Two Rarámuri women (one with a baby nursing) at Arareco Lake near Creel, Chihuahua, Mexico. The Tarahumara women wear the traditional brightly colored clothes for which they are famous. These women make and sell hand-made items at the lake.
|Regions with significant populations|
|Related ethnic groups|
|Guarijío, Huichol, Yaqui|
The Rarámuri or Tarahumara are a Native American people of northwestern Mexico who are renowned for their long-distance running ability. In their language, the term rarámuri refers specifically to the men, women are referred to as mukí (individually) and as omugí or igómale (collectively).
Originally inhabitants of much of the state of Chihuahua, the Rarámuri retreated to the high sierras and canyons such as the Copper Canyon in the Sierra Madre Occidental on the arrival of Spanish explorers in the 16th century. The area of the Sierra Madre Occidental which they now inhabit is often called the Sierra Tarahumara because of their presence.
Current estimates put the population of the Rarámuri in 2006 at between 50,000 and 70,000 people. Most still practice a traditional lifestyle, inhabiting natural shelters such as caves or cliff overhangs, as well as small cabins of wood or stone. Staple crops are corn and beans; however, many of the Rarámuri still practice transhumance, raising cattle, sheep, and goats. Almost all Rarámuri migrate in some form or another in the course of the year.
The Raramuri were introduced to the Spanish in the 1500s, and the Spanish called them the Tarahumara. By the early 17th century, the Spanish had established mines in Tarahumara territory and made some slave raids to obtain mine slaves. Jesuit Juan Fonte established a mission, San Pablo Balleza, at the southern end of Tarahumara territory, expanding from missionary work with the Tepehuan to the south. The Tepehua's violent resistance to Spanish incursion in 1616 killed Fonte and closed the mission for over a decade.
The discovery of the mines of Parral, Chihuahua, in 1631 increased Spanish presence in Tarahuama lands, bringing more slave raids and Jesuit missionaries. Missions were established at Las Bocas, Huejotitlan, San Felipe and Satevo. In 1648, the Tarahumara waged war against the Spanish. They met at Fariagic and then destroyed the mission of San Francisco de Borja. Two of the leaders of this attack were captured by the Spanish and executed. Shortly after, the Spanish established Villa de Aguilar in the heart of the upper Tarahumara county.
From then on, the Tarahumara split into two groups. Those in the lower missions continued to move into the general Christian population and largely lost their tribal identity. Those in the upper areas went to war under the leadership of Tepórame and others. This drove the Jesuits and Spanish settlers from the area. The Jesuits returned in the 1670s and baptized thousands of Tarahumara, but these people retained a separate identity. Tepórame was executed by the Spanish in 1690. From 1696 to 1698, the Tarahumara again waged war against the Spanish, but were defeated.
By 1753, the lower Tarahumara missions were turned over to secular priests, and in 1767 the Jesuits were expelled in Spanish territories. Most missions in Tarahumara ceased to operate or were turned over to Franciscans. Despite devoted and enthusiastic efforts, the Franciscans could not match the Jesuits’ feats, and the missions declined. The Jesuits reestablished the missions in the early 20th century.
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The Tarahumara were not conquered by the Aztecs, and survived wars with the Spanish, the French and the Americans but today they struggle to protect their land from being taken by the Mexican army, drug lords or corporations that want to exploit their mineral resources.
Massive deforestation is a major issue as hardly any forest is left in the Sierra Madre since in the end of the 1800s the first loggers arrived. 92% of the indigenous people living in Sierra Madre forests are Tarahumara and they have to defend their territory from large-scale mining and forestry projects. The theft of indigenous land by logging companies jeopardizes their subsistence economy and so their future. The Mexican Commission of Solidarity and Defense of Human Rights produced a report in 2000 stating that the government fails in studying the effects of lumber production on the ecosystem. Liberalization of laws in the 1990s resulted in the exhaustion of resources. In 1995, it was declared that "after hundred years of logging only two percent (300,000 acres) of these unique forests remains". This most biologically diverse ecosystem in North America that contains hundreds of medicinal plants, oak types and pine species which is more than any other place on earth, is on the brink of extinction. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) made in the 1990s boosted foreign investment which resulted in the privatization of communal land, an alien concept to the Tarahumara, and market-based mechanisms of environmental regulation. This increased logging and the plight of the indigenous people who depend heavily on these forests.
The environmental disaster is also due to mining. Mining here dates to 950 AD with the Totec and Mayan civilizations. Since the Spanish conquest, thousands of tons of mercury and lead have been released in the Mexican mining belt which is 2000 km long and stretches from Oaxaca to Sonora in the northwest. The Sierra Madre part of this belt is one of the world's most prolific gold and silver mining districts. Georgius Agricola mentioned in 1556 that mining leads to deforestation, the disappearance of wild life and watershed contamination. Huge areas were deforested to exploit metal deposits. Reforms in the 1990s allowed foreign ownership, and resulted in reopening of mines and increased mining. According to the Secretaría de Economía, 204 mining companies with direct foreign investment had 310 ongoing projects in Mexico in 2006. In 2010, Mexico's mining output reached high levels: for example 19% of the world's silver production was extracted here; the mining belt was the world's most productive district as it was historically. The environmental impacts are dramatic, resulting in landscape change and the spread of heavy metals, to the detriment of the Tarahumara habitat.
The existence of the Tarahumara is greatly threatened by drug violence, cultivation and trade in this region. The Sierra Madre is one of the most productive drug growing regions on Earth. One devastating effect is again deforestation. Logging is not only controlled by the Mexican government, but also practiced illegally by loggers and drug lords who use it to grow marijuana or opium or as space for their operations. Drug cartels usually have links with logging companies who can launder money earned in the drug trade. Narco-trafficking weighs heavily on the Tarahumara, as the drug lords force the farmers to grow drugs instead of their own crops. Worse, the government sprays drug fields with strong herbicides that also kill subsistence crops of the Tarahumara. Herbicides also pollute and destroy the natural environment on which they depend. Violence between drug cartels results in killing and torture of many Tarahumara. All these factors increase the misery of the Tarahumara who struggle to survive.
The remote terrain of the Sierra Madre has long served as a refuge of the Tarahumara. In the 1800s, attempts were made to build a railway. Currently, this line is used by the train Chihuahua Pacífico or El Chepe to transport tourists, lured by false representations of the area as pure and pristine, to sightseeing locales. It stops near many Tarahumara villages, attracting visitors expecting to see primitive Indians (the legend of the Tarahumara). Reality is incongruent with these representations, as modernity itself is destroying their habitat. Noodles in plastic-foam tubs, foil-wrapped potato chips and plastic bottles of Coca-Cola are all available in the mountains. The Tarahumara seek to economically gain from tourism by attempting to meet travelers' expectations and romanticization of their way of life. To appeal to tourists, they portray authenticism by complying with the stereotypic image of the Noble Savage. A more westernized style of living may be unavoidable, as their way of life has changed more in the past 20 years than in the previous 300 years.
Drought has been affecting the region for 10 years, and has worsened in the last years. 2011 was the driest year in Mexico on record, with just 12 inches of rain, compared to a historic average of 21 inches. The most severely hit area is Northern Mexico where the Sierra Madre is located. Agricultural losses in Chihuahua are estimated at $25 million; 180,000 cattle have already died. The drought is affecting first the people with the least resources. The Tarahumara are considered one of the poorest people in Mexico and they suffer deeply. Due to the lack of water, crops were destroyed and famine is spreading. Combined with the freezing temperatures of a cold front which is troubling the region, their living conditions are intolerable. Their dependence on the environment worsens the situation, as they lack employment opportunities to generate income in non-farming activities. Tons of clothing, food and water are sent to the Sierra Tarahumara, as the mountainous area is also called, to relieve them, but it's not enough. Moreover, this increased contact with the outside world might be damaging as well as it creates dependency. These indigenous people face extreme poverty, as reflected in the Mexican Human Development Index (HDI) which in the Sierra Madre is the lowest in the country: 49.1% below national average. Alberto Herrera, the Mexican director of Amnesty International stated that the indigenous people in his country have endured "permanent discrimination, exclusion and marginalization". Their problems are structural and Oxfam Mexico indicates that investment in sustainable agriculture is needed to enable the Tarahumara to face future crises expected due to climate change. A very important component in the Oxfam projects is that they employ Tarahumara themselves, which enables them to replicate the project where needed.
A crucial moment is approaching for the Tarahumara as their civilization is on the brink of collapsing. They need all the help they can get to be able to survive these hardships. The question is whether they will ever be able to restore their balance with nature as modernity is forcing them to adjust to new environments.
The Tarahumara word for themselves, Rarámuri, means "runners on foot" or "those who run fast" 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 up to 200 miles (320 km) in one session, over a period of two days through their homeland of rough canyon country, for inter-village communication and transportation and hunting. Their running in sandals are described in the book Born to Run.
The Tarahumara use the toe-strike method of running, which is natural for barefoot running. The long-distance running tradition also has ceremonial and competitive aspects. Often, men kick wooden balls as they run in "foot throwing", rarajipari, competitions, and women use a stick and hoop. The foot throwing races are relays where the 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 to a couple of days without a break.
The Tarahumara commonly hunt with bow and arrows, but are also known for their ability to run down deer and wild turkeys. Anthropologist Jonathan F. Cassel describes the Tarahumaras’ hunting abilities: “the Tarahumara literally run the birds to death. Forced into a rapid series of takeoffs, without sufficient rest periods between, the heavy-bodied bird does not have the strength to fly or run away from the Tarahumara hunter.”
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The Rarámuri religion is a mélange of indigenous customs and Roman Catholicism. It is monotheistic: Onorúame—"The One Who Is Father"—is identified in the more missionized areas with the Roman Catholic “God the Father”, but it is still equated in remote and "gentile" areas with rayénari, the sun. Eyerúame, "the one that is Mother," is often mentioned in the sermons (nawésari) of the governors, and depending on the degree of acculturation may correspond to the primeval feminine deity married to Onorúame, or to the Virgin Mary, also commonly mentioned in sermons as María Santísima. Although some Rarámuri religious practices still have the sense of konema (i.e., feeding God), the sense of returning to God a little of the much that he has given us is prevalent.
Some Tarahumaras still maintain 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. Some scholars have reported that in certain areas (among those who are more strongly oriented toward pre-Columbian practices) the Tarahumara believe that the soul ascends a series of heavens, is reincarnated after each death, and after three lives becomes a moth on earth, representing 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 the order of life. Another reported variation is that God has a wife who lives 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, crucifixes and saints’ medallions, respectively. The Devil’s world is not necessarily evil, but is tainted through its ties with the Chabochi (non-Rarámuri). 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 said to be brothers (the Devil being the elder of the two) who jointly created the human race. God, using pure clay, created the Rarámuri, whereas the Devil, mixing white ash with his clay, created the Chabochi. Thus, the Devil is as much protector and life-giver to the Chabochi as God is to the Rarámuri. The Rarámuri share with other Uto-Aztecan tribes a veneration of peyote.
Music and dance are highly integrated into Tarahumara social life. The classical pianist Romayne Wheeler writes that “Music sanctifies the moment in the life of all the Tarahumaras,” and “All of our actions have musical meaning.” During the end of the year cycle, the Tarahumaras play violins which are masterfully carved but not varnished. The tunes are known as matachín pieces and are danced by dancers lavishly dressed in colorful attire resembling North African garments and accompanied by rattles (sáuraka). During Lent they play three-holed flutes of river cane, together with drums.
Staple crops of the Tarahumara are maize, beans, greens, squash, and tobacco. Chile, potatoes, tomatoes, and sweet potatoes appear in Mexicanized regions. Corn is planted in February and March using oxen which are often loaned as not everyone owns one. Corn begins to flower in August; by November it is harvested and cooked or stored. Common corn dishes are pinole, tortillas, esquiate, atole, tamales, and boiled and roasted ears. Beans are one of the Tarahumaras’ essential protein-rich foods and are usually served fried after being boiled. Tamales and beans are a common food which the Tarahumara carry with them on travels. Wheat and fruits were introduced by missionaries and are a minor source of nutrition. The fruits grown by the Tarahumara include apples, apricots, figs, and oranges.
The Tarahumaras also eat meat, but this constitutes less than 5% of their diet. Most of the meats that they consume are fish, chicken, and squirrels. On ceremonial occasions, domesticated animals such as cows, sheep, and goats are killed and eaten.
Gatherings for celebrations, races, and religious ceremonies often take place with tesgüinadas, a Tarahumara-style beer bust. These gatherings take place all year around, but most happen in winter, and are the social events between the neighboring Tarahumara people. Tesgüinada events include rain fiestas, harvest ceremonies, curing fiestas, Guadalupe Fiesta, Holy Week, races, and Sunday gatherings. Some of these events take place during and after communal activates, for example when neighbors help one another’s families with their fields or building large structures like granaries, houses, and corrals. The harvest and rain ceremonies take place during the farming months to ensure a good crop season. These events also require either a shaman, curandero, or chanter. The job of the shaman and curandero are purely religious, as the curandero is there to diagnose and to heal the sick of the community, and chanters lead the tesgüinadas in chants and rhythms to accompany the ceremonies.
Tesgüinadas are an important aspect of Tarahumara culture as it is often the only time when men have intercourse with their wives. They act as a social lubricant, as Tarahumara are very shy and private. Anthropologist John Kennedy describes the institution of tesgüinada as an important social fabric to Tarahumara culture which he calls the “tesgüino network”. He also states that "the average Tarahumara spends at least 100 days per year directly concerned with tesgüino and much of this time under its influence or aftereffects.”
The religious role of tesgüino is a very imprortant aspect to tesgüinada. Before one can drink an olla of tesgüino they must dedicate it to Onorúame. During the curing ceremonies, the olla must rest in front of a cross until the ceremony is over. At age 14, a boy is allowed to drink tesgüino for the first time after a short sermon about his manly responsibilities. These rituals can sometimes last as long as 48 hours. Tesgüinadas are usually accompanied by dancing and the playing of fiddles, flutes, drums and guitars.
Tesgüino is a fermented drink made year round from sprouted corn. Sometimes it is also made with still-green stalks, fruits of certain cactuses, shrubs, wheat, and trees when corn is sparse. The process begins by malting the corn and spreading it in a shallow basket covered with pine needles each day for four or five days. It is kept moist until the corn sprouts by which the starch in the corn has fermented. It is then mashed and boiled for eight hours. Varied herbs are ground up and mixed with water into a paste which is then fermented overnight by a fire. Then the paste is combined with the corn liquid and fermented for another three to four days. Tesgüinadas usually take place soon after as the tesgüino can spoil within 24 hours.
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- Cassel, Jonathan (1969). Tarahumara Indians. USA: The Naylor Company. p. 96.
- Paredes, Alfonso and Irigoyen, Fructuoso (1992) "Jíkuri, the Tarahumara peyote cult: an interpretation", pp. 121–129 in The Mosaic of Contemporary Psychiatry in Perspective Kales, A., Pierce, C.M. and Greenblatt, M. (eds.). Springer-Verlag. ISBN 1461391962.
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- Carl Sofus Lumholtz: Unknown Mexico: A Record of Five Years' Exploration Among the Tribes of the Western Sierra Madre; In the Tierra Caliente of Tepic and Jalisco; and Among the Tarascos of Michoacan, (New York: Scribner's and Sons, 1902)
- An early anthropological account from the 1890s of the peoples in the remote mountains of northwest Mexico, including the Tarahumara.
- Wendell C. Bennett and Robert M. Zingg: The Tarahumara: an Indian tribe of northern Mexico, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1935)
- Provides the classic baseline ethnography of this group for the early 20th century.
- Jerome M. Levi: "Tarahumara (Rarámuri)", In: David Carrasco, editor-in-chief. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures, Vol. 3. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001: 183–185.
- A brief overview of Tarahumara culture and history.
- Jerome M. Levi: "The Embodiment of a Working Identity: Power and Process in Rarámuri Ritual Healing." American Indian Culture and Research Journal, 1999, 23: 13–46.
- A detailed case study of Tarahumara ceremonial healing.
- William L. Merrill: Rarámuri Souls: Knowledge and Social Process in Northern Mexico, (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, 1988)
- A comprehensive account of Rarámuri world view.
- Ivan Ratkaj: Izvješća iz Tarahumare (Reports from Tarahumara), (Zagreb: Artresor, 1998)
- 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 peyote experience.
- 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 0-935080-03-1)
- An account of Wampler's travels on the Chihuahua al Pacifico railroad that winds along the Barranca Del Cobre through Tarahumara lands.
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- An account of Biggers's sojourn among the Tarahumara in the late 1990s.
- Cynthia Gorney: "A people apart", National Geographic Magazine November 2008
- Fructuoso Irigoyen Rascón. Cerocahui, una Comunidad en la Tarahumara. 40 Años Después. Don Quixote Editions/AmazonKindle. 2011.
- Christopher McDougall: "The Men Who Live Forever", Men's Health Magazine April 2008
- Christopher McDougall: Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, (Knopf, 2009. ISBN 0-307-26630-3)
- Wyndham, Felice S.: 2010 Environments of Learning: Rarámuri Children's Plant Knowledge and Experience of Schooling, Family, and Landscapes in the Sierra Tarahumara, Mexico. Human Ecology 38(1):87–99.
- Wyndham, Felice S.: 2009 Spheres of Relations, Lines of Interaction: Subtle Ecologies of the Rarámuri Landscape in Northern Mexico. (Special Issue: Traditional Resource and Environmental Management: Past, Present, and Future; Dana S. Lepofsky, ed.) Journal of Ethnobiology 29(2):271–295
- Tarahumara Foundation- Organization that has worked with indigenous communities for twenty years, improving child nutrition, education, food security, water availability and conservation
- Radio Tarahumara: Tarahumara Internet Radio featuring the world's largest collection of Tarahumara music and spoken word audio
- Tesguino and the Tarahumara
- "The Men Who Live Forever" Men's Health article on the Tarahumara's athletic prowess
- The Tarahumaras: An Endangered Species