Tarahumara Religion

by Victor M. Mendoza

The lives of the races before the Conquest were completely dominated by religion. There were exacting gods for every activity, and everything that the people did and created was in the nature of an offering to these deities, to whom they also gave their blood and lives. Thus for those who survived the Conquest, the destruction of their gods and the necessity to accept new ones were great blows. However, they learned to make the best of what they could not help. Some of the natives were sincerely impressed by the miraculous apparitions of the saints, asking for Christian temples wherever another one was destroyed; others pretended to accept the new religion but went on with the old one in secret. In any case, after over four centuries of Christianity, the natives to this day treat their saints as idols. And there are still traces in Catholic ritual and Christian ones, to what extent we have already seen in the ceremonies described. Others still to be written about will bear this out.

As the natives learned more about Catholicism, they found many beliefs and practices in it that were similar to their own. Both religions believed in the plastic representations of their gods - there were about as many images of saints as idols; both believed in baptism, confession, fasting, sexual abstinence, in the chastity and celibacy of their priests and of the women who dedicated themselves to the temples.

The religious symbol today among many of the primitive tribes - those of the highlands of Chiapas, Mayas of Quintana Roo, Tarahumaras, Yaquis - is the cross. However, they do not connect it with the sufferings of Christ but anthropomorphize it and treat it as a saint. Among those tribes wooden crosses of all sizes are used; they are put at the entrances to villages, in the courts of houses and on their domestic and church altars; in some there are saints also but the crosses are more important.

A Tarahumara woman is very shy about giving birth; she goes to some hidden spot away from her house, attended by a woman, her husband or even alone. A nest of grass is prepared to receive the child, over which she stands, holding on to the branch of a tree. She generally resumes her household duties within twenty-four hours, but her husband does not work for three days, fearing some accident to his implements or animals. Three days after birth if the baby is a boy, and four if a girl, a "curing ceremony is held. Each member of the family kneels before the officiating shaman, while he marks crosses in the air with incense on four sides; then he makes more crosses with three lighted pitch-pine sticks for a boy, and with four for a girl. Next he burns a bit of the hair off the top of the head, and with water from his mouth blows a cross on it. The ceremony ends with the eating of goat meat and drinking of corn beer, dedicated by the shaman. Sometimes the dutuburi dance is also performed. Later two additional ceremonies of the same kind are performed for a boy and three for a girl. A similar ceremony is sometimes performed before birth for the purpose of cutting the invisible wire connecting the foetus with heaven.

A child may be bathed soon after birth or several days later. The umbilical cord, which is believed to have some magical connection with the future life of the child, is never thrown away. That of the girl is generally buried near or under the hearth so that she may become a good housekeeper; that of a boy in the cornfield so that he may be a good farmer. But if the father of a boy wants his son to be a good hunter, he may hang his navel cord on a tree. The Tarahumaras bury the cord in the place where the child is born so that it will not grow up stupid.

Among the Tarahumaras three fiestas with food, drinks, music, and dances are given for a man during the year after his death, and four for a woman. After that it is believed that their souls have reached heaven safely and that the duty of the near relatives toward their dead is completed. During that period of mourning a widow must be careful not to drink too much at fiestas; she must not have relations with men nor remarry.

Peyote Pilgrimages and Fiestas

The peyote plants are small cacti that live for months after being uprooted. The eating of them immediately allays hunger, thirst, fatigue; it produces color visions; the trees dance, yet one does not get dizzy even when walking along a precipice. Peyote has great curative powers; it brings luck, long life; it is a sort of protecting genius, a demi-god.

Some peyote eaters become exalted under the narcotic influence of the plant. A man may suddenly jump up from his seat, talk loudly, wave his arms about as if wanting to fly, then sit down again. On the whole, however, the majority are happy, the only after effects being a feeling of great depression.

The two tribes for whom peyote is most sacred are the Huichols and Tarahumaras. They live hundreds of miles apart; speak different tongues; have no contact, yet they call the variety of the plant they worship by the same name -hikuli, which we refer to as peyote. It is the Lophophara Wiliamsii, about two inches in diameter. As peyote does not grow in the regions in which these tribes live, they go on long, hard pilgrimages to secure it.

The peyote cult among the Tarahumaras is less extensive and not so elaborate as that of the Huichols, but very important nevertheless. The Tarahumaras believe the plants possess human attributes, the power to cure, to purify, and to bring luck.

When Tata Dios went to heaven, he left peyote behind as a remedy and talisman for the Tarahumaras. The plant has four faces and sees everything; it is very powerful.

It is related that one day the Bear and the Peyote met in a cave. The Bear said to Peyote, "Let us fight and let us smoke over there." So they smoked and fought and Peyote was the stronger of the two. He knocked the Bear down and all the wind went out of him. But the Bear wanted to fight and smoke once more. They did, and again Peyote knocked him down. Then the Bear sat on a stone and wept. After that he went away and never returned.

Catholicized Tarahumaras make the sign of the cross when they approach a peyote, greeting it as if it were a person. Some say that the greatest peyote is the brother of Tata Dios, so they call him uncle. But he is not so great as Father Sun, even though he may sit near him. The peyote plants are believed to be very modest. In order not to shock them by the immodest things they could not avoid seeing if they were kept in the house, they are put away in a jar or basket in a separate store house. Before they are taken out for use, an offering of meat and tesguino must be made them. If this were neglected, the plants would eat the man's soul. If mice were to nibble at the peyotes or if they were bruised in any way while stored, the owner might go insane for not taking better care of them. Should anyone steal peyote, he would certainly go crazy. In order to be cured, the plants must be returned to the original owner, an ox sacrificed, and a fiesta given to make peace with God and the people.

The peyote plants are sometimes dressed in pieces of blankets and offered cigarettes. Only the shamans know how to handle them properly; they wash their hands carefully or use sticks to pick them up. A boy must never touch the plants, and a woman only when she is helping the shaman to grind them.

For external application the plant is either chewed or moistened in the mouth. It is good for snake bites, rheumatic pains, burns and wounds of any kind. When ground and mixed with water, it becomes an intoxicating drink, but its effects are different from those produced by drinking liquor. While they last one is exhilarated and happy; when they wear off, depression and sadness set in.

In recent years the peyote-seekers are generally from the region of Nararachic. The pilgrimage consists of about ten men with a peyote shaman as leader. They find their plants in the State of Chihuahua, taking about a month to bring them back. They may attend to business on the trip in Chihuahua City and do not observe all the restrictions of the Huichols.

When they are on the ground, however, they are serious and respectful, eating only pinole with water. In order to pick the plants, all the men are permitted to touch them. They must handle them with great care as not to injure the roots, for that would not only prevent the plants from growing again but also offend them.

The peyote seekers set up a cross in the field, and the first plants they pick are placed near it; the second batch is eaten by the men. After that they are too drunk to do anything but sleep. They spend two more days in picking the plants, which they put into separate bags for transportation, so that they will not fight when they are being carried by the men on their backs.

The plants apparently like to be picked, because they sing beautifully to attract the attention of the peyote-seekers and say, "I want to go to your country so that you may sing your songs to me." Sometimes they even sing as they are being carried.

When the peyote-seekers are returning, the people meet them with music. Then they make a fiesta in their honor, for which an animal is sacrificed. While it is taking place, the fresh plants are piled up under the cross and sprinkled with tesguino, for they too, want to drink. If their thirst were not satisfied, they would return to their own country. The dances go on throughout the night and there is much food and drink.

The Tarahumara peyote fiestas are generally for the purpose of curing, and they are expensive. They require the sacrifice of a cow, much food and drink. The dutuburi is danced on a patio with three crosses, and sometimes the matachines in front of another cross. But there is a special patio for the peyote dance. On it is one cross for the jar with the peyote and another for God. Upon entering this patio, the men remove their hats and cross themselves; they cannot leave it without permission. There is a hole in the ground for spitting and cigarette butts. A big fire is kept lighted, around which the dancers circle all night. The shaman receives a quarter of the beef and food for his services.

Early in the evening everyone drinks some of the ground peyote with water and a little of the ritual corn beer, which keeps them in a tipsy state all night long. A hole is made in the ground and marked with a cross, as a container for peyote; it is covered with a bowl or gourd, upon which the end of a notched stick is placed to be scraped by another, producing a peculiar resonance. The wood for these sticks is brought back by the peyote-seekers one at a time. Only a shaman may own them; should a layman keep one, he would die.

In the morning the dancing ceases, the tesguino is dedicated; the people ear and drink, then the curing ceremony is performed. The most usual way is to mark crosses on the patient's body with a cross dipped in tesguino as the shaman sings and rasps. Then the rasping stick is scraped three times over the head of the sick. Afterwards the shaman faces the sun and moves his notched stick three times above and below the one for rasping. The peyote which the sick have eaten have been singing to them, while the dance was going on, and giving them courage. In the end everyone drinks liquor with water, and washes hands and face.

Around Gauchochic the curing ceremony in the morning is more elaborate. At dawn the shaman who has been rasping for the dance gives three raps as a signal that it is over. The people gather around the cross at the eastern end of the patio. The shaman arises with his rasping implements, followed by a boy with a gourd of sacred water, and confers a blessing on everyone present. Then he solemnly dips his rasping stick with the wet end. He daubs the head of the sick person with it three times. He rests the end of the notched stick against the man's head and rasps three long strokes, throwing his hand far out into the air after each one. After this he turns to the sun and holding out his implements, makes a strong rasp from end to end, passing his hand out far from the stick toward the rising sun.

By performing the last act three times, the shaman sends the peyote home. They had arrived a short time before on pretty green doves to partake of the food and drink of the Tarahumaras. The greatest of the peyotes eats with the shaman, for the shaman alone is able to see the peyotes. Their presence at the fiesta frees the people from the danger of sorcery.

After the great peyote has given his blessing, he rolls himself into a ball and flies back home in the company of an owl who is also returning at this time.

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