Photograph by Robb Kendrick National Geographic November 2008

The Tarahumara, or Rarámuri, as they refer to themselves, are one of the largest indigenous groups currently in the Americas. The majority live among the precipitous peaks of the Sierra Madre Occidental in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico, though others have moved out to Chihuahua City and beyond. It is in the mountains, also known as the Sierra Tarahumara, that the traditional ways—language, dress, ceremonies, food gathering—persist; in the cities the Tarahumara have had to adapt to the way of the chabochi, anyone who's not Tarahumara. But as modern conveniences come to the peaks, will the old ways disappear?

For centuries the Tarahumara have maintained their traditions even as outsiders, starting with the early Spanish colonizers, encroached on their homeland. But the latest encroachment is different, less about cultural assimilation than about modernization, coming by way of new infrastructure such as electricity and roads. The real test may be a large-scale development project that officials hope will draw an estimated 12 million tourists from Mexico and the United States each year.

The Sierra Tarahumara is rugged, dramatic terrain but easily accessed by a rail line known as the Chepe. Trains stop near many Tarahumara villages, attracting visitors to the area, particularly around Easter, when the Tarahumara conduct Holy Week ceremonies to mark the beginning of their agricultural season. The festivities include days of drumming, a dance re-creating the roles of Pharisees and Jews, and the burning of Judas in effigy. A sacred brew known in Spanish as tesgüino and in Rarámuri as sugí or batari made of fermented corn, among other key ingredients—is often consumed during this time.

In the past the Tarahumara were known to hunt deer on foot, chasing them until the deer tired and could be felled. The name Rarámuri means "foot-runner," and the people still live up to their name, expertly maneuvering the twisted terrain of the Sierra Madre. Even young children sometimes have to travel for hours to reach the local school, and many opt to board at the school during the week, traveling home only on weekends.

The Tarahumara/Rarámuri tend to live far from one another because they need large tracts of land for herding and agriculture, with corn, squash, and beans being their primary food crops. Many have more than one home—one closer to the low country, another closer to the peaks—and migrate seasonally to tend their crops.

Gorney, Cynthia. A People Apart. National Geographic (November 2008), 78-101.

Fontana, Bernard. Tarahumara: Where Night Is the Day of the Moon. University of Arizona Press, 1997.

Kennedy, John G., and Raúl A. López. "Semana Santa in the Sierra Tarahumara: A Comparative Study in Three Communities." Occasional Papers of the Museum of Cultural History. University of California-Los Angeles, 1981.

Orozco, María Elena. Tarahumara: Una Antigua Sociedad Futura, 3rd ed. Impresora Colorama, 1998.

Pennington, Campbell. Tarahumara of Mexico. University of Utah Press, 1963.

Pintado Cortina, Ana Paula. Tarahumaras. CDI, 2004.

Sariego, Juan Luis. El Indigenismo en la Tarahumara. Instituto Nacional Indigenista, 2002.

Other Resources
Video introduction to the Tarahumara.

Video on the Tarahumara. LACA Foundation. (A harsher look at the realities.)

"Tarahumara: Pillars of the World."

Telemundo story on the Tarahumara.

A Semana Santa dance.

Semana Santa in headdress.

Video on how to tie huarache sandals.

Ball Game

The Rarámuri are accomplished distance runners. Because of the rugged, remote, and high terrain they inhabit, they travel by foot much of the time and can trek long distances. They play a kick-ball game called rarajípari, during which they may run 12 to 120 miles, depending on the ability of the participants. The rules vary, but the gist of the game is that players run a set of laps kicking a rubber ball. Whoever reaches the end point with the ball first gets the winnings, usually goods put in a pile before the race begins.

Irigoyen Rascón, Fructuoso. Rarajípari: La Carrera de la Bola Tarahumara. Centro Librero La Prensa, 1994.


Narcotrafficking is a countrywide problem in Mexico, and the Tarahumara are not immune. In remote parts of the Sierra Tarahumara, marijuana and opium have been grown illegally for decades. Relations between the growers, the traffickers, and the Tarahumara have long been strained; violent attacks against the Tarahumara began in the mid-90s, perhaps earlier, and are surging again. During a recent attack in the Sierra Tarahumara, 14 people, including a toddler, were killed at a family gathering in Creel.

Elsworth, Catherine. "Baby One of 43 killed in Mexican Drug War." London Daily Telegraph, August 20, 2008.

Weisman, Alan. "The Drug Lords vs. the Tarahumara." Los Angeles Times, January 9, 1994.

Other Resources
Lacey, Mark. "Grenade Attack in Mexico Breaks From Deadly Script." New York Times, September 24, 2008.

Blog about narcotrafficking in Mexico.


Here are a few words and phrases in the Tarahumara language that might be useful if you visit the region.

Hello - Cuira
Thank you - Natérarabá
Where - ¿Cumi?
Yesterday - Rapaco
Yes - Juri
No - Tásirapé
It's a hot day - Ratá.
How much does it cost? - ¿Chu quipu?
Let's sit. - Muchínara.
Where are you going? - ¿Cumi simí?
To be hungry - Loché.

Hilton, K. Simón. Diccionario Tarahumara, 2nd ed. Instituto Lingüístico de Verano, 1993

Other Resources
Tarahumara-English dictionary.

Last updated: October 15, 2008