Tepehuan of Durango

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Tepehuan of Durango



Identification and Location. The Sierra Madre Occidental range cuts a north-south swath through northern Mexico, splitting the states of Chihuahua and Durango into eastern and western parts. In extreme southwestern Durango, several hundred kilometers south of the land of the Northern Tepehuan of Chihuahua and across this mountainous rupture live the Southern Tepehuan. The sublime variance of the peaks and canyons rent from the earth by two rivers, the Mezquital and the Huazamota, and their tributaries, renders the discordant beauty of some of the roughest and most wondrous land in Mexico. This terrain makes communication possible only by unmaintained dirt roads and trails. Like the Northern Tepehuan, members of the Southern group call themselves "Dami" ("We the People" or "those who live in this place"). The name "Tepehuan" comes from the Nahuatl word tepetl (hill). Ethnographic work in this remote area is sparse, and although they have probably lived here for about a thousand years, the Tepehuan are relatively unknown to outsiders.

There are seven comunidades in Southern Tepehuan territory. Santa María Ocotán, San Francisco Ocotán, Santiago Teneraca, and Santa María Magdalena de Taxicaringa are in the municipio of Mezquital, Durango. San Bernardino de Milpillas Chico and San Francisco de Lajas are in the municipio of Pueblo Nuevo, Durango. Farthest to the south, in the municipio of Huajicori, Nayarit, is the comunidad of San Andres de Milpillas Grande. Santa María Ocotán was established as an ejido. Each comunidad is a town that acts as the central political and religious center for several anexos (small settlements) and a multitude of rancherías.

Demography. A small proportion of the 1.3 million people living in the thinly populated state of Durango are Indiansabout 24,000, of whom some 16,000 are Tepehuan. The other indigenous groups in the area are the Huichol and the Nahuatl-speaking Mexicanero Indians. A small number of Tepehuan live across the border in the states of Nayarit and Zacatecas. As in the case of the Tepehuan of Chihuahua, narrow-sighted suppositions of assimilation and acculturation often led early researchers to write them out of the ethnographic present and wrongly to assume that a viable Tepehuan culture no longer existed in Durango. The region is poorly served by federal and state agencies, and seasonal population movement in search of wage labor is a further impediment to accurate assessment.

Linguistic Affiliation. The language of the Southern Tepehuan is probably more closely related to the extinct Tepecano language that was spoken in the northern part of the state of Jalisco than to the three other languages (Northern Tepehuan, its dosest living relative; Pima; and Papago of Sonora and southern Arizona) that make up the Tepiman or Piman Branch of the Sonoran Division of the Uto-Aztecan Family. There are at least two mutually intelligible dialects. Southeastern Tepehuan, spoken chiefly in the municipio of El Mezquital, is the most studied and best understood by linguists. Another dialect is in the southwestern municipio of Pueblo Nuevo.

History and Cultural Relations

The Tepehuan were hunters and gatherers who came from near the present border between the modern states of Sonora and Arizona, the originating place for all Tepiman speakers. In their present location, they were influenced by Mesoamerican culture, the culture of the more urbanized people to the south, especially in their acceptance of farming, ceramics, platform architecture, and religion. At the time of the arrival of Spaniards in the Durango region in the mid-sixteenth century, the Tepehuan were horticulturists who supplemented their subsistence with hunting and gathering during certain times of the year.

The Spaniards introduced the use of oxen in farming; the raising of cattle, sheep, and goats; the use of animal fertilizer; and new religious and political forms and clothing styles. Spanish occupation and control of the central part of present-day Durango state, around the city of Durango and immediately to the north, created a split between the Southern and Northern Tepehuan. Although there is no lucid setting apart of the two Tepehuan in the early Spanish records, there is no real evidence to confirm that they were much closer culturally at the time of the Conquest than they are now. The distance of several hundred kilometers between the two divisions may have been sufficient to create the cultural and linguistic differences that now exist. Interestingly, considered separately, it is apparent that a long period of isolation was necessary to produce the remarkable language dissimilarity. Although it is generally observed that the Northern Tepehuan are closer to the culture pattern of the Indians of the Greater Southwest and the Southern Tepehuan are closer to that of Mesoamerica, appraised as a whole, the Tepehuan emerge as a kind of bridge between the two. Today the Southern Tepehuan seem particularly close to the Cora and the Huichol in the neighboring states of Nayarit and Jalisco.

Upon their arrival, the Spaniards immediately subjugated the Indians, forcing them to labor in mines and on farms, imposing virtual slavery, brutality, and rape, and confiscating their goods and lands. Following the era of the gold seekers, the missionizing process became a concerted and intense effort in Durango between 1607 and 1615. After the establishment of missions and the settlement of Indians in towns, the Spaniards built garrisons to protect their settlements and haciendas to farm and tend cattle. This encroachment was not passively received. Continuous trouble culminated in a bloody uprising from 1616 to 1618, the first largeand possibly the most devastatingIndian rebellion in the border regions in the seventeenth century. The Spanish settlement that is now Durango city came under siege, and there was fighting at Mezquital in the south and at Canatlán in the north. By early 1621, pacification was well enough under way to allow the Spanish appointment of forty-six Tepehuan political officers to govern the Indian communities. Although sporadic insurgency continued (raids on Spanish farms and ranches were common around Mezquital), the two decades that followed are seen as the time of conclusive efforts to quell significant resistance.

Drought and widespread epidemics in Southern Tepehuan towns in the late seventeenth century decreased the population and pushed many Tepehuan away from their native homes and closer toward Spanish settlements and influences, or further into the southern mountains. After the Spanish colonial administration expelled the Jesuits in 1767, a period of relative isolation allowed the Southern Tepehuan to produce an amalgamated, distinct culture. Continued inroads by mestizo culture, the seizing of lands, and continued poverty, as well as isolation in a rugged country, have ensured that this distinct culture would develop without interference from outside governmental agencies. The greatest threats to cultural integrity and survival today are changes in national land-tenure laws, the exploitation of forests, continued labor migration, andmost devastatingthe invasion of Tepehuan lands by drug lords, who impose a regime of forced labor.


Each comunidad is a territorial and political unit. At the center of a comunidad is a main town that is the religious-political center for the surrounding anexos (named villages) and isolated rancherías belonging to the comunidad. A ranchería consists of clustered houses surrounded by widely scattered small farm plots. The towns act as central foci for government, social, and religious rituals and are official headquarters for holding elections and discussing matters affecting the comunidad. In addition to a town's public and administrative buildings, there are also a church or chapel, a school, and a community kitchen. Elected officials live in these centers during their terms of office.

A typical Southern Tepehuan dwelling is a rectangular two-room construction built on a platform of earth that has been prepared by continual watering, sweeping, and hollowing out. The walls are made of stone and adobe and the roof is thatched with grass. One room is used for cooking and the other for sleeping. There are variations in the construction of homes in different villages, depending on available materials. Where sawmills are accessible, lumber is used in the construction of community and residential buildings.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The great variation in elevation (from 600 meters at the deepest point in the vast Mezquital Canyon to 3,250 meters at the crown of Cerro Gordo) produces a great variation in plants and wildlife. The choices of cultivable crops are extremely limited because of the lack of water and topsoil; another determinent is the rugged terrain cut by two deep rivers, which flow southward through Nayarit into the Pacific. Deep canyons create different ecosystems and dictate the types of crops that can be grown. Pine and hardwood forests cover high plateaus. Deep valleys, with hot, dry climates and tropical flora and fauna in the lowlands alternate with the higher, temperate zones that experience heavy rainfall in the summer and frost in winter.

Agriculture and pastoralism are the main economic resources, although the lumber industry has made a minor contribution since about 1980. Maize, beans, and two kinds of squash are the traditionally cultivated crops and remain the dietary staples, given that the rocky mountains and the scarcity of water leave only a trifling amount of arable land and permit little diversification. Despite the importance of maize as a dietary staple, the Southern Tepehuan do not grow sufficient quantities to feed themselves. Around the beginning of the twentieth century, it was reported that cotton was grown for ceremonial purposes, but this practice has been abandoned. Heavy on tortillas, beans, cheese, and other farm products that need no irrigation, the Tepehuan diet is fortified by a good deal of gathered foods. These include roots, wild tubers, fruits, greens, and mushrooms. The constraints of the land greatly impinge both on the economy and on patterns of settlement and migration.

Along with the pines that support the lumber industry are banana, plum, and avocado trees that are native to the area, as well as the introduced apple and peach species. Also in the more tropical areas are found mangos and guayabo fruits. Most families keep chickens. Cattle and goats are fairly common, and an accumulation of them is a mark of wealth. Other domesticated animals include sheep, turkeys, pigs, horses, and donkeys. Hunting and fishing are less important today than in the past. Firearms for hunting are luxuries that not many can afford. Cattle and most available wild game, such as deer, are saved for ceremonial use.

Trade. The Southern Tepehuan engage in a modest amount of trade and commerce. Fruits, livestock, maize, and mescal are brought to Mexican markets for sale or trade. Household goods such as cloth, cooking utensils, and tools are procured at occasional market outings.

Division of Labor. These trading ventures and most other economic matters are the exclusive domain of males. For the most part, the division of labor by gender falls along the same lines as that of the Northern Tepehuan. Men perform the heavy farm and forestry work, and women maintain the home, weaving clothing and household items from wool, cotton, and maguey fiber and participating in the harvest. At a very young age, children begin to herd goats and cattle. Labor exchange occurs within extended families, and communal labor is required for certain tasks, especially during communal rituals.


The household is the main unit of production and consumptionwith the occasional addition of others from what appears to be an extended patrilineal family, often localized in the same ranchería, neighborhood, or village. Along with the offices and loyalties of the towns and anexos are the apellido group alliances, which crosscut village boundaries. These are associations (sometimes three or four in a village) of individuals sharing the same Spanish surname. Children of the same parents often have different surnames. Apellido groups may be the remaining shells of nonlocalized patrilineal clans of antiquity.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Few, if any, marriage restrictions have been recorded. Marriages are usually arranged by the parents of the couple and take place before either the bride or the groom reaches the age of 20 and, often, at a younger age. The parents of the prospective groom pay ceremonial visits to the family of the chosen bride for five consecutive nights, and on the fifth night the girl's parents decide whether to accept or reject the offer of marriage. Formerly, the newly married husband went to work for his wife's relatives for five months. After this, the couple either went to live with his family or set up their own household. This is not the only pattern of marriage; other variations may involve the groom appearing before a native official called an ixkai with his hands tied. After a brief invocation the man is untied, and the couple go to live at the groom's paternal home. As soon as possible, the couple construct their own home near the groom's paternal residence.

Domestic Unit and Inheritance. People live as either nuclear or patrilineal extended families, with members added who are related through either descent or marriage. Houses and privately owned land property are ordinarily passed down from father to son.

Land Tenure, Sociopolitical Organization, and Social Control

Sociopolitical organization is complicated by the presence of sometimes conflicting forms of land tenure and systems introduced at different times by the Spaniards and Mexicans that crosscut traditional organization. There are two forms of communal land tenure present in the region. The comunidad is an older, indigenous form, in which land is held patrilineally and inherited by sons or widows. The ejido is a form of communal land-tenure system provided for in the constitution of 1917, following the Mexican Revolution. It allocated communal lands to applicantswhether Indian, mestizo, or togetherto be held as long as the land is used economically. Under the ejidal system, land is not officially or legally inheritable, but actual practice often violates this proviso. An elected body of officials governs the ejido and its economic business. Residential units found within ejidos and comunidades include towns and rancherías.

Comunidades are governed by a popularly elected asamblea (assembly of voting members), who decide upon matters presented and select minor political and economic officials. The asamblea officers include the traditional gobernador, representatives from each of the anexos, and others who act as police and church assistants, as well as those who announce and conduct religious ceremonies and similar activities. Overlapping this groupand conflicting with themare ejidal officers, in those instances where the ejido controls the land-tenure system. A comisario is elected for a three-year term to transact business with lumber companies (where sawmills exploiting ejidal forest land are present); other officials supervise sawmills, work in the forest, watch over forest exploitation according to established rules, and deal with officials of the Secretaría de la Reforma Agraria, the federal agency that oversees and adjudicates matters regarding ejidos.

The traditional gobernador (ixkai) is responsibile for public works, supervision of communal work, maintaining public order, and ceremonies honoring the community's patron saint. In some communities he is also in charge of the xiotahl ritual (see "Religion and Expressive Culture"), judges minor cases of crime and family disputes, and imposes punishment as necessary. The gobernador segundo acts in the place of the former in his absence. Regidores act as the gobernador's messengers. Alguaciles are in charge of keeping order and dispensing punishment (such as whippings) in some cases. The topil is an assistant. The position of teportado is filled by a youth who accompanies the governor during fiestas and calls the community by beating a drum. The kapchin is charged with matters dealing with boundaries. The alférez and others are assistants in communal religious and political matters, for instance, keeping order during Holy Week.

Religious festivals are held on days designated by the Catholic church (e.g., Holy Week) and to celebrate the patron saint's day. Mayordomías, officers within a cargosystem hierarchy, are in charge of this important festival. Mayordomos are in control, with assistants called priostas ; pasioneros accompany the image of the saint, and a fiscal is the sacristan in charge of the images of the saints. The numbers and duties of these officials vary from community to community. Generally, they are in charge of the appropriate traditional performance of the ceremonies, the operation of communal kitchens, and keeping order during the ritual.

The political system is overlaid with systems of personal influence, municipal jurisdictions and officials, and political activities dealing with national, state, and municipal elections. Unofficial governance, influence, and power is also imposed by caciques, local bosses who enforce their rule through violence and torture. The municipio is divided into manzanas, or cuarteles, each with an appointed chief who may act as a parallel authority and often displaces the traditional ixkai. A Supreme Council of the Tepehuan has been created to provide a single voice for the whole of the Southern Tepehuan, but it seems to have little authority. Political parties such as the Partido del Pueblo Mexicano (PPM) and others are making their appearance in some communities to oppose the ruling state party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI).

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs, Ceremonies, and Religious Practitioners. The Tepehuan have accepted Catholicism while maintaining aspects of their original religious precepts, an example of what anthropologists call "compartmentalism." This means that the two religions are practiced separately at different times of the year, with different rituals, and for different purposes. Catholics are served by a resident priest at San Bernardino, who also serves the surrounding areas. Other communities are served by visiting missionaries who arrive before Easter Sunday and stay several weeks. The archbishop comes yearly from Durango to baptize and confirm children. No other priests or members of Protestant religions missionize or visit the region.

A traditional pantheon of gods is syncretized in name and ritual with Catholic religious figures. Dios Padre (God the Father) is associated with the sun, whereas Jesús Nazareno (Jesus the Nazarene) is identified with the moon. Madre María (the Holy Mother) is represented by several figures, one of which is the Virgin of Guadalupe. The Morning Star is referred to as "our elder brother." There is a local figure named Ixaitiung whose heroic story of a fall from grace through the human failings of drunkenness and fornication, absolvement by performing the first sacred dance, and ultimate passage into heaven recounts a conventional religious theme. He also provided the xiotahl ritual.

Like other Indians in Mexico, the Southern Tepehuan celebrate the Christian holy days of Easter, the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe (12 December), Christmas, and village saints' days with spirited fiestas that are predominantly Mexican in character, during which the standard matachines are danced. The elote (tender maize) first-fruits festival is a non-Christian celebration that takes place in early October; fresh maize cannot be eaten until this festival is held.

The ceremonies that set the Tepehuan apart from mestizo culture in Durango are the ceremonies of fertility and thanksgiving called mitotes (Spanish) or xiotahl (Tepehuan) . Shamans function as directors of these sacred ceremonies during the fiestas and as curers. For five days there is fasting and much prayer. On the fifth night there is a grand display of ritual dancing, and, when the sun rises, the celebrants break their fast by eating food that has been set as offerings at the east end of the dance platform, on an altar dedicated to the rising sun. Mitotes are not as frequent nor as extravagant as they were in the past. Today they are held, on average, three times a year, in accordance with the agricultural cycle (to appeal for protection against the harsh dry winter, to bless the spring sowing, to give thanks for the fall harvest) and on other occasions, including the blessing of newly elected officers. During times of drought a special mitote may be given to ask for rain. Traditional native mitotes are more reverent occasions of abstinence and prayer, whereas mestizo-influenced fiestas are opportunities for revelry and mescal drinking.

Each family and community has a patio where ceremonies are conducted. At both the village and the apellido-group level, there is an officer called the jefe del patio who organizes and leads the mitotes. The jefe of the apellido groupalmost always an elderly male shamanis in charge of special apellido festivals, which are celebrated by the production of a xiotahl in May and October. At these times, recently born children are ritually inducted into the apellido group, and young adults of 15 years of age are recognized as adults of the group. Some feel that the shamans held ruling power in ancient Tepehuan culture. It is traditional that there be a female jefe del patio in both apellidos groups and territorial villages to preside over the affairs of female members.

Arts and Industrial Arts. By Jesuit accounts, precolonial musical instruments that were played during dances and ceremonies included rasping sticks, rattles, and reed or ceramic flutes. These instruments along with the musical bow played on a gourd sounder, are still used to provide music during the ceremonial mitote. The drum and the violin, an instrument of Spanish origin, are added when playing corridos and other popular Mexican songs at the fiestas. Clay pipes and incense burners similar to pre-Spanish objects that have been unearthed are sometimes used by curers for their healing rituals. Although some pottery is still made, it is, for the most part, strictly functional and undecorated, and weaving has all but vanished.

Illness and Death. When illness strikes, anyone in the family of the afflicted may petition the supernatural through prayer, but more serious conditions require the efforts of shaman curers. These individuals are endowed with the gift of healing, may be of either sex but are usually male, and specialize in the treatment of specific infirmities. Well-known curers are often consulted by mestizo neighbors. A young person who is called to be a shaman will train for five years as an apprentice to an older shaman. During this time he learns ritual prayers and makes an ascetic retreat of seclusion for one month each year, nourished only by plain tortillas, water, meditation, and prayer.

Treatment entails a long, elaborate ceremony that normally lasts for five days. The curer fasts, prays, and chants long routinized orations. The sick person is massaged and has smoke from the curer's pipe blown over his or her body. Typical of shamanistic healing in this part of the world, the ritual involves sucking the material object that caused the disease from the body of the patient, the use of eagle feathers for sweeping the patient, incantations including invocation of Catholic saints, the symbolic use of the cross and images of saints, and the use of various herbs. Ritualized confession of the patient, the participation of other family members as beneficiaries of healing, and special healing mitotes, in which a large number of people are cured en masse by the spiritually charged aura of the ceremony, are some of the curing practices with wider social dimensions.

The malady that brings death is believed to be both spiritual and physical in nature, a result of sickness and sorcery. Throughout the life cycle, intervals of five are of significant symbolic importance: note the lengths of the premarriage visits of the parents (five successive days), the shaman's training period (five years), and mitotes (five days). A special five-day ceremony, which is conducted by the shaman and closely involves the surviving family members, marks the end of a life on earth and concludes with the driving of the soul out from the body and into heaven. In this capacity as funeral director, the shaman's role has been interpreted as that of a practitioner whose principal responsibility is to prevent the soul from coming back to its corporeal home. The usual place of interment of the dead is the village burial ground, which is commonly located in the churchyard.


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