Karl Young on Yaqui Deer Dance Songs


by Larry Evers and Felipe S. Molina.

Sun Tracks and The University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 1987.

Review by Karl Young

First you just look,
       later you will find, find.
First you just look,
       later you will find, find.

First you just look,
       later you will find, find.
First you just look,
       later you will find, find.

Over there, I, in an opening
       in the flower-covered grove.
       I went out,
       then you will find, find.

First you just look,
       later you will find, find.

This song was sung by Yaqui Deer Singer Don Jésus Yoilo'i and transcribed and translated by Larry Evers and Felipe S. Molina. Like dozens of other poems in the book, it bears some striking resemblances to the Cantares Mexicanos. Since the Yaqui language is related to the Nahuatl of the Cantares, and since the Yaqui people trace their ancestry back to the Valley of Mexico, there may be common links between them. The Cantares are thought by many to be pre-Columbian in origin. Though John Bierhorst has challenged this notion, in reading or hearing the Yaqui Deer songs we may be in the presence of a continuous line of poetic development that reaches back before the European invasion of the western hemisphere. Of course, Don Jésus made modifications to the poems he sang, and we can be sure that his ancestors did so before him, but their source may lie deeper in the American past than any other poetry now being sung. It's hard not to feel a sense of awe and humility in the presence of these poems.

We should not, however, get so lost in images of the past that we think of the songs as exotic antiques. They are also, and more importantly, part of a living and thriving community of native Americans, people who are not extras from a movie set, nor are they the strange science fiction concoctions of Carlos Castaneda, nor are they the last remnants of a once proud but now disappearing people. They are still proud, and don't have any intention of disappearing. Given their robust community life, there seems little danger of that.

A refreshing feature of this book is that it strips away all the exotic paraphernalia with which Euro-American ignorance, superstition, and sensationalism has shrouded the Yaqui, and shows them to be dignified human beings who go about their lives in a genuine, honest, and easily comprehensible way. This, in turn, reveals the real magic in their songs and the true sacrality of their lives.

The book is the result of a multi-layered collaboration. The first element, of course, is Yaqui tradition. Second is its old representative, Don Jésus, born around the turn of the century, witness to the Mexican revolution, Yaqui diaspora, and many social changes. Third is Felipe S. Molina, who grew up speaking Yaqui and English, attended university, and now lives comfortably in the world of the 1990's while maintaining his cultural identity and heritage. Fourth is Larry Evers, an anthropologist who sees the Yaqui as teachers and full partners in his task. Finally, we have the Yaqui communities in which Evers and Molina worked, who saw the value of talking about and recording their songs. Evers and Moilina are careful to acknowledge and separate the role played by each in the book, clearly setting aside differing perceptions and views by letting each contributor speak in his own voice.

The songs are presented in English and Yaqui, not simply for the benefit of anthropologists and linguists, but also so the Yaqui can read them, along with the English commentary. The means of transcription was simply and practically developed by Molina from a system he originally used to write letters to his girlfriend while he was away at school. This transcription may not be as accurate as some of the more elaborate phonetic systems available, but is easy to use by Yaqui readers and by non-Yaquis who are unfamiliar with esoteric orthographies. A cassette tape of songs in the book is available from University of Arizona Press, providing the sounds themselves instead of a transcription. As in all song, sound is as important as anything else, and the tape should be a supplement for any serious non-Yaqui reader.

Molina and Evers emphatically point out that they have not tried to reproduce sounds in their translations. They are, however, meticulous in translating words, with glosses on nuances, symbols, special usages, syntax, peculiarities of the language, etc. They present the world of the songs as fully as possible in a book of this sort, including extensive and detailed commentary and explication of Yaqui mythology, cosmology, history, ceremonial context and sequence, games, clowning, religious and cultural syncretism (as seen in Don Jésus's name, or the Darth Vadar and Ronald Reagan reference in songs), dance forms, and contemporary life.

The song quoted above is one of what Don Jésus called "running the deer songs," used in a ceremony that combines clowning, sport, and religion. These songs present the hunt from the point of view of the deer and of the hunter. The needs and weaknesses of both are explored in these songs, working toward an understanding of the interdependence of both. In the sequence, they move through the different planes of Yaqui cosmology, including the Wilderness World and the Flower World. The Wilderness World (Evers and Molina note the English etymology: Wild - deer - ness) is an enchanted world where you wander pathless, without direction. The Flower World is mirror image of the natural world, with all its natural beauties and sustaining strengths in great abundance and freedom. Here dwell the prototypes of all that is alive and life-giving in the Sonora Desert: flowers, water, insects, birds, and most of all, deer. "All these worlds are considered to be supernatural and dangerous if not approached correctly. They are visible only in the private eye of dream and vision, and they are made public only when they are put into words in stories individuals tell of their own experiences and those of others."

"Running the deer songs" originated in the need to placate the deer and let him know that the hunters understand the significance of what they are doing. The deer can be dangerous if he knows that the hunters are approaching him without understanding of life, death, the cycles of nature, and the sanctity of the inhabitants of the planes of existence. In the dance "the deer dancer takes on the spirit of that deer, giving him physical form even as the deer singers describe him with words and bring his voice from the [Flower World] through the deer songs.

In the following songs, hunters and deer play their roles, clowns burst into the cycle at unexpected times, the deer is found, the deer is killed, the deer is reintegrated into life. The songs "go beyond earthly death with the deer [dancer] to describe how he `becomes flower' and is received back into the sentient wilderness world from which he was taken. The extraordinarily powerful portrait of life and death created by the song words is linked to one of the most extended and rollicking of the [clown's] games." The antics of the clowns strike a balance between the basic forces of existence in the song cycle and the dance, between life and death, self and other, joy and despair, obligation and freedom, skill and helplessness. Perhaps most important, the clowns "open the audience with laughter and lift away any hint of sentimentality from the song words of the deer singers." The deer continues his song after death. The deep understanding of audience and life in drama of this sort asks serious questions of the art of Greek storm troopers who went to plays to purge themselves of fear and pity so they would be more effective warriors.

The main burden of the song, "First you look,/later you find, find" takes on added significance in the "running the deer" context. Like many good poems, this one states the obvious: first you look; later you find. But in this case both activities require understanding of cosmology, self-discipline, skills of all sorts. If you read the English sensitively, the repetitions function on several levels. They mime waiting. They build tension by their accumulation. They insist that the hearer do not take them lightly: they are words that give advice and instruction that should last a lifetime. In feeling them out, instead of skipping them over, you can better understand who you are and how you should behave. The pivotal break away from the repetitions at the beginning of the third stanza tells, not what is constant, but a decisive moment in the hunter's journey. In the last two lines, this is reintegrated into the constant in life. The pattern of repetitions is pleasant enough in English, but better in Yaqui:

Kialem vata hiwemai
       chukula hubwa teune teunevu

Without any instruction in phonetics, you can see how the i and a vowels of the first line play against the u sounds of the second, even if you don't know precisely how those vowels are vocalized. Note also that in Yaqui "find, find" has a variation "teune teunevu."

How much better does poetry get, in any language? Perhaps it's an irrelevant or meaningless question. What is important is that even now, when we as a culture are hell bent on destroying the natural world, when we desperately try to negate our individuality and sense of community, when we have gotten so far from the deer songs we hardly recognize their wisdom, one of the oldest art forms is still growing, still evolving, and still capable of teaching those of us who are of European descent the sacrality of life in this place.

First published in American Ideophonics.
Copyright © 1993 and 1995 by Karl Young.

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