Skip to main content
Original Issue


The Tarahumare Indians, who Jive in Mexico's remote barranca country, are not fleet afoot, but thanks to their extraordinary stamina they can keep a kickball race (opposite) going for days

The Indians began to come in as the sun touched the ridge west of where Río Cusarare bends in a clear stream past a place called Caba√±as Barranca del Cobre. The first we knew of their approach was when Shel Hershorn, the photographer, glanced up from our game of crazy eights and said, "It's a classic. A face in the window. Don't look over your shoulder." So I looked over my shoulder and saw framed in the window a pine tree and the nape of a chalky hill, nothing more.

"Perfect face," Shel said. "Brown. White headband. Black hair. Curious oval eyes. Apache-looking. Too bad you missed it. However, if you could look up just now, carefully, without letting them know what you're doing, and turn your head very slowly, then suddenly snap around, you could see three more."

I looked around again, and there were five. Rather than popping out of sight, these five—now seven, all wearing cotton headbands, dressed as if they had been sent by Cochise—grouped at the windows and peered into the room where we sat at a table near the fireplace. Those faces, black eyes following each movement of card or cigarette or coffee cup, awoke some ancient memory that caused a certain creeping of the flesh. Mollie Lowther got up and opened the door. Bundles of cloth lay on the hillside beyond Río Cusarare as though someone had tossed his laundry out of an airplane. Since early afternoon we had heard the bells of the Indians' goats and had caught an occasional ghosty motion up in the rocks. Now the Tarahumares were showing themselves, coming in for the fiesta we had decided not to have that day. "Must be at least 50," Mollie said. "Somebody's going to have to explain this to them."

We had been passing the word for the Tarahumares to come in some morning and had been assured by Juan Safiro, a mestizo from a valley known as the Place of the Eagles, that they would. But an Indian is not obsessed with counting time as we are. When you say morning he thinks you eccentric if you expect him before dusk. We went out on the porch of the Cabañas Barranca del Cobre, which is a long wooden cabin divided into rooms. An old blind man in a loincloth was walking down the road toward the lodge, poking up dust with his stick. Behind him in the peach light wandered a small boy wearing only an unbuttoned red shirt. The old man sat down against the Lowthers' pole fence. The boy came to the porch and looked up at us.

"Chu-mu rewe?" I said, exhausting one-seventh of my knowledge of phrases in Raràmuri, the language of the Tarahumares.

"Nejé rewé Juan Batista," said the boy.

"Terrible name to stick a kid with," Shel said. "Give him some candy."

The boy unfolded a bandanna, placed our peppermints inside with several jellybeans of dubious vintage and refolded the bandanna. He kept looking at us. They were all looking at us, the ones who had been at the windows and the ones on the hillside and a dozen more who were coming down the canyon from the direction of the waterfall and perhaps another dozen who had appeared on the ridge in the sunset. They were not talking. They were just looking at us. Even the goats were looking at us. They were all waiting. They could wait all night.

Shel picked up his Polaroid color camera, and we went out to the pole fence, where an Indian woman in a white cotton dress sat with two babies and a dog. All three were in her arms, wrapped in a red shawl.

Shel shot her picture. Many of the Tarahumares have never seen their own reflections. The Polaroid was our device for introduction. Shel gave the woman the color print, and she held it upside down, as other Indians did later. Shel righted it. She examined the photo and began to make the mental connection between the red on the paper and the red of her shawl. She tapped the photo, tapped the shawl, tapped her face and looked up at us. "That's you, ma'am," Shel said. She grinned in a sudden burst of pleasure. She started stroking her hair and smoothing it back, looking into the photograph as if it were a mirror.

Mollie, meanwhile, was informing the Indians through one who spoke Spanish as well as Raràmuri that the fiesta would be put off until tomorrow at San Ignacio. The reason, she told them, was that it was getting too dark for pictures. Having come to expect baffling behavior from us, they nodded. By now they knew Shel as Loquito, or Little Crazy One, because he lay in the dirt or hung from rocks a mile above canyon floors to point his black boxes. We broke open a crate of animal crackers and passed them out and watched the Indians disappear into the evening, goat bells tinkling, dogs barking, bundles of cloth vanishing into the pines.

This was the barranca country in the southwestern part of the state of Chihuahua, Mexico, about 400 miles south of El Paso and 180 miles west of Chihuahua City. We had come down to find the runners of the Sierra del Tarahumare, a stretch of the high mountain range called Sierra Madre Occidental. The Indians for whom the Sierra del Tarahumare is named refer to themselves as Raràmuri, a word that means "foot runner." Anthropologists class them as Uto-Aztecan, related to those fantastic runners of the southwestern U.S., the Apaches. It was not extraordinary for an Apache to run 75 miles in a day, leaving his horse far from the scene of a raid and approaching on foot. The origins of the Tarahumares are unclear, but a band of Apaches living northeast of the Gila River in Arizona were called Tarasoma by the Pimas. Among the Tarahumares is a tale that they came down from the Apache land, although there persist old men who say their people descended from heaven with corn and potatoes in their ears.

The Tarahumares were driven into the mountains by the Spanish and by other Indians, including the Apaches and the Yaquis. Over many of their canyon paths it is safer and faster to go on foot than by horse or even by burro, and running developed as a mode of transportation as well as a game. "There is no doubt they are the best runners in the world, not for speed but for distance," says Professor Lamberto Alvarez Gayou, an authority on Mexican sport. Forty years ago an emissary went to a Tarahumare chief to invite him to send runners to a marathon race in Kansas. When told a marathon was a mere 26 miles, the chief ordered three girls to run it. In 1927 Professor Gayou clocked two Tarahumare men in 14 hours 53 minutes for a distance of 89.4 miles between Austin and San Antonio, Texas. Two Tarahumare sisters ran 28.5 miles in 4 hours 56 minutes—not astonishing for speed or distance in terms of the Boston Marathon, but a fair jog for two untrained teen-age girls in long dresses. Several Tarahumares were on the 1928 Mexican Olympic team, and others have come forth for a trial now and then, but the Indians have never done well when brought down from their high country and made to behave like athletes. When they run, it is to get someplace or to win a bet. Recently a Tarahumare messenger ran 50 miles through the mountains, stopped at several villages for reports on the Indians' food supply—which, as usual, was scant—and returned to the Jesuit mission in Sisoguíchi. He made the trip in six hours.

To reach Tarahumare country we flew from Juàrez to Chihuahua City, coming in over patches of brown desert sprinkled with the green of sage and cactus, the jagged mountains blue in the distance. From Chihuahua City we rode southwesterly on the Chihuahua al Pacifico, a remarkable railroad that goes through 72 tunnels and across 33 bridges and twists over the Continental Divide three times before it arrives at Los Mochis, 400 miles away on the Pacific coast. Vaqueros and children herding goats and sheep watched the train go past as it climbed higher into the mountains, into a vast, lofty country of pines, oaks, aspens, boulders and great swollen batholiths. The rivers have carved the area into five major canyons, or barrancas, and many lesser canyons over an area of 10,000 square miles. Five of our Grand Canyons would fit into the barranca country like five stewpots into a bathtub and leave rattling room on the sides.

The rivers that have sculptured the barrancas come together into the Río del Fuerte, which breaks out of the Sierra Madre Occidental southwest of the Divisadero near the town of Choix, said to have been named for a French soldier who deserted from Maximilian's army after the Emperor of Mexico was overthrown in 1867. In the time of the conquistadores, gold and silver were packed out on burros along the Río del Fuerte and taken north to Alamos for smelting. For centuries men have searched western Chihuahua, eastern Sonora and northern Sinaloa for the lost Jesuit mine of Tayopa, which 17th century records prove to have existed, perhaps on the Yaqui River, but which now exists in tales, in faded maps, in mysterious lumps of gold that turn up in trading towns and perhaps in the secrets of the Tarahumares or the Yaquis. Within the past two years an archaeologist from California discovered 24 suits of 16th century Spanish armor in perfect condition in a cave outside Sisoguíchi, on the headwaters of the Río Conchos. He says the huge ovens he found may be evidence to verify a Tarahumare legend concerning a race of giants who lived in the mountains and had much gold.

Clearly, one could not enter such a country without a certain amount of dreaming. I went up to the head of the two-car Fiat Autovia train to discuss with Shel what problems enormous riches might cause us. Shel was standing between two engineers and watching as the train clattered toward a black mule that was dining on the track.

"Hey, there's a mule on the track," Shel said finally to the chief engineer.

"Oh, we kill lots of mules," said the engineer, making a duck-quacking motion with his fingers and looking at his assistant as if to say these Anglos know nothing of how to run a railroad.

The mule rose up large in the windshield. At the last moment the engineer honked his horn, and the mule walked off the track. "Pardon me," Shel said. There was a dull banging sound and a jolt. We looked out and saw a pig tumbling off into a ditch. "We kill lots of those, too," said the engineer, and we went back to our seats as the train came into Creel, a lumber town 7,000 feet high on the Continental Divide, six hours by rail from Chihuahua City.

The little station was crowded with Indians in diapers and headbands and Indians in jeans and straw hats. They boarded the train to carry off the bags. A lumber truck went by, and dust hung over the adobe houses and wooden shacks. An old Indian woman sat eating a Popsicle under a Tome Pepsi sign outside a cantina. Chickens and pigs foraged in the streets. A butcher was cutting up a cow in front of his shop. We found the face of Joe Lowther, brown skin stretched tight across his cheekbones, under a felt cowboy hat. We piled into Joe's station wagon with his driver, Salvadore Molino, and set out on the bouncing 12-mile drive up a lumber road past Lake Arareco to the Cabañas Barranca del Cobre, or Copper Canyon Lodge. Joe Lowther, a cowboy, and his wife Mollie built the lodge because there is only one other tourist hotel between Chihuahua City and Los Mochis and that one lacks private baths and even running water in the rooms.

To get permission to build on Indian land, which is divided into sections called ejidos, each ruled by a governor or chief, Mollie had to promise that her lady guests would not wear shorts or stretch pants, a sight the Tarahumares consider indecent. The lodge has six inches of dirt on the roof for insulation, is lit with kerosene lanterns and warmed with wood fires. "There's no use in women wearing makeup around here after dark, because you can't possibly see it," Mollie says.

Mollie is not the sort to worry much about makeup. When she was a girl her parents packed her off to Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. to polish the Texas off her. The night before the term was to begin she put on her fur coat and went to the Madison Square Garden rodeo for a date with a bull rider. That night a steer got loose on Eighth Avenue as Mollie and her cowboy were coming out of the Garden. He grabbed the steer and wrestled it to the pavement, Mollie handed him a rope to tie it with—and the scene was preserved in photographs on the front pages of New York newspapers. After seeing the papers, Mollie's parents gave up on Sarah Lawrence and ordered her home. Joe Lowther grew up in Montana, breaking horses and guiding hunting parties and fighting on Saturday nights in a circle of pickup truck headlights. "People drove in from several counties to try to whip me," Joe says. "Nobody ever did it, but I sure got puckered up some."

In August of 1965, as the lodge was being built, Mollie was caught in a flash flood on the Río Cusarare with her children, Alden and Zoe, and their friends, Sellen and Kay Bickers. Several Tarahumares came along and escorted them to a cave to wait out the flood. The Indians could not understand why the Anglos would be discomforted by the prospect of missing a few meals. One Indian, pointing at the sky, asked Mollie if she had noticed the odd star that moved across the heavens every couple of hours. Mollie told them it was a space capsule with two astronauts inside.

"That machine goes across the sky and crashes on the other side and two men die," the Indian said, "and it happens over and over."

"No," Mollie said. "The earth is round and the same machine just keeps going around it."

Being too polite to tell her she was wrong, the Indian said, "It does not matter if the machine crashes into the earth. The purpose of life is to be relieved of suffering. That is what death does, so death is good."

The Tarahumares are intimate with death. Four out of five Tarahumare children die of disease or malnutrition before they are 5 years old. Those who survive are very tough people—short, thin, shy, dignified nomads who live in caves or log-and-stone huts called garí. They roam over 35,000 square miles of mountain country, including the barrancas, moving into the valleys in winter and into the high places in summer. There are about 35,000 Tarahumares, or one per square mile, which is not enough land to have supported the horse Indians of the southwestern U.S. The Tarahumares raise corn, beans and squash in small plots, kill a few deer and rabbits, and they endure, walking in the snow in rubber sandals made from tires abandoned by lumber-truck drivers, starving when there is drought, eating pinole (corn mush) and drinking tesg√ºino (fermented corn sprouts) when there is some. They do not encourage visitors. Unless in a village, they usually hide or become stony silent at the approach of strangers, waiting stolidly for them to go away. But there are means of getting their attention.

Our first morning in the lodge we were out of our blankets at daylight, had a breakfast of pancakes, eggs, chili peppers and hot chocolate while listening to Benny Goodman on a transistor radio, and went to find the Indians to see if we could arrange a race. For the next week we explored the canyons of Urique, Batopilas and Cobre, going in Joe's station wagon over lumber or mining roads so precipitous that a 56-mile trip to La Bufa silver mine took 12 hours, twice the time it took the Indian messenger from Sisoguíchi to run a similar distance. Or we went on horse and mule with José Esquivel, a mining engineer who has spent 50 years in the mountains, and Santiago Parra, a Tarahumare guide. Whenever we rode up to a cave or hut back in the mountain country, where the wild diapered Indians are called gentiles, the occupants would disappear. We went to Sisoguíchi, where the Jesuits operate a hospital and a school that broadcasts in Raràmuri and Spanish to 84 radio sets scattered through the mountains. The information somehow was getting around that we were harmless, funny-looking, gave away colored images on paper and had pockets full of animal crackers, chewing gum and pesos.

In the side of a cliff at Csiteachi we found an ancient burial cave with clay bowls to hold food that was to have supplied happy passage for the bones on the floor. There was no armor. "This was sealed up before the priests came," said Santiago.

Watching for deer, we saw a number of them among the pines. It is said there is no hunting or fishing of note in the barranca country, but this is not true. The idea probably originates with guides who are not eager to fight the forbidding terrain. In a place where it may require hours and a climb of a mile down a chasm and a mile back up to reach a ridge that looks close, sport is only for the dedicated. Alden Lowther, who is called Basa-chee-regalarchi (Smart like a Coyote from a Long Way Away) by the Tarahumares, and his friend Charlie Mickelson took a nice string of rainbow trout out of Lake Arareco and caught a dozen bass in a pool of the Urique River while we were there. But they went after the fish with lures. The Tarahumares do it quite differently.

In a monograph on the Tarahumares, Dr. Campbell W. Pennington, Professor of Geography at Southern Illinois University, has listed some species of fish in Tarahumare country as squawfish, dace, bullhead catfish, mountain sucker, black bass, carp, skate, bluenose and eel. The way the Indians catch them is primarily by stupefaction. The Tarahumares stir a toxic substance—there are about 25 varieties of narcotic plants in Tarahumare country—into the water with a stick. If the water is turgid, the Indians dump in large amounts. If the water is rapid, they build dams to create ponds. They are cautious about using one plant, barbasco, because it kills pregnant cows and causes miscarriages among mares. Two species of agave, including the soap plant, will stun fish as far as 300 yards downstream. The root of wasia, the poison hemlock, is crushed when the plant is in bloom and is thrown into moving water; it is too potent to use in pools. The fish float dazedly to the surface, doped, one might say, to the gills, and the Indians scoop them out and eat them immediately, cooked but ungutted and unsealed. Sometimes the Indians use a reed tipped with cactus thorns as a fish spear or shoot reeds from bows. They also use seines of agave fiber or explode dynamite caps that they get in trade with the mestizos. But lures are too slow for people who are fishing for food.

Many birds and animals are sources of food. At harvest, when wild turkeys appear in the mountains, the Indians build brush huts baited with grains of corn and wait patiently for a turkey to go inside, where he is trapped by a door that is dropped by a tug on a long string. The Indians kill cranes, ducks, wild pigeons and quail by throwing rocks at them. Woodpecker feathers are sought as an anesthetic for women in labor. Hummingbird heads are snapped off and the bodies dropped into a pot of beans. Hawk, eagle and vulture heads are potent medicine for a runner to wear on his belt.

There are a few old Mauser rifles, left over from revolutions, in the barranca country, and the Indians bargain for them to kill the bears that damage their crops. As any Tarahumare knows, a bear is good not only for soap and medicine, but its skin guarantees the chastity of the wearer and overcomes lust. The fat meat of peccaries is a gourmet item. The coyote, killer of goats and destroyer of green corn, is trapped. The Indians hunt wolves with rifles or poisoned arrows but have no use for the meat or pelts. There are otters in the streams of western Chihuahua, bobcats in packs in the forests of the canyons, and opossums, gray foxes and coatis. Skunks are killed for medicine. Gophers and rabbits make a nice stew. Field mice, pack rats and big storehouse rats are roasted or boiled. Jaguars and cougars prowl the barrancas and kill sheep and cattle, but they are wisely avoided by hunters armed only with rocks or arrows.

Deer, though, are prime game. The Tarahumares form teams to run down a deer, pursuing for days in relays until the animal falls of exhaustion. One trick is to find a deer trail and hammer pointed stakes into the earth just beyond a fallen log or other natural barricade. Dogs are starved for several days and used in the hunt to find the deer's scent, at which time the animal is chased down the trail, leaps the log and is impaled. The hunters eat peyote in the belief that it makes them sharper and faster in the hunt and maybe less morose if the hunt fails.

When game is scarce, or when drought or hailstorms ruin the crops, the Indians starve. They rarely eat their domestic animals but when absolutely necessary will kill a pig or goat by stabbing its heart with a pointed stick or slaughter a cow by thrusting a knife into a neck artery. Mushrooms, berries, peaches, apples, toads, lizards and rattlesnakes are utilized as food. If a hunter is bitten by a snake, he is cured by having tobacco smoke blown into his face, by eating peyote or by having his friends hold the snake while he bites it back.

Obviously, then, the Tarahumares are not very sophisticated. Three hundred years of contact with Spaniards and Mexicans have yet to have much effect on Tarahumare culture, except that their ceremonies are a strange mingling of the Catholic and the pagan. The Mexican government and the Catholic Church are trying to educate the Indians—a mixed blessing—but it is a big country and funds are short. Two young government teachers in Cusarare want to teach their students to play baseball but lack the money for balls and bats. When we gave those two teachers a crate of brown soap, they declared a school holiday and took their pupils to Río Cusarare for a bath. It was the first soap they'd had in a year. For the price of one bombing raid in Vietnam every Tarahumare in the barrancas could have food, soap and medical supplies. But that, of course, is not the way things ever work, and so to brighten their lives the Indians turn to tesg√ºino and peyote, games and fiestas. A fiesta is a catharsis and an expression of hope. There are fiestas for the curing of illness, for dedication of crops, for births, for deaths and for the harvest. The Indians give thanks for a good catch of fish by grinding narcotic roots and placing them before a cross. At each festival except the one celebrating death there is a game.

The most strenuous game is called tàcuri or palillo. Tàcuri is played with six to 10 players on a side, according to Pennington, with goals three-quarters of a mile apart. The ball is buried in the center of the field. The captains try to dig the ball out of the earth with a bladed club that is then used to toss the ball in the air, and the Indians rush around whacking each other. The women play a game called nakiburi, using as a ball two pieces of wood tied by leather thongs. They attempt to cross goals a mile apart. There are many dice games. One is a variation of quinze, one is played with the knucklebones of deer, and there is one that is something like backgammon.

But the most important and festive game is the kickball race called rarajípari. A major race is always held between runners of different ejidos. They run barefoot or in sandals, kicking a ball made of oak or madro√±o heart that has the team markings on it. The course, called a rarejípama, is designated by cutting crosses in the bark of trees. The chiefs of the competing teams decide the time and place and length of the laps, anywhere from three to 12 miles. If it is a small race, such as one between individuals, no training is required. But for two to five days before a major race the runners must not drink tesg√ºino, must have no contact with women and must eat no fat, potatoes, eggs or sweets.

Magic is vital on the eve of a race. A chief will go to a burial cave with two kickballs and exhume a shinbone from a right leg. A jar of tesgüino, bowls of food, the kickballs and the shinbone are placed in front of a cross as a request for the dead person to weaken the chief's opponents. Other human bones are carried out and hidden in places where runners must pass. These bones are known to produce fatigue, and the chief tells his own runners the spots to avoid. Herbs are scattered in the wind or shaken to poison opposing runners. For each enchantment there is an antidote. Turtle and bat blood, powdered and mixed with tobacco, is smoked to counteract cheating.

Always a shaman, or medicine man, is consulted. He helps the chief rub the legs of the runners with herbs, smooth stones, goat grease, oil and boiled cedar branches, and he waves the witches away. The water the runners will drink is placed beneath a cross, and candles are lit on both sides. Runners carrying their kickballs line up beside the cross while the shaman sings The Song of the Gray Fox. All food and drink are supplied by relatives. The runners make ceremonial turns around the cross in the number of laps they must run. Then all runners sleep beside the cross with an old man watching their victuals, since old people can see even if asleep.

Winning is hardly ever a result of who is faster or stronger. It is a result of bewitching. One anthropologist was seen taking the temperature of a runner, and all the opponents quit, certain they were having their spirits injected into him. And, as in any game, bribery is not unknown. Each group of runners has six supervisors, some of whose duties are to keep drunks off the course and to prevent pregnant women, who are a bad influence, from watching the race. The supervisors also try to keep the runners from tripping each other or booting their opponents' kickballs away. The runners are watched for any sign that they are chewing the dried leaves and seeds of the riwérame plant. It is said that a riwérame chewer can blow his breath into the face of another runner and cause him to collapse within half a mile. Supervisors are responsible for blocking off the bettors who will race along with a runner to urge him on or to discourage him by suggesting that his wife is up to no good at that moment.

The afternoon of a race is occupied with betting. Poor as they are, the Indians bet bows, arrows, belts, clothing, spools of thread, maize, sheep, goats, cattle, tesgüino and, very rarely, money. Two or three hundred people will gather at the betting place, drinking and bickering, until all bets are settled. The runners are wrapped in blankets, and their legs are rubbed with warm water. A number of stones corresponding to the number of laps are laid on the ground and studied by bettors. Each bet is certified by a chief, who is not allowed to write it down. After all bets are made, the governor of the home ejido makes a speech and warns the runners that anybody who throws his kickball by hand automatically goes to hell. At a signal, suddenly, the race is on. The runners jump up, shrug off their blankets and begin a race that may take three days and cover up to 200 miles.

Many of the runners chew the tips of jíkuri and peyote as a stimulant. Nearly all have some sort of magic with them—a glowworm, bird feathers or heads, a rattle of deer hooves and bamboo that helps keep them from falling asleep. The runners of the different ejidos are distinguished by the colors of their headbands or by other symbols, such as the white plaster worn on the faces and legs of those from Batopilas. They move out at a steady trot, laughing at the game, for the first 40 or 50 miles. Crowds run along cheering and pointing where the kickballs went, since for a team to lose its kickball means disqualification. Women give the runners warm water and pinole. Pine torches light the course after dark. Within 50 miles some of the runners begin to drop out. Usually the race comes down to a contest in which only the strongest runner from each ejido remains. In a race that was matched for stamina rather than laps, early last spring the runners went from Friday afternoon at 5 until Sunday night at 11 and ran about 170 miles until there was only one man left.

The winner gets no prize but becomes immensely popular with the ladies, a questionable reward for a man who has been running for three days. The custom is for a bettor who has won a cow to give two pesos to the father of the winning runner. For a goat, the father gets half a peso, or about 4¢. Other winners may chip in a spool of thread, a piece of cloth, a jug of tesg√ºino, whatever their pleasure moves them to contribute. When the big race is finished the Indians go back to a life that one described as: "I get up in the morning and eat pinole, if I have it. I sit on a rock all day and watch my goats. At night I pen the goats, eat more pinole if I have it, and sleep. And sometimes there are races."

As we were trying to organize a race, we found Juan Safiro walking behind a wooden plow in his cornfield in Cusarare—the Place of the Eagles. By Tarahumare standards, Juan is a very wealthy man. He has a house and a few horses and goats and enough water. The canyon walls rise straight up around Cusarare, and you can see the eagles coming down among the boulders. Wiping his face, Juan assured us a race would be a simple matter. We could start it at the lodge. As the days passed with no race we began to wonder if the Indians were reluctant to come to the lodge. Not only were Anglos there, but last spring an Indian named Marino, who had been in Mexico City to inquire about running on the Olympic team, came home and found that his wife had been unreliable and his brother was the villain. For his complaints, Marino was stabbed to death by his brother in front of Caba√±as Barranca del Cobre while his own son held his arms. There had been police, and of course it was distasteful. So we spoke to Juan again and located Sebastian, chief of the San Ignacio Tarahumares, in Creel. Both told us that we could see a race, and Sebastian said he would throw in a fiesta. And so at last, one dusk, the Indians appeared at the lodge, to be sent away again and told to go to San Ignacio the next morning.

We were there before noon. Sebastian lives with wives, children, pigs and goats in a large cave looking out on a valley floor. Several hundred Indians had gathered. They had set up a cross in a circle of stamped earth. Some of the men were wearing their matachines—headdresses made of crepe paper. Chief Sebastian's matachine was, to be sure, the grandest, as it was hung with gold-colored ornaments and had in its center a pocket mirror that looked as if it came from a lady's compact. The chief wore a tunic, a loincloth, a cape, a headband under his matachine and had rattles tied to his ankles. The women ran a short hoop race, tossing their hoops ahead of them with sticks, lifting their long skirts daintily as they bounded across the valley floor beneath the high rimrock. "But before the men can race, we must dance," said Chief Sebastian.

The musicians came out with homemade guitars and violins, crude and unvarnished, and with a round Tarahumare drum that is often heard in the mountains. As the men began to do the bascole, an odd, hopping dance, in front of the cross, the violinist and guitarist played da-da-da da-da-da da-da-da da-da-da, over and over again. The sound became a bit irritating. Chief Sebastian kept dashing out to scold and correct the dancers. The fact was, the Tarahumares could not dance very well. After the bascole was finished, Shel showed them how to do a west Texas two-step, a sort of cowboy polka that the Indians admired but found too complicated to imitate. Then Chief Sebastian performed another dance in which he hopped back and forth between two white wooden swords held above his head by two other dancers who shuffled around. When he was through, I asked what the dance signified, thinking it probably had something to do with the Spanish conquest of the Indians.

"I don't know," Chief Sebastian said, as if he considered the question absurd. "We've always danced this way. I guess the swords mean a big man. What difference does it make?"

By now the runners were ready. There were four of them, dressed in burlap diapers. First, though, Chief Sebastian went through some business with a bow and arrow. The idea was that he shot arrows at you to test your courage. The arrows were so crooked that the only danger was to people standing to either side. At last Chief Sebastian was ready for the race to begin. A hundred or so Indians had climbed onto the rimrock for a better view. The runners were practicing with their kickballs, digging their bare toes under the balls and flipping them 30 or 40 feet.

Summoning a tall, noble-looking Indian named Valentine, Shel explained through an interpreter that he wanted the runners to start the race about 50 yards away and come past him as he lay on the ground. Shel pointed to the place he wanted them to go. Valentine nodded and explained to the runners. They looked at Shel, laughed and, flipping their kickballs ahead of them, set off on a path out of the valley, trotting along at a steady pace, yelling to each other like children. Loquito got his cameras ready and sprawled in the dirt. The runners went up the path and out of sight.

We waited, assuming they would soon turn and come back. Valentine stood with his arms folded. The other Indians were sitting up on the rocks or out at the mouth of the cave. We kept waiting. Ten minutes passed. The sun was heating up the valley floor. A hawk floated at the edge of the rimrock. Five more minutes went by.

"Somebody ask that guy where they went," Shel said.

"They went where you told them," said Valentine.

"Where's that?" Shel said.

"Up there. Where you pointed," said Valentine.

He pointed to a cross at the crest of a mountain at least 10 miles away. The Indians place crosses at mountain passes to prevent evil spirits from bothering travelers. The runners, seeing Shel's vague gesture, had thought he wanted them to run up to the cross. We told Valentine a mistake had been made. "Oh," he said. "Then I will go get them."

He ran up the path out of the valley, chasing four runners who had a 15-minute lead and were bound for what was to us a very distant location over narrow trails.

"We may as well eat," said the chief.

We opened up the animal crackers, the candy and the food we had bought in Creel. The Indians produced pinole, beans, tortillas and tesgüino. It became a picnic, with more dancing, sawing on violins, drum-thumping and singing. We gave out empty film cans as gifts, and they were received as treasures. In Tarahumare country a tin can is not to be buried but to be left out for the Indians to find. There was quite a lot of laughter. Someone got up a game of throwing stones at a hole.

After an hour we saw a tiny figure come over the rim and descend into the valley. Valentine arrived at the cave, not even breathing hard. He took a handful of animal crackers and began munching happily.

"Did you catch them?" I asked.

"Oh, sure," he saíd. "I had no ball to kick, so I was much faster."

"Where are they?" said Shel.

"They will return by and by," Valentine said. "They are going to run to a place beyond the cross and then run back. It is only 30 kilometers or so, not much of a race, but they want to please you. They knew you wanted a race, and it is a good fiesta, and a short run is fine fun."





In a prerace ritual, the Tarahumares dance (left), while an old man and a boy (above) await the start of the contest. Children take a holiday to bathe in the river (below).



The men sit and rest for the main event while they watch their women run a hoop race.



The old human bones used for making magic for the runners come from caves such as this one.



The canyons are often more than a mile deep, and the trails are tricky even for goats.