VICAM, SONORA, Mexico – The remains of 12 Yaqui warriors killed in a 1902 massacre and exiled to storage in a New York museum for more than 100 years have made the journey home to their Sonoran village in northern Mexico, where they were buried with honors and ceremonies by their welcoming descendants last month.
The burial ceremonies took place Nov. 15 and 16 in the village of Vicam. Hundreds of people from the Yaqui communities on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border and all over Mexico attended the precedent-setting international repatriation that involved the U.S., Mexican and Yaqui governments. The Yaquis, who live in Arizona and Sonora, are one people separated by the artificially-imposed international border.
The warriors were among 124 men, women and children massacred by Mexican federal troops during that government’s final genocidal efforts against the region’s indigenous people during the early 20th century.
But only partial remains of the warriors – their skulls and various limbs – made their way to the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Three weeks after the slaughter, Ales Hrdlicka (pronounced Her-lish-ka), the man known as “the father of American anthropology,” armed with letters of permission from the U.S. State Department and the Mexican government, went to the massacre site and chopped off the warriors’ heads and some of their hands with a machete. Hrdlicka shipped the skeletal remains to New York City where they remained in storage for 107 years, along with bloodstained artifacts he removed from the site, including a cradleboard, a blanket, bows and arrows, and sombreros.
Dr. Andrew Darling, an anthropologist and the coordinator of the Gila River Indian Community’s Cultural Resources Management Program; Dr. Ventura Perez, assistant professor of biological archaeology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; and Robert Valencia, the vice chairman of the Pascua Yaqui Nation in Arizona, were instrumental in bringing the warriors home.
Darling became aware of the warriors’ remains in the mid-1990s when he was researching Hrdlicka’s memoirs, but it wasn’t until 2007 that he encouraged his colleague to investigate the collection.
Perez, a mestizo and an expert in individual and societal violence and trauma, spent two years investigating the atrocity. He ascertained the warriors’ ages and causes of death – some were executed at close range with shots to the head, others were bludgeoned to death with rifle butts.
When the two men contacted Valencia in 2008, the repatriation wheels were set in motion.
The Museum of Natural History agreed to repatriate the remains to Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, which agreed to turn over the remains to the Yaquis. It was the first time the museum turned over cultural patrimony to a foreign government that immediately returned it to the indigenous people, the museum said in a statement.
Sixteen Yaqui Indians traveled to New York in October and brought their warrior ancestors home in special wooden boxes they carried onto the plane.
The warriors traveled from New York to the Pascua Yaqui community then home to Vicam. They were honored with processions, prayers and ceremonial dancing that continued all night. Before being buried, the warriors were baptized and named.
“It was difficult when we went to actually see the remains,” Valencia said. “Once they took them out of the boxes and Ventura explained what had happened to these poor people, it grabs your heart and yanks it up. Even though they died over a century ago, to all of us it was like they just died yesterday. When we took them to the community, the women and the elders had the opportunity to confront the reality of what happened and release their emotions. They cried for these people.”
Very little, if any, oral tradition of the massacre had survived, Valencia said.
“Since the Spaniards (arrived), our people have always been persecuted and we never had time to mourn our dead.”
The warriors’ homecoming has provided an opportunity to reclaim an erased collective memory that has nonetheless ricocheted through the century, scarring the communities in ways that only now can begin to be understood, Valencia said.
“There are a lot of things that this has awakened us to, relating to our history so there will be other discussions and questions brought forward to our elders and tribal leaders. This has opened a lot of doors to things we need to put together. We are one nation divided by the so-called border, but we see this as something we can use for our healing and to fully understand the effects it had on us and the positive effects it can have.”
Dr. Andrew Darling and Dr. Ventura Perez
Once Valencia had started the repatriation process, Darling and Perez became the Yaquis’ technical assistants. But the entire experience has profoundly affected the two men, who have collaborated on projects for years.
“I was able to travel back with the deceased from New York and that in itself was very emotional, but just the feeling of relief that they were coming home was incredible,” Darling said.
“Everyone in the community felt really close to them, despite the horror of their death. People were sad and excited at the same time. People were saying, ‘Why did it take so long?’ but at the same time, ‘Why did they wait to come back now?’ Then people were saying, ‘Well, maybe this is the right time that they needed to come home.’ I think it’s a really important time to the Yaqui people. To me it was not so much that we were doing the right thing, but something we’d been waiting for finally happened. To see them coming home kind of fulfilled everything.”
For Perez, the experience has reaffirmed his belief that anthropology is to be conducted in service of the people.
At Vicam a week before the burial ceremonies, he watched Yaqui spiritual leaders talking to a group of young boys about the artifacts.
“One of the tribal elders explained to the kids what they were and how they were used and talked about seeing the material the way it was meant to be seen, not in a museum, but being handled in this church. It was very, very moving,” Perez said.
“The other amazing piece was they wanted me to show the children the skeletal remains and explain what had happened and why it had happened. They allowed the kids to look at them and touch them. It was an opportunity for the dead to inform the living and for one generation to begin to understand the sacrifices of an earlier generation. It was by far the most powerful experience of my life, second only to my marriage. It encapsulated in one moment, every good thing that anthropology can do.”