Purepecha Culture, Language & Art

Instructor: Joanna Harris

Joanna has taught high school social studies both online and in a traditional classroom since 2009, and has a doctorate in Educational Leadership

The Purepecha tribe is of little note, but of great importance, to the country of Mexico's culture and traditions. If you would like to more about these proud people, there is information in this lesson just for you.

The Purepechas

Among the Mexican people of today can be found the remnants of what was once one of the mightiest and most advanced civilizations of Native American tribes in Central America. Their artwork and culture still have influences on the country of Mexico today, visible in the notable Mexican figures who claim their ancestry, such as NASA astronaut Jose Hernandez and musician Don Pedro Dimas.

The Purepecha tribe was located in the Michoacán region of Mexico along the Sierra Madre Mountains. Originally called the Tarascans, the Purepechas scratched out a large section in the area for themselves from among the more storied Aztec tribe.

Tarascan and Aztec Empires

The Purepechans had a distinct culture, language, and tradition that was wholly original to the region and may also account for their different history and relationship with the conquering Spanish in the 1500s. For example, the Tarascan language of Purepecha is how the tribe derived their name. The Purepechan language, however, is not related to the neighboring Aztec language, despite the close geographical proximity of the two tribes.

Quechua was the language spoken among the South American Inca tribe located in modern-day Peru. Purepechan is closely related to Quechua which signifies that the Purepechas may have originated in South America among the Incas, and then later migrated to Central America to settle in the same area as the Aztecs. Today, there are more than 120,000 Mexicans who are speakers of Purepecha who can also trace their lineage back to this tribe.

Purepechan Culture

Arguably, the Purepechas were more advanced than the other Nahuatl tribes located around the Sierra Madre Mountains. In pre-colonial times, the Purepechas ruled their territory in the Michoacán area without interference from the Aztecs.

The Purepechas were not taken over by the Spanish in the same way or at the same time as the Aztecs, who came under Spanish rule in the early 1500s. The Purepechans were not overrun by the Spanish until the 1530s, and had ignored the Aztec's pleas for help for decades. When the Spanish did conquer the Purepechans, they ruled them as a feudal state that paid taxes, rather than force them to experience total subjugation (as they did with the Aztecs.)

There was, however, a war fought between the two nations that ended in the Purepechas favor, mainly due to the fact that the Purepechans made their weapons from copper and bronze. By the 1470s, the Purepechans had not only won the war with the Aztecs, they were also able to take over more Aztec lands, settling well into Tenochtitlan, the Aztec homeland.

Purepechan society was also advanced, with hierarchal political and social structure that included religious leaders-- who were easily distinguished by the tobacco gourds they wore around their neck-- government advisors, warriors, and craftsmen who operated their own guilds. Craftsmen were very important to the Purepecha people as they relied heavily on trade.

Craftsmen were known for their jewelry made of obsidian, silver, gold, bronze, copper, and turquoise. Trade was central to the Purepechan culture and allowed them to control the Aztecs and keep them at bay after the conflicts of 1470. The Purepechans were also known for their fishing ability, and their tribe's name means 'Place of the Fish Masters'.

Tarascan Craftsmen
Tarascan Craftsmen

They also controlled the mines where silver and gold were found in the area, which also explains their place of importance in trade and commerce in the Michoacán area. Purepechan marketplaces could contain pottery, bronze and copper weapons, jewelry, fish, tobacco, and large assortments of vegetables.


The Purepechan religion was distinctive from the other Nahuatl tribes of the region. The Purepechan religion did involve human sacrifice and blood sacrifice of worshippers, but there was more emphasis on the offering of prayers than blood. The main god, Kurikaweri (Lord of the Sky and Warfare) could be reached for supplication via blood or the burning of firewood. His wife, the Purepechan goddess Kwerawáperi (Mother of the Earth) ruled by his side along with their daughter Xarátenga who controlled the Pacific Ocean.

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