Louis David Valenzuela: Yoeme / Yaqui Woodcarver.

Most of us in Southern Arizona know these indigenous people as Yaqui, but they refer to themselves as Yoeme (Yo’-eh-may). In their native language Yoeme means “The People”. The ancestral home of the Yoeme is the fertile land along Rio Yaqui in Sonora, Mexico.

During the Mexican Revolution, the Mexican Army tried to exterminate the Yoeme. Many became refugees in the American Southwest. In 1964, the U.S. gave the Yaqui tribe a 202 acre reservation at Tucson, Arizona. In 1978, the United States formally recognized their sovereignty, thus creating the Pascua Yaqui Nation. “Pascua” is Spanish for Easter. For the Yoeme, Easter is the most sacred time of the year.

Louis David Valenzuela is a Yoeme / Yaqui artist who shares the story of his people through woodcarvings, sculptures, and paintings. Louis lives and works in Tucson. His award-winning art has been exhibited in many U.S. galleries & museums, as well as at Hokkaido University in Japan. Neighbor Roy & I first encountered Louis at a Southwest Indian Art Fair at Saguaro National Park West in 2012.

1. Black Mask on Cottonwood 01 thumbnail
2. Louis Under Tree w log 02 thumbnail
3. Louis Under Tree w log 03 thumbnail
4. Stages log shape finish thumbnail
5. Shaping Head w file thumbnail
6. Louis Explaining thumbnail
7. First Cuts w chisel thumbnail
8. Eary Stage w chisel thumbnail
9. just starting to paint thumbnail
10. Paint 03 thumbnail
11. Paint 04 thumbnail
12. adding horse hair 02 thumbnail
13. hair cut 02 thumbnail
14. Almost Finished Mask thumbnail
various masks close up thumbnail
15. Louis & Roy 01 thumbnail
16. Pink Mask on Cottonwood 01 thumbnail
17. Louis Empire Ranch 2 Masks on log thumbnail
1. Black Mask on Cottonwood 01
2. Louis Under Tree w log 02
3. Louis Under Tree w log 03
4. Stages log shape finish
5. Shaping Head w file
6. Louis Explaining
7. First Cuts w chisel
8. Eary Stage w chisel
9. just starting to paint
10. Paint 03
11. Paint 04
12. adding horse hair 02
13. hair cut 02
14. Almost Finished Mask
various masks close up
15. Louis & Roy 01
16. Pink Mask on Cottonwood 01
Yoeme Masks

This is a completed Pascola mask. These masks represent the "Old Man of the Fiesta". The fiesta, or celebration, features the deer dance that commemorates both Yoeme traditions and Catholic Easter.

For this mask, the creative process began along this creek at the Empire Ranch. Here giant, gnarled cottonwoods thrive, just as they once did along the Santa Cruz River as it flowed almost year 'round through the dusty little Mexican village of Tuk'-Sohn.

Colors, geometric shape, & other figures on these masks have deep symbolic meaning to the Yoeme.

Walking along the creek, Louis searches for dead wood of a certain size from which he can carve more than one mask.

Generally, he will have to use a hand saw and an ax in order to make it small enough to get into his van. The logs from which we saw Louis begin to fashion his masks he had cut into lengths of about 14 inches.

His Yoeme tradition says it's wrong to cut down a living tree, with one exception. If it is necessary to cut down a living tree in order to continue the Yoeme traditions, then it is permitted after they offer a prayer to the Creator explaining that the fallen tree will only be made into masks and other art forms to honor Him.

With his machete, Louis first removes the bark, then splits the log in half. Then he shapes the half-stump into a piece of wood that is roughly the shape & size of a human head.

Louis uses a file to shape the wood. While he works, he tells us about his people and his art. He is a recovering alcoholic & drug addict, sober since 2005 when he learned that his only brother had cancer and would soon die.

Two members of his tribe, Arturo Montoya & Jesus Acuna, mentored Louis, but he also studied at the Art Institute of Chicago for a while. He said that for a boy raised on the reservation, the big city was a strange new world and a bit intimidating.

Louis explained that the ancestral home of the Yoeme is the fertile land along the Yaqui River in Sonora, Mexico. When the Spanish came, they wanted this land and they wanted slaves for their mines and other building projects far away from Rio Yaqui.

The Yoeme resisted ... ferociously. Even though the Spaniards had superior weapons, including muskets & cannons, they never subdued these proud indigenous people.

Later, after Mexico won its independence from Spain, the Mexicans tried to subdue the Yoeme. When subjugation attempts failed, they tried to exterminate them. Bloody battles & massacres continued for many years. Finally, in the early 20th century, the Mexican army, using modern artillery, forced many Yoeme from their land. Some fled to Southern Arizona where they felt relatively safe. In 1972, the Pascua Yaqui Nation was established at Tucson. They are the only Indian tribe in the United States to never formally surrender to the Federal Government. Nor did they surrender to the Mexican Government.

Once a mere cottonwood log, Louis has shaped the head of the mask and begins to chisel the facial features.

At this early stage, the face looks more like a roughly carved Jack O' Lantern.

Once the facial features are shaped to his satisfaction, Louis sands the surface smooth and begins to paint the face with the colors and symbols that have meaning for his Nation.

For Louis, creating these masks is both an artistic expression & a spiritual experience.

Louis explained that black symbolizes death that we all go through. White is both a symbol for all human life and represents Christ's robes, reminding us that He died so that we could have everlasting life.

He will paint a white cross on the forehead, similar to a Maltese cross, that has several meanings: God the Father & Jesus His Son; the four directions; and a blessing for the dancers, their families, and all who participate in the celebration.

Small white triangles around the edge of the mask represent the Father & Son and all life, including trees & animals. Also along the edge Louis will paint small white dots symbolizing the Yoeme's relatives who have passed on to the "Flowers World".

The large red triangles bordered by white under the eyes are tears that remind the Yoeme of their people who died fighting for their land & way of life against the Spanish and later the Mexicans.

On some of his masks, Louis paints lizards or butterflies that represent nature. We were amazed at how fast and sure Louis paints the many symbols; always freehand, never hesitating.

After painting the face, Louis adds tufts of horsehair that he inserts into small holes and secures from the inside. These are the eyebrows and whiskers of the "Old Man of the Fiesta".

Here he takes scissors and trims the eyebrows, making the "Old Man" presentable for the celebration.

Louis carves masks for the sacred Pascola dance that are only to be worn by the dancers and are not to be sold to collectors. Those masks are blessed and marked with a cross on the inside. They are not even to be handled by anyone other than the dancer for whom it was made. Originally, the dancers made their own masks. Now, Louis is the last of the traditional Yaqui mask carvers.

This mask, however, will be sold to someone who appreciates the art and culture of the Yoeme. This is Louis' way of sharing the story of his Pascua Yaqui Nation. He hopes that some of the young members of his tribe will take up mask carving & carry on the tradition.

Louis carves many other art forms besides the Pascola masks, including flowers & hummingbirds, both of which have sacred meaning to the Yoeme.

Neighbor Roy has been a serious collector of Native American art for over 40 years and knows a unique and splendid carving when he sees it. Here he is with the artist holding Roy's most recent acquisition: three Pascola masks on a cottonwood limb representing the past, present, and future of the Yoeme.

Not all masks are predominantly black. They can be other colors depending on what the carver or the dancer wants to expresses.

Each mask is unique, but each one tells some aspect of the Yoeme / Yaqui history & beliefs.

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