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The Tarahumara people (known as Rarámuri in their own language) of northern Mexico’s Sierra Madre are among the largest and most traditional native American societies in all of North America. There doesn’t appear to be a consensus regarding the number of Tarahumara Indians living in the Sierra Madre (also known as the Sierra Tarahumara) but estimates range from 35,000 to 70,000. They are currently confronted with the rapid loss of their language and cultural traditions and severe degradation of their environment. Gold and silver mining along with the logging of forests and the cultivation of drugs by drug traffickers has had adverse effects on their culture. Excessive logging and pulping have increased soil erosion and have adversely affected the Tarahumara fields.
Over the centuries, explorers who have visited the Tarahumara have lamented that the people would likely be overwhelmed by "civilization" and would cease to exist as a separate people. Although the Tarahumara face great challenges, they have persevered and survived. However, their survival strategies have usually been to stay as isolated as possible and to occupy the least desirable lands.
The culture of the Tarahumara is bound to their physical environment and the way they live. They cultivate crops of corn, fruit, potatoes, beans and squash and supplement their diet through hunting and gathering herbs, nuts, berries, cactus fruit and seeds. Wild plants are also used for seasonings, medicine and ceremonies. Their largely vegetarian diet is occasionally augmented with goat, freshwater fish, chicken, turkey, sheep, and beef. Corn represents 85% of their diet and is considered not only food for their bodies, but for their souls as well.
The Tarahumara are migratory people that move from the mountains where it is cool in the summer to the canyons where it is warmer in the winter. In the past, the people lived in the caves that are found in the region. Today, although some people do spend some time in caves, they mainly live in single room dwellings built mostly from native materials found nearby. They use rocks, wood or logs for walls and corrugated metal material for roofs. Some dwellings are adobe with straw roofs. They have little or no furniture. Their belongings consist of mats and hides for bedding, gourds and ceramic jars for food storage and a metate for grinding corn.
A community unit is referred to as a ranchera and they are scattered across the Sierra Tarahumara as the only means of successful agriculture with the landscape. Each unit is comprised of between 3 to 7 families who share labor and other material goods in order to survive. The Tarahumara have property rights to plots of land for growing crops and each family may have a house near their gardens. The rugged terrain of the Sierra Tarahumara leaves little room for arable land and the fields are rarely larger than a single acre. A family may have to sustain several small fields scattered across 50 to 80 square miles in order to produce enough to sustain them over the non-growing season.
One of the ways they maintain their identity is by working together through their "tesqüino" network. Tesgüino is a beverage made of fermented corn with an alcohol content similar to that of beer. It is made by placing wet corn next to the chimney to let it germinate. After sprouting, it is ground, boiled and "basiáwari" is added to help with fermentation. It is this social drink that brings rancheras together from miles around to share work. Whether it is to build a building, harvest a crop or make repairs to the church, an invitation must include tesqüino. Tarahumara boys and girls are usually 15 or 16 years of age when they attend their first tesgüinada. This is also the age when they are considered adults.
At these gatherings, or tesgüinadas, the Tarahumara forge important relationships with one another through joking and trading. Whether the gathering is to talk about the farming cycle, festivities or shared work for the community, from birth to the grave, tesquüino accompanies the Tarahumara. It is basic food to the gods. It is, therefore, offered to the sun and to the moon, to the four cardinal points of the universe, to the corn crops and to the innumerable spirits of the cosmos. Read this detailed excerpt on the importance of tesgüino to the Tarahumara.
The Tarahumara refer to themselves as Rarámuri. The word Rarámuri has been translated as "runners", "light footed," "fleet foot," "foot runners" and "those who walk well". Long distance running has become a trademark of the Raramuri culture. Deer is hunted by chasing it until it falls from exhaustion. Additionally they periodically compete in long distance kickball races. During these races, called rarajipari, the runners may cover distances from 50 to 100 miles while kicking a baseball-sized wooden ball. This ball is made from oak or any other type of tree root and the object is for the runner to run barefoot controlling the ball until he reaches the finish line which may be 100 miles away. Races can last up to two days. Everybody in the community helps and supports the runners; they provide water and ground corn for them, lighting their way at night with lit wood sticks, cheering them and even running after them along the route. Women have their own running game throwing two small, intertwined rings called "rowena".
In many communities the Tarahumara Indians have adopted western wear. However, men sometimes wear their traditional clothes and women still always do. Both men and women wear bright-colored print blouses and shirts.
Skirts are highly regarded by women, who wear many of them at a time, one on top of the other. Men and women alike wear waistbands or belts. They are knit using their own designs and patterns and are used to hold up their pants, skirts and "zapetas" (loincloths).
Tarahumara sandals (akaka) have a light sole and leather straps up to the ankle. At present, they make sandal soles out of worn out tires but it is also common to find barefoot women and children.The "koyera", a ribbon used to keep hair in its place, is the most distinctive garment among the Tarahumara people and men, women, and children alike wear it with pride.
Blankets are a very important item used as coat during the cold days and as a bed at night. They are usually made with wool from their own sheep and considered very valuable. They therefore, are only given up on highly significant occasions.
There is a great educational lag in the most-populated Indian communities:
64% of the population over 15 years of age has had no schooling.
26% of the population did not finish elementary school.
43% of the population between the ages of 6 and 14 do not attend school.
57% of the population is illiterate (compared to 6% in the State).
There are not enough school alternatives for Indian culture.
Most of the schools lack essential teaching material and furniture.
Although the Tarahumara are considered one of the few indigenous groups in North America that have been able to preserve their culture mostly unmodified despite more than 350 years of contact with outside populations, the increasing contact with non-Indians has put additional pressure on their way of life. This increasing contact has resulted in a rising trend toward the use of Spanish and away from their native language. For more on the subject of Stabilizing Indigenous Languages, read the paper by Carla Paciotto. View a condensed Rarámuri-Spanish-English Dictionary for common words and terms.For an example of a Tarahumara Folktale, read the Creation story.
Tarahumara.com Maps, Raramuri information, and Tarahumara art gallery.
Indigenous People - Tarahumara Links List of Tarahumara Links
Indigenous & Minority peoples' views of language an homage to the life of languages
in the words of the people who speak them.
The Tarahumara People Short background information together with a statement of the current plight of the Tarahumara.
Stabilizing Indigenous Languages The Tarahumara of Mexico An excellent paper on the reasons for the possible loss of the Tarahumara language.
Tarahumara Background Info History, and a discussion of their social organization and current issues that effect the people.
Rarámuri Cultural Information Heard Museum curriculum on "Rain" and its effect on the indigenous people of the American Southwest and Northern Mexico.
Tarahumara Crafts Photos of handcrafted drums, baskets and bowls.
Ethnic Tourism in the Sierra Tarahumara Very detailed thesis by Amy Elizabeth Anderson on the importance of Ethnic Tourism by indigenous people.
Tarahumara Photos Several color photos of Tarahumara Indians by Canyon Travel.