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The day I crashed a plane into Yaqui tribal land

Spanish translation: El día que choqué un avión contra la tierra de la tribu Yaqui

From Andew Bissoon, Canada, as told to Alisa Cromer

I’ll never forget November 1, 1999, the day I met the Yaqui tribe in northern Mexico. I didn’t just meet them; I crashed my plane into their ancestral river bed inside some of the oldest indigenous territory  in Mexico.

My personal survival story had merged with one of the fiercest survival stories of an aboriginal  population anywhere on earth. Along that dried up tributary, the Yaqui tribe had lived, fought the Spanish, been enslaved by Mexicans, and ultimately persisted against all odds.

Dropping out of the sky, I was not the only immigrant to visit this land, just  the latest one.

A tall, skinny 29 year-old, I had already logged 10,000 flight hours. On this trip my small plane, a Cessna 172, was loaded up with a cargo of consumer electronics  – mostly computers and telephones destined for a friend and business associate who wanted to install them in a hotel in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

The flight path was simple. You could have dropped a needle on a map and the thread would hang straight down the flight line from my hometown, Vancouver Island,  Canada, to Puerto Vallarta. Along the way, I planned to land in Nogales, Arizona, clear customs, and cross into Mexico.

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The first leg was easy; I flew along the spine of the Rockies, keeping the ridge to my right as I passed through Oregon and California and landed in Nogales. There, I cleared customs and spent the night in the plane. The next day I took off around 7 a.m. and flew about an hour or so south of the border as the mountains mellowed into rolling hills, then into ragged desert. Twelve miles short of the Obregon Airport, the plane’s motor started to sputter.

I looked at the oil gauge and saw it bounce like a kid on a trampoline, banging from side to side. Then flames shot out from under the engine hood. It all happened so quickly; I later found a hole in the engine block, which had overheated and burst into flames. It had only taken a matter of minutes.

We had trained for this – every small-plane pilot practices cutting the engines and gliding to a landing in case of engine failure. So I knew that I might die, but also that if I kept my wits about me I might live. I just needed a place to land. The plane was about 6,000 feet above ground, enough altitude to offer some choices. I started looking around, but saw nothing below except rugged uninhabited terrain.

The only sign of civilisation was a small blue tarp, one of many that dotted the area every few miles. So I headed for it, making large ten-degree circles, lowering the wing-flaps to dampen the plane’s speed.

From what I could see there was just fuck-all to land on, only the dried-up riverbed, which I would later learn was a tributary of the  Yaqui, the largest river in the Northern Mexican state of Sonora, and  ancestral river of the Yaqui tribe. I headed for it, picked a spot and glided down, clipping the tip of one wing on a tree. The plane turned and stopped on its side, the bottom right wing ripped off, the left tipped up. All I could smell was gas.

I scrambled out and started running. After about ten yards, I remembered I had left my eyeglasses in the plane. I cannot see more than a foot without them. Stupidly I started running back, before realising, I’m going to die for my glasses.

Just then, from out of nowhere, a very small, very thin man with a dog approached. My first Yaqui.

I spontaneously hugged him. He did not hug back. At 6’2” I towered over him, and besides, I was covered in blood, which his dog had started to lick off my legs. He didn’t speak English, but he pulled me away from the plane, which exploded with astounding force.

In a daze, I let him walk me over to the tarp, which turned out to be the only structure on the ranch, called Rancho Sata, where he worked. Yaqui ranchers have a kind of shared ownership I could never figure out, with a system of interconnected miles-long ranches and farmlands. Someone had taped the tarp as a roof over a dilapidated room composed of planks made from dead trees. A homeless guy could have done better, but I could not have cared less. I was alive.

The man gave me some water he had stored in clay gourds buried in the sand to keep them cool. It tasted good. Otherwise there was no running water,  phone lines or electricity, but the noise and impact of the explosion had reached nearby ranches. Two men from one of them drove over in an ancient but enormous pickup truck with an uncovered cab like a convertible. They put me in the truck and drove at top speed, about five miles per hour, for ten miles into town.

I could only speak a few words of Spanish, and kept asking to be taken to the airport: Airopuerto! Airopuerto! For some reason, I was worried that people would find my flight plan and be looking for me, but once I had crossed into Mexican airspace, it turns out, no one had. No one would ever realise that I had not landed;  I was on my own.

We drove into the part of town where the Yaqui lived and I got out of the truck, still bleeding, and entered an open-air palapa-roofed square, where what could best be described as a circle of elders sat or stood smoking, not peace pipes, but cigarettes.

They talked for fifteen or twenty minutes and decided to turn me over to the judicial branch of the Mexican police.

Needless to say, I was not happy about this turn of events. I had crashed into a strange subculture where I did not speak the language, only to have my fate determined by a bunch of old men in a palapa. It could not have been any weirder, except that I felt completely comfortable with these people. When they turned me over the to police I choked up, with no words in their language to ask, Why can’t I stay with you guys?

The truth is, I had lived among indigenous people before.

Just after I was born, my Canadian family moved to an Indian reservation in Gods Lake Narrows, Northern Manitoba, accessible only by aircraft. My father, an ex-pat himself from the Caribbean, had a job teaching school there. I was raised side-by-side with my sister, a native Anishinaabe from the area who had been adopted by my white and Caribbean parents. She is now a schoolteacher active in promoting indigenous ideas and values.

Yaqui Indian Many Goats

Yaqui Indian, Many Goats, photographed in 1904.

While Canada  still has a long way to go (last week when I was in Montreal,  a tour guide referred to the aboriginals who lived here as “les savages”), Canada’s appreciation for indigenous people is broader and deeper than it is in the United States.

In the heat of the current debate in the U.S. over border security, I often think of the northern Mexican nomadic people, like the Yaqui who once roamed as far north as Tuscon, and the Tohono O’odham, whose nation of 23,000 still  straddles the border.

I have never actually agreed with the rational argument for putting an arbitrary border through a land where other people have ranged for thousands of years, and my strange encounter with the Yaqui tribe did nothing to to change my mind.

It seems absurd to construct a wall, or enforce the idea that, ‘Your cattle now have to stay on this part of the dirt.’

But that day in 1999, the tables had turned: I was a wounded immigrant on protected Yaqui land, and I was at their mercy.

The Yaqui were cautious, but kind to me – and careful not to let me fall into the hands of the Federales, the wrong branch of the police – as they decided who to hand me over to. But neither was I worthy of their full protection, given the delicate balance of power and respect in the region. By the time I dropped out of the sky, the Yaqui had fought for this nearly barren stretch of desert for 400 years, against both the Spanish and the Mexican gobiernos. They are an intensely  private people, suspicious of visitors.

Up until the 1500’s, about 30,000 Yaqui had inhabited about 80 rancherias, or Yaqui villages, along about 60 miles of the Yaqui River where I had crash-landed, growing crops and using primitive irrigation.

When the Spanish arrived in 1533, the Yaqui and Mayo fought them off for 50 years, winning decisively in 1608.  A 120-year long period of peace followed, extended in part by coexistence with a band of Jesuit missionaries – the Yaqui blended Catholicism into their traditional beliefs, and improved upon their river-based simple irrigation systems.

Also helpful was the uselessness of the soil, free of gold and silver and without a richness suited to intensive agriculture; and the distance from the nearest Spanish colonies, days away by horseback, helping the indigenous people to avoid the contagion of infectious plagues that decimated so many other tribes.

Texas Yaqui Indians

Yaquis who immigrated to Texas to avoid persecution.

But sooner or later, the Spanish began to encroach on Yaqui territory and relations with the tribe – known for ferocious protection of their homeland – worsened.  In 1740, the Yaqui and Mayans rebelled, and 1,000 Spanish and 5,000 natives were killed. The Jesuits were expelled from Mexico and replaced by less sympathetic Franciscan priests in 1767.

During the Mexican war for independence from Spain in the 1800’s, the Yaquis stayed cautiously neutral, but afterwards, they refused to pay taxes to Mexico and participated in a revolt of four indigenous tribes, led by Juan Banderas, in 1820. When Banderas was defeated and executed in 1833, the Yaquis still remained on their land.

Old family photo of Texas Yaqui posted on Pinterest by Tricia Vasquez

I wish I could say the story of the tribe’s woes ended here. But it did not.

While the new Mexican Constitution ostensibly created legal protections for indigenous people in 1924, persecution of the Yaqui and confiscation of land continued.

During his 34-year rule, Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz,  sold thousands of Yaquis into slavery.

Some of the tribe moved into the mountains, joining the ranks of warrior bands, and carrying on guerrilla campaigns against the Mexican Army. Others migrated north to Sonora, Mexico and to the United States.

But thousands more were captured, loaded on boats at Guamas, and shipped to San Blas where they were  forced to march 200 miles through the mountains.  Bodies of the dead, including women and children, were left on the side of the road. Those who survived wound up detained in camps in San Marcos, near the train station, where families were separated and sold. Trains packed with Yaqui slaves headed for Veracruz and onward to henequen sugar and tobacco plantations. There, women were only allowed to marry non-native Chinese immigrants. Two-thirds of the Yaqui slaves died within a year. In 1917, the remaining Yaqui tribe was officially defeated.

In modern times the Mexican government has grown proud of it indigenous roots and tried to patch up this sordid tale.

In 1937,  President General Lázaro Cárdenas gifted the Yaqui their own land on the north bank of the Yaqui River bank and constructed a dam to provide irrigation, plus agricultural equipment, including tractors, threshers, trucks, water pumps,  mules and shovels.

The Chiapas conflict of 1994 scored another political victory for native populations: A constitutional amendment specifying new rights for indigenous peoples passed in 2001 and a linguistic preservation law in 2003.

Today, about 6% of Mexicans, or half the total indigenous population, speaks some kind of native language. This battle  is now mostly  fought between the young and the old.

Some 15,000 Yaqui and some of the Mayo remain the last speakers of Cahitan, which some consider the original of the 89 native languages of Mexico. The Yaqui continue their distinctive style of ranching on the patchwork of rancherias demarcated from the air by the tarp-covered huts, and while Obregon is named after a Spanish conquistador,  the Mexican city of Cajemé is named after the fallen Yaqui leader.

Yaquis  who immigrated to Arizona attracted New Age followers, interested in the old religions, in which flowers are viewed as an expression of the soul. Occasionally Yaqui men greet a close male friend with the phrase Haisa sewa? or “How is the flower?”

But I wonder if these followers understand the meaning and ferocity of the Yaqui warriors, rumoured to cannibalise enemies.

According to Yaqui belief, the world is composed of five separate worlds: the desert wilderness world, the mystical world, the flower world, the dream world, and the night world. I wonder which world Yaquis felt I came from, dropping into the riverbed next to their ancient ranches, and which world I, myself, had landed in.

After the Yaquis turned me over, the Mexican police housed me in the Obregon jail while they attempted to figure out my worth, what I had done,  if anything, that was illegal, and what to do with me. But as a paperless immigrant, I was one of the lucky ones.

While  Canadian embassy never did believe my story, newspapers as far away as Puerto Vallarta wrote about the crash, and the police who guarded me were friendly and sooned warme up. They appreciated  how I talked so close to their faces because I could barely see and wanted to read their facial expressions. More Mexican engineers and forensic inspectors began to arrive in town to look at the plane and see why it crashed – and what it was carrying. Sometimes I went with them to inspect the crash site, and every time we went, we stopped in the Yaqui neighborhood to find the chief and ask permission to cross into their territory.

It seemed to take a long time. Days turned into  a couple of weeks.  No one was in much of a hurry. On one visit we found the left wing of my plane blown 40 yards from the river bed by the force of the explosion. After a while, they realised I had not done anything wrong and said I was free to go.

In subsequent years I visited the crash site several times. On one visit, seven years later, I found the plane itself had disappeared, most of it salvaged for scrap and the rest washed away by the raging river during the rainy season. Only the tree that had torn off my plane’s wing remained, burned and stunted, to mark the site.

But the tail section of the Cessna 172 survives tattooed on the left side of my chest to commemorate that day and the indigenous people who had appeared  in my life, after hundreds of years of their own desperate struggle, to walk me from the crash site and begin the long journey home.

Written by

Alisa Cromer, founder of Worldstir and LocalMediaInsider. She can be reached at alisacromer@gmail.com.

Latest comments

  • a 27-year-old guy with 10,000 flight hours – that’s tough

  • Cool! Thanks Alisa. 🙂

  • Great story, Andrew Bissoon! Thanks for the history of the Yaqui!

  • This was a wonderful story to read. A good portion of my family still resides today on this land where Andrew crashed his plane. Having been there earlier this year, as Bacum celebrated there 400 years in existence, this story was filled with information that raised many questions. Some of the data presented was familiar but there are specifics that provoked curiosity. Thanks for sharing and I hope you do not stop visiting my home.

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