Manataka® American Indian Council
The Tarahumara Indians
Dedicated to Manataka member Feliciano Daniel Benitez, Tarahumara and Deńe
Tarahumara or Raramuri, as they call themselves, inhabit the
Copper Canyon, as it is known in the U.S., or the Sierra Tarahumara in northwest
Mexico. The actual name Tarahumara was what the first Spanish called
these Native American people.
Spanish originally encountered the Tarahumara throughout Chihuahua upon arrival
in the 1500's, but as the Spanish encroached on their civilization the shy and
private Tarahumara retreated for the nearly inaccessible canyons of the Sierra
Tarahumara. Only the Jesuit missionaries followed at first and with only
After mineral wealth was discovered in the mountains,
many areas where Tarahumara Indians lived became desirable lands to the miners &
mining companies forcing the Tarahumara once again to head farther into the
remote canyons. Today, the Tarahumara are Mexico's second largest native Indian
group with between 50,000 & 70,000 people.
Today the Tarahumara live in caves, under cliffs and
in small wood and stone cabins in remote areas. They live a simple life
undisturbed by modern technologies.
They are known as a quiet and considerate people who
are expert farmers and runners. Rarámuri has been translated to mean
"runners" in their native language. Due to severe drought in northern Mexico,
the Tarahumara have suffered famine in the past few years.
Corn is the main staple along with beans. Potatoes,
and apples can also be found. Some Tarahumara raise domesticated animals such as
goats and cattle. Fish, small game & herbs (a Tarahumara speciality) round out
Traditional clothing for the Tarahumara consists of a
white cloth shirt, sometimes with colorful prints, white cloth pants or
wraparounds with colorful belts or accessories. Headbands of cloth usually red
are worn upon the head. Sandals or huaraches are the footwear of choice.
Running is what the Tarahumara may be most legendary
for in the world. Relief and various organizations have entered Tarahumara
runners into events such as the "Leadville 100-Mile" in Colorado. The runners
have surprised many by running in their tire-soled sandals and winning some of
the these long distance races.
Running or "foot throwing" has always been a tradition
and necessity of the Tarahumara. It is their only mode of transportation and
many of the small communities are far apart. They also have their own events,
and this is were "foot throwing" comes into effect. It is a competition known as
Rarjíparo and consists of a small wooden ball which is "thrown by the
foot" by teams in race to finish before the other teams. The races can last
days. The Tarahumara are very religious and desire their privacy and respect if
you should happen unto their festivals. Two larger events are Semana Santa
(Easter Week) and the Fiesta Guadalupana in December. These religious rites are
a mixture of Christian and Tarahumara beliefs.
There are also other times of celebrations, such as
harvests, which are interwoven with tesgüino. It is an alcoholic beverage made
of corn and grasses that is good only for a couple of days after it is brewed.
Natives will drink until passed out in some cases.
The Mexican Government recommends asking for
permission when taking photos, entering accommodations or crossing Tarahumara
land. Respect all celebrations as well as rights to privacy by these proud, but
The Tarahumaras' word for themselves,
Raramuri, means "runners on foot" in their native tongue,
according to some early ethnographers like Norwegian Carl
Lumholtz, though this interpretation has not been fully agreed
upon. With widely dispersed settlements, these people developed
a tradition of long-distance running for intervillage
communication and transportation. The long-distance running
tradition also has ceremonial and competitive aspects. Often,
male runners kick wooden balls as they run in "foot throwing"
competitions, and females use a stick and hoop. The foot
throwing races are relays where wooden balls are kicked by the
runners and relayed to the next runner, while teammates run
ahead to the next relay point. These races can last anywhere
from a few hours, for a short race, to a couple of days without
a break. The Tarahumara also practice persistence hunting, using
their ability to run extremely long distances (sometimes as far
as 160km) to catch animals such as deer; the animals eventually
tire and slow down, and the Tarahumara get close enough to the
animal to kill it.
religion is a mélange of indigenous customs and
Roman-Catholic Christianity, characterized by a
belief that the afterlife is a mirror image of
the mortal world, and that good deeds should be
performed not for spiritual reward, but for the
improvement of life on earth. In certain
traditions (perhaps those more strongly based on
pre-Columbian practice), the soul ascends a
series of heavens, is reincarnated after each
death, and after three lives becomes a moth on
Earth which represents the final existence of
the soul. When the moth dies, the soul dies
completely. However, this end is not regarded as
negative or a punishment, but merely as a
continuation of the order of life. In Tarahumara
cosmology, God has a wife who dwells with him in
heaven, along with their sons, the so-called 'sukristo'
(from Spanish 'Jesucristo') and their daughters,
the 'santi'. These beings have a direct link
with the physical world through Catholic
iconography, respectively crucifixes and saint's
medallions. The Devil's world is not necessarily
evil, but is tainted through its ties with the 'Chabochi',
or non-Tarahumara. The Devil is said to
sometimes collaborate with God to arrange
fitting punishments, and can be appeased through
sacrifices. In some cases, the Devil can even be
persuaded to act as a benevolent entity. The
Devil and God are brothers (the Devil is the
elder) who jointly created the human race. God,
using pure clay, created the Tarahumara, whereas
the Devil, mixing white ash with his clay,
created the Chabochi. Thus, the Devil is as much
protector and life-giver to the Chabochis as God
is to the Tarahumara. The Tarahumara share with
other Uto-Aztecan tribes a veneration for
peyote, the spirits of which are said to be
mischievous and capricious.
The truly remarkable
thing about them is an ancient religion which
has bred into them a moral code so strict that
they are unable to tell a lie. Psychologists
suggest that over the centuries this value
system has actually caused physiological changes
in their brain that preclude speaking anything
but the truth. Nor can they cheat or fail to aid
a fellow tribesman.
Luis G. Verplancken, a
Jesuit priest who lived among them for many
years and is probably the greatest authority on
their history and culture, describes them as
loyal to God, to their own traditions and their
own culture. Although the majority of them have
converted to Christianity, there are still some
"gentile" groups who have refused baptism. Those
converted have introduced their own ancient
concepts into their new religion. God is both
Father and Mother. Respect for one another is of
prime importance. They give greater value to
persons than to things. In their eyes, both the
white man and the Mestizo are more pagan than
their unbaptized fellow Tarahumara because over
the years these two groups have enslaved, lied,
cheated and driven them off most of the fertile
land they once inhabited.
The Tarahumara are
also known for the brewing of tesguino, a
corn-based beer brewed in ceramic jars, that
features prominently in many Tarahumara
Raramuri Souls: Knowledge and
Social Process in Northern Mexico by William L. Merrill
Ivan Ratkaj: Izvjeća iz Tarahumare (Reports from
Tarahumara), (Zagreb: Artresor, 1998) A modern edition of
the first detailed report about the Tarahumara, written by a
Croatian missionary in the 17th century. Published in
Croatian, German and Latin.
Antonin Artaud: The Peyote Dance, (transl. Helen
Weaver; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc., 1976) An account of
Artaud's visit to the Tarahumara in the mid-1930s and of his
Joseph Wampler: Mexico's 'Grand Canyon': The Region
and the Story of the Tarahumara Indians and the F.C.
Chihuahua al Pacifico, (Berkeley: Self-Published, 1978.
ISBN 0935080031) An account of Wampler's travels on the
Chihuahua al Pacifico railroad that winds along the Barranca
Del Cobre through Tarahumara lands.
Carl Sofus Lumholtz: Unknown Mexico, New York:
Dover Publications, 1987) An account of Lumholtz's visit to
the Tarahumara and other tribes in the Sierra Madre in the
Jeff Biggers: In the Sierra Madre, (University of
Illinois Press, 2006) An account of Biggers's sojourn among
the Tarahumara in the late 1990s.
Cynthia Gorney: "A people apart",
National Geographic Magazine November 2008