Dance and healing are strongly linked to the culture of the Tarahumara, an ethnic group living in the state of Chihuahua, in northern Mexico.
The Sierra Tarahumara, in the north of Mexico, is a region of striking contrasts with great cultural, linguistic, ecological, ritual and landscape diversities. The Tarahumara (Rarámuri), along with the Pimas (O’odham), Guarijíos (Macurawe or Macoragüi), Tepehua-nes of the north (Odamí) and Mestizos, inhabit a region located among pines and above canyons. The ground is abruptly broken into several regions where temperatures range from extreme cold to extreme heat.
In fact, in the highest parts of the mountains the average weather varies drastically according to the season, while at the bottom of the canyon, there is mild to hot weather. The Tarahumara lifestyle has been affected by the historical, political and economic dynamics which have occurred in the world over the past 500 years.
Tarahumara style flute, collected by Richard W. Payne, from the collection of Clint GossDance and healing practices are highly integrated into Tarahumara social life. Their mythical and religious festivities are made up of dances, ‘tesqüino’ parties and offerings. Parties are often held for cooperative labour or a curing ceremony or also on the occasion of other events such as birth, marriage, death, and harvest.
Holding a party implies a collective cooperation, from covering long distances and travelling through rugged valleys to invite friends and family, to collecting wood, selecting the best grain to prepare tortillas, tamales and tesguino (corn beer); and providing the best animals (hens, and either goats or cows) for sacrifices and tónan (the ritual broth). All members of the community participate in the organization of a party: children, young people, adults and the elderly. Women generally prepare food, while men are involved in the organization of dances.
The Tarahumara communities also hold annual ceremonies to celebrate the local Saint, Holy Week, Virgin of Guadalupe’s day, 24 and 25 December, as well as New Years Eve, 6 January and the day of the Candelaria. The celebrations may vary locally, however the ritual year is usually divided into two: the season of the Pharisees (pre-Easter season, which in some places starts from the day of the Candelaria, before sowing) and the matachines season (from September to January, after sowings and harvests).
During healing ceremonies, several rituals are performed such as the yuman and yumare, the peyote and bakanoa. In some places, curing practices are performed by using water and herbs and the vapours released by incandescent stones.
The several ceremonies are combined with just as many different dances that are performed according to the rituals of each season. For example, if a curing ceremony is held in March, then the Pharisees dancers are called to dance; while if the ceremony takes place in December, the matachines dancers will perform the dances. In the same way, a dance is selected depending on the kind of disease or problem that needs to be solved, the yúmari dance is generally performed for the curing ceremonies regarding simple problems, while the peyote and bakanoa dance is performed in the case of serious diseases or difficult problems. All these healing practices are combined with allopathic medicine.
The Tarahumara or Rarámuri, as they call themselves, know that they must “walk well to hold up the world”. Rarámuri, in fact, means ‘foot-runner’ or ‘he who walks well’. These people are able to run long distances and over long periods, and can be considered the best runners in the world. Even though they have been able to preserve the culture and traditions of their ancestors, they have however come into contact, over time, with the modernity of the surrounding world from which they select the elements to take. So their lifestyle, like the territory they inhabit, is characterized by contrasts. The Raramuri live between tradition and elements of modernity which they have decided to take and to re-elaborate. The Tarahumara are like ‘pillars or columns of the world’ because they know that they make history and just like anybody else they are responsible for the events that occur in this world. They are the pillars of the world as long as they behave properly by helping to eradicate what is harmful and to preserve what strengthens life. They believe that this responsibility is cosmic, individual, and collective. That is why they continue to dance, to heal, and to avert conflicts, becoming in this way the pillars of the world. (P.M.)