Texas Tech University

A Century of Research: The Yaqui Expedition

Karen Michael

October 2, 2023

A series of trips to Mexico fostered a learning relationship between unconquered native peoples and Texas Tech.

(Above) Photograph of members of an archaeological field expedition in 1934. Pictured are, from left to right: Dr. W. C. Holden; Dr. C. J. Wagner; Dr. R. A. Studthalter; Ross Edwards; Dr. Carl Coleman Seltzer (from Harvard); W. G. McMillan; Charles A. Guy; and Bennie McWilliams. Courtesy of the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library.

At the height of the Great Depression Texas Technological College was still relatively new. Times were tough across the county, and Lubbock was no exception.

Innovation was forced through necessity. The young college had to find ways to get students the best experience possible despite deficits in funding and resources. The combination of factors in the early 1930s brought about one of the most interesting research experiences in Texas Tech University's first 100 years. 

In the worst years of the Great Depression, researchers from Texas Tech joined forces with local newspapers, businesses and the West Texas Chamber of Commerce to go on the first two of several expeditions to Mexico to meet with the Yaqui people of Sonora.

First Yaqui Expedition
Photograph of a group of men eating near a chuck wagon. The group are primarily Texas Tech faculty participating in the first Yaqui expedition in 1934. Courtesy of the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library

The group from Texas Tech earned the trust of many of the remaining tribe members and brought their stories, photos and examples of their culture back to the U.S. to share with the rest of the world.

The Great Depression, which began within the first 10 years of the creation of Texas Technological College, spawned an immense amount of change at Texas Tech. With the economy struggling, funding for universities became a target. Salaries were lowered, faculty positions were cut and the operating budget for the college dropped by more than 25%.   

To say the least, conditions on campus were not ideal for people like William Curry Holden. A professor of history and anthropology, and the director of archaeological research at Texas Tech, Holden had become interested in the Yaqui people of Sonora, Mexico. 

In 1933 he came up with the idea of putting together an expedition. He wanted to go and see the Yaquis in their homeland.  

According to “The First Thirty Years: A History of Texas Technological College 1925-1955,” by Ruth Horn Andrews, “Not one to be daunted by bank holidays, economic depression, stock market collapses and general pessimism, Doctor Holden set about to try to enlist local support for his project.”

Andrews was the daughter of Texas Tech's first president, Paul Whitfield Horn. In her book she described a series of field trips starting in 1934 led by Holden. 

Texas Tech President Bradford Knapp and the college's board of directors apparently expressed their approval in 1933 but could not provide financial aid. The local newspaper, the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, decided to sponsor a campaign to raise funds locally. 

First Yaqui Expedition
Photograph of seven men participating in the Yaqui expedition of 1934. First Yaqui Trip Personnel" is written in the bottom portion of the photo. Courtesy of the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library.

Local service clubs, businesses and the West Texas Chamber of Commerce all chipped in. In March of 1934, the expedition started with several Texas Tech faculty members, an anthropologist from Harvard University, a doctor from the West Texas Hospital in Lubbock, the editor of the Avalanche-Journal, Lubbock businessmen and a Texas Tech student named Bennie McWilliams.

The medical doctor, Charles Wagner, operated on or treated several Yaqui members during the trip to Sonora, which according to Andrews, seemed to have instilled confidence in the tribal members. But members of the first expedition found their interpreters were not as effective as they had hoped, so Texas Tech sent a second expedition in the fall of 1934. 

The initial expeditions apparently piqued the interest of West Texans, who rallied support for more trips and inspired the respect of the Yaqui people. The Avalanche-Journal continued its support and wrote articles about the expeditions to the Yaqui villages in Mexico.

“The Indians now welcome the Texans as old friends and trust them with a confidence and consideration perhaps never accorded any other white men,” Andrews wrote in her book celebrating Texas Tech's first 30 years.

Press Release
A Texas Tech press release from 1935 states that 2,000 copies were printed. 1,000 of those copies were distributed to libraries, newspapers, and anthropologists while the other half were available for sale. Courtesy of the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library.

A 142-page account of the expeditions, “Studies of the Yaqui Indians of Sonora, Mexico,” was issued as the Texas Tech Scientific Series No. 2, Vol. XII in 1936. As of the publication of Andrews' book, the bulletin was the all-time bestseller at the College Bookstore, and orders were received from every state and from as far away as Stockholm, Sweden.

The first expeditions secured 144 museum specimens, with 71 going to Harvard University and 73 going to the Plains Museum Society at Texas Tech. In addition, those on the expedition brought back approximately 600 pictures and 1,200 feet of movie film.

“The two collections are for the most part duplicates and represent fairly well the articles used by the modern Yaqui,” Holden stated in the Texas Tech bulletin.

The Texas Tech bulletin has information on the Catholic faith of the Yaqui, weddings, funerals, architecture, economy, agriculture and medical practices. Because the first expedition was in the spring of 1934, those on the expedition witnessed the Yaqui Easter Fiesta, and color film of the event was shown to Texas Tech museum members in May. The Easter celebration was also detailed in the bulletin.

Coincidentally, some of the descendants of the warriors of the Yaqui people ended up in Lubbock. According to their history on their website, tbyi.gov, their ancestors came into Texas under the leadership of Lino Domingues Urquides, known as the Ya'ut, or leader, of the tribe.

Izzy Ramirez is the chairman of the Texas Band of Yaqui Indians, which is located in Lubbock. Most of the Yaqui, he said, originated in Sonora, but the Yaqui people came in and out of the current-day areas of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico, as well as the Mexican State of Chihuahua. As the chaos of invaders on their lands happened, Ramirez said people gradually scattered throughout those areas and beyond. Many were forcibly deported by the Mexican government as slaves to Yucatan, as well.

Although a tribe of Yaqui was federally recognized in Arizona in 1978, many of the Yaqui who did not settle in Arizona were left, Ramirez said. But since that group originated in a different village of the Yaqui lands, the Texas Yaqui and those who went even farther than Texas were never given recognition as tribal members.

“Our nation was never conquered by Mexico or the U.S., so there was no real political travel status among Yaqui people, except for a group in Tucson, Ariz.,” Ramirez said. “They're known as the Pascua Yaqui tribe.”

The Yaqui who ended up in Lubbock had no knowledge of the Texas Tech expeditions to Sonora back when they occurred, and Ramirez believes it is entirely coincidental that they ended up in the same town where college faculty became so interested in their ancestral home.

“They went where the work was,” Ramirez said of his own family's location in West Texas. 

Others ended up all over the U.S., with some specifically following the railroads to find new work 1,000 miles away in Michigan.

When his ancestors left Mexico with Chief Lino, they changed their names to avoid genocide in Mexico, according to the Texas Yaqui webpage.

“The family descendants of Chief Lino were told never to tell anyone that they were Hiaki (Yaqui) and hid their Indian identities with the families until recent decades,” the Texas Yaqui page states. “The Yaqui Indians were never conquered, and most of them scattered throughout the southwest unidentified and uncounted. Most who left reference their homelands as their source of ancestry and to begin a new life away from the cultural genocides of Mexico.”

Ramirez said his own direct ancestors, including Chief Lino, were ruthless fighters and protectors in the mountains surrounding the Yaqui homelands.

The Texas Tech bulletin speaks about some of those mountain warriors who stayed in Mexico and were still there when they went on the expeditions.

“Ten men in the mountains can defend the passes against hundreds below by rolling rocks down on them. The Yaquis have from time immemorial held these mountains and are still holding them today. They will never be completely conquered so long as they continue to occupy them,” the Texas Tech bulletin states.

In a section of the Texas Tech bulletin about Yaqui agriculture, Richard Arthur Studhalter stated that agriculture and war are basically antonyms. Societies at war could not generally produce crops.

“What more war-loving race has there been on the American continent than the Yaqui Indians? For a period of about four centuries, they have been on an almost constant war path with the Spaniards and the Mexicans, and they are still spoken of as the only unconquered Indians in America,” Studhalter wrote. “For about 400 years, they have been driven, more or less periodically, from their eight villages, abandoning homes and fields in pursuit either of the enemy or safety in the adjacent Bacatete Mountains.”

Yaqui and expedition personnel sit together
The Yaqui and expedition personnel sit together.

But Studhalter, a professor of biology at Texas Tech, states agriculture was still the heart of the civilization of the Yaqui people. Missionaries in the 17th century noted that Yaquis were an agricultural tribe, he wrote. In the 1930s, Texas Tech researchers observed Yaquis growing corn, beans, watermelons, tobacco, sugar cane, sweet potatoes, wheat and much more. Additionally, bamboo-like carrizo plants used for ornamentation in the U.S. at the time grew wild and had to be cleared for crops. 

Studhalter explained the Yaqui people used methods of harvesting wheat that were similar to techniques used in biblical times.

Ramirez said at the time of the Texas Tech expeditions, his family and others were still basically in hiding. They found out about the expeditions in more recent years, and Ramirez read the Texas Tech bulletin about the first expeditions.

“It would be nice to see or to know about more of the expedition. To see the town and see some of the photos, some of the things that they took and brought back, that would have been, I think, more of value now,” Ramirez said in March 2022.

The Texas Band of Yaqui Indians has been working for years to identify descendants who were not included in the Arizona tribe in the 1970s, to find historical documentation regarding the Yaqui tribe, and to gain federal recognition as a tribe. In 2015, the Texas Band of Yaqui Indians was recognized by the State of Texas under Senate Resolution 989, which was championed by State Sen. Charles Perry of Lubbock. Gaining federal recognition remains a goal for tribe members.