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Mariah Williams Fisher among the Tarahumara

Long-distance running has a venerable history in Mexico

An 11-year-old learns to let body and spirit run free among ‘the foot runners’ of Mexico - some of the greatest long-distance runners in the world. This article was kindly written specially for us by Kitty Williams, Mariah’s mother, who co-runs Crizmac - a small US-based folk art publishers and suppliers of cultural education materials with a strong emphasis on Mexico.

Mariah won a photo competition after living among the Tarahumara
Mariah won a photo competition after living among the Tarahumara (Click on image to enlarge)

Do you have something special you enjoy doing when you’re on holiday? Maybe you like to go to the beach, or visit an amusement park, or just hang out with your friends. Eleven-year-old Mariah Fisher likes to do all of those things too. But occasionally she spends her school holidays doing something very different. Her father, Richard Fisher, is a photographer and canyon explorer and sometimes he takes Mariah on expedition with him.

Map of Mexico and the USA showing the Copper Canyon region
Map of Mexico and the USA showing the Copper Canyon region (Click on image to enlarge)

Together, Mariah and her dad have explored many canyons in the United States and in Mexico. One of Mariah’s favorite places to visit is the Copper Canyon in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico. Located just 300 miles south of the border with the United States, the Copper Canyon is home to the Tarahumara (pronounced TAR-hu-MAR-a) Indians, the largest group of North American Indians who still live a traditional lifestyle.

Some of Mariah’s photos of Tarahumara children
Some of Mariah’s photos of Tarahumara children (Click on image to enlarge)

Richard Fisher has been visiting the Copper Canyon for over 30 years and has developed friendships with many people, including local leader Patrocinio Lopez. Now, Mariah and Patrocinio’s daughters have also become friends. “At first I was a little shy because I couldn’t speak their language,” Mariah explains, “but then we started running around and chasing lizards and had a great time. The Copper Canyon is a neat place, with lots of animals I’d never seen before.”

Part of traditional Tarahumara way of life
Part of traditional Tarahumara way of life (Click on image to enlarge)

In many ways, the Copper Canyon is a land forgotten by time. A wild and untamed place of deep gorges, soaring mountains and roaring rivers, it is actually a series of canyons, some deeper than Arizona’s Grand Canyon. Bright parrots call from the trees and mangos and papaya flourish in subtropical canyon depths while snow covers towering mountain peaks above.
The Tarahumara, whose population is estimated at 40,000, still live much as they have for the past 300 years. Many follow a semi-nomadic lifestyle, moving higher up in the canyon during the summer and down in the winter to take advantage of climatic changes.

Tarahumara girl preparing cornmeal in doorway
Tarahumara girl preparing cornmeal in doorway (Click on image to enlarge)

The Tarahumara are an agricultural people, with corn being their primary crop. Beans and squash are also commonly cultivated. Most Tarahumara families live in compounds, or ranchos, as they are called in Spanish. A rancho consists of a one-room home made of logs or rocks, a granary used to store corn, a chicken coop and a corral for goats or other livestock.

Hard times for the Tarahumara
Hard times for the Tarahumara (Click on image to enlarge)

The arable plots of land are small and often on very steep slopes. But they are carefully tended and, at least until lately, usually produced crops. But because of serious droughts in recent years, the Tarahumara have suffered numerous crop failures. Some years the situation was quite desperate, and many people, especially children, didn’t have enough to eat and became seriously malnourished.

Food aid deliveries for Tarahumara communities hit by serious drought
Food aid deliveries for Tarahumara communities hit by serious drought

Mariah’s father organized a series of food deliveries to help the hungry people. Mariah went along on some of the deliveries. It’s not an easy trip. The roads are bumpy and uncomfortable, it’s often hot, and the costales (big sacks) of corn and beans are heavy. Although she didn’t always enjoy it at the time, Mariah’s glad she went. “I don’t like to think of my friends going hungry,” she admits. “It made me feel good to be able to help them.”

The Copper Canyon landscape
The Copper Canyon landscape (Click on image to enlarge)

At one time, the Tarahumara inhabited a much larger region. But when the Spanish arrived in the New World—and later as the Mestizo (people of mixed Spanish and Native American heritage) population grew—the Tarahumara retreated further and deeper into the rugged canyons. In this way, they avoided assimilation, but lost some of the better farmland. Still, the Tarahumara always maintained an open mind to what outsiders might have to offer. The Spanish introduced cows, horses, oxen, mules, burros, and sheep, which are now widely used by the Tarahumara as well. Wheat was added to the traditional Tarahumara crops of corn, beans, and squash, and they also began growing fruits and vegetables such as apples, oranges, peaches, and potatoes.

Strong colours and strong traditions in a harsh landscape
Strong colours and strong traditions in a harsh landscape (Click on image to enlarge)

Inspired by the Spanish, the Tarahumara began making—and playing—wooden violins, in addition to their traditional hide-skin drums. Even the billowy-sleeved shirts still worn today by Tarahumara men are directly descended from those worn by the Spanish soldiers, and the colorful dress of Tarahumara women is reflective of the styles of colonial Spanish women. Iron tools, especially the axe, facilitated new and better construction of houses and other wooden implements.

Tarahumara drumming: a ‘divine alarm clock’
Tarahumara drumming: a ‘divine alarm clock’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Spanish religion and political systems were selectively integrated as well. The Semana Santa ritual is the Tarahumara’s spring celebration, which coincides with Christian Holy Week. Here the Catholic rites have been interwoven with the Tarahumara’s native beliefs and prayers for rain and an abundant harvest. The general idea is for God or Tata Dios to awaken slowly and see his children—the Tarahumara—behaving as they should. Then, they believe, Tata Dios will wake happy and send rain to the earth for their crops. As a sort of divine “alarm clock,” the Tarahumara begin beating their drums at select intervals in early February, building to a crescendo of drumming and dancing at Easter. These festivities bring the whole village together and everyone plays a role.

The greatest long-distance running tradition in the world?
The greatest long-distance running tradition in the world? (Click on image to enlarge)

One year when Mariah was visiting, she decided she wanted to share some of her culture with her Tarahumara friends so she organized an Easter egg hunt. “All the kids were looking at me kind of funny as I was setting the eggs out,” she remembers, “but then they got interested and started coming over. I gave them hand signals to communicate that they should pick up the eggs. They caught on pretty quickly after that and we all had a lot of fun.”

The Tarahumara never tyre... The best Mexican ‘huarache’ sandals have old car tyre soles
The Tarahumara never tyre... The best Mexican ‘huarache’ sandals have old car tyre soles (Click on image to enlarge)

Another important aspect of Tarahumara life and culture involves running. The Tarahumara’s name for themselves Rarámuri, which means “the foot runners,” and their reputed endurance is legendary. It is believed that the Tarahumara once served as messengers for the Aztecs. Another story concerns the Tarahumara’s ability to run down a deer. They couldn’t run faster, but they could run longer, until the animal dropped from exhaustion.

One form of the ‘rarijipari’ team game
One form of the ‘rarijipari’ team game (Click on image to enlarge)

Even today, a primary form of recreation is a kickball game known as rarijipari. Two teams of men race against each other in contests that have lasted as long as three days and covered some 200 miles. The women race too, though their races are shorter and they fling a fabric-covered hoop with a stick rather than kicking a ball.
Children learn to run almost as soon as they learn to walk. Walking—or running—is the best way to get around in the rugged canyons. Not infrequently, a solo traveler will be kicking a ball as he goes, just to alleviate the boredom.

Is the world turning upside down for the Tarahumara?
Is the world turning upside down for the Tarahumara? (Click on image to enlarge)

While the Tarahumara Indians suffered many of the same atrocities as native peoples everywhere, for them, the result has been different. For centuries, they have successfully maintained their traditional lifestyle and culture by retreating ever deeper into their canyon fortress. However, recent long-term drought, combined with the effects of deforestation and pollution by outside interests, has made their continued existence increasingly difficult.

Mariah with Tarahumara friends
Mariah with Tarahumara friends (Click on image to enlarge)

Back home in Arizona, Mariah often thinks about her friends in the Copper Canyon. “I hope we’ll stay friends and I’ll get to keep visiting them even when we’re grown up. Sometimes I think it’s even better than Disneyland.”


Welcome articles on the Tarahumara in National Geographic Magazine and Runner’s World magazine (November 2008)
Welcome articles on the Tarahumara in National Geographic Magazine and Runner’s World magazine (November 2008) (Click on image to enlarge)

NOTE, November 2008:-
Perceptive articles on the Tarahumara appear in two leading popular magazines: National Geographic and Runner’s World.

Picture Sources
All photos of/by Mariah Fisher with Tarahumara friends, map, Tarahumara runners, ‘pintos’ (body painted individuals), girl preparing cornmeal, food aid delivery, upturned foot wearing ‘huarache’ sandals - courtesy of Richard Fisher and Kitty Williams
Photos of close-up of old ‘huarache’, landscapes, women in costume, traditional Tarahumara festivals/drumming by Sean Sprague/Mexicolore
Photos of close-up of Tarahumara drum, ‘rarijipari’ game, 3 girls upside-down by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
B/W photo of Tarahumara running boy Courtesy Palace of the Governors Photo Archives, Karl Kernberger Collection HP.2003.08

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Oct 30th 2008

Read more about Mexicans in the London Marathon, and Aztec relay-running

Learn about the history of ultrarunning among Native Americans
More on the Tarahumara running tradition
Visit the Crizmac website
View a National Geographic Magazine video on the Tarahumara today
Visit Richard Fisher’s Canyonsworldwide website
Read about ultra-marathon training with the Tarahumara - Runners World magazine
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