In the Land of the Long-Distance Runners

Mexico’s Copper Canyon is home to great athletes, the Tarahumara

On a quiet Sunday afternoon deep in the Sierra Madre, Tarahumara Indians from the hamlet of Samachique run a traditional footrace: a mere 40 miles for the women, 80 for the men, without benefit of either sneakers or pavement. While the customary wagers (buréma) are placed by the watching crowd, the male racers sling a wooden ball with their feet, as the women toss cloth-covered hoops along the course — all for the sake of a neighborhood's glory.

Still one of the most traditional of all native groups in North America, the Tarahumara, as writer David Roberts discovered, continue to face change in their ruggedly beautiful homeland.

The past 400 years have seen missionaries and miners, ranchers and farmers, move in on this land. In response, the Tarahumara fled into higher, less fertile areas of Copper Canyon. There, using manure from farm animals introduced by the Spanish, they were able to fertilize their corn, 75 percent of their diet today.

 Like this frugal economy, Tarahumara religion shows hybridization born in the face of change. Crosses may grace the hilltops above many settlements, but each person is believed to possess many souls.

Today, the estimated 70,000 Tarahumara face a new challenge: tourism, which threatens to undermine their lifeways while bringing them money for their goods. It is, as William Merrill, the Smithsonian anthropologist who has lived and studied among them, notes, "a two-edged sword."

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