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The Tarahumara: People of the Land
Mexico's largest state was once heavily populated by the Tarahumara, close relatives of the Pima Indians of southern Arizona. They are renowned for their running ability and endurance—Tarahumara is a Spanish corruption of their word Rarámuri, which means "running people." Today winners of international marathon races, the Tarahumara in earlier times hunted deer by chasing them to the point of collapse. During festivals they still engage in a game called rarajípame in which Tarahumara men run while kicking a hand-carved wooden ball for up to 40 hours.
Like those of other native peoples, the Tarahumara's way of life was totally disrupted by the arrival of the Europeans. The Spanish forced them to labor in the mines, and later both Mexicans and Americans put them to work on the railroads. The threat of slavery and the series of wars that began in the 1600s and continued until the 20th century forced them to retreat deeper into the canyons, where they are still at the mercy of outsiders: nowadays it's loggers and drug lords. Their population has also diminished over the years because of disease, drought, and poverty.
Despite all this, the Tarahumara are also considered to have the most traditional lifestyles of any North American indigenous peoples. They live a life well adjusted to the canyon country—the majority live on small ranches, many of which are seemingly perched on ledges high up on the canyon walls. Housing may be small adobe or log shacks or even caves for at least part of the year. Many Tarahumara still practice transhumance, a form of migration where they live in the relative warmth of the canyon bottoms during the winter and move to cooler altitudes in summer. Primarily subsistence farmers, they rely on the corn, beans, and squash that they grow, supplemented with wild game, fish, and seasonal herbs they collect.
In cities you may encounter Tarahumara men wearing more modern clothing, but most of the women—and many of the men—still wear traditional attire. For men this consists of sandals, a white breechcloth, a flowing top cinched with a woven belt, and their ubiquitous headband. Attire for women is sandals, a long skirt, long-sleeved blouse, and a headband, all made of brightly colored printed fabric. The women are mostly encountered selling the crafts they create, which include baskets of pine needles and torote grass, woven belts, and beaded bracelets. Men are known for carving wooden figures and even more for the violins that they make from native woods—an art form they learned from the Spaniards.
Everyone who comes into close contact with Tarahumara culture comes away with a profound respect for these gentle people. That is not to say that all Tarahumara want to interact with you. When approaching their abodes, it is polite to stand at the outer edges of the property and wait quietly. If anyone wishes to greet you, they will eventually come out. If not, then you should move on. This same reserve is appropriate when encountering them in town. You should also take care not to photograph any Tarahumara without their express permission.
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