Being recognized as indigenous people in the contemporary U.S.: Analysis of the Texas Yaquis’ petition for state recognition in 2013

MIZUTANI, Yuka
Assistant Professor
Center for Global Discovery

In modern era, what definesbeing indigenous people is a simple matter. Having a unique language and tradition, or living in an area from the time immemorial may not be enough to prove that they are a group of indigenouspeople, especially in the context of politics. In this presentation, I would like to talk about the case of Yaqui people in Texas, which I have observed in past 5 years. This particular case shows whatmeans being indigenous in modernera, in politicaland social senses, also in group and individual levels.

The people I take up in this presentation named themselves as the Texas Band of Yaqui.Currently, they are a non-profit organization, which consists of individuals with the Yaqui ancestry. Yaqui is an indigenous people, who have lived in the current U.S.-Mexico borderland. The population isestimated as18,000 in the U.S., and 14,000 in Mexico [Native Peoples Technical Assistance Office; Instituto Nacional de Estadística 2009: 35]. In 1978, a part of the Yaqui people in the U.S. was recognized by the federal government as the Pascua Yaqui Tribe. The tribal government of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe is at their reservation land in the city of Tucson, which is located 63 miles (about 101 km) northward from the U.S.-Mexico border[Metropolitan Tucson Convention & Visitors Bureau].When the Pascua Yaqui Tribe was recognized, who could become members of the tribe were mainly Yaqui individuals lived in the state of Arizonaaround the city of Tucson.

InOctober 2013, the Texas Band of Yaqui council prepared a set of documents consist of old photographs, census records, marriage records, and any other printed materialsgathered in past several years. Then they brought a set of documents to the office of State Senator Robert Duncan in the city of Lubbock. Senator Duncan took them to the Texas Senate, and these documents were filed to be discussed at the 84th legislature session in 2015. As the legislature session is held biennially, the session in 2015 was the closest legislature from the time these documents were filed. The Texas Band of Yaqui council ishoping that the state government of Texas will officially recognize them as indigenous people of Texas in the year 2015.

After gaining the state recognition, one option for them is to pursue recognition by the U.S. federal government,in order to establish “nation-to-nation”relationship. Such relationship enables them to accomplish sovereignty, and provide access to all rights and benefits available for American Indian tribes, which include reservation, health service, and financial support for education. Yet, gaining the federal recognition is associated with preparing more documents, and political activities such as lobbying. As a result, it would cost between $50,000 and $1 million [Adam 2009: 112-113]. Also, the waiting period until hearing the result after filing all necessarydocuments is more than 10 years [Adam 2009: 112]. Therefore, much financial support and encouragement are indispensable to pursue the federal recognition. Moreover, some people who prepare documents need to contribute much time and effort in voluntarybasis.

Knowing all these difficulties, the Texas Band of the Yaqui iswilling to pursue the federal recognition. Mr. Iz Ramirez is the person, who is leading the group. He is an engineer working at a university in Texas, while raising 3 children as a single father. Also, he often performstraditionaldances at Native American festivals. In additionto these obligations, he now acts as a chairman of the Texas Band of the Yaqui as a non-profit organization.He is hopeful for the state recognition of their Band as a Native American tribe, as well as the federal recognition.

What drive Ramirez to seekthe federal recognition of the Texas Band of Yaqui, in exchange with his time and effort? First of all, Ramirezhopes to promote variety exists withinthe Yaqui people. Also, he believes that all sub groups of Yaquis deserve the same politicaltreatmentby the federal government, since theyall come from the same ancestry. In my interview, he expressed that the Texas Band of Yaqui represents“the nomadic mountain Yaquis and the displaced Yaqui people,”who had been ignored. For now, the Yaqui has beenconsidered to be homogeneousgroup. In imagination of politicians, scholars, and general public, Yaquis in Mexico and Arizona are the authentic Yaquis, and other groups are not genuine. For instance, on a popular online discussion board, a questionwhich reads following was posted: “Is the Texas Band of Yaqui Indians real?”Some people replied to this question. One person who defines herself as Mexican answered “No, I don’t think so.”In this time, 2 indigenous persons, one is Navajo and the other is Tohono O’odham, defended that they are indigenous. After reading posts of these 2 people, the person who asked the question wrote “OK I see, I thought it was one of those fake Indian type things.”1 There may be other groups of Yaqui people beside of those in Mexico, Arizona and Texas. By realization of the federal recognition of the Texas Band of Yaqui, more people would start feeling comfortable showing their unique history and culture from the mainstream Yaquis.

Second of all, Ramirez is hoping to encourage the Yaquis who have been excluded from their own people to show their ethnic identities. According to Ramirez, it is estimated that more than 500 members will join the Texas Band of Yaqui by the end of summer 2014. As I explained in former part, initially the Texas Band of Yaqui was formed for the Yaquis in Texas. However, eventually some Yaqui people in Arizona started contacting them toask if they were eligible for enrollment. These people can prove their Yaqui ancestry with documents. However, their blood quantum as Yaqui is below the line set by the Pascua Yaqui Tribe. Ramirez and other council member of the Texas Band of Yaqui decide to welcomethese members. “We are leading the way for the younger generation of the Yaqui People in the U.S.,”Ramirez stated. In the U.S., it is possible to participate in indigenouscultural activities without being members of Native American tribes. However, it seems possessingan official document to prove belonging to a tribe is important for indigenous individuals,in terms of keeping ethnic identity. In the summer of 2012, I met a family in New Mexico who enrolled to the Texas Band of Yaqui and obtained ID cardsissued by the tribal council. As the Texas Band of Yaqui is non-profit organization at this point, this ID card does not have any legal validity. Still, to one of the family members in New Mexico, it was a treasure, and she always carried it with her. According to her, it was the first document which objectively showed she was an indigenous person. With the ID card, she felt she was finally included in the Native American community. Also, finally she felt comfortable about talking about indigenousstories and customs handed down for generations in her family.

Ramirez thinks these 2 points, (1) promoting variety within the Yaqui, and (2) encouraging individuals to keep their heritage as Yaquis, areindispensablefor survival of the Yaqui community in the modern U.S. Insum, pursuing the state and federal recognition is not only about demanding for a reservation, and other rights and monetary profits available for recognized Native American tribes.

In addition to what Ramirez expected, another effect has been caused. It is formation of group identity as the Texas Band of Yaqui oncyberspace. In order to obtain documents to prove their Yaqui ancestry to become member of the Texas Band of Yaqui, many people useonline databases. In the U.S., these databases are popular among anyone who seeks for ancestry regardless of ethnicity. Among many online databases, “Family Search”operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints(LDS), and “ancestory.com”run by a profit company, are popular, due to amount of information stored. Family Search charges between 20 and 35 US dollar per month for use of some special features, but use of basic part of the database is free. As for ancestry.com, use of the entire site is free of charge. Operation of these databases is quite easy. Anyone can simply visit their websites, and enter basic information of their ancestors, such as name and country of origin. Then, documents such as censusrecord, birth certificate, and marriage certificate in form of pdf appear, which people can download.

On the other hand, users of these databasescan upload documents and photographs of their family members and ancestors. The uploadedmaterials becomea part of the databaseand available to other usersand the general publicunder some conditions.These materials could be kept only within their family members. By being uploaded to online databases, finally these pieces of information are connected to other pieces of information and start showing some aspects of the Yaqui history which have been unknown.For example, the family I met in New Mexico has uploaded an old photograph of their Yaqui ancestor, who smiles and poses with a gun2. Another user uploaded a portrait of a family memberin western outfit.3 These personal photographs are different from stereotypical photographs stored atarchives, where were taken to record activities of Yaquis as a group. Also, uploaded stories are very personal, instead of telling a general Yaqui history. A user wrote, “It has been said that my grandmother Belen was a Yaqui Indian. My grandfather Ramon owned a ranch called “El Recodo.””4 Another user posted a story, which tells the relationship between the Yaqui and other indigenous people: “She (the user’s grandmother Francisca Bracamonte Galaz) was part Yaqui and remembered pouring hot grease on Apaches who were attacking a fort.”5

Through exchanging these personal photographs and stories, users of these databases build networks. Such networks seem to provide users somerelief regarding uncertainty of their ethnic identities. Whena user in California who was not finding any legal documents to prove her ancestryposted, “I BELIEVE THAT I AM YAQUI INDIAN. PLEASE VERIFY”,6 another user provided some information aboutYaquis in California and concluded her post as “Any more questions please feel free to ask.”7 Furthermore, some people actually findtheir Yaqui relatives. Auser wrote that she was looking for her Yaqui great-grandmother.8 Then, another user who was looking for information of the same person found that post, and replied “I’m pretty sure we are cousins. (…) If I’m right it would be cool if you let me know.”9 In addition to these message boards attached to online genealogy, the Texas Band of Yaqui operates a facebook page, which anyone can join and exchange resources, ideas and information. Such interactions may not be possible before the digital age, including the time when the Pascua Yaqui Tribe was recognized by the federal government in 1978.Moreover, most of the resource, ideas and information exchanged are open to the public, regardless of being Yaqui or not. In short, establishmentof the Texas Band of Yaquisupported by digital technologies created opportunities for formerly excluded Yaqui people to interactand support each other. Also, documents and records exchanged while those with Yaqui heritage search for ancestry can help non-Yaquis to deepen understanding of the Yaqui history and society.It would contributeto solving common misunderstanding that the Yaquis who live outside of Mexico and Arizona are not real ones.

There is one more contribution people related to the Texas Band of Yaqui can make. If the state recognition of the Texas Band of Yaqui happens in 2015, it can promote diversity of the state of Texas. In 2013, September 23was set as American Indian Heritage Day in Texas. Texas State Representative Roberto R. Alonzo, who advocated establishment of a law for this holiday stated as following: “I am proud to recognize the American Indians who are the truly native citizens to this great country of the United States. The many historical, cultural, and social contributions our American Indian citizens have made specifically to the great state of Texas have enriched our state tremendously.”10 For now, there are only 3 federally recognized tribes in Texas (Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas, Kickapoo Traditional Tribe of Texas, and Ysleta Del Sur Pueblo of Texas.) Thus, it has been widely believed thatTexas is not friendly to indigenous residents. Increase of the amount of information about the Yaqui people in Texas may contributeto promotion of indigenous cultures in the state of Texas.

Now I would like to conclude my discussion regarding social and political impact of the state and federal recognition of indigenous people in the contemporary U.S. For the side of Yaqui peopleas a group, diversity within the Yaqui people is promoted, which would enhance understanding of their history, culture and society. For the side of Yaqui in individual level, people who have been excluded from tribal enrollment of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe would be politically and socially united as the Texas Band of Yaqui. Also, in the process of collecting documents and records about their ancestors, those seeking enrollment to the Band encounter support networks, andpossibly their family members. Moreover, by becoming member of the Band or subjectively regarded as Yaqui, those who have self-identified as Yaqui build confidence in their ethnic identities. Non-Yaquis receive merits out of activities of the Texas Band of Yaqui to seek the state and federal recognition. Materials shared only among family members come to be available through online databases, which are helpful to deepen understanding of the Yaqui history and culture. Moreover, by recognition of the Band, the state of Texas and the U.S. can increase ethnic and cultural diversity. In sum, officially recognizing indigenous people in the contemporary U.S. can bring merit to any involving parties. Efforts contributed by Ramirezand other council members of the Band are making changes on both Yaquis and non-Yaquis.

Adam, S. K. Extinction or Survival?: The Remarkable Story of the Tigua, an Urban American Indian Tribe. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2009. Instituto Nacional de Estadísticay Geografía. “Perfil sociodemográfico de la población que habla lengua indígena,”2009.
Metropolitan Tucson Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Visit Tucson, Frequently Asked Questions.” <http://www.visittucson.org/about/faq/> (Accessed on April 28, 2014.)
Native Peoples Technical Assistance Office, University of Arizona. “Research Protocols, Yaqui 2013-2014.”
<http://www.nptao.arizona.edu/ProtocolPDFs/F%20CP%20Pascua%20Yaqui%20 Tribe%20final.pdf> (Accessed on April 27, 2014.)

 * This paper was presented at Panel 77 of International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences Conference 2014.

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