Yaqui Easter Ceremony

Yaqui Easter Ceremony

Type of Holiday: Religious (Christian, Yaqui)
Date of Observation: Seven weeks, ending on Easter Sunday
Where Celebrated: Arizona, Mexico
Symbols and Customs: Burning of the Masks, Caballeros, Chapayekas, Deer Dance, Fariseos, Flowers, Matachin Dance, Pascolas
Colors: Red, which symbolizes the blood of Jesus Christ
Related Holidays: Easter


The Yaqui Easter Ceremony combines Christian beliefs with the traditions of the Yaqui Indians. The historical development of religious belief systems among this and other Native American groups is not well known. Most of the information available was gathered by Europeans who arrived on the continent beginning in the sixteenth century C . E . The data they recorded was fragmentary and oftentimes of questionable accuracy because the Europeans did not understand the native cultures they were trying to describe and the Native Americans were reluctant to divulge details about themselves.

The history of Native American cultures dates back thousands of years into prehistoric times. According to many scholars, the people who became the Native Americans migrated from Asia across a land bridge that may have once connected the territories presently occupied by Alaska and Russia. The migrations, believed to have begun between 60,000 and 30,000 B . C . E ., continued until approximately 4,000 B . C . E . This speculation, however, conflicts with traditional stories asserting that the indigenous Americans have always lived in North America or that tribes moved up from the south.

The Yaqui Indians currently living in Tucson and Phoenix, Arizona, are descended from the original tribe that lived in northwestern Mexico near the Yaqui River. Jesuit missionaries arrived there in the early seventeenth century and began to teach the Yaqui about Christianity. But while they accepted certain Roman Catholic practices, they continued to hold onto many of their ancient beliefs. This mix of Christian and tribal rituals is particularly apparent in their annual Easter Ceremony, which is observed by both the Yaqui who remained in Mexico and those who fled to the southwestern United States during the wars with Spanish troops and the Mexican government in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Preparations for EASTER begin before ASH WEDNESDAY with the decoration of churches, the creation of ceremonial masks, and the setting up of crosses for the reenactment of the Passion of Christ. Public ceremonies and tribal dances, including the DEER DANCE , take place throughout the forty days of LENT, but it is during Easter week that the celebration reaches a climax. On Holy Thursday the CHA PAYEKAS , the soldiers who have been searching for Jesus throughout Lent, capture an effigy of Christ and seize control of the church. As part of the FARISEOS (Pharisees) or enemies of Christ, they carry out a symbolic crucifixion on Good Friday, but the Resurrection takes place that night and they don't realize at first that they have lost possession of the body. On Holy Saturday there is a final confrontation between the Fariseos and Chapayekas on one side and, on the other, several groups who are defending the church and have armed themselves with FLOWERS . The Fariseos and Chapayekas advance toward the church three times, but they are turned back by the Matachin Dancers (see MATACHIN DANCE ), the Deer Dancers (see DEER DANCE ), the PASCOLAS , and an avalanche of real and crepe paper flowers. Eventually the Fariseos are defeated, which they admit by throwing their ceremonial masks and the straw effigy of Judas into a huge fire (see BURNING OF THE MASKS ). The Pascolas, along with the Deer Dancers and Matachin Dancers, perform at the celebration that follows, and when the news of Jesus' resurrection reaches them early on Sunday morning, they join the rest of the Yaqui in a final procession of joy that ends with a sermon in which the various parts of the Easter Ceremony are explained.


Burning of the Masks

The act of throwing their ceremonial masks and the straw effigy of their leader, Judas, into a fire on Easter Sunday is not only an admission of defeat on the part of the chapayekas but a symbolic way of ridding themselves of Judas and, by implication, the sins of the entire Yaqui community. Like other aspects of the Easter Ceremony, this represents a blending of tribal rituals designed to drive out evil with the biblical story of how Judas betrayed Jesus shortly before his crucifixion.


The Caballeros are the cavalry or horsemen whose role during the reenactment of the Passion is to guard Jesus from those who are trying to capture him. They wear hats and swords and carry a blue flag, which symbolizes all that is good in the Yaqui community.


Chapayeka means "long nose" in the Yaqui language, and the masks worn by these soldiers during the annual Easter Ceremony traditionally have long, slender noses. It is possible that the word chapayeka was originally used to describe the Spanish invaders of Mexico.

The chapayekas are members of the FARISEOS , or Pharisees-in other words, the enemies of Jesus-and they play an important role in his capture and crucifixion. In addition to helmet-like masks, they wear plaid blankets over their shoulders and cocoon rattles around their legs and waists. They are primarily known for their clowning and irreverent behavior, and their job is to distract everyone from what's going on by teasing and taunting the crowd with their red-tipped swords, symbolic of Jesus' blood. As a group, they are an extension of their leader, Judas, and as such they represent the evil or sinful elements in the Yaqui community.

Deer Dance

The Yaqui Deer Dancers wear deer heads with antlers and glass eyes on their own heads, which are covered by a piece of white cloth. They are usually bare-chested and carry rattles made from dried gourds in either hand, with cocoon rattles tied to their ankles. During the Easter Ceremony, the Deer Dancers perform with the PASCOLAS , who attempt to capture them. Their movements imitate those of the animal they impersonate-silent, skittish, and aloof-and they dance to the music of three singers who accompany themselves on rasping sticks, imitative of the deer's breathing, and a water drum made from a hollow gourd floating in water, which is meant to sound like the beating of the deer's heart.

The deer was at one time a crucial source of food and hides for the Yaqui, and the Deer Dance, which is performed not only at Easter but at other Yaqui fiestas, pays homage to their longstanding relationship with this animal, which they both fear and admire.


Along with the CABALLEROS or horsemen, the Fariseos or Pharisees are one of the two societies responsible for organizing the Yaqui Easter Ceremony. They are the infantry or foot soldiers, and they symbolize the evil forces that persecuted and eventually crucified Christ. Their leader is Pontius Pilate, the Roman official who presided over Jesus' trial and ordered his crucifixion, and they are often referred to as the Soldiers of Rome.

The Fariseos dress completely in black, with black scarves covering most of their faces. During the final confrontation that takes place on Holy Saturday, it is the Fariseos who are defeated by those defending the church, who pelt them with FLOWERS . After this symbolic death, they are welcomed back into the church and greeted as men who have been rebaptized into the Christian faith.


Flowers-particularly those that grow in the Mexican desert-have always possessed symbolic value for the Yaqui. They appear in many Yaqui songs and stories, and they are also a symbol for the Virgin Mary, whose heaven is believed to be filled with flowers. At the final confrontation on Holy Saturday between the forces of evil (see FARISEOS ) and the defenders of the Christian Church, the latter use flowers (or sometimes confetti to represent real flowers) as their weapon. These flowers symbolize the blood of Jesus, which has the power to overcome evil.

Matachin Dance

The Matachin Dancers who perform at the Easter Ceremony and other Yaqui fiestas represent the forces of good. They wear headdresses decorated with red flowers and brightly colored skirts, and they carry rattles made from hollow gourds and palma, which are wands shaped like a trident covered in feathers.

The Matachin Dance is considered to be the most sacred of all the Yaqui dances, because it honors the Virgin Mary, their patroness, and is performed to ensure that she continues to look favorably upon the Yaqui people. During the Easter Ceremony, the Matachin Dancers are not seen until Holy Saturday, when they participate in the final confrontation with the FARISEOS and perform their dance afterward.


The term pascola comes from the Yaqui word pahko, which means "fiesta," combined with ola, meaning "old man." They perform at all the Yaqui fiestas and other special occasions, accompanied by a harp, a violin, and a combination of drum and flute. Like the Deer Dancers, they wear cocoon rattles around their ankles and bells or rattles around their waists; their masks, which are normally black or brown with red or white decorations, resemble either human or animal faces, with long tufts of hair and a cross carved into the chin or forehead.

At the Easter Ceremony and other Yaqui fiestas, the Pascolas, who usually perform individually, play the role of clowns who try to get audience members more involved and who provide comic relief during otherwise serious religious ceremonies. They also serve as a unifying element throughout the ceremonial year, opening every Yaqui fiesta with their dancing, storytelling, and humorous antics.


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Pascua Yaqui Tribe www.pascuayaquitribe.org
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009