The Raramuri indigenous people, with a population of about 60,000, are the largest tribe in the Republic north of the Valley of Mexico. With quiet, individualistic determination they cling to the sheer rockslide flanks of some of the most remote barrancas of Mexico, surrounded by a demanding environment in which even the smallest error can be dangerous, a large mistake, fatal.
Small, strong, wiry, alert, with immense capacities of endurance, they call themselves foot-runners — Raramuri — and delight in 170-mile marathons and in hunting deer, when they can be found, by running them to death.
More than 2,000 years ago, their ancestors explored the intricate, precipitous system of gorges known today, generally as the Urique and Copper Canyons, settling in the choicest flood land meadows. When the Spanish arrived in the mid-1500s, seeking silver and gold, they characteristically misunderstood the tribe’s name, dubbed the Tarahumara, and began forcing them off their land, which European frontiersmen coveted for ranches.
As they were squeezed west and southwest, the Raramuri-Tarahumara fought stubbornly, flaring up in rebellions that spread from Chihuahua to New Mexico, attacking forts, missions and boomtowns. In 1649, the Tarahumaras swept through Nueva Viscaya (as the Spanish called the region) in a fury, burning Spanish barracks, ranches, churches and killing the soldiers, settlers and padres inhabiting them. In control of the sierra passes, the Tarahumara blocked the deployment of troops, priests, settlers and supplies, maintaining their freedom for another 20 years.
The Great Tarahumara War ended in 1670 when an indigenous girl was persuaded to lead a viceregal army into a remote mountain valley where the main force of Tarahumara warriors had camped. The inevitable massacre broke the capability and the will of the tribe to continue resisting the Spanish. European disease and missions completed the job of subduing the once-powerful Raramuri.