STORY TELLING among the Yaquis today is quite informal. There appears to be no socially determined time or place for relating the myths or tales except in the case of pascola stories, which are told at fiestas. Nor are there special persons who are supposed to tell the myths or tales. Yaquis say that stories are most often told, by men or women, in the evenings when a group happens to be gathered in the ramada or in the house by the fire. They also tell stories when working in the fields. Some of the older Yaquis indicate that story-telling used to be more formalized in the time of their parents or in their own youth. They also believe that the folk literature as a whole was more familiar to all Yaquis in earlier times than it is today. Most of the Indians today know some myths and tales but no one person was encountered who knows all of the stories in this collection. The myths or legends and tales which appear
to be of pre-Spanish provenience do not seem to be as widely known and, in some cases, appear to be only partially remembered fragments of more complete myth cycles. Even the Jesuit period myths giving origins for Catholicized ceremonies are not by any means familiar to everybody who participates in the ritual. It is a general observation that most Yaquis have slight knowledge of pre-Spanish myths and tales and that a broad knowledge of these is limited to old people, members of conservative families, and persons with special interest in the past or in folk stories. More widely known are the recent myths of warfare, of traditions which support Yaqui claims against Mexican encroachment upon their territory, and tales of the Jesuit and more recent periods, particularly the pascola stories.
The subject matter of myths or legends and tales, the traditional themes, characters, and beliefs, reflect a society which has been in contact with foreigners for three centuries. Although many stories show considerable foreign influence, they are usually given a Yaqui background familiar to the narrator. The style of wording appears to be more individual than formal. However, different narrators are often consistent about the sequence of events. Formal endings are not always used. Kinship and occupations of characters are frequently mentioned. Names are usually given. Geography is often related to the action of a story. Since these characteristics seldom occur in tales of foreign introduction, and since they are usual in the earliest type of myths and tales, most often told in the Yaqui language, this may indicate that such traits are remnants of a formal style of storytelling employed more commonly in the past.
The characters in early Yaqui stories are not elaborately drawn. They represent the common Yaqui social personality, conception of supernaturals, and the animals. New characters entered folk traditions as the Indians became familiar with Bible traditions, European history and folk stories. Eventually the Catholic pantheon merged with and partly submerged the aboriginal one; Spaniards, Moors, and the Devil joined Yaqui historical characters, and rogues, adventure-seekers, and kings of European folklore became a part of Yaqui folk traditions. The characterization of heroes reflects changing standards from early times to the present. For instance, heroes of early tales are often obedient, wise, powerful, and great leaders or hunters. In Jesuit-period myths and tales, they become pious or sinful, according to Yaqui-Catholic standards. More recent stories feature pranksters, merchants, warriors, or cowboys.
Subject matter may be drawn from traditional and modern tribal belief. Plots are generally simple, consisting of one or two related incidents.
The pascola story-teller is undoubtedly an aboriginal Yaqui institution. Today, he is only superficially allied with the Yaqui-Catholic religion through appearing at religious fiestas, at children's funerals, and as a dancer on the morning of Holy Saturday. His stories suggest that they are of an early kind which have changed only as the society about which they are told has changed.
Yaqui attitudes regarding their folk literature vary. Older persons in the group learned to know and respect ancient belief during their youth, from elders and from group influence, before the people were scattered during the Mexican persecution in the early 1900's. Such older persons
and members of conservative families, often those who remained hidden in the mountains throughout this period, are better acquainted with ancient tribal traditions and value them more highly. All Yaquis associate their folk literature not only with entertainment but also with pride in their history and culture.
Primarily, myths and legends are considered entertaining history and the tales as pure entertainment. As a body, the folklore is not considered sacred, although it is associated with native religion and ritual. Some stories are of social importance because they point a moral.
Much of the history claimed by the Yaquis has been borrowed, but they consider it their own and do not distinguish between history and tradition. Recent stories about warfare with the Mexicans demonstrate the bravery of Yaqui warriors and the justice of their cause. Earlier legends concerning warfare are told today as expressions of their feelings about the cruelty or treachery of the Mexicans, or the superiority of the Yaquis.
Many legends reflect the Yaqui feeling that their region is rightfully theirs. Tales of ancient heroes or saints defining Yaqui territory in mythical times are told as proof that the tribe is justified in defending its land. Ancient myths are set in specific parts of the Yaqui region, giving significance to the spot where the talking tree stood, the pueblo where Jesucristo was crucified, or the waterhole to which a priest condemned an evil monster to live. The origin of the names of hills is described. The spirits of their ancestors, the Surem, are said to dwell in the sea, inside
of mountains, or in the forms of ants. Other traditions say that serpents or spirits inhabit certain bodies of water, that the rain is an evil one-eyed god, and the shooting star a brave dwarf hunter. Animals are sometimes possessed of magic powers and should be respected. Some animals are described as culture heroes, such as the toli who introduced the first pascola drum and flute, or the badger who named the sun. The deer is able to make himself invisible, and snakes take on human form. The numbers three and four are magical. A special kind of wood in a bow or an arrow enables a hero to perform great deeds. The smoking of native tobacco inspires the power of prophecy. Witches have the ability to take animal forms. Such magical beliefs may appear in stories from any period, even the present.
Myth cycles about nature deities, animals, and magic were undoubtedly a part of Yaqui religious practice prior to their contact with the Jesuits. However, today, any sacred meaning in them has been transferred to the saints and Catholicized ceremony. Old Yaquis or members of conservative families still hold to many pre-Christian beliefs about the supernatural, but such beliefs are considered secular rather than sacred truths. There is no worship of nature deities. Evidently children today are not taught such beliefs, for they know little about personifications of the elements or the powers of the animals.
In a few cases nature deities can be identified with Catholic concepts. For instance, Yuku is often called the Devil, and Suawaka is sometimes called San Miguel. This may indicate an effort to rationalize the existence of both sacred and secular deities.
Yaqui moral standards, implanted by the Jesuits, are given sanction in certain tales. For example: heroes are often described as obedient or pious. Leaving a wife or having sexual relations with a person who stands in the compadre relationship promises dire results. Drunkenness, disobedience to one's elders, traffic with things of the Devil, or murder lead to an evil end.
The Yaquis feel that fiestas are both a means of worship and a kind of entertainment. The junta, or political gathering, is an element in so many stories that it may well have been the means by which Yaquis of the eight pueblos governed themselves since earliest times.
Yaqui social attitudes are reflected in stories derived from foreign sources. Even biblical figures become Indian in character in the retelling of familiar Christian lore.
In conclusion, Yaqui folk literature expresses the tribe's sense of superiority, the sacred and material value of their territory, and the antiquity and distinctiveness of their customs.