A Conversation with Cozme “Sky Walker” Duarte
“There is not one Indian in the whole of this country who does not cringe in anguish and frustration because of these text books. There is not one Indian child who has not come home in shame and tears. – Rupert Costo”
North Tucson is familiar to me. The crags and cliffs of the Catalina mountains, and the high desert cacti, mesquite, saguaro and palo verde have a beauty to them that still manages to persist although Tucson is expanding in all directions much the same as all major cities. That all begins to change however as one snakes along the far western edge of the city, down a crowded I – 10, beneath ‘A’ mountain, and continues to veer south on the I-19 to Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. Lush ground cover gives way to sparse creosote and lonely scrub mesquite, and as I exit on Valencia and continue further west, I look out at a desert valley surrounded by rock covered hills and low mountains. The landscape is harsh, barren, with dust dervishes spinning in a devilish haze with the slightest warm gust of breeze. Very little changes in this landscape if one were to head south… the sonoran desert is a parched, lonely waste foreboding and not at all for the faint of heart. Parched earth, sparse plant life, and rock… stretch for miles until one stumbles from the desert into the Sea of Cortez.
This is the land of the Yaqui, in Arizona, more specifically the Pascua Yaqui. My friend Cozme Duarte, himself a Yaqui but now living in Colorado where he just completed filming the final season of Longmire for Netflix, thanked me when he heard of my Arizona Research Tour 3: Yaqui Land. “Thank you for paying attention to one of the Greatest Nations you will never hear about.” The echoing sadness of that statement haunts me: the greatest Nation you will never hear about.
Cozme is one of the most peaceful yet savage; humble yet proud; fierce but readily friendly human beings I have ever had the pleasure of getting to know. His genuine sincerity and thankfulness for a person, such as I, white, brown, purple – honestly took me completely by surprise. But, race would not matter to Cozme. For a celebrity, although that title makes him kind of giggle and shrug it off, he is one of the nicest guys I think I have ever talked to! “We are all brothers. Like my mentor Bruce Lee taught, I am a human first, under the heavens we are are related.”
I turned south off of Valencia and headed onto the desolate Pascua Yaqui Indian Reservation. One of the most challenging things of my travels as I tour the homelands and history of Arizona’s Native Peoples, is the degree of sacred and spiritual significance that is imbued in almost every aspect of their cultures. On one hand, this is almost awe inspiring – that even in the modern era of the Information Age, where almost anything and everything can be found in a few clicks of a keyboard, somethings still have enough value for secrecy to matter. On the other hand, one of the first things that I want to do with new found knowledge is share it, so it can be frustrating to not be able to take pictures.
That said, respectfully, I did not take photos of sacred artifacts or museum exhibits. Instead – I have relied on the Internet – just like every other researcher in the world does – and have provided some links herein opening the mystery of a people who have lived right along side of metropolitan Arizona history. The Pascua Yaqui have two tribal communities in Arizona: South Tucson and Guadalupe (as in just south of Tempe). The Greatest Nation you have never heard of…
Who Are the Yaqui ?
As I began, in my very first Arizona Native Research Article: Ashes & Ghosts, I started this entire journey with a very in depth discussion of mythology. As I told you then, and I continue to profess now, I am not an expert in Native American history. I am not an expert in Native American religions. Frankly I am not even an expert on Arizona. Readers, what I am is infinitely curious, and I am motivated by a fierce desire to learn, and once I catch the bug I usually will dive as deeply down that rabbit hole as I can go. And the place to start in the understanding of any people are their deepest beliefs – their mythology and origins.
The magic of any people, regardless of country of origin, is where they link to something supernatural, where there physical reality crosses with that of the spiritual. Whether we are discussing Christians believing in a man who rose from the dead and then ascended into heaven or the Yaqui People being those Serum who stayed behind, braving the future dangers to come, we can find the commonality that could bind us within the very thing that usually divides us.
I am not a self proclaimed professor of the Yaqui. I am not a tribal ambassador, but what I am is a writer composed completely of wonder. I stand in awe of the depth and purity of Native history. I stand amazed at the connection the People have to the world of spirit. I stand in reverence to a people who are filled with so much pride despite every single effort in history to remove it. I am led along in my quest, daring to hope… that perhaps just being brave enough to want to know and to ask… is enough…
The Rio Yaqui runs north/ south nearly straight through the center of Mexico. It is the fertile river valley homeland of the Yaqui People going back to time immeasurable. Yaqui are not Mexican, nor are they descended from the Spanish invaders, nor are they Aztec or Mayan. Although they are grouped into the Uto-Aztecan ancestry, this is a connection based on linguistic similarities of thirty different indigenous Peoples. This distinction is important because, as Guillermo “Bill” Quiroga, an Elder who volunteers his time at the Old Pascua House Museum in Downtown Tucson, told me,
“The Spanish would have the People believe that all were indigenous. The Mexican Government would have the People believe all were indigenous. This is not true. The Yaqui People are indigenous, and were here before, and this has always meant war.”
In Mexico, a caste system quickly developed, and at the bottom of that caste system were the indigenous People of Sonora, who were often kidnapped and used for slave labor by the Mexican Government. These troubles did nothing but compound in the late 17th century when silver was discovered along the Rio Yaqui. Never is the worth of differing human beings more obvious than when measured against the natural resources over which they inhabit.
“Beginning around 1684, the Spanish who treasured the silver stone began moving into the area, began taking sacred Yaqui land, an continued to treat the Yaqui People disrespectfully. In 1740 the Yaqui tribe and the neighboring Mayo tribe united to try to force the SPanish out of God-given Indian lands. For the next 190 years, the Yaqui people fought first the Spanish and then the Mexicans. – Ernesto Quiroga Sandoval”
I was born and raised in Tucson, Arizona. I attended public schools in Tucson and San Manuel, Arizona. I was educated at the two largest universities of my home state: UofA and ASU. I have lived in Arizona for nearly the entirety of four decades.
Why, dear reader, I must ask you, why… have I never, not even one time, learned about the Yaqui Wars?
Ghost Writer: Cozme, I know you are a Yaqui Indian, but where were you raised and educated? In that education, how much of your own Native history was included as part of your curriculum?
Cozme: (pronounced Coz-meh meaning Cosmos – hence the nickname, Sky Walker) I am Sonoran Yaqui, but I was raised and educated in Montrose, Colorado. I am sure that our text books were quite similar to yours; I learned no true, Native American history in text books. Andrew Jackson, Presidential stories, the British: these are the things they teach in history class. Everything I learned of the People, I learned from family and my own investigation.
Ghost Writer: You told me, and it stuck with me, the Yaqui were the greatest warrior civilization that nobody has ever heard of. Why is that do you think?
Cozme: The Yaqui are peaceful. We are not invaders or conquerors. All war, all of it, for centuries, was defensive. It was defending our own homelands since time before history. Most tribes faced eradication from one side only: the United States, but the Yaqui faced it from all sides. It came from the Spanish, then the French, then after a few hundred years of intermixing, the Mexicans, and then the United States. War came at the Yaqui from all sides, and their was no refuge for many many years. Many Yaquis changed their names to Spanish last names to hide and not be murdered or assassinated. (Guillermo, too, told me at the Old Pascua House that he was born in California, as his family was in exile hiding form the Mexican and US governments.) Many native tribes were in some ways aided by the reservations in terms of being able to put together their history…. but for the Yaqui… they were a chameleon people…. forced to change and hide until finally wars ended and government attitudes changed.
Ghost Writer: But don’t the Pascua-Yaqui have a Federally recognized reservation now, in South Tucson?
Cozme: Yes, but Pascua means Easter. These are the People linked to Catholicism. I am Yaqui. I am not one of them.
And so I started to dig… because in the era of fake news and pseudo-experts folks, that is what you ought to do. Question and dig.
Daily Yellowstone Journal 1886 “A Troublesome Indian Race”
Salt Lake Herald 1894 “Fought with the Weapons of Nature”
The Evening Dispatch 1895 “The Yaqui War”
Mohave County Miner 1897 “The Yaquis and Their Heroic Story”
The San Francisco Call 1899 “Mexico to Blame for the Yaqui War”
The Argus 1899 “War with Yaquis”
Albuquerque Morning Journal 1906 “Truth About the Yaquis as Told by Gen. Torres”
The Alamogordo News 1907 “Another Wail From Mexico”
The Los Angeles Herald 1909 “The Yaquis – Most Stubborn Fighters on Earth”
The Hawaiian Star 1909 “The True History of the Yaqui Trouble in Mexico”
The Evening Star 1915 “The Yaqui Indians are a Big Factor in the Mexican Situation”
So again, supplied with this wealth of headlines from across multiple states, how can a Native Arizonan, educated completely in his home state, not once hear of the Yaqui Wars?
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“Historically, American Indians have been the most lied-about subset of our population. That’s why Michael Dorris said that, in learning about Native Americans, “One does not start from point zero, but from minus ten.” High school students start below zero because of their textbooks, which unapologetically present Native Americans through white eyes. – Loewen”
As the conflict increased, eventually the Yaqui were splintered and many were either slaughtered, enslaved, or were able to flee north into Arizona. A period of espionage, armed conflict, and even assassination attempts followed with the Yaquis who had lived in the Gila and Santa Cruz river valleys uniting with their exiled brothers against not only attacks from the Mexicans to the south but also the United States Cavalry as Indians were being systematically gathered onto Reservations. It was not until 1978 at the Pascua-Yaqui were seen as a Federally recognized tribe.
The Old Pascua House built in 1903 in Tucson, is the only remnant of the original Pascua Yaqui community in what would eventually become the downtown area.
Juxtaposed with this long history of defensive struggles against a usurping and conquering people, is the absolute astounding beauty of the Five Enchanted Worlds. As the Pascua-Yaqui settled into the arid solitary expanses of the Sonora, their dances and spiritual guides connected them to the life pulsing beneath the rock and sand and showed them how to thrive in the desert.
The Five Enchanted Worlds are:
- The Huya Ania (The Wilderness World) where all beasts and stones and plants reside
- The Yo Ania (The Cave World) where the Serum who stayed hide and guard sources of secret power
- The Tuka Ania (The Night World) where all that is unusual and unknown resides.
- The Tenku Ania (The Dreams World) filled with the collective dreams of all Yaqui
- The Sea Ania (The Flower World) or the world beneath the Dawn where brother deer guides the soul and the tribe to success and prosperity
Imagine then, the Yaqui Deer Dancer, portraying with graceful precision the deer as it moves, ever wary, adorned with red ribbons symbolizing the beauty of the flowers and the growth under the sun. He channels the spirit of brother deer, opening a spiritual portal of understanding and guidance: a connection between the world of the soul and the world of the body that most of us have learned to ignore if not fear.
With the settling and gathering of the Yaqui peoples under the sovereignty of the Pascua-Yaqui communities in Arizona, the peaceful nature of the Yaqui People, and the proximity of the Franciscans and Jesuit missionaries, many of the Yaqui People converted to Catholicism. Many, if not already Catholic from the centuries long encroachment by the Spaniards in the Rio Yaqui Valley, found it easy to adapt to the ways of their revered protectors, as many near San Xavier were seen by Yaqui refugees. In Sonohora, the first Jesuit missionaries encountered the People as early as 1533.
This theme, of an historically pagan people, converting to the belief structure of their conquerors is repeated over and over again in Native American history. I learned about the tribe’s efforts to actively resist conversion on the Hopi Reservation, and I witnessed the tribal embrace of Christianity on the Navajo and Apache Reservations. This relationship is much more obvious in Native customs, than say Anglo customs, as many of the Native traditions are still in active practice even in Christian communities.
Ghost Writer: From what I have been able to gather from viewing Yaqui ceremonies, and looking at photographs and video in the museum, the Yaqui are an intensely Jesuit/ Catholic people, but they were not always this way. They have the deep mythology of the little people ancestors and the talking tree… as well as the five different worlds. My question, is do these spiritual beliefs coexist with the Christian beliefs, or have the old ways of the five worlds been more or less replaced now as just a symbol? In other words, do the Yaqui still believe in their ancient magic, or was it lost with the embrace of Christianity?
Cozme: There is no native nation that is like the Yaqui in this way, but the Yaqui… as a Nation are intertwined with Catholicism. It is almost how to be Jewish is both a religion and a race. The Yaqui have been deeply effected by the Catholic faith for centuries. The five worlds are referring to dimensions. It is important to remember, that in any belief system, there are other dimensions or other realities, each with different purposes, different entities, and different beings. There are portals and doorways and paths of spirit between the worlds. Any ancient culture… it is always there. Most of the Yaqui depth is down in Sonora; you will not find that there in Arizona. We are the product of Spanish conquest…. in many ways the American Indian Yaqui are the most assimilated, but our roots in Sonora are ancient…. and proud. Pascua Yaqui are basically declaring their Catholicism. Pascua means Easter, so even the name of the tribe declares their Christianity. Like I said, I am not one of them.
Ghost Writer: What is the most pressing concern to the Pasqua-Yaqui today, and as a celebrity, or rising star, what do you do to try to advance this cause?
Cozme: There is a huge battle in Sonora right now… for water. There are seven towns, seven original pueblos of the Yaqui Nation in Sonora. They all feed off of the Rio Yaqui, but the corporations are coming in and making deals with Mexican officials. They have built a plant in Sonora, and they are now stealing the river from the Yaqui and piping it to the plant for Heineken beer and Coca Cola products and Corona… cheaply… at the cost of the Yaqui in Sonora.
I have been speaking out about this cause…. I went to Standing Rock a couple of times. I try to stand with all people: the Ute, the Navajo, the Apache: we are all brothers. We are all united. But this water war is DIRTY down in Mexico. Leaders of the resistance just get murdered and disappear. An ambassador even made it to New York to petition the United Nations on behalf of the Yaqui Nation within the last couple of months. Nobody is listening.
One of the only reasons I am pursuing a career in acting is to achieve a platform to try to bring justice to the atrocities in Sonora. It is about unity, and it is about gaining and using your voice. Warrior Nation is my foundation, and I am hoping to get it off the ground this year. I believe in a humanistic approach… justice for one group by applying justice to all groups.
The resistance is ripe…. Everybody is ready….
Ghost Writer: If there was one thing… just one simple thing…. that if all people could do, all at once, just one simple gesture… one small change to the world… that would instantly make it a better place… what would that one small change be?
Cozme: Love is the only thing that has that kind of power. Just being neighbors. Just saying hello. Stop seeing race. Stop seeing creed. Ripples… create waves. Express love. Being capable of love allows one to being capable of understanding
Ghost Writer: Final question, What specifically drew you to wanting to be involved with The Red Hogaan? Even despite its taboo mythology? What was the greatest part of working with Kody Dayish as a young film maker on the rise…?
Cozme: Kody approached me specifically about a major role in his project. The role was significant, and I asked him immediately: if the production is supposed to be all Navajo, then why are you offering me the lead? I am Yaqui. He told me that because the the deep superstitions of the Dine’, there were simply a couple roles that were going to have to blur the edges. The Dine’ are really, really superstitious, and the fact that he was even going to do a film like that was going to raise some issues around the Rez. Kody was willing to take take that risk for the greater vision that he was trying to achieve, and I am not superstitious or afraid, so I took the role. The interviews with Kody Dayish can be found as part of Ashes & Ghosts, but continued in depth in A Quest of Vision.
One of the coolest things about working with the Dayish family is that that project evolved from a very small piece into a much larger film. It was cool being a part of that process, both in terms of creativity and in terms of watching Kody’s vision develop. I was able to open the doorways to a lot of people, and his vision is worth paying attention to.
In the end, as I rolled back north, out of the arid lands of the south, through the beautiful Tucson valley and the majestic Catalinas bordering it to the north, and onward towards the peaks of the Superstition mountains where I now called home, I was left once again pondering Loewen’s book:
“Even if no Native remained among us, however, it would still be important for us to understand the alternatives foregone, to remember the wars, and to learn the unvarnished truths about white-Indian relations. Indian history is the antidote to the pious ethnocentrism of American exceptionalism, the notion that European Americans are God’s chosen people. Indian history reveals that the United States and its predecessor British colonies have wrought great harm in the world. We must not forget this – not to wallow in our wrongdoing, but to understand and to learn, that we might not wreak harm again.”
In Loving Memory of Elie Wiesel