Running to Hunt, Running for Sport

Running is a sport practiced by people everywhere around the world. Some people run casually for exercise. Some people train as professional runners, running in races and competing for fast times. For the Tarahumara people, running is an especially important part of their lives and community.

The Tarahumara, or Rarámuri, are an indigenous people from Chihuahua, Mexico. They are one of the largest indigenous communities in North America. The area that the Tarahumara live in is known as the Sierra Madre. The Tarahumara are famous around the world for their incredible skill as runners. Traditionally, the Tarahumara have always valued running skills very highly. This is because of their hunting traditions. The Tarahumara often participated in a form of hunting called “persistence hunting.” In this mode of hunting, hunters chase animals down on foot. Instead of shooting an animal with a bow and arrow, the Tarahumara hunters would chase it until it died of exhaustion. This technique requires an incredible amount of endurance and speed.

Outside of its importance in hunting traditions, running is also very important as a sport and spiritual act for the Tarahumara. Running events are community-oriented. Both men and women can run in these hours- or day-long competitions. There are different forms of footraces that the Tarahumara compete in. One kind of race is called the rarajípare. This race involves two teams, each with 12 men. Each man on a team has to run the same distance. The men kick small wooden balls back and forth to their teammates as they run. As the runners compete, they have to cross streams and climb hills. The whole time, they must keep passing the ball to their teammates. The first team to run a set number of miles wins the race. These races can take hours or even days, depending on how many miles long they are. Some races are as short as 15 miles, while some are as long as 90 miles!

The women’s version of this race is called ariwete. Instead of kicking a ball back and forth, women runners use hoops and sticks in their race. During the ariwete, runners carry sticks with hooks at the end. They use these sticks to hit hoops. The hoops are made with wood and cloth. This hoop is hit from runner to runner.

As the competitors run in these races, community members will sometimes run alongside them, shouting encouragement. A common phrase that they shout is “Iwériga, iwériga!” This word means “breath” and also “soul” in the Tarahumara language. Iwériga shows how connected the Tarahumara’s spiritual beliefs are with their running practices. For the Tarahumara, breathing is a spiritual practice. The breath of life is an important part of the Tarahumara creation myth. For the Tarahumara, showing strength by running a long distance and controlling the breath is also a spiritual act. The rarajípare is sometimes thought of as a way of praying.

Tarahumara runners have become known around the world for their running skills. Their traditions of persistence hunting and footraces have fostered many powerful runners within this indigenous group.