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Mines, Missionaries and the Sierra Tarahumara

Before the arrival of Europeans in the 17th century, the northern Sierra Madre Occidental was home to several dozen indigenous groups. Mining engineers and entrepreneurs came to extract rich veins of gold and silver. Missionaries followed in search of “lost souls.” By the end of the colonial era, however, the region was only sparsely populated. Entire communities were wiped out by introduced diseases to which they had no biological immunities, and a life of virtual slavery in mines claimed the lives of countless men and boys.

One of the largest remaining indigenous groups in the Sierra Tarahumara (AKA Copper Canyon) is the Tarahumara (Tara-who-MAH-rah) for which it was named. Although this semi-nomadic people initially resisted the doctrine of Jesuit missionaries, they eventually accepted the Catholic religion. When the Pope abruptly expelled the Jesuits from the New World in 1767, the Tarahumara---left to their own devices---merged recently acquired Catholic rituals with time-honored beliefs of their own.

Today their celebrations reflect this overlapping of cultures, honoring their ancestors’ ways right along with Christian dogma. Easter, for example, heralds the planting of life-giving maize along with the resurrection of Christ.

The Tarahumara gather for community projects and to celebrate holy days, but otherwise prefer to live in individual homesteads called rancherías. Those who maintain a traditional lifestyle winter deep within the canyons, where they have access to streams, fields and fruit orchards. During the intense heat of summer, families may move to simple wooden shelters closer to the canyon rim. Several generations ago, large, open-faced caves were the lodgings of choice.

Known for their strength and stamina, Tarahumara men with no special preparation have won marathons and other international endurance races, sometimes wearing the traditional leather and tire-tread sandals. Moving throughout the canyons from rim to floor, generations of Tarahumara have grown up running---sometimes carrying heavy loads---and racing. The name “Tarahumara” was given to them by the Spanish. Their name for themselves is Raramuri, which means “the people who run.”

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