Oct 132012
 

Several of the 62 indigenous languages currently spoken in Mexico are considered “endangered”, spoken by so few people that they will die out in the next few years. The most extreme example is Ayapaneco, a language believed to be spoken today by only two individuals.

Ayapaneco (also known as Ayapa Zoque, Tabasco Zoque and Zoque-Ayapaneco) is one of several Zoque languages and dialects. The only remaining native speakers live in Ayapa, a village 10 kilometers (6 miles) east of Comalcalco, in the state of Tabasco. The native name for the language is Nuumte Oote (True Voice).

The language fell into disuse in the middle of the 20th century. Among the factors involved were the introduction of compulsory schooling in Spanish and the migration of many native speakers to towns and cities where the language was not spoken.

Manuel Segovia (77), one of the last native speakers of Ayapaneco (Credit: Cuartoscuro).

Manuel Segovia (77), one of the last native speakers of Ayapaneco (Credit: Cuartoscuro).

The last two known native speakers of the language are Isidro Velazquez (aged 70) and Manuel Segovia (77). The bad news is that they are apparently reluctant to talk to each other! They also disagree about some of the language’s details. The only one of their relatives attempting to learn the language is Manuel’s son (also named Manuel) who, for the past five years, has studied several hours a day in an attempt to become sufficiently fluent to teach it and keep it alive.

There is some good news. Daniel Suslak, a linguistic anthropologist at Indiana University, is trying to complete the first ever dictionary of the language, and two young Mexican film-makers plan to shoot a documentary entitled “Lengua Muerta” (Dead Language) starring the last two native speakers. The film’s director, Denisse Quintero (28), hopes to create an audiovisual memory that will serve future generations, while at the same time increasing awareness among the present generation of the need to preserve the remaining indigenous languages, together with the cultures that they represent. For more about their project (in Spanish), see the documentary-makers’ plea for funding and this Youtube video.

Some estimates put the number of different Indian languages in the 16th century in what became “New Spain” as high as 170. This number had dwindled to about 100 by 1900, and has continued to decline to the present day. The latest estimates are that at least 62 distinct languages (and 100 dialects) are still spoken somewhere in the country. The precise numbers are often debated by linguists, given that the distinction between a dialect and a language is not universally agreed.

Language is an essential part of culture, and every time a native language is lost, Mexico’s rich cultural tapestry loses a few more strands.

Want to learn more?

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Threats to the traditional Tarahumara way of life, part two

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Sep 132012
 

In the first part of this two-part article – Threats to the traditional Tarahumara way of life, part one – we looked at the threats to traditional Tarahumara life posed by alcohol, deforestation and the construction of new or improved roads in the Sierra Tarahumara (Copper Canyon) area.

In this part, we consider the impacts of drug cultivation, mining and tourism.

Drug cultivators and drug cartels

The incursion of drug cultivators seeking land for growing marijuana and opium poppies into the Canyon country has further marginalized the Tarahumara, sometimes labelled “Cimarones” (“Wild Ones”) by the newcomers. Drug cultivators have sometimes registered parcels of land as theirs and then ejected the Indians by force. Obviously, they choose the best available land, and their cultivation methods are designed to produce quick results, rather than sustainability.

Alvarado (1996) divides anti-drug policy into various time periods. First came an emphasis on catching those responsible, then came exhaustive efforts to eradicate the crops. Crop eradication has its own serious environmental downside, since it involves the widespread and indiscriminate use of aerially-applied herbicides, alleged to include Agent Orange, Napalm and Paraquat.

Alvarado’s study is an interesting analysis of the incredible, quickly-acquired wealth (and accompanying violence and corruption) that characterizes some settlements on the fringes of the Sierra Tarahumara. In some towns, for example, there are few visible means of economic support but the inhabitants are able to purchase far more late-model pick-ups than can their counterparts in major cities. Murder rates in these towns are up to seven times the Chihuahua state average. Violence even has a distinct, seasonal pattern, with peaks in May-June (planting time) and October-November (harvest time).

The levels of violence and injustice led Edwin Bustillos (winner of the 1996 Goldman Prize for Ecology) to change the focus of CASMAC, the NGO he directed, from environmental conservation to the protection of Tarahumara lives. In 1994, CASMAC was instrumental in stopping a 90-million-dollar World Bank road-building project that would have opened up still more of the Sierra Tarahumara to timber companies.

Mining

Besides deforestation and its resultant impacts, mining has had several other adverse effects on the Tarahumara and the local landscape. Mining activity has increased in the past decade as metal prices have been high and the federal government has encouraged foreign investment in the sector. Mining leads to a reduction in wildlife and to the contamination of water resources. The most damaging pollutants are heavy metals.

Tourism

Even tourism poses a potential threat. In the past decade, investments totaling 75 million dollars have been made to improve infrastructure (highways, runways, drainage systems, water treatment facilities, electricity) in the Copper Canyon region so that the area has the hotels, restaurants and recreational activities to handle six times the current number of visitors. The plan includes three remodeled train stations and a cable car that is already in operation. Sadly, the Tarahumara were not consulted. The plan essentially deprives them of some communal land with nothing being offered in exchange. Clearly, they are in danger of losing control over even more of their natural resources, especially since improved highways will benefit other groups such as drugs growers.

Anthrologist María Fernanda Paz, a researcher in socio-environmental conflicts at UNAM’s Regional Center for Multidisciplinary Studies, argues that these recent conflicts in the Copper Canyon region have stemmed from the federal government’s support for inflows of foreign capital, helped by modifications to the land ownership provisions enshrined in article 27 of the Constitution, changes made in 1992 during the administration of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. In her view, the developers behind contentious projects first do everything possible to hide the project from public view until it is well advanced. Once people start to object, they then identify the community leaders and do everything possible to get them on their side. Before long, they have succeeded in creating a massive rift in the community, paying some very well indeed for their land, and others next to nothing.

Finally, the good news

The  Tarahumara recently (12 March 2012) won one of the greatest victories to date for indigenous peoples in Mexico. The Tarahumara (rarámuri) community of Huetosachi in the state of Chihuahua has now been recognized by Mexico’s Supreme Court as having long-standing indigenous territorial rights (but not formal ownership) that must be respected by the Copper Canyon Development Fund (Fideicomiso Barrancas del Cobre). This is truly a landmark victory. The Tarahumara have been guaranteed the right to be consulted over all Development Plans, and to select the benefits they will receive in exchange for any loss of ancestral territory. Finally, this juggernaut of a tourist development plan must respect the territories and natural resources of the Tarahumara.

This was truly David against Goliath. Huetosachi is a tiny settlement of only 16 families, about 10 km from where the main tourist complex is being built near the Divisadero railway station. The village has no water, electricity or health services.

The Copper Canyon Development Fund is now obligated to create a Regional Consultative Council allowing the villagers of Huetosachi and other settlements a say in the negotiations to decide what level of development is acceptable, and what the villagers expect in return. This council is expected to include representatives of 27 indigenous communities in the immediate area between Creel and Divisadero.

This landmark court decision could well be the first of many as indigenous groups elsewhere in Mexico fight their own battles against developers of various kinds. There could still be more court cases concerning the Copper Canyon region since it is widely expected that this initial success will lead to a legal challenge against the siting of the cable car. The villagers are also reported to be discussing how best to deal with water contamination allegedly resulting from existing hotels, and the possibility of a golf course being built on the canyon rim.

Sources:

  1. Alvarado, C.M. (1996) La Tarahumara: una tierra herida. Gobierno del Estado de Chihuahua. Somewhat repetitive academic analysis of the violence of the drug-producing zones in the state of Chihuahua, based in part on interviews with convicted felons.
  2. Merrill, W.L. (1988) Raramuri Souls – Knowledge and Social Progress in North Mexico. Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.
  3. Nauman, T. (1997) “Tala ilegal para la siembra de mariguana y opio en Chihuahua” p. 50 in El Financiero, May 12, 1997. Describes the Arareko project.
  4. Plancarte, F. (1954) El problema indígena tarahumara. INI. Mexico. Spanish language description published by National Indigenous Institute.
  5. Shoumatoff, A. (1995) “The Hero of the Sierra Madre” pp 90 – 99 of Utne Reader (July-August, 1995), reprinted from Outside (March 1995). An account of the determined efforts by Edwin Bustillos to prevent further environmental destruction in the Copper Canyon region.

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Threats to the traditional Tarahumara way of life, part one

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Sep 102012
 

The extreme isolation of the Tarahumara (until recent years) and their adaptation of some elements of the alien Spanish/Mexican culture have enabled them to survive in what most observers would regard as an extraordinarily hostile natural environment. The effects of this isolation are reflected in their culture, in their relatively equal gender roles in terms of their economy, their flexibility of work schedule, lack of economic specialization and their willingness to share available food when necessary to ensure survival.

Their isolation has also hindered the emergence of any well‑defined leadership system. A lack of any “official” hierarchy make it much more difficult to resolve any serious disputes. It has also meant that the shy and politically naive Tarahumara have found it difficult to counteract intruders, whether they are government officials or drug‑dealers. As more roads are improved, even the furthest, most remote sanctuaries, of the Tarahumara come under threat.

Some Tarahumara have adopted more mestizo culture than others; the “gentile/baptized” distinction, first recognized by Lumholtz, with all its associated differences in settlement patters and lifestyle arose from the resistance of many Tarahumara to the imposition of a Spanish/mestizo culture that they considered “alien”. The more traditional Tarahumara still prefer to live in relative isolation and not to resettle into fixed villages where there would be insurmountable pressure on their culture.  The mestizos in the Copper Canyon region, who occupied the best land by force and formed villages in the European‑derived tradition, have far more links with modern Mexico, and have preserved their economic dominance over the Indians.

None of this means that the traditional Tarahumara way of life has remained unchanged or will not continue to undergo modifications in the future. Any changes to the environment can have serious adverse impacts on their abilities to find sufficient food. The main drivers of environmental change have been drug-growing, forestry, mining and tourism.

In addition, they have to manage changes which, to some extent, have been thrust upon them by some of the government and other efforts aimed at helping them. For example, modern medicine and education threaten to change the Tarahumara population balance. Today, more infants survive to adulthood and fewer adults die as a result of accidents. The problem for the Tarahumara is how to feed and support an ever‑growing population using existing methods of cultivation and herding.

Alcohol

Equally important is the transformation of the traditional Tarahumara system of wants by contact with mestizos. Prior to these contacts, the Tarahumara had little or no access to commercially-made alcohol. Tarahumara tesgüino took considerable time and effort to make and had to be consumed rapidly, meaning that Tarahumara could get drunk occasionally, but could not remain drunk for long. The ready availability of commercial alcohol has completely changed this dynamic.

Slightly over a decade ago, an innovative, women-led project reportedly changed the 3500-inhabitant community of Arareco (8 km from the town of Creel) for the better. Kari Igomari Niwara, a 200-member women’s organization, began in 1992, and is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. It has often been quoted as an outstanding example of what the Raramuri (Tarahumara) can do if left to their own devices and allowed to control their own resources. In this project, they have sought encouragement and support, rather than direction and dependence. By 1997, Kari Igomari Niwara had organized a health center, primary school, bilingual literacy program, drinking water system, bakery, three small food supply stores, a handicrafts business, a restaurant and collective transportation for the village.

One of the first collective efforts of the Kari Igomari Niwara group was to get the cantinas (bars) of Creel closed at 4pm in the afternoon, so that their husbands wouldn’t get so drunk. Almost 70% of Arareco women reported having been beaten by their husbands, the vast majority of attacks coming when their husbands were drunk. After the initial cantina victory, the men became even more repressive, but the women persisted and four years later managed to persuade the church to build them a small health center despite the objections of their local male-dominated council. The women have already reduced nutrition-related infant mortality to 25% of its former level and have brought birth rates down by 50%  (Nauman, 1997).

Deforestation

The deforestation of the Copper Canyon region has a long history and has significantly changed the resource base of the Tarahumara to the point where their traditional way of life in the canyons is probably impossible to sustain in the future. Deforestation was started by mining companies who cut trees to make pit props and burn as fuel. In the 1890s, the region started to supply timber to the USA, via concessions given by Chihuahua state governor Enrique Creel to companies such as the Sierra Madre Land and Lumber Company, owned by William Randolph Hearst. Today, many of the local ejidos continue to cut more timber than they can ever replant, and there are more sawmills in operation than could ever be sustainable.

In many places, there are clear signs of the immense environmental destruction wrought by timber cutting, often on slopes so steep that there is little chance of reforesting them in the future. Soil erosion is rampant in some areas and satellite imagery reveals huge areas that are no longer forested.

Recent droughts have not helped, and one NGO, Alternative Training and Community Development (ALCADECO) has explored their links with deforestation and migration. The NGO’s director, Laura Frade, argues that the long-term effects of drought go far beyond the obvious. Poor crops in times of drought results in the abandonment of traditional lands. Families become dependent on poorly-paid jobs in the timber industry, or on drug plantations, or dependent on the sale of handicrafts to tourists. Many of those that fail to make ends meet then become the unwilling recipients of blankets and food from charity organizations. Others move to cities like Chihuahua, where they try to survive by begging or turn to alcohol.

New and improved roads

The development of forestry required the development of roads and vehicle tracks. Road development continues to this day and is not necessarily a beneficial thing. Improved road access has opened up new areas for lumbering, mining and tourism. In turn, small stores spring up, even in remote areas, selling mestizo items such as radios, carbonated drinks, cigarettes, and manufactured clothing. The use of money has become more widespread. Better roads have enabled traders to build a credit relationship with Tarahumara Indians, offering them non-traditional goods in exchange for a share of the next maize harvest. This has led to typical problems of indebtedness and exploitation.

Further reading:

Sources:

  1. Lartigue, F. (1970) Indios y bosques. Políticas forestales y comunales en la Sierra Tarahumara. Edicions de la Casa Chata # 19, Mexico.
  2. Lumholtz, C. (1902) Unknown Mexico. 2 volumes. Scribner’s Sons, New York. Republished in both English and Spanish. Fascinating ethnographic account from the last century.
  3. Nauman, T. (1997) “Tala ilegal para la siembra de mariguana y opio en Chihuahua” p. 50 in El Financiero, May 12, 1997. Describes the Arareko project.
  4. Vatant, Francoise. La explotación forestal y la producción doméstica tarahumara. Un estudio de caso: Cusárare, 1975-1976. INAH, Mexico.

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Case study of a Tarahumara garden

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Sep 032012
 

A cave dwelling known as  “Cueva del Chino” is located a short distance from the Posada Barrancas railway halt, very close to the present-day location of the Posada Barrancas Mirador hotel. When I first visited this cave, in the mid-1980s, I was struck by the obvious dangers of living so close to a precipitous drop. The cave is on a very narrow ledge, some 20 meters or so below the canyon rim. There is a local spring which acts as a water supply, though it is perhaps not always a reliable year-round supply. Outside the cave is a tangle of vegetation, much greener and more varied than elsewhere along the canyon wall. It was only on my second or third visit to this cave that I realized that this unruly vegetation was not only due to the nearby natural water source, but also due to the assiduous work of the cave’s residents. The tangled vegetation was actually a very productive garden, offering a variety of vegetables, fruit and herbs.

Accustomed, as most of us are, to the idea of crops and plants in neat orderly rows, the mini-jungle in the cave’s small garden-farm may come as a surprise. But there are sound ecological (and economic) advantages to maintaining, and even encouraging, this apparent disorder. Among the major advantages of mixed cropping (sowing several different crops more or less at random in an area) are the following:

  • (a) some plants are perennial, others annual; hence a ground-cover is maintained all year and the likelihood of soil erosion is diminished
  • (b) taller plants provide shade for shorter plants, offering distinct microclimates within the garden
  • (c) some plants (legumes) help fix nitrogen in the soil; other plants need the nitrogen
  • (d) a variety of plants means a much more varied diet
  • (e) since different crops use different nutrients, the total yield off a small plot is greater with a mix of crops than with a single crop
  • (f) if disease or insects strike one plant, they may not be able to spread to the next plant of that kind
  • (g) if one crop fails for any reason, another may succeed; this may be enough to ward off starvation for another year
  • (h) in terms of energy efficiency, this is a very efficient system, since it involves relatively little labor; the output of energy will exceed the input (see The energy efficiency of farming in Mexico and elsewhere for more details)

Put simply, who really wants to work harder than necessary?

Cueva del Chino, 1989.Copyright Geo-Mexico; all rights reserved.

Cueva del Chino, with “garden” on the left, 1989.Copyright Geo-Mexico; all rights reserved.

Cueva del Chino, 2003.Copyright Geo-Mexico; all rights reserved.

Cueva del Chino, 2003 [from the opposite angle]. Copyright Geo-Mexico; all rights reserved.

The photos show the truly astonishing changes that took place in this cave dwelling and garden between 1989 and 2003. The major change in the area between those years was the construction of the Posada Barrancas Mirador, only a few steps away from the path leading down to the cave. This has led to a steady trickle of visitors who buy the locally-made pine needle basketwork (top photo) or leave behind a few pesos.

Are these changes really for the better? There are arguments on both sides, and I’m honestly not entirely sure. I haven’t been back for several years, but would welcome an update (and photo) from any Geo-Mexico reader who happens to visit.

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Tarahumara agriculture in the Copper Canyon region

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Aug 202012
 

At the time of the Spanish conquest, the Tarahumara were hunter‑gatherer‑cultivators, collecting what they could from local trees and plants, and using a version of shifting agriculture to produce crops of corn (maize), beans and squash. Their methods of farming were probably well‑ adjusted to the then-prevailing environmental conditions in the Copper Canyon region and caused little soil degradation.

With the arrival of the Spanish, the Tarahumara were forced to occupy progressively more marginal land where their traditional methods were unable to supply enough food for their numbers. However, the Spanish introduced them to new crops, new animals (goats, cows, sheep) and new techniques, principally the plow. Adopting these innovations enabled them to survive despite being deprived of their best land.

A reduction in the arable area available prevented them from continuing to grow crops by shifting cultivation. On the other hand, their newly acquired animals afforded them the possibility of adding manure to their farming plots on a regular basis, keeping them under cultivation more continuously than was previously possible.

For manuring purposes, herds of 15‑50 goats are penned into square enclosures (6 m x 6 m in size) each night for four nights. The pen is then moved. The method is slow but effective. Plots of land fertilized by this method give good yields for between 4 and 6 years. Cattle (5‑15 at a time) are also used to supply fertilizer but have to be kept on the same area for 15 nights, for an effect which lasts about three years.

In wintertime, stock is usually confined to caves or covered enclosures. The manure deposited is collected and transported in sacks to the farming plots in spring. A simple rotation system is used with about 25% of available land left uncultivated in any one year. Animals may be loaned out to other families for the purposes of land fertilization, or pooled together to ensure effective results.

The Tarahumara tilled their plots using a simple digging‑stick, which could be used with minimal risk on tiny plots of land, even on steep slopes. Following the adoption of the plow, it was much easier to cultivate larger fields on lower angle slopes, rather than smaller, steeper plots, principally because the plow disturbed the soil far more “efficiently” and to greater depth than the digging‑stick. On the other hand, the vegetation of the steep hillsides was subsequently left undisturbed.

Given the terrain, pasture is hard to find. Near the smaller settlements (ranchos), natural pasture exists only for a very short time during the rainy season. At other times the herds have to be taken ever greater distances in search of richer pickings. This has traditionally been done by the children, leaving the adults free for other tasks. Trips to find suitable pasture may last two or three days at a time.

Despite the difficulties of providing livestock with sufficient food, the animals provide a hedge against starvation, and are a measure of Tarahumara wealth. The balance between crops and livestock is critical to the Indians’ well‑being. This was not the case before the mestizos moved in and pushed the Tarahumara onto more marginal land, but it is today.

The yearly farming cycle

The Tarahumara agricultural calendar lasts about seven months, beginning with planting, at the end of April or in early May, and ending with harvesting, during late October, early November.

The planting date is determined by the phase of the moon, rumors of rain, offers of help, and by personal tradition. For a good maize crop, the plants should be about 30 cm high when the first heavy rains fall. The timing and duration of the rainy season is crucial to the success of the crop. Climatic uncertainty is compounded by the effects of pests and diseases. Many plants are damaged by a kind of worm but the Tarahumara believe they should be left alone since otherwise the entire crop will be lost. Immediately before the rains, many families are down to their last reserves of food, and many animals have to be slaughtered both for survival and to placate the Gods.

The young plants need a lot of vigilance to prevent animals from destroying them. This responsibility is shared among family members since the individual plots of land belonging to one family are so widely scattered. The adults will occupy themselves with mending and craft‑making while keeping an eye on the crops.

Towards the end of July, the young corn is weeded in a communal work effort, amidst general merriment, a sign of relief that next year’s food supply is well on its way. Beans are planted in early August. Harvesting takes place in late October, early November. When about half of the maize has been harvested, corn beer (tesgüino) is prepared, the rest of the harvest becoming a communal or cooperative effort.

Some Tarahumara practice transhumance, moving down to the canyon floors in winter for better shelter and access to pasture. However, many Tarahumara, especially the more Mexicanized, stay in one place all year, lighting fires and wearing warmer clothes as their protection against the cold. The winter time is when men make musical instruments (guitars, violins and mouth harps), and the family collects firewood, tends the goats and make baskets and other items, some of which will be sold to tourists.

See also:

Sources /  Bibliography:

  1. Bennett, W. and Zingg, R. (1935) The Tarahumara. Univ. of Chicago Press. Reprinted by Rio Grande Press, 1976.
  2. Kennedy, J.G. (1978) Tarahumara of the Sierra Madre; Beer, Ecology and Social Organization, AHM Publishing Corp, Arlington Heights, Illinois. Republished, as The Tarahumara of the Sierra Madre: Survivors on the Canyon’s Edge in 1996.
  3. Pennington, C. (1963) The Tarahumar of Mexico, their environment and material culture. Univ. of Utah Press. Reprint by Editorial Agata, Guadalajara, 1996.

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The settlement patterns of the Tarahumara in Mexico’s Copper Canyon region

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Aug 132012
 

To understand the distinctive settlement patterns of the Tarahumara today, we first need to romp through a thumbnail history covering their experiences during the years following the Spanish Conquest.

While it is uncertain precisely when the Tarahumara arrived in this area, or where they came from, the archaeological evidence seems to support the view that they probably only arrived a short time before the Spanish reached the New World. By 1500 A.D., the Tarahumara had stone dwellings, simple blankets of agave fiber, stone “metates” (pestles), and combined hunting and gathering with the cultivation of corn (maize) and gourds. Settlements at this time would have been small and scattered, with no more than a few families able to survive in any given area. Then the Spanish arrived.

In early colonial times, Spanish explorers and clerics gradually moved ever further north of Mexico City. The first twelve Jesuits had arrived in New Spain in 1572; more arrived in 1576 and by 1580, they had already established centers for their work in Michoacán (1573), Guadalajara (1574), Oaxaca (1575), Veracruz (1578) and Puebla (1580).  However, the inaccessibility of the Copper Canyon area prevented them from extending northwards as fast as they had hoped.The first important Spanish contact with the Tarahumara dates from around 1610 when a Jesuit missionary, Juan Fonte, established a mission at San Pablo de Balleza. This mission, located between the traditional territories of the Tarahumara and the neighboring Tepehuan Indians, was short-lived. In 1616, a Tepehuan‑inspired revolt led to Fonte’s death. Several hundred Spaniards along with thousands of Indians were killed in the ensuing two years of conflict.

During the remainder of the 17th century, however, the Jesuits made a steady advance, establishing numerous missions including Sisoguichi, which is still the center of their influence today. These Jesuit missions were a clerical modification of the encomienda system, an institution designed to help spread Spanish civilization, by rewarding chosen settlers with the right to collect tributes and labor from the indigenous population. The Jesuit missions usually had two friars teaching religion, handicrafts, agriculture and self‑government, together with a few soldiers for protection.

As early as 1645, some Tarahumara were working in mines, some as slaves, others voluntarily for wages. This is when both the Jesuits and the mine operators encouraged the Indians to relocate and concentrate their homes in villages or towns. This major change in settlement pattern facilitated the provision of religion and education and made it easier to organize the labor force. The Tarahumara resisted this move more strongly than other indigenous groups did elsewhere in New Spain.

The early Jesuit/Tarahumara contacts were relatively friendly, but disillusionment soon set in and around 1650 the Tarahumara essentially split into two opposing factions, the “baptizados” (Christians) and the “gentiles” (unconverted). The former decided that the priests offered a worthwhile alternative to their traditional way of life and remained in the missions. The gentiles, blaming the Spanish God for widespread epidemics, withdrew into the difficult terrain of mountains and canyons of the Copper Canyon region, effectively trying to avoid any further contact with the Spanish. Later rebellions by the gentiles , such as that in the 1690s, were brutally put down by Spanish troops. This ended Tarahumara military resistance but ensured that they withdrew still further into the canyons.

The mission settlements

The two groups of Tarahumara now have very different settlement patterns, and some significant differences in their way of life. The baptizados live in mission villages, many of which are located east of the true canyon region, where valleys offer ample arable land and better possibilities for highways and communications. The settlements are nucleated, with homes built close to the protection of the church, and farmland surrounding the villages. These villages attracted many mestizo settlers, who saw opportunities in agriculture, forestry and commerce. Intermarriage became more common and the Tarahumara’s social customs changed as they assimilated more mestizo habits and became more Mexicanized.

Cerocahui

The mission settlement of Cerocahui

The largest settlement in the region is Creel, a much more modern town, founded in 1906. The town received a massive boost following the completion of the railway between Creel and Chihuahua in 1907, and again in the 1960s when the “Copper Canyon” railway to Los Mochis and Topolobampo was finally completed.

Creel has also benefited in the past decade from its designation as one of Mexico’s Magic Towns and has received significant investments in tourist and urban infrastructure. Set at an elevation of 2340 m (7,600 feet) above sea level, Creel lies some distance from the nearest canyon, but has become the main marketing, lumber and tourist center and the gateway for trips into the more remote areas. Its population is about 6500.

Twenty kilometers from Creel is Cusárare (“Place of Eagles”), a typical mission village. The simple mission church, originally erected in 1767, was rebuilt in the 1970s. The village has a few small “corner” stores, some also selling tourist souvenirs. Less than an hour’s walk away is Painted Cave, a good-sized cave with pictographs said to have been left by the “Ancient Ones”. In the mid‑1890s, ethnologist Carl Lumholtz wrote that “there are no Mexicans [as opposed to Indians] living in Cusárare, nor nearby. Except for the small mining camp in the Copper Canyon, there are none for more than 50 miles to south, east or west.”

The gentiles‘ settlements

The traditional Tarahumara, the gentiles, are less Mexicanized, though they continue to use introduced crops, animals and agricultural implements acquired from the Spanish priests and settlers. Restricted to marginal land on the canyons’ rims and walls, they live in small, variable‑sized, dispersed settlements, often several hours apart by foot. This pattern is no surprise, given the extremes of topography that characterize the area, the limited technology (plow agriculture) available to them, and their need for spatial mobility to ensure access to grazing land for small herds of sheep and goats.

In these marginal areas, only small pockets of potentially arable land exist and many families have plots of land scattered about a considerable area, with several hours’ walk between plots. The population of their dispersed settlements (ranchos) is variable, depending on the available resources of land and water, on the pattern of marriages, and on the amount of inherited land in other ranchos, but averages between 2 and 5 family groups, a total of between 10 and 25 individuals.

The serious challenge is finding any land suitable for farming

The serious challenge is finding any land suitable for farming. Photo: Tony Burton; all rights reserved.

The homes are often perched on the gently sloping tops of the steep-sided spurs that jut out from the canyon rim, affording spectacular views, but with dangerous drop-offs beyond the areas suitable for settlement and cultivation. Individual dwellings used to be stone and mud huts, or caves in the canyon wall. The Tarahumara’s skill with the axe (a 17th century introduction) is considerable and, today, houses and other structures are made almost entirely of wood, though many caves are still inhabited, at least for part of the year. Caves which face south are preferred and their position on distant hillsides is often marked by a black, smoke‑darkened upper rim.

Perhaps the best‑built structures are their storage boxes which are wooden cubes (side about 2 m) where notched hand‑hewn planks are fitted together so tightly that not even a mouse can gain access. These structures are raised about 50 cm off the ground, usually on boulders, and have wooden roof singles. They are used to store not only food but also animal hides, horsehair ropes, simple implements, cloth, yarn and anything considered valuable. Where wood is harder to obtain, they are built of stones and mud.

Their houses are constructed in a similar fashion, but with less attention to detail. Their houses are not, therefore, very permanent. Indeed, one ancient Indian tradition holds that when a member of the household dies, the house should be abandoned or destroyed. Nowadays, the family simply moves the structure a few hundred meters and rebuilds it. The houses have dirt floors and minimal furnishings, such as wooden benches and stumps, items for food preparation, metal plates and a bucket and some animal (goat or cow) skins for sleeping on. There may also be some rough blankets and a homemade violin.

Most gentiles have more than one dwelling since they wander far afield with their animals in search of pasture and food, and since many practice a form of transhumance, spending winters near the canyon floor and summers near the canyon rim.

Sources /  Bibliography:

  1. Bennett, W. and Zingg, R. (1935) The Tarahumara. Univ. of Chicago Press. Reprinted by Rio Grande Press, 1976. Classic anthropological work.
  2. Dunne, P.M. (1948) Early Jesuit Missions in Tarahumara. Univ. Calif. Press.
  3. Kennedy, J.G. (1978) Tarahumara of the Sierra Madre; Beer, Ecology and Social Organization, AHM Publishing Corp, Arlington Heights, Illinois. Republished, as The Tarahumara of the Sierra Madre: Survivors on the Canyon’s Edge in 1996. This anthropologist lived in one of the more remote Tarahumara areas for several months, accompanied by his wife and infant daughter.
  4. Lumholtz, C. (1902) Unknown Mexico. 2 volumes. Scribner’s Sons, New York. Republished in both English and Spanish, this is a fascinating ethnographic account dating back to the end of the 19th century.
  5. Pennington, C. (1963) The Tarahumar of Mexico, their environment and material culture. Univ. of Utah Press. The reprint by Editorial Agata, Guadalajara, 1996, of this classic account of Tarahumara life and culture is embellished with wonderful color photographs, taken by Luis Verplancken, S.J. (1926-2004), who ran the mission in Creel for many years.

Related posts:

Mar 052012
 

In a previous post–The development of Huatulco, the tourist resort in southern Oaxaca–we looked at how the tourist resort of Huatulco was created by Mexico’s National Tourism Development Fund (Fonatur) on a series of small bays in the state of Oaxaca. Clearly, this development was very much “top-down” and it has been widely criticized from many distinct points of view. From a geographical perspective, the most important criticisms have arisen from researchers such as Evelinda Santiago Jiménez and David Barkin, co-authors of a short article entitled “Local Participation and Sustainability: a study of three rural communities in Oaxaca, Southern Mexico.”

Their view is that government programs, such as Huatulco, “are generally conceived for areas where there are resources that can be transformed into commodities”. In the case of Huatulco, this means that “access to public services, such as potable water, is designed to satisfy the demands of the visitors and affluent local service providers, while the majority suffer from inadequate supplies and must accept the conditions imposed on them.” Santiago Jiménez and Barkin see this as “a new form of colonization, implemented in the name of modernity to expropriate communal lands with minimal guarantees and compensation; a process of excluding local peoples; a way to subordinate the local inhabitants…; and a process than causes harm to the environment.”

The article by Santiago Jiménez and Barkin appears in a book entitled Nature’s Revenge: Reclaiming Sustainability in an Age of Corporate Globalization (University of Toronto Press/Garamond 2006). This book, which in its own words, “proposes a radical definition of sustainability, reclaiming the word from the rhetoric typically used by corporations and governments to facilitate unrelenting economic growth and the notion of ‘business as usual'”, is well worth reading.

The authors argue for adopting a “commons”-based approach, where the term “commons” is understood to include not only the idea of commonly-held or shared rights and property (such as water, air, soil) but also the “social commons” comprised of community knowledge and culture. In stressing “the complex interrelations that exist at local, regional, national, continental, and global levels of human organization”, the authors critique advocates of “localism” and argue that “there can be no simple solution confined to one particular scale of action.”

A table in Chapter Two (Who cares about the Commons? by Josée Johnston) summarizes the key differences between sustainable development (as used by corporations and governments) and the commons-based approach favored by the book’s authors:

Table 2.1 of "Who cares about the Commons" by Josée Johnston.
Table 2.1 of “Who cares about the Commons” by Josée Johnston.

It is an example of this commons-based approach that Santiago Jiménez and Barkin examine in their chapter. They analyze an alternative, locally initiated project, based on the Integrated Development of Natural Resources (Administración Integral de los Recursos Naturales, AIRN), which stands in sharp contrast to Fonatur’s “top-down” development model. The AIRN approach recognizes that local communities have a symbiotic relationship with their surrounding natural environment that is “crucial for mutual survival”. It also recognizes that the community-environment links are dynamic, not static, and will change or evolve with time as the community develops.

AIRN proposals aim, essentially, to speed up this development process, helping to find new productive projects for the communities while managing ecosystems effectively and sustainably. The success of AIRN development projects relies on an active participation by the local community to identify issues, opportunities and ways to progress. It is crucial that the local people are equal partners in the decision-making process.

In the Huatulco area, the Center for Ecological Support (Centro de Suporte Ecológico, CSE), an NGO, adopted an AIRN approach to devise appropriate strategies to reverse the damage done to water resources by the construction and expansion of Huatulco tourist resort, which had destroyed forest cover, reduced infiltration and abstracted water from the aquifer that underlies the Copalita River. The CSE proposed a reforestation program to actively regenerate (not just protect) the forests throughout the basin, including parts of the Southern Sierra Madre (Sierra Madre del Sur). At the same time, the CSE helped local inhabitants to explore new (alternative) sources of employment and income based in their communities, which offered them a viable option to abandoning their land and accepting menial low-paid  jobs in the tourist resort or elsewhere.

Santiago Jiménez and Barkin looked at three small villages that had participated in the AIRN proposals made by the CSE: Santa María Xadani, Santa María Petatengo and El Achiote. Each village had participated in different ways, and with varying degrees of success. Close familial ties in Petatengo, for example, ensured more community support than in Xadani where internal divisions reduce social cohesion. El Achiote is a small “rancho” of 14 families, all of whom participated in the reforestation project. The families also combine to carve and paint the colorful Oaxacan whimsical wooden figures known as “alebrijes”. The settlement gained electricity service in 2000 and telephone service in 2001. Sadly, a combination of circumstances led to many local inhabitants migrating away from the area in search of better incomes and the CSE was forced to suspend its operations.

The authors point out that development plans have to take account of three very different concepts of time. The local communities in this region view time as somewhat flexible, preferring to make decisions by consensus, rather than in order to meet any deadline. Organizations providing funding for projects see time in terms of deadlines and financial commitments. Local and state governments view time in terms of political cycles, with a project having more chance of success if it is launched early on in an administration’s term. Santiago Jiménez and Barkin also emphasize the importance of projects having an effective mediator (as the CSE proved to be) “capable of balancing the rhythms of Western culture, of nature, and of traditional culture”.

Mexico badly needs more examples of successful mediators, particularly where large scale tourism projects are concerned.

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Aug 222011
 

The proposed implementation of a United Nations-supported carbon storage program (REDD) in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas is provoking plenty of controversy. The debate is hotting up because a follow-up program called REDD+ is due to start in 2012. A good summary of the situation is provided by REDD rag to indigenous forest dwellers.

What is REDD?

  • REDD stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation
  • It is a carbon storage program, started in 2008 by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) and the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP).
  • It aims to conserve biodiversity and boost carbon storage by preventing deforestation and by replanting forests
  • It is focused on developing countries, and provides them wih funds and technical support

At first glance, it would seem like a good fit for Chiapas, one of Mexico’s poorest states, where a high proportion of the population are reliant on subsistence farming. The Chiapas state government backs REDD, considering it as one way of helping mitigate the likely consequences of climate change in the state. Chiapas’ total emissions of carbon dioxide amount to 32 million metric tons/year, about 4.5% of the national figure. The Chiapas contribution comes mainly from deforestation and farming.

NGOs working in Chiapas warn that REDD poses a serious threat to indigenous people. About 20% of the 4.8 million people living in Chiapas belong to one or other of the state’s numerous indigenous groups. Land tenure in many parts of Chiapas is hotly disputed; this was one of the reasons for the EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation) uprising in 1994.

Protests in support of indigenous rights, Cancún climate summit

Protests in support of indigenous rights, Cancún climate summit, 2010

Miguel García, a spokesperson for an NGO founded in 1991 which supports indigenous groups and protects the environment, has been quoted as saying that REDD “will alter indigenous culture, will commodify it, giving commercial value to common assets like oxygen, water and biodiversity.” He is especially concerned that “resentment of and confrontation with the Zapatista grassroots supporters are being accentuated.”

As with so many geographic issues, there is no easy “right answer” here. The rights of indigenous groups need to be respected and their views taken into account, before any decision is made about the value of their forest home to global efforts to mitigate climate change.

This is one controversy we plan to follow as it plays out in coming months.

Want to read more?

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Children of Mexico’s indigenous groups are disadvantaged from birth

 Mexico's geography in the Press  Comments Off on Children of Mexico’s indigenous groups are disadvantaged from birth
May 302011
 

About 12% of Mexico’s population belongs to one or other of the numerous indigenous groups in the country. According to Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), Indian children under 5 years old are the group with the most needs in Mexico. They have a mortality rate that is 60% higher than that of non-Indian children.

Indigenous children in Mexico

Their disadvantages “increase when they belong to communities characterized by poverty, marginalization and discrimination.” Almost one-third of all children under 5 years of age belonging to Mexico’s indigenous population are below average height and weight. Illiteracy for this group is four times higher than the national average, because many of them leave school early to help their families make ends meet.

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Chapter 10 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico is devoted to Mexico’s indigenous peoples. Many other chapters of Geo-Mexico include significant discussion of the cultural and development issues facing Mexico’s indigenous groups.

Relying on geography for orientation: some indigenous languages do not have words for “left” or “right”

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May 242011
 

Mexico’s indigenous groups have long been a rich resource for investigations of all manner of research concerning culture, linguistics and sociology.

In this post, we consider Spatial Reasoning Skills in Tenejapan Mayans, a study relating to geographic reasoning, which relied on the participation of indigenous Tseltal-speaking Maya in Tenejapa (Chiapas), southern Mexico.

According to the inter-census population count in 2005, Tseltal (aka Tzeltal) is spoken by 371,730 individuals over the age of 5, making it Mexico’s fifth most-spoken indigenous language (after Náhautl, Maya or Yucatec Maya, Mixtec and Zapotec). More than 25% of Tseltal speakers are monolingual and do not speak Spanish. They reside in several municipalities of Chiapas, including Ocosingo, Altamirano, Tenejapa, Chanal, Sitalá, Amatenango del Valle, San Cristóbal de las Casas and Oxchuc.

Peggy Li, Linda Abarbanell and Anna Papafragou, the authors of the study, examined the “possible influences of language on thought in the domain of spatial reasoning.”

They distinguished between egocentric orientation and geocentric orientation:

“Language communities differ in their stock of reference frames (coordinate systems to reference locations and directions). English typically uses egocentrically-defined axes (“left-right”). Other languages like Tseltal lack such a system but use geocentrically-defined axes (“north-south”).”

They then compared how a group of Tseltal speakers tackled simple orientation tasks that required egocentric spatial reasoning skills. Their expectation was that Tseltal speakers would be poor at these tasks compared to a control group of Tseltal speakers who also spoke Spanish (which has many egocentric words).

Tzeltal elders
Tzeltal elders – looking right or left? Credit: Enrique Escalona, México D.F.

The expectation was that Tenejapans would find egocentric reasoning much harder than geocentric spatial reasoning since their language has no egocentric vocabulary for anything beyond their own bodies. [Tseltal “does have two “body part words “xin” (left) and “wa’el” (right)”, though they are never used for anything outside the body.] This expectation was based in part on an earlier anecdotal report that “a Tenejapan blindfolded and spun around 20 times in a darkened house was able to point in the agreed [compass] direction while still dizzy and blindfolded”.

To some people’s surprise, the Tseltal speakers were able to solve tasks requiring egocentric skills at a rate far higher than mere chance would suggest, and indeed with a higher success rate than tasks requiring geocentric skills. The researcher concluded that tasks requiring egocentric spatial orientation skills are actually easier than those requiring geocentric spatial orientation, and that the absence of “left/right” in a language does not necessarily translate into any conceptual gap.

If Tseltal speakers don’t use “left and right” to locate objects, how do they describe where things are?

“In place of egocentric coordinates, Tenejapans and other Tseltal speakers utilize a system of terms (“alan” and “ajk’ol”) based on the overall inclination of the terrain (“downhill” and “uphill”) which they inhabit. These geocentrically-defined terms are extended and used even when one is on flat terrain to reference the general directions of uphill and downhill which roughly correspond to the north-south axis. Moreover, they are used in descriptions of small scale arrays such as the arrangement of items on tabletops for which English speakers prefer “left” and “right.” ”

We hope the Tenejapans (each received 50 pesos for participating) did not give all their secrets away at once, but have saved some for the enlightenment of future researchers…

Li, P., Abarbanell, L.,& Papafragou, A. (2005). Spatial reasoning skills in Tenejapan Mayans. Proceedings from the 27th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.