Tepehuan of Chihuahua

views updated

Tepehuan of Chihuahua

ETHNONYMS: Northern Tepehuan, Òdami


Identification and Location. Both Northern and Southern Tepehuan refer to themselves as "Òdami." Although the etymology of the name "Tepehuan" is still a matter of contention, the word almost certainly stems from tepetl, the Nahuatl word for "mountain." The Northern Tepehuan are scattered over sparsely settled high woodlands and canyons in the southwestern corner of the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua. The Southern Tepehuan are separated from the Northern by several hundred kilometers, and are found in the rugged country of southern Durango.

The upper perimeter of Northern Tepehuan land is the Río Verde, flowing westward into Sinaloa and carving deep gorges into this remote part of the Sierra Madre Occidental. The average elevation is around 2,350 meters, but widely varying elevations make for a craggy terrain that is strikingly harsh and isolating. Travel into and within the coarsely contoured region is arduous; the few roads provide only limited accessibility. At the higher elevations are the pine-covered uplands referred to locally as the tierra templada (the temperate zone). Downslope is the tierra caliente (the warm country), the canyon expanses of poorer soil covered with shrubs and grasses.

Aside from linguistic similarity and some sharing of a type of communal organization, the Northern and Southern Tepehuan now differ remarkably in sociocultural attributes. This separation of two groups bearing the same name and sharing a parallel and arguably liminal position in the threshold between the Mesoamerican and the Southwestern cultural areas has propagated a mystique that has yet to be cleared up by definitive research. As of this writing, these groups, whose homeland is rugged and remote, remain little known and studied.

Demography. There are approximately 10,000 Tepehuan presently living in Chihuahua. (The 1990 census recorded 2,980 speakers of Tepehuan aged 5 years or older in Chihuahua.) Because of the difficulties of travel and the insufficiency of government services, an accurate count is hard to come by in this poor and isolated region of Mexico. As is common in other parts of the country, the elusiveness of numbers is also attributable to the elusiveness of definitions of ethnicity, about which Indians, mestizos, and the census takers hold conflicting views. Various aspects of affiliation, connection, and identity may be denied, embraced or overlooked by both the counters and the counted. In the past, inexperienced or ill-informed observation, mistaking subtle complexity for assimilation, has often misrepresented the Northern Tepehuan as completely mestizoized or simply lumped them with the Tarahumara, another local group. More recent work, however, has established that they remain a discrete culture with a distinct language, living as an indigenous group, separate fromand coexistingseveral thousand Tarahumara and tens of thousands of mestizo neighbors.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Tepehuan speak an UtoAztecan language. The languages of the Uto-Aztecan Family are more widely spoken than those of the five other major language families in the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico. The language of the Northern Tepehuan is most closely related to that of the Southern Tepehuan, although their point of divergence has not been determined by linguists. Along with Pima and Papago (which are spoken in Arizona and northern Sonora), these languages comprise the Tepiman or Piman Group of the Sonoran Branch of the Uto-Aztecan Language Family.

History and Cultural Relations

Today's relative obscurity belies an apparently long and once prominent Tepehuan regional presence. The Tepehuan of Chihuahua are the northern descendants of an aboriginal group whose broad territory ranged from north of the Río Verde in Chihuahua southward through Durango into the contemporary states of Nayarit and Jalisco. Archival evidence suggests that at the time of the arrival of the Spanish conquerors, the Tepehuan were probably the largest and most important tribe in the Sierra Madre Occidental. About half a millennium before the Conquest, their ancestors hunted and gathered in the desert region near the border between Arizona and Sonora before migrating, along with other Southern Uto-Aztecan groups, southward into the mountainous regions of northwestern Mexico, where they began to rely on farming.

After the Conquest of central Mexico, Spaniards moved northward, mining and establishing haciendas and missions in Zacatecas and Durango. In Durango, they ruptured the unity of Northern and Southern Tepehuan by eliminating the central Durango groups northward to Chihuahua. By the end of the sixteenth century, a few miners, missionaries, and soldiers had penetrated southern Chihuahua. The Franciscans, in 1560, were the first order to work with the Tepehuan in the Santa Barbara region of southern Chihuahua. The Jesuits previously ministered to the Tepehuan in central and southern Durango. They entered the northern territory in 1610 and began congregating the Tepehuan into mission towns, and, by 1708, had established missions at Baborigame, Nabogame, and Guadalupe y Calvo. Over a hundred years of isolation followed the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767. The overextended Franciscans, now responsible for the whole region, maintained modest sway. The Jesuits returned at the beginning of the twentieth century. The Tepehuan are usually described as "nominally Catholic," given that the religion practiced is an amalgamation of Hispanic and indigenous elements. Some indigenous groups do not practice any form of Catholicism. Perhaps the most important consequence of Tepehuan relations with the Church is the local acquisition of European plants, livestock, and technology.

The convergence of Indian and mestizo culture was a process driven by the economic exploitation of resources. Chihuahua's first mine and first hacienda were established by thirty Spanish families in 1575, initiating mining and grazing as the future primary industries of the region. Sometimes Indians worked in mines and farms out of choice, but more often they were forced laborers or slaves. At first, wool clothing was a great attraction to volunteer laborers, but impressed labor and harsh treatment soon became unbearable. Beginning in the first decade of the seventeenth century, uprisings led by the Tepehuan resulted in severe repression by the Spaniards. Soon, Santa Barbara, with 7,000 inhabitants, became the largest town in the province of Nueva Vizcaya, even larger than the city of Durango, to the south. From this outpost, the subjugation of the northern territory continued over the next century. The whole of the seventeenth century was one of revolt across the northern frontier by practically every Indian group living north of Durango. Spaniards retreated to protected outposts. Priests met martyrdom. Soon these rebellions were put down, and in the nineteenth century northward expansion continued. Mines, new towns, and presidios, were created, the Jesuits were expelled, and all indigenous peoplesexcept for a few remote groupswere generally pacified.

Excluding a few settlements such as those at Baborigame and Guadalupe y Calvo, the region of the northern Tepehuan remained mostly isolated and little settled, which allowed the indigenous people to follow a simple subsistence pattern of life relatively unmolested. Even during the turbulent nineteenth century, when revolution and independence consumed most of Mexico, the indigenous people were left very much alone by a Mexico otherwise occupied. Independence from Spain in 1821 resulted in much infighting in the central government, as opposing parties competed for control. Lack of funds meant that soldiers on the far northern frontier were not paid, and it was difficult to influence politics in such remote regions without providing the minimum of services. For Mexico, the nineteenth century culminated in the loss of more than one-third of its territory to the United States. During the nineteenth century, Apache invaders began to drive a wedge between the people living in the high Sierra and the Pima Alta cultures in the north. As mountain dwellers, the Northern Tepehuan, like the Tarahumara, were able to defend themselves against displacement by these Apache raiders. Mostly, however, they were far removed from the major centers of Apache raiding in northern Chihuahua.

The twentieth century has been even less auspicious. The Tepehuan have remained isolated, except for recent decades. In 1952 there was an attempt to bring the Tepehuan into the fold of mainstream culture and economy when the federal government installed an Indian Coordinating Center at Guachochi, across the Río Verde from the Tepehuan homeland. Through the Center, the National Indian Institute has followed a policy of assimilation. It administers various social and welfare services but is hampered by the remoteness of the region. In southwestern Chihuahua, Indians are outnumbered by mestizos by as much as three to one and this ratio increased as economic enterprises grew in the 1970 and 1980s. Logging in this densely forested area has become particularly important as an alternative to the heavily exploited Tarahumara woodlands north of the Río Verde. Forest roads and a paved highway from Parral to Guadalupe y Calvo have also opened the region to the negative impacts of illegal drug harvesting and transportation. Drug traffickers are having a profound impact on local indigenous groups, and many Indians are fleeing to more remote regions to follow a hunting-and-gathering mode of life.


Today the Northern Tepehuan are closer to the Tarahumara cultural pattern than to that of the Southern Tepehuan, and relations with the Tarahumara are plainly evident. In a few communities, the two groups live together in bicultural and bilingual situations, but the precise relationship between them is unclear. The Northern Tepehuan are found in the municipios of Guadalupe y Calvo, Morelos, and Balleza on the southern edge of the Tarahumara country, across the Río Verde. Land is communally held in ejidos or comunidades, with Tepehuan holding title separately, or sometimes with mestizos. They live in groups of small named settlements, called rancherías, surrounding pueblos, or small towns that act as social and political centers. Rancherías are small and widely dispersed, consisting of the separate dwellings of four or five families. Houses in the tierra templada are constructed of timber in small clusters on the great mesas. In the tierra caliente they are made of stone-and-mud mortar and are usually located along the streams that lead down into the canyons.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Practically every household grows food for its own consumption on small plots. Maize, squashes, and beans are the staple crops whereas wheat, barley, potatoes, oats, and peas are also commonly grown. Tobacco and chilies are grown in the lowlands. The dibble stick and wooden plows drawn by oxen are adjuncts to farming. A dibble stick is a sharpened pole used to punch a hole in the plowed earth or a slashand-burn plot for planting seeds. One season for cultivating is available in the highlands compared to two in the hotter lowlands. Maize fields are cultivated separately from garden plots dedicated to the other vegetables. Old World fruit trees, introduced by the missionaries, are also tended near the settlements. In the highlands, there are small groves of fig, pomegranate, peach, and apple trees, and, in the hot canyon lands, there are orange and lemon trees. Gathering wild foods is still an important activity as well. Seasonal wild fruits, piñon nuts, walnuts, and edible species of acorns are collected, as is crude honey. Certain insects, reptiles, grubs, and the occasional rattlesnake round out the choices of consumable undomesticated resources. Hunting and trapping also supplement the diet, and deer and wild turkeys are the most highly prized game.

The raising of chickens and, to a lesser extent, turkeys and pigs provides additional sustenance. Livestock are a source of wealth and prestige. Horsesridden for transportationand burros and mulesused as pack animalsare much valued. There are many sheep and goats, which are prized for their wool and as food during fiestas. For the most part, the family is the unit of production and consumption, but this configuration is changing. One frequent pattern is an unfortunate circle of need. During hard times, some of the maize harvest is sold, but because most families only grow enough in their gardens to feed themselves, the maize is bought back at an inflated price before the next harvest. Off-farm income usually consists of low pay for unskilled labor. Those who take jobs in the mines receive a slightly better wage. Forestry is an increasingly important economic factor in the region.

Industrial Arts. Crafts and industry include basket and mat weaving and the making of rope and hats. There is also the manufacture of small violins, an art learned from the Jesuits. Skilled carvers make bowls, utensils, and bows and arrows, used mainly for costume and ceremony, and many other wooden articles. Skins of various animals are utilized for the manufacture of sandals, sleeping mats, carrying baskets, and other items useful in everyday activities. Canteens, bowls, and dippers are made from common gourds. Cooking pots are expertly made from clay. A wide variety of clothing, adornments, and other household items, such as blankets, are woven from domestic wool or sewn from purchased cloth.

Trade. There is little evidence of much trade and commercial exchange. Between Indians and mestizos, there was some petty trading of subsistence commodities. The household is the basic production unit, but exchange of labor (e.g., for house building or harvesting activities) accompanies beer-drinking festivals similar to the tesguinadas of the Tarahumara.

Division of Labor. The household division of labor by sex and age is generally egalitarian, with the exception that Tepehuan women have more numerous and diverse responsibilities, laboring both in and around the house and in the fields. Along with the usual household and family-related chores, women also weave, make pottery and baskets, milk cows and goats, and participate in the harvesting of maize. Most of the heavy worksuch as cutting and preparing logs, house building, and preparing the fieldsis by men. Hat making, basket weaving, and rope making are also generally men's activities. Women weave blankets and sash-belts on a horizontal loom.

Land Tenure. Ejidos are communal properties established by the Mexican constitution after the 1917 Revolution. Large estates were broken up and either indigenous or peasant residents took possession. Neighbors or interested others could apply for membership. Membership is not hereditarycontinued membership depends upon residence and continued use of the landbut the rules are bent for absent friends or relatives. Land may stay within a family for an extended period of time, but because a long fallow period is required for most plots, land frequently changes hands between families.

Comunidades are an older type of communal organization found in both Durango and Chihuahua. Membership is entirely indigenous, unlike that of ejidos. Members, usually males, are approved for membership by the asamblea, which is the governing body. Occasionally mestizos are allowed membership because of intermarriage intoand long-standing loyalty tothe community. Membership in the comunidad is preserved, and passed on to the widow, also in contrast to ejido membership.

Land-tenure law promulgated in 1992 (Article 27 of the Mexican constitution) includes changes that will affect the future of rural and indigenous people. Communal lands have now become rentable, can be divided and owned individually, and sold or pledged as collateral for loans. Each ejido or comunidad will be able to make a decision among its members whether to hold title to their lands individually or collectively. Indigenous comunidades and ejidos appear to favor the option of adopting comunidad status in lieu of privatization.


Kin Groups and Descent. Descent and inheritance are reported as patrilateral, with exceptions made in the passing of property to daughters at times. This may not be the case, since the indigenous pattern for neighboring groups is bilateral and gender egalitarian, with male and female inheriting land bilaterally and with the spouses making homes in either or both pieces of inherited land. The reported patrilaterality, and certainly patronymy, may be influenced by the dominant mestizo pattern and sampling bias. Kinship is probably reckoned bilaterally, which means that relatives on father's and mother's side of the family are counted as relatives. There are no lineages, clans, moieties, or other such descent groups.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terminology is descriptive (tends to combine elementary terms) with distinctions made among each of Ego's four grandparents, mother, mother's sister, mother's brother, father, father's sister, and father's brother. These relatives are also categorized by age and sex, but in Ego's generation, cousins and siblings are not distinguished by sex or in any other manner. Except in Ego's generation, in which brother-in-law and sister-in-law are designated by the same term, affinal kinship terms are descriptive. Ego's children are distinguished by sex but not by relative age. Terms of reference and terms of address differ. Elder brother, for example, is addressed with a special term of respect. In other cases, Spanish personal names are used. Kinship terms are not affected by the sex of the speaker. Godparents (padrinos ) are selected when children are baptized in the church, but since there are no church weddings or confirmations, there are no other godparents.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Neither church nor state influences marriages except where rancherías are located close to active missions. Marriage is generally a matter of mutual consent and results in a fragile alliance. Some ethnologists report that marriages are not arranged by the families but are usually enacted through the custom of "robbing," an old Hispanic practice common throughout rural Mexico, in which the groom surreptitiously brings the bride to the home of his father and keeps her there until the anger of her family subsides. Except for acculturated families, the Tepehuan pattern much resembles that of surrounding groups: marriages are matters of consensual cohabitation, followed by social acknowledgment by the immediate social group, and at any time afterwards, easily severed by either party.

Domestic Unit. The household unit consists of the nuclear family of parents and children, with the occasional addition of other extended relatives such as a widowed parent. The rancherías comprised of adjacent households may include relatives of either parent. The married couple lives with the husband's parents for about a year until the groom receives land from his father, upon which a separate dwelling is erected. The ideal model of patrilocality, however, is often modified by the acquisition of land from another part of the ejido or from the parents of the girl.

Inheritance. Inheritance is reported by some ethnologists as patrilineal, but land and property may be passed on to daughters in the absence of male inheritors. The actual pattern is probably bilateral, in consonance with surrounding aboriginal patterns, and coinciding with the choice of bilateral residence by the couple after marriage.


Sociopolitical Organization and Social Control. The best way to depict Tepehuan sociopolitical organization is to visualize it as nested in hierarchical strata of national, state, local, and cultural sociopolitical systems. The matter is further complicated by the presence of mixed populations of Tepehuan, Tarahumara, and mestizos wherein officeholders represent the dominant group in any single community. There are national and state representatives of various agencies, ranging from those who control Indian affairs to those who maintain roads and members of the state judiciary. Locally, the complexity of organization begins with the municipio. Elected leaders include the president of the municipio and those in charge of policing and other services. Land-tenure organizations such as ejidos and comunidades have leadership structures and responsibility forand control ofland; the comunidad is more likely to have total Indian autonomy. Ejidos are governed by a president of the ejido commission, a secretary, a treasurer, and a president of the oversight council (consejo de vigilancia ). Comunidades have a governor (gobernador ), a vice governor (segundo gobernador ), auxiliary secretary (seer exario auxiliar ), and a police commissioner (comisario de policía ). They make decisions in group meetings (asambleas), at which all male and some female members vote.

Pueblos are townships that act as centers of governance for surrounding rancherías. The pueblo hierarchy combines elements of ancient and colonial ritual and bureaucracy. Each gobernancia (pueblo) elects a gobernador, an assistant for a two-year term, and other officials dealing with policing. The capitán-general, appointed by the gobernadores, oversees all six regions, and along with an assistant and seven justicias, is the guardian of order and justice. Traditionally, punishment for serious offenses was public whipping in the churchyard, clearly another European custom learned from the Spanish missionaries. Meetings are held every other Sunday when the gobernador calls together the justicias to hear and resolve complaints. A lower tier of officials serves shorter terms and carries out ceremonial duties dealing with the maintenance of the church and the organizing of fiestas. The residential units, the rancherías, do not have a governing structure. The only person with quasi-authority and influence is the native curer.

Some towns are divided into subsections by common references to "the people of arriba " (those who live upstream) and "the people of abajo " (those who live downstream). This division is most apparent in the loyalties and rivalries that are expressed during ceremonies, the popular foot races and ball games that take place during fiestas, and in the elaborate political hierarchy. Arriba-abajo distinctions are common throughout Latin American small towns and are not moiety divisions in the strict ethnological sense; however, they may be utilized in this manner by some indigenous groups.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The amalgam of Tepehuan and Catholic beliefs, ceremonies, practices, and myth is a kind of "folk Catholicism" with strong aboriginal components. A single creator, called "God Our Father," is accompanied by a number of other deities of ancient origin. The Lord of the Deer is named Kukúduli and is responsible for success in hunting. When someone dies, Úgai is a spirit that appears as a light in the sky, and another god, in the mountains, takes the form of an owl as a herald of death. There is also a spirit that is the master of the wind. Mythology includes tales of the Cocoyomes, a group of giants who ate children. The church and churchyard are the center of Sunday meetings, which are important for the dispensation of justice and the sharing of information and tradition.

Religious Practitioners. As a spiritual intermediary, the shaman-curer is called bajadios, "he who brings God down." The term is derived from Spanish. The Tarahumara refer to this specialist as overúame ; there must be a similar term in the language of the Tepehuan, but it is not recorded in the literature. Not only a diagnostician and healer of illness, the shaman is reputed to see the unseen and is called upon in many instances, such as when a valuable object has been lost. The shaman makes entreaties to the supernatural through the performance of a kind of séance. Courses of action are often revealed to him afterward in a dream. Tesguino (maize beer) is used in curing and blessing, in addition to its communal functions.

Ceremonies. Like the mestizo communities in the region, the Tepehuan observe and perform the customary Catholic pastoral dramas, introduced by the Jesuits in colonial times, during Christmas, Holy Week, and the October fiestas of San Francisco. The fiestas have an urban, mestizo phase and a Tepehuan phase, with the two groups working together on occasion. The fiestas consist of ritual activities surrounding defense and ultimate destruction of the figure of Judas and groups of participants called fariseos who engage in sham battles. There are also ceremonies led by the shaman to ask for good crops, to show reverence for the dead, and to petition for the physical well-being of both people and animals. The festivities are lively affairs with much dancing, the placing of offerings of food in front of a cross, and an ample supply of tesguino, an alcoholic beverage of fermented maize sprouts. Some ceremonies are held in secret with all outsiders excluded.

Arts. Music is important in Tepehuan life. Old Spanish matachines tunes, songs with Tepehuan themes sung in Tepehuan, and popular Spanish-Mexican songs are played at dances and fiestas on homemade violins, gourd rattles, reed flutes, rasping sticks, and drums. Oral tradition is carried on by some adult members of the communities in the spirited performance of folklore. Stories include animal tales of regional origin, as well as local renderings of familiar tales of Old World derivation.

Medicine, Death, and Afterlife. Sickness and death are blamed on spirits and witchcraft, revealed byor made manifest inthe singing of one of three birds in the mountains. The three birds are called Tukurai, Kukuvuri, and Tokovi. There is a wide array of medicinal treatment using indigenous plants. Various poultices, solutions, and teas are made from an extraordinary number of roots, leaves, seeds, and stems of at least fifty-six plant families and a good many others that are still unidentified by outsiders.

The soul exists in the heart, but leaves the body when a person is asleep or unconscious. Upon death, the soul lingers around the house of the dead person for a month until a fiesta is held as a way of saying good-bye. After this, the house may be abandoned in fearful respect for the vicious ill will of a returned soul. If all goes well, the soul departs to live in the sky. The church cemetery is the usual place of burial. A coherent description of the Tepehuan conception of the afterlife has not yet been recorded.


Hedrick, Basil C., J. Charles Kelley, and Carroll L. Riley, eds. (1971). The North Mexican Frontier: Readings in Archaeology, Ethnohistory, and Ethnography, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Mason, J. Alden (1952). "Notes and Observations on the Tepehuan." América Indígena 12(1): 33-53.

Pennington, Campbell W. (1969). The Tepehuan of Chihuahua: Their Material Culture. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.

Pennington, Campbell W. (1983). "Northern Tepehuan." In Handhook of North American Indians. Vol. 10, Southwest, edited by Alfonso Ortiz, 306-314. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Pequeño-Rossie, Pedro A. (1974). "The Tepehuan Indians of Northern Mexico: An Ethnohistorical Study." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Southern Illinois.

Service, Elman R. (1969). "The Northern Tepehuan." In Handbook of Middle American Indians, edited by Robert Wauchope. Vol. 8, Ethnology, Part 2, edited by Evon Z. Vogt, 822-829. Austin: University of Texas Press.