Yaqui deer songs. Native American ritual songs. Encyclopedia of World Writers, Beginnings To 20th Century

The Yaqui deer dancer is called the saila maso, “little
brother deer.” The deer songs, called maso
bwikam, are traditional songs, usually performed
by three men, that accompany the dance of the
saila maso. To the Yaquis, the deer song is the oldest
and most respected of their verbal arts.Authors
Larry Evers and Felipe Molina describe them this
way: “Highly conventionalized in their structure,
their diction, their themes, and their mode of performance,
deer songs describe a double world,
both ‘here’ and ‘over there,’ a world in which all the
actions of the deer dancer have a parallel in that
mythic, primeval place called by Yaquis sea ania,
flower world.” The Yaqui deer songs reflect aspects
of life practiced for centuries in the Sonoran desert,
long before the appearance of Europeans.
Yaqui tribes occupied present-day Arizona and
Sonora, northern Mexico. Their first European
contact was the Spaniard Diego de Guzmán in
1533 and later the Jesuit missionaries, who arrived
in 1617 and brought profound changes in
community organization and belief systems.
Yaqui folk literature contains mythical histories of
the region prior to Spanish influence, describing
the spirits thought to inhabit the land and the
magic powers sometimes possessed by animals.
These myths were part of the cycle of religious
ritual and belief practiced by the Yaqui prior to
the Jesuit missionaries, which the deer songs
record and celebrate.
Aside from their agriculture, the Yaqui depended
on deer as a food source. Dancing and
songs were performed prior to the hunt to ensure
success. The Yaqui deer songs reflect a worldview
where all parts of the huya ania, the “wilderness
world,” live in an integrated community. Birds and
insects, plants and animals, even the rocks and
springs of the desert are intimately connected. The
language of the deer songs, called bwika noki, or
“song talk,” is the language of this carefully interconnected,
beautifully balanced community.
While the deer singers may know as many as
300 songs, at any given performance they will perform
only a fraction of these. The first songs set the
stage or purify the space in which the dance will
be performed. A formal speech and often a procession
follow, and then the musicians perform a
sequence of songs.Usually the instruments include
a violin, a harp, a flute, and drums, and songs may
be repeated several times. The sequences are designed
to symbolize the elapse of night and the
coming of morning, which parallel the symbolic
preparation, hunting, and killing of the deer. These
lines from “The Fawn Will Not Make Flowers,”
translated by Evers and Molina in Yaqui Deer Songs,
are part of an alva bwikam, a morning service song:
This flower-covered dawn world rises up
here where they divide
the enchanted earth with light.
The last songs of the cycle typically celebrate the
roasting and eating of the deer,whose body is symbolized
again with the imagery of flowers, as in
these lines:
My enchanted flower body,
fire, above the fire,
side by side is hung.
The rhythmic repetition of sounds, lines, and
songs, and the images of death paired with the images
of dawn and rebirth, give to the performance a
mythic quality that parallels the natural cycle in
which the Yaqui people lived their lives for centuries.
The Yaqui deer song is a living tradition that
continues to this day.While performances of the
deer songs are no longer connected to the hunt,
they serve as more than a means of entertainment.
The context in which the deer song is performed is
vital to its enjoyment; the smoke from the fires, the
chatter of the audience, the antics of the masked
clown, and the noise of the dancers all complement
the poetry of the songs. Moreover, the performances
offer a way to celebrate, forge community
bonds, and preserve an ancient cultural heritage.
English Versions of Yaqui Deer Songs
Endrezze, Anita. Throwing Fire at the Sun,Water at
the Moon. Tucson: University of Arizona Press,
Evers, Larry and Felipe S.Molina. Yaqui Deer Songs,
Maso Bwikam: A Native American Poetry Sun
Tracks. Tucson: University of Arizona Press,
Padilla, Stan. Deer Dance: Yaqui Legends of Life. Lincoln,
Neb.: Book Publishing Company, 1998.
Works about Yaqui Deer Songs
Painter,Muriel Thayer.With Good Heart: Yaqui Beliefs
and Ceremonies in Pascua Village. Edited by Edward
Spicer and Wilma Kaemlein. Tucson: University
of Arizona Press, 1986.
Savala, Refugio. The Autobiography of a Yaqui Poet.
Edited by Kathleen M. Sands. Tucson: University
of Arizona Press, 1980.
Spicer, Edward H. The Yaquis: A Cultural History.
Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1980.