Species of the River: Yaqui (Yoeme) communities in Mexico and the United States


A collaborative research project with Yaqui architect Selina Martinez, Species of the River examines questions of territorial identity, dispossession, memory and storytelling for Yaqui communities on both sides of the US/Mexico border. Based on fieldwork and engagement with the Museum's Yaqui collection, it explores connections between design and culture for Yaqui communities through 3D imaging and an interactive digital exhibition.

Selina Martinez is a Yaqui architect from Penjamo – Scottsdale, Arizona (US) who has dedicated her efforts to meticulously collect and produce digital 3D models, capturing cultural assets and significant sites deeply intertwined with Yaqui culture. This endeavour aims to construct a digital archive, brimming with engaging and educational visual content through a project called Juebenaria.

The term juebenaria, translating to ‘plural’ in the Yaqui language, encapsulates the project’s essence of representing varied Yaqui narratives across the past, present, and future. This initiative aspires to create a dynamic collection of lived experiences that vividly illustrate the diverse identities of Yoeme people. Its overarching mission is to strengthen Yaqui communities through reconnection to build towards multigenerational collective visions that bridges immediate contexts with ancestral homelands.

This project with SDCELAR integrates fieldwork research in Sonora (Mexico) and Arizona (US), and collection research of objects in the British Museum and other UK institutions attributed to the Yaqui. The research results inform the design of a digital interactive exhibition, premised on multimedia storytelling, including historical and contemporary audio recordings and 3D models of spaces and objects.

Yaqui bowl
Yaqui painted gourd bowl Sonora, Mexico. Mid-19th century Am1986,Q.59
Listen to an excerpt of Selina Martínez talking about her perspective on Yaqui history and identities in conversation with SDCELAR curators during a fieldwork trip in August 2022. 

Yaqui, Yoeme

The Yaqui people (or Yoeme), are originally from Sonora, Mexico and currently live in that area and Arizona, in the United States. Yoeme identities are explicitly in relation to the territorial homelands along the Rio Yaqui which has historically supported a dynamic ecosystem near the bottom of the Sonoran Desert biome.

Throughout Yaqui history, the presence of outside forces foretold by the Yaqui emergence story have come to fruition. They initially resisted the Spanish colonisers in the 16th and 17th centuries and the impositions during colonial Mexico. From the 19th century, the Mexican state applied tactics of assimilation and dehumanisation to assert control and power over territory under the guise of growth. Over time, the Yaquis developed a legacy of actively resisting oppression and capitalist exploitation, persistently standing up against each generation of Mexican political regime that have attempted to control their territory. Tensions over the territory brought about war, enslavement, and suffering influencing the escapism and migration of some Yaquis to flee North creating new communities across the U.S. border during the aggressions of the presidency of Porfirio Díaz.

Currently, Yaquis residing in their ancestral homelands are grappling with continuous generational threats to their ecosystem, natural resources, and indigenous ways of being. The upstream dam systems have resulted in a significant reduction in river flow, which has had negative impact on the local biodiversity, ability to farm along the river, and ultimately, food security. In addition, ongoing pressures to delocalise persists, as adjacent cities continue to expand and demand more resources. The Yoeme people have persevered in adapting to the constantly evolving ecological and predominantly political implications of their territory, in order to maintain their homelands, safeguard their lifeways, and protect critical cultural keystone species attached to the Yaqui identity. Over time, the evolution of Yaqui material culture has become most prominent in Yoeme communities located across the border in Arizona. The physical distance from the Rio Yaqui has resulted in a profound shift, leading to the emergence of novel interplays between materiality, meanings, and practices that have had a transformative impact on Yaqui identities in new settings. This transition has revealed the exceptional flexibility of Yoeme peoples, who have implemented new resources to shape the design of their communal pueblos, dwellings, regalia, and lifestyles. These adaptations have enabled them to successfully establish new Yaqui communities at the northern end of the Sonoran desert simultaneously embedding themselves in American society and culture.

Selina Martínez’s visit to Sonora, Mexico.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Santo Domingo Centre of Excellence for Latin American Research (@sdcelar.bm)

Yaqui collection research

The Yaqui collection in the British Museum was mostly acquired in the mid-19th century and consists of a set of drinking bowls made from gourds and a Pascola mask, both commonly used in traditional ceremonies among Yaqui communities in Mexico and the United States. The bowls were collected by William Hutchinson Bulkeley Jones, a British Surgeon Superintendent on four convict ship voyages to Australia during the 1830s. The Pascola mask, acquired in the 1970s, was collected by Robert Inverarity, an American artist, anthropologist and museum administrator who wrote a number of books on the art of the Native Americans of the Northwest Coast.

Selina came to London in May 2023 to engage with the collection, conduct research and 3D scanned the Yaqui artefacts, while visiting other institutions across the UK that hold Yaqui collections and recordings, such as the Pitt Rivers Museum and the British Library.

As described by Selina, the gourd bowls are common among the Yaqui communities and are utilized for various purposes. For example during ceremony they are used for offerings, such as tobacco, when performances are happening. The painted flowers that can be seen on the surface symbolise life and are representative of the fruit that comes after flowering. The mask is used by a cultural performer called a Pascola during ceremony alongside the Deer Dancer, a tradition that persist in the present in Mexico and the US. The Pascola not only dances but humours and entertains audiences between songs.

During her visit, Selina also visited the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, which holds a collection of Yaqui bow and arrows and listened to different Yaqui recordings at the British Library Sound Archive. These findings, along with her fieldwork in Sonora during December 2022 and her prior research, is the foundation for a digital exhibition called ‘Species of the River’.

A digital exhibition

‘Species of the River’ focuses on storytelling through 12 notable species originating from the ancestral Yaqui homelands along the Rio Yaqui in Sonora, Mexico. Through this exploration, the project sheds light on how these species contribute to the contextualization of Yaqui identity, resulting in diverse expressions of identity and ultimately influencing the spatial aspects of Yoeme identities over time.

This digital exhibition is an outgrowth of the Juebenaria project. By synergizing Selina’s invaluable contributions with the British Museum’s collection, the exhibition seeks to amplify initiatives driven by the community itself, offering an elevated platform for authentic Yaqui voices to resonate. Leveraging cutting-edge software and technology, the project pays homage to the enduring and ancestral essence of Yaqui culture, transcending the boundaries of time and space.

“3D-scanning the Yaqui collection with a Leica BLK 360 LiDAR scanner. A work by Selina Martínez (Arizona, US) for the collaborative digital exhibition about identities and species of the Yaqui River.

The homelands of the Yaqui are within Sonora, Mexico, and many families in the early 20th century during the Mexican Revolution migrated North to the United States to escape violence.

Today there are multiple Yaqui communities within the state of Arizona, descendants in Southern California, and even a community across the Gulf of California in Baja California.”

The Rio Yaqui watershed is a vital river system in Northwest Mexico that provides crucial nourishment to the semi-arid desert ecology of the region. The river’s flow through the mountains and into the Gulf of California producing a host of natural micro cycles, where seed dispersement, bugs, birds, and microbes act as major pollinators, while floods, storms, fires, and landslides all contribute to the remarkable diversity of species coexisting within the ecosystem. The species along the Rio Yaqui have been a resource of inspiration and have informed the practices and outcome of material culture Yaquis have produced over time, continue to produce today, and will produce in the future. These species utilized can be considered cultural keystone species and are defined as the following: an exceptionally salient/notable species to a people, identified by its significance in their diets, materials, medicines, languages, traditions, histories, architecture and spiritual practices.
Species of the River

The incorporation of nature in Yoeme living artifacts reflects a deep ancestral connection to the Rio Yaqui homelands. Their intricate material culture draws upon a legacy of working with the natural world, adapting to changing influences. Through this iterative process, designs spatialize identity and shape the practice of Yaqui culture. The intersection of design and diverse lived experiences allows for efforts to reconnect with cultural knowledge, sustain physical spaces, and shape digital representations, fostering new dialogue in design.



Click on the image to access the experience


Selina Martínez is a member of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe and Xicana born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona. She is currently an architect in training pursuing her architectural license. In 2020, Martinez was a recipient of the Radical Imagination grant from the NDN Collective, establishing the seed funding to create Juebenaria, a project focused on providing an evolving collection of a plurality of Yaqui lived experiences through digital media. Her project with SDCELAR examines questions of territorial identity, dispossession, community memory and storytelling, and design responses in Yaqui communities on both sides of the present-day US/Mexico border.


Publications related to women’s and maternal health with Wixárika communities by the author of this exhibition


Gamlin, Jennie B. (2013)
Shame as a barrier to health seeking among indigenous Huichol migrant labourers: An interpretive approach of the “violence continuum” and “authoritative knowledge”
Social Science and Medicine 97 75-81

Gamlin, Jennie B. (2023)
Wixárika Practices of Medical Syncretism: An Ontological Proposal for Health in the Anthropocene
Medical Anthropology Theory 10 (2) 1-26

Gamlin, Jennie B. (2020)
“You see, we women, we can’t talk, we can’t have an opinion…”. The coloniality of gender and childbirth practices in Indigenous Wixárika families
Social Science and Medicine 252, 112912

Jennie Gamlin and David Osrin (2020)
Preventable infant deaths, lone births and lack of registration in Mexican indigenous communities: health care services and the afterlife of colonialism
Ethnicity and Health 25 (7)

Jennie Gamlin and Seth Holmes (2018)
Preventable perinatal deaths in indigenous Wixárika communities: an ethnographic study of pregnancy, childbirth and structural violence BMC
Pregnancy and Childbirth 18 (Article number 243) 2018

Gamlin, Jennie B. and Sarah J Hawkes (2015)
Pregnancy and birth in an Indigenous Huichol community: from structural violence to structural policy responses
Culture, health and sexuality 17 (1)