Mexico / Copper Canyons / Rarámuri Indians
Friday, August 23, 2019

The world of the Rarámuri

Long before the European Conquistadores and missionaries, the ancestors of the Rarámuri Indians inhabited the North of Mexico.

The folk which arrived on the American continent via the Behring Straits from Asia 15,000 to 20,000 years ago was comprised of hunters and gatherers of Mongolian origin. Beginning with the first century AD, the Rarámuri mixed with Aztecs and settled. Today, more than 50,000 Rarámuri, one of the original Indian tribes of Mexico, live in the enormous Copper Canyons.

The Rarámuri are farmers, cattle dealers, hunters and gatherers. In the centre of the hamlet-like rancherias lay the one-room wood and clay houses of the extended family, as well as smaller larders. The rancheria is surrounded by shadow-giving fruit trees – mostly apple, plum and peach trees. These are followed by the fire-cleared fields, on which maize, beans and pumpkins are cultivated. The farms are usually found within calling distance of one another, near water. Scattered throughout the craggy canyons, the rancherias are loosely organised into comunidades (communities) led by a governor democratically elected by men and women alike, and responsible for the resolution of tribal disputes. The Rarámuri raise mostly cattle and goats – a symbol of prosperity and economic security amongst the tribal members. In late Spring, a period of constant bottle-necks for food between the end of the dry period and the begin of the agricultural cycle, many Rarámuri supplement their diets with seeds, roots and rodents, as well as the larvae of the Madron butterfly – rich in Vitamin C. As far as if adequate nutrition is available, the Rarámuri diet is very healthy and balanced.

The Mythology of the Rarámuri combines hedonistic and Christian elements, so that culture and religion today are dominated by a mixture of colonial Spanish and pre-European traditions. Competitions, which take place over many days and nights, are an important part of the spiritual life and are scheduled several times a year. Participants cover distances of over 200 km through the craggy plateaus and inaccessible canyons, whereby the runner, (man or woman) kicks a small wooden ball the size of an orange in front of him. This is why the Mexican Indians are often called Tarahumara, which, in the Rarámuri language, means foot runner. During the night, the way is lit by other runners. Every race is accompanied by a large festival, at which huge quantities of tesgüino (maize beer) are consumed, making the normally shy Rarámuri more open for social contact. Wealth and position of a large family, as well as the personal success of the individual are founded in the ability to share the surpluses of the harvest with others.

Respect for others is of utmost importance to the Rarámuri. Even at a large gathering, it is considered good manners to greet every one present with a handshake. The Rarámuri children grow up freely and are raised early to be self-sufficient. They often receive a goat at the age of four, the care of which then becomes their sole responsibility. At 14 or 15, they are regarded as complete adults, and take their places in the society.

The Rarámuri are excellent craftsmen, and bring forth masterpieces in pottery, weaving and basket-weaving. The women’s fine weaving of pine needles and agave find world-wide recognition. The traditional dress of the Rarámuri consists of white leg cloths, which are held by a colourful sash, wide-armed shirts, head bands and extra blankets for the cold. The women mostly wear colourful cotton skirts, wide sashs, blouses, ponchos and head scarves. Large, draped cloths are used to carry children or transport loads.

The Rarámuri culture can only be understood by glimpsing at their history, which greatly affected their lives, their customs and their living space. For the first time in 1598, the Spanish – along with the Jesuits and Padre Juan Fonte – came to the region. While the Spanish sought gold and silver, the Padre did his missionary work. In 1630 San Gabriel, the first mission of the region, was founded. 27 others followed. Pushed from their fertile pasture land and fields by the Colonial masters into the Copper Canyons, they were Christianised in the 17th Century, a process interrupted by two rebellions in the years 1648 and 1690. The uprisings were brutally struck down, which fundamentally altered the Rarámuri behaviour toward the white conquerors. Many Rarámuri immigrated to ever more obscure and inaccessible areas of the Copper Canyons in order to live in peace. Others gave in to their fates, worked in the mines and only offered passive resistance. But neither fight nor resistance could impede the influence of Western culture in the centuries to come.

Today, the Rarámuri use improved agricultural methods and building techniques, they raise sheep, oxen, cows and horses. They avail themselves of state and church services. In the conflict between development and tradition, it is to be feared that the Rarámuri will lose more and more of their traditional life. Great parts of the Copper Canyons are unexplored territory. There are hardly any roads, few schools and only a minimum of health care. Along with state agencies and independent help organisations, the Jesuits are, as ever, strongly involved in the region. The goal of this concerted effort is to improve the lives of the people in the Copper Canyons. Hospitals have been built and many projects begun. Helpers support the Indians in drilling for water, organising medicines and doctor care, helping to develop new agricultural methods and act at the same time as volunteering doctors, teachers and priests. The high goal of improving the infrastructure in the Copper Canyons while protecting nature, and, most especially, the Rarámuri identity stays a number one priority.