We Will Dance Our Truth: Yaqui History in Yoeme Performances

By David Delgado Shorter. 2009. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. 448 pages. ISBN: 978-0-8032-1733-1 (hard cover).


Reviewed by Raymond J. Demallie, Indiana University

[Review length: 1187 words • Review posted on December 13, 2010]


The anthropological studies of Edward H. Spicer, spanning four decades from the 1940s to the 1980s, have made the Yaqui Indians of Sonora and Arizona a celebrated case study in Southwestern ethnography and ethnohistory. Their inclusion as an example of “persistent identity systems” in Spicer’s theoretical formulation has brought the Yaqui to the attention of scholars in a variety of disciplines who otherwise have little or no interest in North American Indians. Tackling the work of continuing ethnography of such a well-documented people has the benefit of a solid foundation on which to anchor new studies, but it also has the drawback that such work may be considered inconsequential in comparison with the master works of the past. To succeed, the younger scholar needs to bring something new to the study. In this, David Delgado Shorter has succeeded brilliantly.

We Will Dance Our Truth is both a study of the Yoeme people and a study of the ethnography of the people. The focus, Shorter tells us, is on the “ways of knowing” (4) of the Yaqui people of Potam Pueblo, Sonora, who prefer to be called by their own name, Yoeme (plural, Yoemem). Prophetic traditions are central to the Yoeme understanding of the past; religion is the basis of all Yoeme history. Shorter argues that myth and ritual are Yoeme forms of historical consciousness and that their performances are “epistemologically actualizing” in that they “make knowledge and set the standard for what counts as truth” (18). One word for ritual in the Yoeme language translates as “work,” and Shorter emphasizes how much literal work goes into performance of the oral traditions, rituals, and dances that form the subject matter of his book. Those performances shape the “persistent identity” (in Spicer’s phrase) of the Yoeme people.

The first half of the book describes Yoeme cosmology with particular emphasis on the ways in which religious histories inscribe a “religio-spatial map” (21) on the people’s territory. The Testamento, a collection of religious stories, tells of the mythohistorical establishment of the Yoeme pueblos by prophets who walked in procession, “singing the boundaries” of their territory, inscribing a “holy dividing line” that delineated the land that was theirs by divine inheritance (68). Through the comparison of written and oral texts Shorter attempts to sift out pre-contact elements of the cosmology. His analysis of nine variants of the “talking tree stories” that conflate Yaqui traditions with the New Testament demonstrates how the prophecy of the coming of the Spanish forced the people to decide whether or not to adapt to the newcomers. Some refused, and went to an underground world where they still live to this day; the others remained and chose to continue their way of life, but to adapt to the changes foretold by the tree. This, as Shorter notes, exemplifies non-linear, non-Western history; Yoeme oral tradition “subsumes the all-encompassing European historical trajectory in their prophetic anticipation of Western peoples and knowledge” (22). With this understanding of native historiography Shorter devotes a chapter to critical evaluation of the work of previous scholars who interpreted the Yoeme past in terms of conquest and religious conversion, failing to represent Yoeme agency in the unfolding of their history.

The second half of the book is preceded by an “interchapter” that offers a theoretical counter to the dichotomy between oral and literate in the context of non-Western historiography and challenges the “authoritative power of representation” (197) inscribed in the writings of anthropologists and historians. By expanding the concept of “writing” to include speech and ritual acts, indigenous perspectives can be integrated into historical accounts.

Shorter demonstrates the interpretive value of such a method by examining the deer dance, providing historical and ethnographic descriptions and refuting earlier accounts that interpreted it as a secular hunting ritual. Rather, he argues that the dance embodies Yoeme understandings of knowledge and truth and shows how the people understand themselves. Through his analysis Shorter explains how deer dancing preserves native cosmology while providing “a model for understanding how Yoemem grafted the Catholic figure of Jesus onto older views of ritual sacrifice and hunting” (216). Of general significance here is Shorter’s critique of simplistic concepts of “conversion” to explain the religious dynamics of historical relations between the Yoeme and the newcomers.

In the final chapter Shorter returns to the land and Yoeme performances that historicize and map their territory, focusing on funerary practices and church processions. Families maintain “books of the dead” that serve to preserve genealogical records but that are also important for inscribing the names of the deceased and affirming their continuing relationship to the living. Formal processions after Sunday mass that make the rounds of the four crosses that define the area of the pueblo, including the cemetery, the men wearing traditional military society regalia and carrying statues of Christian saints, inscribe the people’s relationship both to the deceased and to the land itself. Their ritual performances, singing the boundaries of their land, is work that makes the land significant, reaffirms community bonds, and mediates between native and Christian influences. Like deer dancing, the processions embody Yoeme understandings of the past and present; the processions can be interpreted as a kind of nonliterate writing, the performance of which constitutes an indigenous cartography reasserting the Testamento that serves as the charter for Yoeme land ownership.

A brief conclusion reviews the variety of ways that spatial relations are embodied in the Yoeme worldview. Acts of place-making, Shorter summarizes, “show an indigenous Catholic syncretism that Yoemem express through long-established inscriptive practices and historical consciousness” (338).

The performative approach that Shorter chose to take for describing and understanding Yoeme lifeways is reflected as well in the structure of the book. The summary I have given of the ethnographic substance does not begin to do justice to the excitement and originality of We Will Dance Our Truth. As Shorter explains, “Because I hope to write a social science that emphasizes the intersubjective and social dynamic between me and community members, I include field notes within chapters and transcribed interviews between chapters” (4). His intention in taking this reflexive approach is to keep “the dialogical process central to the project of rewriting Yoeme ethnographies,” and “to produce scholarship that makes sense to native communities” (4-5). The method clearly succeeds. As we move back and forth from entries in his field journal to portions of interviews and to his synthetic descriptions and analyses, the reader learns about the Yoeme along with the author, sharing the immediacy of his excitement, frustrations, and insights. The book would be very useful in classes on ethnography for its methodological clarity and as an instructive example of the value of establishing dialogue between past and present ethnographic studies.

Shorter breaks new ground in relating history and ethnography, in contributing to the study of Native American religions, and in emphasizing the significance of spatial relationships to cultural realities. The book will be appreciated as a contribution to Yoeme ethnography, but also for its general importance in religious studies, performance theory, ethnicity, and ethnohistory. Shorter’s interests cross many disciplines in the humanities and social sciences; this is a book worth reading.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.