Raramuri Tribe of Mexico: People, Language & Culture

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

Who are the Raramuri people of Mexico? In this lesson, we'll explore this fascinating indigenous group, learning about their way of life, history, language, and their amazing skill at running.

Who Are the Raramuri?

The Raramuri are a group of about 50,000 to 70,000 people that live in the Sierra Tarahumara canyons of Mexico. They build homes in caves along the canyon walls, under stone overhangs, and in wood or stone cabins. While they do not use much modern technology, don't mistake their cave dwelling for the cavemen featured in cartoons. Their homes are well decorated and comfortable as well as easily defended if necessary.

Raramuri History

When the Spanish first encountered the Raramuri people in the 1500s, they named them the Tarahumara. Rather than engaging in armed conflict, as the Aztec did, the Raramuri simply retreated to live in the remote areas of Copper Canyon in Northwest Mexico, better known as the Sierra Tarahumara along the locals.

Unfortunately, when valuable minerals were discovered in the canyon, the appearance of miners caused the Raramuri to vanish into even deeper recesses of the nearly impassable terrain.

Diet and Clothing

The Raramuri are excellent farmers, growing a steady diet of corn and beans with the addition of potatoes, apples, and herbs where the soil will allow. They also supplement their diet with wild game and fish, as well as domestically raised goats and cattle.

Raramuri girl hearding the family goats.
Raramuri, Goats

While western style clothing is becoming more popular, it is not uncommon to see Raramuri men and women in their traditional clothing styles. For men, this includes a white shirt and paints, sometimes with the addition of a colorful print, and either a red or a red and white headband.

Women usually wear wrap-around skirts with colorful belts and accessories. Both men and women wear sandals made from the tread of car tires.

Raramuri man wearing traditional clothing.

Raramuri Runners

As the Raramuri live in remote settlements in rocky canyons, it is easier to travel between communities on foot rather than in a motorized vehicle or on the back of an animal.

Over the centuries, these people have become so accustomed to running, especially over great distances and rugged terrain, that even their name, in their native language, means 'runners'.

Recently, some Raramuri have competed in marathons and ultramarathons, races covering 100 miles or more. They often win or place quite well, to the vexation of other runners who cannot fathom losing to runners wearing sandals made from old tires and who occasionally stop to take a smoke break along the trail. The book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall documents much of this tribe's running practices.

Hunting and Games

Besides a means of travel between villages, the Raramuri also run as part of their hunting style, known as persistence hunting. They will chase an animal, often a deer, for up to 160 km. This isn't to say it's a high-speed chase. They just continuously pursue the animal, not allowing it to rest, until it becomes slow and tired enough for the Raramuri hunters to close in and kill it.

Running also plays a large part in Raramuri games and sports. A favorite game, called Rarjiparo, is a combination of soccer, a relay race, and a marathon.

Teams of runners will kick a wooden ball, a different ball per team, as they run along a footpath. At certain intervals, one runner will pass the ball to the next runner then race ahead to the next relay point. Some races only take a few hours and cover shorter distances, but some races will last for days and cover over 100 miles.

Raramuri Language

The language of the Raramuri is either called Tarahumara, according to the Spanish name for the people, or more accurately Raramuri ra'icha. It is part of the Uto-Aztecan language family and includes five dialects corresponding to the location of the Raramuri community.

The largest dialect is Central Raramuri ra'icha while Western, Northern, Southeastern, and Southwestern variations are recognized. Thanks to the indigenous languages law, passed by the Mexican government in 2003, the language of the Raramuri is now an officially recognized language with state support to translate materials into the indigenous tongue.

Efforts are also being made to teach the language in schools as a push to preserve indigenous languages as well as to encourage literacy among these remote communities.

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