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The Tarahumara Are Survivors

CREEL, Mexico

Mexico's Tarahumara Indians, who eke out a bare existence in caves high in the Western Sierra Madre mountains, lost 400 people this winter to hunger and bitter cold. But the startling death toll hardly caused a tear to be shed among this hardy race.

For the Tarahumara, winter deaths are a natural phenomenon often overshadowed by other, harsher threats.

"This race, which ought to be degenerate, has for 400 years resisted every force that has come to attack it: civilization, inbreeding, war, winter, animals, storms and the forest,"

wrote French anthropologist Antonin Artaud in the 1930s in words that still hold true.

The Tarahumara have had plenty of visitors, most of them unwelcome. First came Spanish soldiers 500 years ago, then missionaries and miners and recently lumber companies. Here in the heart of Tarahumara lands in the northern state of Chihuahua, the Indians now rub shoulders with foreign tourists starting out on Mexico's Copper Canyon tourist train.

On a railroad platform in this town 7,640 feet high in the mountains, Tarahumara women crouch with woven grass baskets and wooden dolls at their feet selling to European and U.S. tourists boarding the daily Canyon service.

"We sell what we can and then we go back home to the hills,"

said Guadalupe Perez, a wrinkled Tarahumara matriarch, speaking for a dozen colleagues huddled together for warmth. She explained in broken Spanish that the Tarahumara prefer to live in remote homesteads outside the town.

"It keeps the distance, it keeps us apart,'' she said.

Former Gov. Enrique Creel founded this now predominantly lumber and railroad town in 1906, bidding to create a mixed colony of 75 percent Tarahumara and 25 percent Mexican families, each owning 25 acres of land. But one year later his ideal had fallen flat. The Tarahumara shunned the plan and left Creel to mixed-blood mestizos.

One reason for their survival is this traditional cold-shouldering of other races.

"They deliberately chose to stay apart from the outside world and consequently suffer the price of high infant mortality and also low life expectancy,"

anthropologist Breen Murray said.

"But it helps them survive as a race."

It is not only the Tarahumaras' culture that survives. Population statistics indicate their numbers are relatively healthy too. Pedro Perez Mata, director of Chihuahua state's Tarahumara Coordinating Commission, said no accurate census exists but he estimates that 60,000 to 65,000 Tarahumaras currently live in the Western Sierra Madre mountains. That compares with estimates 10 years ago of around 50,000.

The figures are surprising considering the winter deaths and the population drain on the Tarahumara as the young are lured away to the bright lights of cities. Some abandon the harsh way of life and integrate into Mexican communities. Others, broken by repeated crop failures, end up begging on the streets of Chihuahua City, the state capital.

Experts agree high birth rates, closely knit community structures and a relatively balanced diet are behind the Tarahumaras' resilience. With no clans or lineages, and descent and inheritance equal on both sides of the family, the Tarahumaras are a highly democratic group. Communities make consensus decisions on everything from land disputes to local sports rules.

Frequent beer fests are also a unifying factor. Taking co-operative farming to extremes, Tarahumaras about to plant corn ask other farmers to help them and in return throw wild parties with home-brewed corn beer. The boozy gatherings allow for inhibitions to be dropped, widespread sexual promiscuity and consequently less risk of inbreeding, experts say.

Adapting certain foreign elements into their culture, such as higher-yielding corn strains, also helps the Tarahumaras' survival and highlights their preference for simple solutions.

Living in cool caves in blisteringly hot summers is as much common sense as the result of poverty. Smaller caves are often used as burial chambers and sealed with rocks rather than trying to dig graves in volcanic rock.

"We only borrow what is good for our lives,"

Francisco Campos, a Tarahumara farmer outside Creel, said.

"That is one of them,"

he said, waving his gnarled hand toward the ax leaning against his wood-hut granary.

Diet is another survival factor. Despite occasional food shortages so bad they cause deaths through malnutrition, the Tarahumara's high-protein, low-meat diet is highly celebrated. Eating meat only during festivals, they subsist predominantly on mineral-enriched corn, beans, chilies and occasionally marrow-like vegetables.

Diet is also believed to be the secret behind their running prowess. Tarahumara means "foot runners" and gaunt-faced Indians wearing sandals soled with old car tires regularly thrash hi-tech U.S. athletes in challenge races, leaving Western medical experts scratching their heads.

"Our children run before they walk, it is more natural in the sierra because of the great distances,"

said Campos, a broad smile breaking across his sun-baked face.

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The Indigenous Peoples' Literature pages were researched and organized by Glenn Welker.