This article is from the October 1999 The Mexico File newsletter.
Back to Articles List

History of the Tarahumara Indians

by John Earl

 John Earl is the host of The News Gap radio show in Irvine, California (this can be heard on the web at He also publishes three websites – ; ; and, . He can be reached by email at

The Tarahumara Indians’ displacement by intruders has, at least until now, taken place gradually over the last four centuries. But even though the population has remained relatively static and unharmed by disease and genocide that most indigenous peoples have suffered, the Tarahumaras’ destiny has been largely beyond their control since the first intrusion by Spaniards. So it was when the Jesuit missionaries, with Spanish soldiers at their call, tried to force the Tarahumara  to live in church centered villages. If

the Indians refused, one early 18th century cleric wrote, soldiers should be sent to round them up and to burn their homes and granaries if they resisted further. It was suggested that guards be posted to prevent Indian escapes from the church settlements.                 

Reluctant Tarahumara parishioners frequently suffered “paternal” whippings at the hands of their frocked captors. The Tarahumara were often subjected to forced labor of various degrees, from indebted servitude to outright slavery, on Spanish haciendas and farms. Some Tarahumaras were also forced to work in mines and at mine related work, including tree cutting and brick making. Ironically, the Jesuits, who by the mid or late 17th century controlled the best Tarahumara farm land, saw themselves as a protective buffer between the Indians and other Spanish intruders, and they complained vociferously about illegal land takeovers by the soldiers.

The Tarahumara apparently saw little difference between the Jesuits and Spanish soldiers. In fact, they organized armed rebellions against the former, bringing retribution (including more slavery) from their would‑be conquerors. The best defense the Tarahumara had and still have against outsiders is the spectacularly rugged mountain and canyon terrain that they have backed further and further into over the past four centuries. Sadly, that final refuge is threatened today – by drug lords, loggers, and international tourism.    

For the Tarahumara of today, living in shacks, lean‑tos, or caves much as they have for centuries, drought and freezing temperatures, combined with land politics, threaten to do what the Jesuits failed to do long ago –  bring the Tarahumara into mainstream society. Some Tarahumara  who have resisted have met death, either from freezing temperatures and starvation or at the hands of drug lords. Those who went to the cities (without the prerequisite educational and job skills) seeking refuge and assimilation entered at the bottom of a social  ladder determined by prejudice and an already weak economic base. The government policy of educating Tarahumara children in Spanish at the expense of their native tongue will no doubt exacerbate an already grim situation. For if the Tarahumara don't have their identity, what do they have?

Of course, the same story can be told about aboriginal peoples throughout the world. In the culture clashes between original inhabitants of land and its newcomers, it is almost always the more “civilized,” (i.e., the more heavily armed) who win in physical and political battle, usually with tragic environmental and human consequences.