TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Tarahumara Race is On: Woven Destinies

Tarahumara Men costumed for Pre-Easter Rituals
"A People Apart", National Geographic November 2008
Photograph by Robb Kendrick


The latest issue of National Geographic features the Tarahumara who live in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico. Famed in athletic circles for their running endurance, the Tarahumara call themselves "Raramuri", or "the one who walks well". The article, of course, explores the tension between traditional ways of life collapsing as modernity infringes on Tarahumara land. Isn't that the story of all indigenous groups around the world?

Tarahumara Woman and Children
"A People Apart", National Geographic November 2008
Photograph by Robb Kendrick


The Tarahumara live in remote mountainous areas which have been difficult to access and have little arable land. The Copper Canyon Mountains cover part of the area. Mining and logging have long brought industrialists into Tarahumara country, but now they are also seen as a resource in themselves and efforts to capitalize on their colorful costumes and handicrafts threaten to further erase their autonomy. Cynthia Gorney, author of the article, focused on the life of one Tarahumara woman who had left her village because she wanted to study. She became a nurse and serves as a bi-lingual health care practioner for her people. She lives in town, has modern amenities, and wants to see the Tarahumara access more of these resources for themselves. Gorney explores some of the loss that modernization brings. Sure, everyone wants running water, electricity, appliances, and less back breaking demands. Unfortunately, with it comes drug addiction, alcoholism, depression, and other negative influences that can often devastate Native communities.



I first learned about the Tarahumara about 20 years ago. A friend of mine, Ginger Blossom, sells their baskets, ceramic pots, dolls, and some textiles. She has been travelling down to the Copper Canyon for years, often taking medical supplies coveted by the people she supports. Ginger has a website where she occasionally reports on her travels. Her store is in Richmond, IL, just an hour and a half north of Chicago, definitely worth the trip!

Corn cob dolls by the Tarahumara available at Native Seeds

Bernard Fontana wrote a beautiful book about the Tarahumara in the 1970's, "Tarahumara: Where Night is the Day of the Moon" (see slide show at the end of this post). Although thirty years have passed, the book still seems current as even then, Fontana spoke of the threats the Tarahumara faced with modernization. Here are a couple of excerpts related to their handicrafts:

"When Father Fonte first met the Tarahumaras in 1607 they made all of their clothing with the materials at hand, largely from plant fibers but no doubt from hides of wild animals as well. A short time after the introduction of sheep, and still in the seventeenth century, wool began to substitute plant fiber, with the Tarahumaras, principally the women, weaving the wool and shaping the clothing. Precisely when Tarahumaras first began to acquire woven cotton cloth and other imported textiles is difficult to say, although the process doubtless began sometime in the 1600s. By the 1930s, most Tarahumara clothing was sewn from muslin and from other cloth manufactured elsewhere, but the sewing was done by the women. This continues today. Women enhance their sewing by doing lovely embroidery, chiefly on blouses, loincloths and cottons. The designs, in a full range of colors provided by commercial embroidery yarns, emphasize life forms: floral, human and other animal, and include geometric figures which may represent such entities as the sun and moon. Embroidery is one of the more important Tarahumara art forms. Their embroidery designs have a charm and naivete that are unique." (page 46).

Tarahumara baskets available at the Sierra Madre Trading Company

"If pottery is inorganic, and I am not altogether sure that is the right way to think of it, then basketry is most certainly organic. Nearly every Tarahumara woman, and many of the men, knows how to make baskets using the leaves of beargrass or of palm trees (found in the barrancas). Some basket makers even use pine needles.

On all our trips into the Sierra Tarahumara we have seen basket makers at work. It is something that can be done when one is sitting down to tend the flocks. It can be done at home in between other chores, the materials set aside to be picked up again when it is convenient.

Like Tarahumara pottery, their basketry is the essence of simplicity. There are no decorations woven in; the beauty lies in the form and in the sense of utility conveyed.

All Tarahumara baskets are plaited. Both the lidless guari basket and the lid-covered petacas, like the petate (a mat), are twill paited. Most are single weave, but in the barrancas and in parts of eastern Tarahumara country baskets are made in a double weave, especially the petacas." (page 91)

I have been working with handicrafts from around the world for over 20 years now. My entry into a new culture often comes through the craft connection. I see something, it captures my eye, I look at the technique, the materials used, and soon I want to know more about who made it. Now, after all these years, I can say with certainty, "I know a little about a lot!" Each culture would take a lifetime of study to even begin to understand the relationships between the people and their connection to nature, religion, each other and us, the outsiders. Learning about the Tarahumara was my first real exposure to all the other indigenous cultures who live in Mexico. Each is fascinating to me and if I could, I would have married my interest in the handicrafts to anthropology, roaming around and documenting people and their crafts. (A little jealousy here of some National Geographic assignments?)

Over 100 years ago, Carl Lumholtz lived this dream out. Hired by the American Museum of Natural History to explore the Sierra Madre in Mexico, Lumholz spent several years with several indigenous groups, including the Tarahumara. He collected samples of handicrafts, native plants, took hundreds of photos, and made illustrations of what he saw. He documented his experiences in two volumes called "Unknown Mexico" (see slideshow at the end of this post) which remain to this date authoritative in the depth and scope of information gathered. The books have over 300 photos plus 91 drawings and is a fascinating read. Much of it seems current and even back then, Lumholtz urged:

"When we thus consider the reciprocal influence conquerors and conquered exert upon each other- furthermore, the ever-growing expansion of commerce into the farthest corners of the globe- and finally the rapid development of means of communication in a degree that we probably can but faintly realise, we are able to perceive how nations and tribes, whether they want to or not, will be stibulated to gradual progess, on lines and by methods that in the natural evolution of things become general. A certain difference in men will always remain, dependent on environment, but surely the general trend of human destiny is toward unity. Civilised mankind is already beginning to have a social and aesthetic solidarity. ... If the Louvre, with its priceless art treasures, should burn, cultivated people of every nation would feel the loss as if it were their own. Undoubtedly this feeling of unity will grow immensely as the centuries pass by. The backward races have much to learn from us, but we have also much to learn from them- not only new art designs, but certain moral qualities. Hypocrisy will be done away with as civilization advances, and the world will be the better for it.

It is unnatural to be without a special love to the country of one's birth, just as a man has more affection for his famiy than for other families. But let our allegiance extend to the whole globe on which we travel through the universe, and let us try to serve mankind rather than our country right or wrong." (page 483, volume 2)


Tarahumara men in handwoven wool garments Photo by Carl Lumholtz

Lumholtz was perhaps naive in thinking that hypocrisy would fall away as civilization "progresses". He would probably be shocked at the double talk and nastiness we see today coming from political leaders around the world today. Some things never change.... But, others do, greatly. His sensibility and obvious care for the people he documented shows throughout the stories Lumholtz relates in his books. But, there are occasions, when his language and behavior absolutely shocked my socks off. One of the objects he desired from every area he went to was a skull, or as many as he could get. At that time there was much interest in examining skulls from different cultures to determine intelligence. A skull was the same to him, as a textile, and he apparently had no shame in how he collected either. This exchanged happened with a Huichol group:

"The native authorities, as well as the people themselves, were very nice to me and all contributed toward making my stay among them profitable. As this was my last opportunity to secure ethnological specimens from the tribe, I was anxious to complete my collections. The women here excel in making shirts and tunics, which they richly embroider with ancient designs. Through the kindness of the alcalde I obtained several of these valuable garments, with which the people themselves were loath to part. ... Being desirous of securing here some skulls from an ancient burial-place in a distant valley, but unable to make the trip myself, I persuaded the Indians to go alone to fetch them for me. They brought the precious load back safely in two bags which I had lent to them. This was remarkable in proving that the Huichols are not afraid of dead who passed out of life long enough ago." (page 285, volume 2)

In another incident, villagers kept their favorite dead relative's skulls in their homes. Lumholtz wanted a certain one that he saw in a man's house, but the man refused to give it to him because it was of his father. Lumholtz learned that the man had never married because he had a serious case of hemorrhoids. He ordered medication for him, which he traded for the skull. The man replaced his Dad with another favorite uncle... The books are packed with such stories. I treasure them immensely!

The National Geographic article stated that because of junk food, incoming roads and better transportation, many Tarahumara are already slowing down as runners. Yes, we want life to be easier, but it is a shame that in the trade we make for that ease, we lose so much that makes us special as a group. I am a mut with no particular ethnic ties, except that I physically look like a Viking. So, it's easy for me to choose which cultural influences I want to adopt, even if it is only in outward manifestations like food or clothing. But, for all of these Native peoples who are confronted with industrialization, we can only hope that they will be allowed to retain the values and important things that they choose to hang on to. We are one world, but our differences also make for interesting weavings! May the Tarahumara walk well towards the destiny of their choice!

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1 comment:

“Sing like no one's listening, love like you've never been hurt, dance like nobody's watching, and live like it's heaven on earth.”

“Whatever you say, say it with conviction.”

(Both by the master, Mark Twain)

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