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As speakers of a language in the Otopamean Family, the Pame are linguistically related to the Otomí and the Mazahua. Present-day Pame are the descendants of the nomadic Chichimec, who lived to the north of the Aztec Empire, in central Mexico. The Pame Indians are divided into the Northern Pame and the Southern Pame. They live in the Mexican states of San Luis Potosí, Querétaro, and Hidalgo. The heart of the Pame region is the Sierra Gorda in San Luis Potosí. The terrain in this region is semiarid to temperate and ranges from 1,000 to 2,000 meters in elevation.

Assessing the total number of Pame is difficult because of varying Mexican government policies, which led to attempts, at differing times, both to maximize and minimize census counts of indigenous groups. The 1980 census recorded 5,649 Pame speakers; of these, 4,670 lived in San Luis Potosí. There are two dialects of the Pame language. The 1990 census listed 5,732 speakers of Pame, of which 5,669 lived in San Luis Potosí.

History and Cultural Relations

Since there is no archaeological evidence concerning the Pame, most of what is known about their history has been written since the Conquest. It is believed, though, that the Pame were part of the larger Chichimec, a group of nomadic hunters, in northeastern Mexico. The Chichimec formed a cultural boundary between the sedentary agriculturists of Mesoamerica and the nomadic Indians of the Mesa del Norte. That the Pame exist today can be largely attributed to the fact that they were able to accept a sedentary life-style under Spanish colonial rule much more easily than other Chichimec groups.

Neither the missionaries nor the military forces were ever fully capable of colonizing the Pame, primarily because the Pame lived in dispersed groups in the mountains and in the desert. The Spanish found it both difficult and undesirable to conquer peoples living in a land of such rough terrain.

The missionaries attempted to move the Pame into centralized towns, where missions could be established; however, in most cases, the Pame returned to their own homes. In this way, missionary attempts to establish communities in which to socialize and evangelize the Pame failed.

One of the most prolonged attempts at military pacification in Latin America occurred between 1550 and 1590. This conflict was known as the Chichimec wars. All of the various groups of Chichimec Indians banded together to defend themselves against the Spanish. The conflict centered on land; the Spanish wanted to mine deposits of ore that had been discovered on Chichimec land.

The Pame remained relatively uninvolved in this war. It is difficult to tell if this was because the lands they inhabited were marginal and thus not so greatly threatened, or if the Pame simply sought to stay out of the war. In any case, the Pame, unlike many of the neighboring tribes, were not destroyed.

During the colonial period, private landowners used their political power to usurp lands held by Pame Indians. This process, which continued until the Mexican Revolution, reduced many of the Pame to migrant laborers and landless peasants. The revolutionaries who gained power in the wake of the Mexican Revolution desired, among other things, to bring about agrarian reform. Many Pame were granted parcels of land that their ancestors had held; however, most of the land that was returned to the Pame was inadequate to provide economic subsistence to the Pame landholder.

At present, the Pame continue to live as migrant laborers and peasants on marginal lands. Throughout their history, the Pame ability to live on the periphery of more densely populated Mesoamerica has enabled them to continue to exist, while at the same time limiting Pame ability to succeed within the dominant community.


The Pame do not generally congregate in communities; they prefer to disperse themselves over the region. Congregations of Pame are generally functions of either the necessity of living close to water, or of historical forces (e.g., the missionaries who were able to establish a few settlements).

Houses are constructed by young men, usually near their fathers' houses, of wooden-pole walls and palm roofs. The structures are usually one-roomed buildings; they can be rectangular, rectangular with one circular side, or two parallel walls with two circular sides. Some Pame can afford to use galvanized tin for roofing material. This is considered a symbol of higher status. Also, many households construct separate rooms for kitchens or bedrooms.


The base of the Pame economy is subsistence agriculture. Their staple crops are maize, beans, and squashes. They also raise goats. Fishing is carried out in rivers and lagoons at the lower elevations but is a relatively insignificant component of the Pame subsistence strategy. Additional crops grown to supplement income include sugarcane, peanuts, and coffee. Because of the difficulties of subsistence, many Pame have turned to temporary emigration to other areas, to earn cash wages.

The two main crafts practiced within Pame villages are petate and ixtle production. Petates are mats made by weaving straw or wicker together. Ixtle is a cord that is spun from the fibers of the maguey plant.

That men and women perform differing activities is a fundamental component of Pame culture. Male labor usually consists of agricultural work, carpentry, curing, trading, and performing duties as political and religious officials. The female sphere consists generally of household duties, raising children, cooking, making clothing, and the care of chickens and pigs.

On the weekends, many males journey to other villages to trade. Petates, chickens, and pigs are traded for needed items such as rope, shoes, food, and coffee. Very little trade occurs within villages.


The Pame have bilateral descent, and kinship terms emphasize generational differences. Children obey their parents and consider it important to help their brothers and sisters when needed. Cousins are referred to by the same terms as brothers and sisters and are considered to be almost the same as siblings.

The most outstanding characteristic of Pame kinship is the system of ritual fictive kinship known as compadrazgo. The role of godparent confers respect on the individual. Compadrazgo also serves to create strong familial ties beyond biologically related kin. These relations become relevant during births, baptisms, weddings, and other social activities.

Marriage and Family

Children have close relations with their mothers, because it is they who take care of the home. As the sons grow, however, they start to form stronger relationships with their fathers. At the age of 6 or 7, a son accompanies his father to the milpa plot and helps with the agricultural duties. Fathers also begin to initiate their sons into the male world at this time. A daughter stays close to her mother until she marries, at which time she goes to live with her husband and her husband's family.

Marriage takes place early for both males and females: most women marry between the ages of 12 and 13, and most men marry between the ages of 15 and 17. When a young man has decided upon a marriage partner, he tells his father. His father, in turn, goes to the father of the potential bride to ask for the other man's daughter. During the next few weeks, the father of the groom will visit the family of the potential bride and bring gifts. If the potential bride accepts, the two are married.

Marriage entails two separate ceremonies. A civil ceremony is conducted to legalize the marriage; a religious ceremony legitimizes the marriage in the eyes of the church.

Although couples reside with the parents of the groom for a short period of time after marriage, the nuclear family is the basic household unit. When it is financially possible to start their own home, they move and create a new and independent household. Thus, both nuclear households and patrilocal extended-family households exist among the Pame.

Within the family, the husband makes decisions regarding family affairs; however, if a grandparent lives within the household, he or she will often acquire the status of jefe (head).

Sociopolitical Organization

The civil government of a village consists of a central governing officer and a hierarchy of lesser offices that are filled by members of the community. It is important to note that most of these offices are filled by mestizos and not by Pame Indians.

The religious organization involves the Indian population more closely. There are a number of important religious offices that are filled by members of the community, the most important of which is that of mayordomo. Individuals hold the office of mayordomo for a period of one year, during which time they are responsible for cleaning the chapel and furnishing money for the fiestas during which the saints are celebrated. Both a man and his wife have duties to perform, and this office confers upon them a high degree of status and prestige.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Pame beliefs are a combination of traditional forms of religion and the Catholic religion, which was brought to them during the colonial period. That Pame beliefs are syncretic is demonstrated by the fact that the Pame use the same term for the Sun and the Catholic God, and the same term for the Moon and the Virgin Mary.

Pame beliefs are dominated by a belief in muertos (spirits of the dead), brujas (witches), and dioses (gods). The Pame also believe that there are a number of spirits, called nahuales, which take the form of animals. These spirits are believed to be the cause of many illnesses and evil in general. Within the Pame cosmology, the central religious actors are the curanderos, or curers. Some illnesses are considered to be caused by natural conditions, but most are believed to be caused supernaturally.

Besides the general ceremonies of birth, baptism, and funerals, the Pame conduct many other rituals. These include the annual fiestas of the patron saints and the ritual veneration of saints and ancestors on altars within their homes.

Upon death, the deceased is dressed in fine clothes and laid out for observation by relatives. The family gathers together. They all eat, and the men drink aguardiente. The next morning the corpse is buried with items that may be needed in the afterlife, such as tools, food, water, and money.


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Chemin Bässler, Heidi (1984). Los pames septentrionales de San Luis Potosí. Mexico City: Instituto Nacional Indigenista.

Friedlander, Judith (1986). "The National Indigenist Institute of Mexico Reinvents the Indian: The Pame Example." American Ethnologist 13(2): 363-367.

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