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Arriving at the Deer Dance: Indigenous by the Numbers

Discovering my strength and environmental stewardship through a deeper connection to my roots and ancestry in the deer dance.

“Left. Right. Jump. Up. Down. Left. Right. Forward. Back. Back one more step, man.” To the unknowing observer, I would look like I’m wandering in circles as I move about the world, doing my best to follow the Buddhist practice of mushin

In my freshman year of college, after enduring some personal difficulties, I turned to Buddhism to help me deal with my suffering. Eventually, through various types of art inspired by Buddhism, I discovered the practice of mushin, listening to the “heartmind” as it is called.

Now, far from claiming that I am a master or even truly an apprentice of this art, I can claim that in trying to follow and listen to it, I’ve come a bit closer to knowing what it is that I truly want to do in life. 

As I understand it, mushin entails surrendering oneself to one’s deepest intuitions and being free of doubts. To clarify, this is not the same thing as impulsive nor compulsive behaviors, like buying something the moment you want it or engaging in addiction and, in my experience, both of those types of behaviors can actually impede the ability to actually listen to oneself. For me, it led to finding strength and environmental stewardship through a deeper connection to my roots and ancestry in a ritual called the deer dance. 

Now you are probably wondering: How does mushin relate to addressing the climate crisis? Well, I believe that cultivating self-understanding has helped guide my efforts in environmental stewardship, and maybe if you care to listen, dear reader, I can help you listen to your own self and find a way to help the environment, too. 

In my experience, listening to mushin comes from listening both to your emotions, bodily sensations , and a feeling of expansion. Trying new experiences and foods or nearly anything for that matter,or at least considering them at random and seeing how the aforementioned litmus test responds to those, helps improve one’s usage of mushin. Does your stomach relax? Do you feel happy or excited? Do you feel a sense of expansion, or do you feel the walls closing in? 

In my case, after trying several different things and trying to listen to myself more and more, I tried using this very same technique of mushin on embracing my own ancestry. As a child, my father recounted stories of my Yaqui great-grandmother. I became curious as a student in college, “What do Yaqui people do?” As a white-passing mestizo, I generally leaned more toward the Spanish side of things, and part of me realized that neglecting indigenous culture would have been exactly what the Spanish conquistadors would have wanted. Feeling rebellious toward one-half of my ancestors, I decided to embrace the other half and investigate. 

Soon after discovering that I wanted to help the environment, I read of the deer dance. This dance, performed every Easter season, maintains the balance between humanity and nature in the Yaqui tradition. My insides lit up like a Christmas tree. I had found something that spoke to me, no, called to me and beckoned with fervor, arms waving wildly. This was me, perfectly encapsulated. At least, it was one part of me. 

For those who do not know, the Yaqui people lived in the modern-day Sonora desert of Mexico. They were one of few groups to willingly convert after seeing sun and cross imagery, which were already present in their own culture, present in Jesuit symbolism. Their cultural identity did eventually come under threat, however, when the Mexican government much later began their persecution of different native identities and cultures in pursuit of both political unification and cultural homogeneity. One of the most central aspects of the Yaqui culture, the deer dance is meant to show the deer’s journey through the several different worlds or planes of existence in Yaqui cosmology. Its other purpose is to maintain the balance between humanity and nature.  Typically, the ritual is only performed in the Easter season to coincide with the aforementioned Catholic faith that most, if not all, Yaqui people converted to as a symbol of rebirth. 

After facing persecution at the hands of the Mexican government, many Yaqui were forced into slavery in the Yucatan peninsula. Those who managed to escape largely fled to Arizona, and many of their descendants are now living in Tucson, Arizona. Meanwhile, the tradition of the deer dance eventually integrated into the greater Sonoran culture, transforming into a tradition shared by mestizos and Yaqui alike. 

Nevertheless, when I first performed the deer dance at my university on the palm walk (an informal name for the walkway near the library) usually reserved for canvassing students as they walked to and from classes, the deer dance was relatively unknown to the student body. I had performed in front of an audience innumerable times in my life, spoken in front of crowds, even sung as loud as I could walking down the street in front of complete strangers. 

But for this, I felt nervous not just for what the crowd might think of me, but for what I might think of myself. Being a fair-skinned Mexican means I–more often than not–receive different treatment compared to my darker-skinned fellows. Being fair-skinned also means that my genes naturally express much more of my Spanish side, at least in terms of phenotype. 

What right did I have then to claim this relatively minor part of myself? I had seen genealogy tests from my mother’s parents, my grandfather nearly half native; my grandmother, a quarter, based on percentage. And then I remembered what one of my Spanish teachers had told my class when I was a teen. “When you say someone is half one thing and half another, where does one half end and the other begin? Is your arm black and your leg white? Or are you Mexican from the waist up and then I cut you off at the waist to make your lower half?” The point being, any part of me is all of me. I personally do not care for genealogy tests for this reason. I want to be a part of my own culture and I want to be able to accept all parts of myself, 25 percent or 100. 

So, I started to dance. 

After overcoming the initial apprehension and that first bit of fear, that first deer dance started to come out smoothly. Using the little phrases I had managed to piece together from the language using Google and Youtube, I chanted in Yaqui, offering a blessing to listeners and passerby on my school’s “palm walk.” I left a sign explaining the significance, name, and purpose of the deer dance while asking for donations to help plant trees. By the end of the day, I had earned enough to plant roughly 500 trees through the charity OneTree Planted. And while some more recent research I’ve read indicates that tree planting while well-intentioned may not always be the best form of helping the environment, at the very least, it was a start.  



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