Evelyn Hu-DeHart, author of the new revised edition of Yaqui Resistance and Survival: The Struggle for Land and Autonomy 1821-1910, comments on the difficulties of writing history as an outsider and the rewarding feedback she received from the Yaquis she met. The new edition was released by UWP in early November.
To prepare for the new edition of my book, I wrote a preface entitled “Reading Yaqui History in the Twenty-First Century.” I did not, however, include in that preface two anecdotes about the reaction of some Yaquis to my work. These encounters have given me a lot of personal satisfaction, so here I share them with you, dear Potential Reader, in hope that the stories will spur you to pick up the book and read it.
Shortly after the book was first published in 1984, I was invited to give a talk at the University of Arizona. It was of course near the U.S.–Mexico border and the original Yaqui homeland in Sonora, Mexico, as well as near Yaqui exile communities in Arizona that had become permanent over the years. After the talk, an older gentleman approached me to introduce himself as a Yaqui. He did not thank me; instead, he told me that his people would not have recounted their history chronologically as I did, because that is not how time plays out for them. Hearing that as a sharp rebuke, my heart began to sink, until he quickly added that perhaps I was a Yaqui in my previous life. I took that gratefully as a back-handed compliment.
Some fifteen years later, I was invited to give a talk on Yaqui history at Humboldt State University in northern California. Afterwards, while having a snack at the campus cafeteria, I was approached by a group of young men who identified themselves as Yaquis. They said that they had grown up in the American Southwest and had read my book. They knew only a few of the great events, they told me, and had not heard of the resistance leaders I wrote about. They then thanked me warmly for giving them back a history they had lost. I was grateful for this direct and sincere affirmation of the book’s worth to the very people it concerned and mattered to most.
Writing indigenous history as an outsider is a challenging and risky business. The burden of responsibility to “get it right” for insiders can be balanced only by appreciation for the outsider historian’s craft and authority. When the older Yaqui and the younger Yaquis spoke truth to my power, I was simultaneously humbled and proud during both encounters.
is a professor of history, American studies, and ethnic studies, and a past director of the Center for the Study of Race in America, at Brown University. She is the author of Missionaries, Miners, and Indians: History of Spanish Contact with the Yaqui Indians of Northwestern New Spain, 1533–1830.