The Tarahumara Indians
the Copper Canyon, Chihuahua, Mexico

 

Read about the experiences that our explorers had as they drive in their specially equipped, satellite-linked expedition vehicle and explored the natural environment and the Tarahumara culture of Mexico's Copper Canyon for four weeks beginning on September 17, 2003.  

 Learn about the culture and visit the rancheras of the Tarahumara who have made this region their home for more than 500 years.  View the animal and bird life and explore the gold and silver boom towns built in the bottom of the canyons by the early miners. 

Follow the links below to start the expedition.

 

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Teacher Curriculum Kits 

Canyon Journal
Photographs
Geography and Climate
History
Economy

Ethnic Groups and Culture
Faith and Values
Fauna and Flora

Adventures
Special Interest

  Ethnic Tourism in the Sierra Tarahumara
Lesson Plans
Tarahumara Resources
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Geography and Climate

Geography

The southern range of the U.S. Rocky Mountains after it exits the U.S. and enters Mexico is called the Sierra Madre Occidental. The portion of the Sierras that passes through the Mexican state of Chihuahua is also known as the Sierra Tarahumara. The major community in the Copper Canyon is the town of Creel.

The area called the "Copper Canyon" is actually made up of four major gorges, each over 5,500 feet in depth. These four gorges are known as Barranca del Cobre, Barranca del Urique, Barranca del Sinforosa and Barranca del Batopilas. Barranca is Spanish for "canyon".

In addition, there are more than 20 canyons in this mountainous region. The canyons cover over 20,000 square miles. The term "copper canyon" refers to the copper/green colored lichen that cling to the canyon walls. Copper was never actually mined in large quantities here.

Some of the many rivers that have created the canyons in this region are the Rio Verde, Rio Batopilas, Rio Urique, Rio Fuerte, Rio Conchos, Rio Balleza, Rio Mayo, Rio Tutuaca, Rio Aros and Rio Papigochi.  Rio is Spanish for "river".

This region also holds Mexico’s two highest waterfalls, both in Candameña Canyon:  Piedra Volada with a fall of 453 meters (1,494 feet) and Basaseachic with a fall of 246 meters (812 feet).

Climate

There are two distinct climatic zones in the region: alpine in the highlands and subtropical in the canyon bottoms.  In the mountains, October to early November and March to April have the most moderate temperatures--but even in these months, temperatures in the bottom of the canyon will be warm.  July, August, or September is the rainy season, during this time there are afternoon thundershowers called monsoons for their intensity.  In the canyon the temperature is warm and humid except in the winter when temperatures will be the least tropical.  April through June are the hottest months.  This is also the driest part of the year, with chronic water shortages.

What is the weather like in the Copper Canyon today?  Follow this link to The Weather Underground for the forecast for the state capital of Chihuahua.   Or check out this satellite map from Weather.com.  

Try converting the temperature in your town from Fahrenheit to Celsius.  

Temp. converter: Enter a number and click outside the box
F: C:

What time is it in the Copper Canyon as compared to the time in your home town?  Check this!

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History

 

Prehistory

Prior to the Tarahumara, the Paquime civilization dominated northern Mexico and the canyons of the Sierra Madre Occidental. They were farmers and traders whose trade routes extended to the Pacific, the Gulf of Mexico and to other cultural centers to the north such as Mesa Verde in the USA state of Colorado and Chaco Canyon in the USA state of New Mexico. The archaeological and World Heritage Site of Paquime is located near Nueva Casas Grande. Paquime was a pueblo community similar to those found in the Southwest of the United States. It reached its prominence in the 14th century, the same time that it was destroyed and abandoned. Other remnants of the Paquime civilization include adobe cave structures, similar to those of the Ancient Puebloans (Anasazi) of the USA Southwest.

The Spaniards

The history of the Tarahumara begins with the arrival of the Spaniards in the 1600’s. Due to the lack of a written native language nothing of their prehistory was recorded. The Spaniards main motive for exploring this area of Mexico was their search for gold and silver, as well as the drive to save the souls of the natives.

Their first contact with the Spaniards was with the Jesuit missionaries around 1607. The Jesuits brought Christianity and introduced new agricultural techniques such as irrigation and the plow and axe. They also planted fruit trees and introduced domesticated animals such as sheep and goats. The Jesuit era lasted until 1767 when they were expelled from Mexico by Spain. During this time when the Jesuits exerted their influence, there were several uprisings by the Tarahumara against the Spanish. Many of the Catholic religious concepts became mixed with the Tarahumara native beliefs. See Religion below.

Quantities of silver ore were discovered in the Tarahumara lands during the 17th Century. These brought large influxes of Spaniards into the region. Land was confiscated to provide crops for the miners and many Indians were captured to serve as forced laborers in the mines. The Spaniards tried to move the Tarahumara and the other natives away from the rancheras into compact villages where they could be "civilized" and be more efficiently organized as a labor force.  However most of the mines in the region did not yield great quantities of ore and after the Jesuits were expelled by the Spaniards in 1767, the Tarahumara were mostly left alone by the government and contact was minimized.

Independence

After Mexico gained Independence in 1821, laws were passed encouraging settlement in the state of Chihuahua. As a result, more Mexicans moved into Tarahumara country, thereby driving the Tarahumara further into the less desirable mountain lands. This pattern of avoidance became their means of handling contact with non-Indians and it continued well into the 20th Century.

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Economy*

The main financial activity is farming for sustenance rather than for income. The preferred crop is corn and 92% of the farming area is seasonal.  Corn return is less than 100 kgs. per hectare (the domestic average is 800 kgs.)  The requirements of an average family are 614 kgs. per year, 27% above their production.  

Ethnic tourism is growing as the communities being to offer services to visitors.

Family orchards and low-scale chicken farms are starting to be implemented.

The economically active Tarahumara population is 38%.
22% earns less than 2 daily minimum salaries.
10% earns the minimum salary.
42% of the Tarahumara Indians have no income.

The currency in Mexico is the New Peso (peso), which equals 100 centavos. Notes are in denominations of 500, 200, 100, 50, 20 and 10 peso. Coins are in denominations of 20, 10, 5, 2 and 1 peso, and 50, 20, 10 and 5 centavos. The New Peso was introduced on January 1, 1993 and is equivalent to 1,000 former pesos.

Find out how much your money is worth in Mexican Pesos..  Click here!

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Ethnic Groups
and Culture

Culture

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 by 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.

Migration

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.

Rancheras

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.

Tesqüino

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 except on the importance of tesgüino to the Tarahumara.

Traditions

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".

Dress

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.

Education

There is a great educational lag in the most-populated Indian communities:
64% of the population over 15 years of age has 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.

Rarámuri Language

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.

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Faith and Values

According to the Tarahumara philosophy, respect to other people is essential and therefore, visitors or tourists should also be respectful towards them and their traditions just as they are towards everyone else. They value people over things.

Religion

A great part of today’s Tarahumara traditions relate back to those learned from the Jesuit missionaries during the almost 150 years they lived together in colonial times. As main god, the Tarahumara Indians have a merger of Christ and their god, who is called Onorúame, who made and governs the world. Religious concepts include the concept of soul and its loss. Men are surrounded by good and bad beings; the wind is good and a tornado is bad. They have added to their beliefs the names of Jesus, Mary, God, hell and sin, the use of the Holy Rosary and the Crucifix, as well as crossing oneself. Their mythical and religious festivities are made up of dances where the traditional corn alcohol beverage called "tesgüino" is always present. To the Tarahumara, dancing is a prayer, thus, by dancing, they can seek forgiveness, ask for rain ("dutuburi" dance), give thanks for the rain and for the harvest, and they can help "Repá betéame "– he who lives above—to not be defeated by "Reré betéame" – he who lives beneath—(the devil.)

Semana Santa

Semana Santa (Easter) is a very important festival time for the Tarahumara. Wherever there is a church, these festivities are still observed according to the teachings of the missionaries. During these celebrations, they place pine tree branches showing the way to the various processions. Two groups are the main participants: Pharisees and soldiers. Each group has captains that lead them, "tenaches" that carry the saint’s images and "pascoleros" who participate in the "pascol" dance, wearing bells around their ankles and dancing to the sound of the violins and flutes. It is interesting to note that Tarahumara include the white people "chabochis" among the evil ones, the Pharisees, who paint themselves in white and represent those in favor of Judas. Throughout the dance, the Pharisees dance all around controlling every move but at the end they are conquered by those who represent the good, the soldiers.

Dancers

Matachines are dancers who act in church festivals. They are outstanding for their colorful garments. The Matachine dance is performed by a number of couples, eight or twelve, who dance to the music of violins and guitars. It is a dance full of fast movements, turns and quick swirls.  Read more detail, click here to go to the Dances Page.

Shamans

Also present in Tarahumara culture are Shamans (sukurúame) and peyote cactus (híkuli). A shaman is the guardian of all social traditions of the people. Their obligations as ritual and therapeutic specialists bind them to tradition. Their job is to establish a balance between the body and the cosmos. Some shamans use peyote cactus for their healing activities. It is a hallucinogenic plant that is restricted and only shamans know the right amount to use, as well as how to collect and store it.

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Flora and Fauna According to data from SEMARNAP, the National Secretariat for the Environment, Natural Resources and Fisheries of Mexico, at least 517 species of fauna: 290 of birds, 70 of mammals, 87 of reptiles, 20 of amphibians and 50 of fish live in the Sierra Madre Occidental. Due to deforestation many species are now endangered.

The mile deep canyons of the "Barranca del Cobre" have starkly different environments on the sierras (mountains) and inside the barrancas (canyons). On the high plateaus and canyon rims with altitudes over 8000 ft. (2400 m), beautiful, fragrant, coniferous forests of pine and Douglas fir cover these highlands where the black bear, puma, Mexican wolf and mountain lion live in the more remote regions. These animals are rarely seen and are threatened with extinction in the Sierra Tarahumara. Summer rains herald verdant mesa tops that are gaily colored with wildflowers from the end of September to October.

At lower levels, 6000 to 8000 ft. (1800-2400m), other species of pines, junipers, and numerous oaks occupy the expansive forests while shade-tolerant Madrona trees present a striking contrast with their smooth, red-colored bark. Around Basaseachi and Madera, alders and poplars add blazing color to the forests in the fall.

These woodlands give way to brushwood, cactus, agave, ocotillo and scrubby trees on canyon slopes below the rim between 4000 to 6000 ft. (1200-1800m). Many have adapted to arid conditions by dropping their leaves during long, dry spells. At the bottom of the canyons, tropical conditions prevail and where water is available, huge fig and ceiba trees can be found as well as a variety of grasses, reeds and palms.

Jaguar, jaguarundi and ocelots favor this warm environment but they, too, are infrequently sighted. Badgers, otters, skunks and squirrels are plentiful and birds are well represented with 290 species of which 24 are endemic (they exist only here). Among the more unusual are the impressive green, red and blue parrot (Ara militaris), the mountain cockatoo (Rhynchopsitta pachyrhyncha) and the coa (Euptilotis noxenus), all of which are threatened. There are also 23 varieties of reptiles.

Reprinted from Adventures Great and Small

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*Sources: www.tarahumara.com.mx,Tarahumara: Where Night is the Day of the Moon by Bernard L. Fontana; Raramuri Souls: Knowledge and Social Process in Northern Mexico by William L. Merrill; Tarahumara of the Sierra Madre: Survivors on the Canyon's Edge by John Kennedy.

                    Kim and Don Greene, Authors; publication date September 1, 2003