being “reorganized” into so-called “mission villages”, whose leaders were appointed by the Jesuits. The Yaquis also had to allow Spanish settlers to come and live on their land.

The Jesuits promised to protect the Yaquis from the excesses of the forced-labor system and other abuses visited upon Indians by the Spanish authorities. But the fact is that forced-labor (and other forms of tribute) were required from Indians as a matter of law, and, at most, the Jesuits could do no more than see to it that the letter of the law was followed, and even this they did not do. The forced-labor system required all Indians to work, for free, for Spanish landowners and mine operators. By law, the amount of forced labor was limited, but in practice it was, in essence, slavery in all but name.

In 1739, the Yaquis and the Mayos rose up in revolt. This was not the first such revolt in the region. As early as 1601 the Acaxee had risen up in an attempt “to restore pre-Columbian social and religious elements that had been destroyed by the Spanish conquest.” That revolt had been led by an Indian named Perico who claimed “to have come from heaven to save his people from the false doctrines of the Jesuits.” The Acaxee revolt was crushed. Perico and 47 others were executed, and his followers were sold into outright slavery.

Although the Jesuits had promised to protect the Yaquis from the predations of the Spanish rulers, by 1739 the Yaquis found themselves sending delegations to the local Spanish authorities, and then to the Viceroy in Mexico City, in order to air their grievances … against the Jesuits! In addition to seeking relief from forced labor on the haciendas and in the mines, the Yaquis also wanted to elect their own leaders. On top of everything else, the Jesuits were also appropriating the Yaqui’s own, often significant, agricultural output, and using it to finance their ongoing missionary activities.

But in addition to sending official delegations, the Yaqui rose up in open, armed rebellion. Churches were burned. Priests and settlers were attacked. The Spanish responded with overwhelming force. Before it was all over, an estimated 5,000 Yaquis were killed in quashing the revolt.

The bottom line is that there was nothing peaceful about the conversion of the Yaquis. The Spanish were systematically subjugating and forcibly converting all the Indians who had not already been brought under their political and ideological rule. The Yaqui distinguished themselves as warriors. Their ability to hold their own against the armor and the weapons of the Conquistadors helped them, to some extent, to influence the terms of their own surrender. But there can be no doubt, to paraphrase Rev. Dr. Timothy M. Njoya (of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa), that the Yaqui became Christian through conquest and submission, not through peaceful conversion.

Sources (from John P. Schmal’s article):

  • Susan M. Deeds, “Indigenous Rebellions on the Northern Mexican Mission Frontier: From First-Generation to Later Colonial Responses,” in Susan Schroeder, Native Resistance and the Pax Colonial in New Spain. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1998, pp. 1-29.
  • Departamento de la Estadísticas Nacional. Annuario de 1930. Tacubaya, D.F., 1932.
  • Peter Gerhard, The Northern Frontier of New Spain. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1982.
  • Instituto Nacional de Estadística, Geografía e Informática (INEGI). Estadísticas Históricas de Mexico, Tomo I. Aguascalientes: INEGI, 1994.
  • Cynthia Radding, “The Colonial Pact and Changing Ethnic Frontiers in Highland Sonora, 1740-1840,” in Donna J. Guy and Thomas E. Sheridan (eds.), Contested Ground: Comparative Frontiers on the Northern and Southern Edges of the Spanish Empire, pp. 52-66. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1998.
  • Daniel T. Reff, Disease, Depopulation and Culture Change in Northwestern New Spain, 1518-1764. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1991.
  • Robert Mario Salmon, Indian Revolts in Northern New Spain: A Synthesis of Resistance (1680-1786). Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1991.
  • Edward H. Spicer, Cycles of Conquest: The Impact of Spain, Mexico, and the United States on the Indians of the Southwest, 1533-1960. Tucson, Arizona: University of Arizona Press, 1997.

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