Yoreme Pajko’ora Dance
  • Cubeo dance
  • Yoreme dance
  • Mapuche dance

Yoreme [Mayo] pajko’ora and Yoeme (Yaqui) pahko’ola traditions date to when the indigenous people of present-day northwestern Mexico and southern Arizona were hunters and gatherers. To survive and flourish in the arid lands, the people began to hold ceremonial dances as a way of appealing to and thanking Itom Achai Taa’a (Our Father the Sun) for his blessings. The Deer Dance and the pajko’ora traditions were part of these ceremonies.

In the past, pajko’ora dress was quite different from the clothing of contemporary dancers. According to Yoeme elders in Arizona today, the ancient dancers wore jaguar skins, and they enacted both the prelude and aftermath of the hunt. In this way, the dancers and musicians were asking for permission and forgiveness from the spirits of the animals that would give up their lives for the continuation of human life. In the past, and even today among many traditional people in the Sonoran Desert, plants and animals were considered brothers and sisters.

When the Yoreme and Yoeme became farmers—raising corn, squash, beans, tobacco, cotton, and chile peppers—pajko’ora tradition also began to emphasize astronomical knowledge. Dances to thank Itom Achai Taa’a included enactments of agricultural activities such as planting, cultivation, and harvesting. Observing the stars, sun, and moon became a strong part of the culture, and ceremonial practices marked the planting seasons.

In the 1620s the Yoreme and the Yoeme began to practice Catholicism, and since then pajko’ora traditions have been infused with Christian meaning. Rather than a hunting ritual, the ceremony has become a Christian devotional vigil, with one side of the village plaza, which is the dance arena, solely dedicated to an altar honoring the celebrated feast-day saint. Jesus Christ, the Blessed Mother Mary, or other saints also are in place.

During the performance, the pajko’ora dancers act out the story with their movements, while the deer singers, playing their traditional instruments (gourd water drums, gourds, and raspers), sing of the life and death of a particular animal, which has human qualities. The singers are accompanied by the kuvajelero/tampalero (drummer), who also plays a reed flute. The dancers move in a slouched or crouched position, looking down, their arms loose at their sides. Their steps both reflect and vary the rhythm of the music. They dance wearing a small wooden mask either on the back of their heads or over their faces. When they wear the mask over their faces, they turn their heads from side to side and shake a rattle against their left palm. First they dance alone and then with a deer dancer.

Pajko’ora dancers are deeply respected because they have great knowledge and spiritual power. It is quite moving when the elder pajko’ora, wearing his mask, speaks at end of ceremonies. People who gather to listen or watch him dance often are overcome with emotion at his teachings, which draw on his personal experiences, Christian values, and Yoreme traditional culture.

In Yoreme communities in Sonora, Mexico, the pajko’ora mask is used on village feast days, Palm Saturday, and Holy Saturday. In most villages there are public performances during art fairs, and the pajko’ora is usually there to bless the event with music and dance. The mask is usually made from a cottonwood root. Some mask makers also use wood from the torote (elephant tree). The wood is light and can be easily carved, and the mask maker usually adds paint. According to Yoeme tradition, the mask is first painted black to represent the pala ania (universe) or ka nuklak (infinity), which becomes the backdrop for depictions of stars, planets, plants, or animals. Geometric designs have great significance: triangles represent the sun’s rays, which allow life to exist. Four triangles connected to each other represent the sun, and four triangles attached to a square represent a star. Cornfields painted on the cheek area honor maize, while images of lizards, horned toads, snakes, and other desert animals teach understanding and respect for all life on earth. Both the Yoreme and the Yoeme include a long white beard on the mask to show that the dancers represent elders with great wisdom and knowledge. Lastly, the mask has a Yoeme or Yoreme cross on the forehead, although nowadays some are painted with a regular Christian cross. The Christian cross is meant to protect the dancer from evil and the devil, because with the advent of Christianity came a story that the pajko’ora was the son of the devil.

Instead of a jaguar skin, the Yoreme pajko’ora today wears a light white blanket, or manta, around his waist and legs, while the Yoeme dancer will wear a red or pink one. According to Yoeme elders, red is a healing and protective color, so many of them teach young dancers to try to wear that color. A young dancer wearing green or blue proves that no elder has transmitted to him the knowledge of certain colors’ power. Yoeme dancers remain bare-chested during the ceremonies, while the Yoreme pajko’ora, in addition to the white manta, wears a white, long-sleeved shirt, its color representing purity.

Round bronze or shiny metal bells are worn around the waist during the dances to accompany the music of the harp, violin, drum, and flute. The ringing bells also show the dancer’s devotion to the saints on the altar, and a church group chants and recites devotional hymns and prayers. Many centuries ago, the dancer would wear only seven bells, to honor the seven stars of the Big Dipper. For contemporary Yoeme, the bells represent the seven sacraments. Yoreme dancers, however, may wear more than a dozen bells. Another difference between the communities is that the reflective power of abalone-shell necklaces still is used among the Yoeme, but Yoreme pajko’ora dancers wear colorful scarves, instead.

The last part of the pajko’ora regalia is the tenevari or, in Yoeme, tenevoim, which are giant moth cocoons worn around the legs. The cocoons are worn to thank the insect world for allowing the use of their discarded homes. The sound the cocoon makes during the dance honors the animals and earth elements. In Yoeme traditions the tenevoim represents a snake that travels up the human dancer’s body and spills out of the crown of the head. Some older dancers represent the snake’s energy with a ponytail tied with a red string and a paper flower. And, since Christianity is part of Yoeme culture, the ponytail also represents the candlelight above the heads of the Apostles.

The Yoreme and the Yoeme share some common music and dance steps, and at times will visit and even participate in each other’s ceremonies. It is clear, however, that what is currently practiced in Yoreme and Yoeme communities will remain unique to each group for a long time, since young people in Sonora and Arizona are so interested in continuing the pajko’ora traditional dance.

—Felipe S. Molina

Felipe S. Molina (Yoeme) has a background in Native education and literacy. Between 1974 and 1991 he taught in Yaqui community schools and colleges. He has worked extensively to document and promote Yoeme language, oral traditions, music, dance, and song, especially deer songs and dances. From 1993 to 1995 he was the principal investigator for a National Park Service grant to study Yoeme ethnobotany. He has co-authored or co-edited several books and articles, including Yaqui Deer Songs/Maso Bwikam (1987) and the forthcoming Comprehensive Yoeme and English Dictionary. Now retired, he frequently sings deer songs at ceremonies.

I am grateful to the following deceased elders in Arizona and Sonora for their kind interest in sharing their knowledge of the pahko’ola and pajko’ora traditions. The Yolemmem in Sinaloa also practice pahko’ola traditions, but I have not traveled or talked to anyone in that part of Mexico.

Rosario Bacaneri Castillo
Rosario was my maternal grandfather and was a well known pahko’ola dancer in Arizona Yoeme communities from 1926 to 1979. He passed his knowledge to four of his grandsons, all of whom are now in their fifties. Instead of becoming pahko’ola dancers, all the grandsons are deer singers. At times one of the grandsons may carve a pahko’ola mask, which he learned how to do from Rosario.

Francisco Alame’a
Francisco was a Yoreme, born on Yoreme lands. His family moved to Potam, a Yoeme village. He learned the pahko’ola dance from Yoeme elders in Potam. On many occasions he was invited to dance in Yoreme village ceremonies. When he moved to Arizona, he became my ceremonial godfather. He shared his knowledge with interested people at ceremonies as well as on road trips to other Yoeme community ceremonies or to other tribal events.

Yoreme pajko’ora dancers wear a white blanket, or manta, wrapped around their waist and legs, and a long-sleeved, white shirt. The white clothing represents purity. Pajko’ora dancers also wear a leather belt with dangling bells and long strings of pebble-filled Giant Silk Moth cocoons wrapped around their legs. The sound made by the leg rattles resembles that of a rattlesnake—which is associated with rain and fertility. When they dance, pajko’ora wear a wooden mask representing a wild mountain spirit. The mask is moved to the back of the head or over one ear when the pajko’ora dances as a human being—at this time, his wooden rattle with metal discs is tucked into the back of his belt. When he represents an animal, he dances with the mask over his face, holding his rattle in his right hand and striking it against his left. Pajko’ora also wear a paper flower, which is associated with the rattlesnake’s energy.

2003. Worn by Bernardo Esquer Lopez. Las Tres Cruces, Sonora, Mexico. Cotton, leather, brass bell, Giant Silk Moth cocoons, pebbles, cotton string, wood, pigment, hair, metal, paper. EP0952. Photograph by Ernest Amoroso, NMAI.

  • Yoreme pajko’ora dancing

    Yoreme pajko’ora dancing to the accompaniment of a harpist and fiddler. Tres Cruces, Sonora, Mexico, 2006. Courtesy of the Arizona State Museum, University of Arizona. Photograph by Janelle Weakly

  • Yoreme pajko’ora dancer

    Yoreme pajko’ora dancer. Tres Cruces, Sonora, Mexico, 2006. Courtesy of the Arizona State Museum, University of Arizona. Photograph by Janelle Weakly

  • Yoreme pajko’ora dancer

    Yoreme pajko’ora dancer. Tres Cruces, Sonora, Mexico, 2006. Courtesy of the Arizona State Museum, University of Arizona. Photograph by Janelle Weakly

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