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History & Culture of the Tarahumara Indians
We hope that you enjoy the treasures of the Sierra Madre as much as we do. We operate the Mission Del Rey among the Tarahumara Indians. The Tarahumara are a proud people that have endured many hardships. They lead very rough and often difficult lives. They are teetering between their traditional lifestyle and assimilation into the Mexican culture. Unfortunately, they are somewhat stuck between the two and often live hand to mouth. Hunger and exposure are too well known among the people. By being able to continue their traditional crafts, they preserve their cultural roots and their dignity as they work to provide for their families.
The Tarahumara or Rarámuri, 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. The 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 scattered success.
After mineral wealth was discovered in the mountains, many areas where Tarahumara Indians lived became desirable lands to the miners & mining companies forced 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 specialty) round out their diet. 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. 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 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 a race to finish before the other teams. The races can last days. The Tarahumara are very religious. 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.
Tarahumara Drums and Violins Musical instruments such as drums and violins are made frequently for use in ceremonies. Drums are made from pieces of goatskin stretched over a wooden frame. They are used extensively during the Holy Week or Semana Santa festivities before Easter. As drums are considered ceremonial items, they can be difficult to find during much of the year. The drums are brightly decorated by hand using crushed iron oxide. Then, as the ceremonies are beginning, they beat the drums as a call to gather the people. During the festivals the sound of the drums can be heard drifting throught the mountain villages for miles.
Violins were first introduced to the Tarahumara Indians by the Spanish and have come to play an important role in Tarahumara music and celebrations. The violins are all carved by hand, a painstaking process. Recently, these precious works of art have been produced with an intricately carved animal figure on the scroll of the instrument. The primitive violins are played as the dancers, men (Matachines) dressed in brightly colored costumes do the traditional dance day and night for several days.
Wood Dough Bowls & Carving Tarahumara men love to work with wood and have learned to fashion amazingly detailed items with what might seem to be very crude working tools. Wooden spoons, bowls, and figurines are all items which are commonly carved. Their well known dough bowls, carved by hand from native yellow pine begin as a piece of a downed tree trunk. The trunk is split in half lengthwise then carved with an axe to form the shape of the bowl, and further worked with a machete or large knife. This traditional style dough bowl has been used throughout the Sierra Madre for generations. Corn and wheat are ground by hand by crushing the kernels between a smooth stone and a tapered stone trough called a metate. The dough bowl is places at the lower end of the trough to catch the corn or wheat flour as it is ground. Water is then added to the flour in the bowl and hand-made tortillas are not far behind. The beauty of these rustic dough bowls is enhanced by the natural irregularities of the wood. Their character is as rich as their heritage.
Basketry Baskets serve many functions in a traditional Tarahumara household. A basket may be used to store corn, beans or a number of other things. As the floors of most Tarahumara homes are dirt, baskets help keep personal items organized and clean. There are generally two types of baskets; The first and most common being of yucca or sotol. These are used constantly in everyday life. The second type of basket is fashioned from pine needles and is most common in the higher elevations where pine trees are prevalent. These baskets are quite small and delicate. The yucca baskets are made in a variety of sizes and shapes. In the mountain country, the guari type is most commonly found. These baskets are usually a singl weave and are round at the top and somewhat square, with four distinct corners, at the bottom. The petaca is traditional to the canyon regions. It is round with a lid and frequently double woven. As the baskets can be quite bulky, the guari in particular, are often made in graduating sizes so they may be nested. The baskets are all made by twill plaiting, which results in a diagonal design. The basketmaker uses only her hands and teeth to fashion the basket, although the leaves are sometimes run across a stone to dull their sharp edges before they are worked.
Pottery Tarahumara pots or ollas are used for a variety of cooking purposes. An olla may be used to cook beans, boil corn with lime for making tortillas, roasting corn for pinole, and in the larger pots, for making the Tarahumara traditional corn beer, tesguino. Slightly different sizes and shapes define the use of a particular pot. Tarahumara pottery, as with virtually everything they make, is simple and functional. The first step in pottery making is to gather the clay. This may require a trip of several miles. Once the clay has been obtained, it is ground on a stone metate and mixed with pottery shards that have also been ground on the metate. Water is then added to this mixture and it is kneaded until the right consistency is achieved. Then it is time to begin forming the piece. The base is formed first and the sides are built up using coils of clay. The olla is always shaped by hand, although a piece of gourd may be used to smooth and scrape away roughness. After drying in the sun, a hot fire is made in a shallow pit and the pot is fired. When a pot is decorated, the paint is obtained from red ochre, iron oxide or hematite and applied with the fingers or by means of a feather or cloth-wrapped stick.
Weaving When the Spanish arrived in the Sierra Tarahumara in the early 1600's, with the introduction of sheep, the Tarahumara begun weaving clothing and blankets of wool by 1625. Blankets are made from homespun yarn, usually in the natural colors of dark brown and white. These blankets serve the very useful purpose of keeping people warm during the frigid winter months. They are woven in a most ingenious open weave so that the air spaces provide additional insulation. A broad horizontal loom is used for weaving. It is usually set low to the ground in the shade if possible. The weaver sits at the end to work. The finished product may take months to complete. Copyright © Mission Del Rey. No part of this article or images may be used without permission.