Tarahumara (Raramuri) Indians
AN ENDANGERED SPECIES (Author: Shep Lenchek) ... Never conquered by the Aztecs and despite being defeated by Mexican armies, the Tarahumaras still consider themselves an independent nation. So strong is this conviction that in the Nineteen Fifties they more than once took complaints directly to the United Nations. Perhaps the purest and most unmixed of any Indian tribe in Mexico, so little is known about them that their true name "Raramuri" was corrupted to "Tarahumara" by white men and never corrected.
Most of the world knows them only as long distance runners. Living in high altitudes, they have developed tremendous lung capacity and in more primitive times hunted deer and mountain goats, running them down on foot. In more modern times, they have run non-stop in relay teams from Chihuahua City to El Paso, a distance of 230 miles, to open the Pan-American Road Races.
However, this running ability is only one facet of their life style. The truly remarkable thing about them is an ancient religion, which has bred into them a moral code so strict that they are unable to tell a lie. Psychologists suggest that over the centuries this value system has actually caused physiological changes in their brain that preclude speaking anything but the truth. Nor can they cheat or fail to aid a fellow tribesman.
They are described as loyal to God, to their own traditions and their own culture. Although the majority of them have converted to Christianity, there are still some "gentile" groups who have refused baptism. Those converted have introduced their own ancient concepts into their new religion.
God is both Father and Mother. Respect for one another is of prime importance. They give greater value to persons than to things. In their eyes both the white man and the Mestizo are more pagan than their unbaptized fellow Raramuri because over the years these two groups have enslaved, lied, cheated and driven them off most of the fertile land they once inhabited.
Today the "People" (the translation of the name Raramuri) have been driven into the highest reaches of the Sierra Tarahumara, in the State of Chihuahua. There, even the valleys are over 5000 feet above sea level. Now, it appears their last bit of fertile land may be taken over by outsiders, forcing the Indians to retreat higher into the mountains.
Despite this, most Raramuri still ignore the blandishments of Mexican city living. They cling to native costume. The men wear a loincloth, held together by a wool girdle wrapped twice around the waist. A long, loose, full-sleeved shirt of cotton and a cloth headband complete the outfit. The women wear full multiple or layered skirts. Blouses are always worn loose at the waist. They have full sleeves, heavily pleated at the wrists and shoulders. Like the men, they wear cloth headbands.
What has kept the "People" true to their ancient customs is a combination of a wilderness homeland and an inherited value system of obligation to fellow men, plus their devotion to ancient Gods they brought with them into Christianity. Thus, they still look on the moon and stars as religious symbols. To pay homage to the Cross and Saints they sign across the face and turn their body to the left, the same way they saluted their ancient God. This sign of the cross is not of Christian origin but was part of their ancient dance, "Yumari," in which they offered food to the four points of the compass and their traditional God to insure rain and ward off evil.
Recognizing this indigenous dance-oriented method of prayer, the Jesuits introduced the "Dance of the Matachines." It originated in the northern province of Venice in Italy, and is still performed there during Carnival. The Raramuri perform it on all the Holy Days of the Catholic Church. Costumed, masked dancers move to the beat of drums and the wailing of flutes. Other dances are performed to solicit rain, heal the sick, and bury the dead. All blend the new Christianity with ancient practices.