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Tarahumara foot-racing

What may be termed the national sport, of which the Tarahumares are inordinately fond, is foot-racing, which goes on all the year round, even when the people are weakened from scarcity of food. The interest centres almost entirely in the betting that goes with it; in fact, it is only another way of gambling. It is called ralá hípa ("with the foot throw"), the word alluding to a ball used at the race.

No doubt the Tarahumares are the greatest runners in the world, not in regard to speed, but endurance. A Tarahumare will easily run 170 miles without stopping. When an Indian is sent out as a messenger, he goes along at a slow trot, running steadily and constantly. A man has been known to carry a letter in five days from Guazapares to Chihuahua and back, a distance of nearly 600 miles by the road. Even considering shortcuts, which he, no doubt, knew, it was quite a feat of endurance; for he must have lived, as the Indians always do while travelling, on pinole and water only.

Where the Indians serve the Mexicans they are often employed to run wild horses into the corral. It may take them two or three days, but they will bring them in, the horses thoroughly exhausted, while the men, who, of course, economise their strength, and sleep, and eat pinole, are comparatively fresh. In the same way they will run down a deer, following it for days through snow and rain, until the animal is cornered and easily shot with arrows, or until it is overtaken utterly jaded and its hoofs dropping off.

This propensity for running is so great that the name of the tribe alludes to it. Tarahumare is a Spanish corruption of ralámari, the meaning of which, though somewhat obscure, may doubtless best be given as "foot-runners," because ralá certainly means "foot".

The race is always between two localities, each side being represented by from four to twenty runners. The two parties show in their apparel some distinctive mark; for instance, all of one troop have red head-bands, while the others may wear white ones.

A peculiar feature is that the men toss along a small ball as they run, each party having one of their own. These balls are about two and a half inches in diameter and carved from the root of the oak. The foremost runner kicks it with the toes of his right foot, so as to make it bound along as far as 100 yards, and he and all the men behind him follow in the same trot as before. The first man reaching it again kicks it onward. It must never be touched by the hand, unless it happens to fall in some awkward place, as between stones or in a water-pool, when it is picked up and kicked on.

There is never any laid-out track, but the circuit is determined in a general way by crosses cut in trees. There are certain favourite places always used as race-courses. The runners seem to have a preference for the level tops of low ridges lying in a circle, wherever this is possible. If this is not feasible, they may run forward and back on a ridge, starting always near the middle, from some little plane or other convenient place, where the people gather for the occasion.

There is a manager for each party, and the two arrange the time and place for the race to be held, also the number and length of the circuits to be made. A circuit may measure from three to twelve miles in extent, and when the circuits are short as many as twenty may be agreed upon. At one race-course near Carichic, the circuit is about fourteen miles long, and twelve circuits may be run here without stopping. Runners of equal ability are matched against each other, each side being, of course, anxious to secure the best. The managers take care of their men until the race comes off. The training consists mainly in abstinence from tesvino for two or five days before the event. When preparing for a big race the runners may practise; not that they need training in running, for that comes to them as naturally as swimming to the duck; but only that they practise kicking the ball and try the ground.

Much more important are the magical devices by means of which they endeavour to secure their own success and to defeat their opponents. A daring manager may go to a burial cave, taking two balls with him. He digs out a bone, preferably the tibia from the right leg, and sets it on the floor of the cave in which it has been found. In front of it he places a jar with tesvino and some vessels containing food. On either side of these he lays one of his balls, and in front of all he plants the cross. The food and the beer are the payment to the dead that he may help to win the race by weakening the adversaries.

As human bones are supposed to induce fatigue, some may be brought to the race-track and secreted there in such a way that the competing runners have to pass over the spot, while the manager's own crew are advised of the danger, to avoid it. The man uses the utmost care not to touch the bones with his fingers, lest he should dry up; instead, he uses sticks in handling and carrying them.

Scores of remedies are brought to the scene, either to strengthen friends or to weaken opponents. Certain herbs are thrown into the air or shaken before the runners to enervate them. Some enterprising Mexican may bring a white powder or similar substance, declaring that it is very efficacious, and get a Tarahumare to pay a high price for it. But whatever means are employed, one way or the other, there is always a counter-remedy to offset its effect. Specially potent is the blood of the turtle and the bat, stirred together, dried, and mixed with a little tobacco, which is then rolled into a cigar and smoked. Hikuli and the dried head of an eagle or a crow may be worn under the girdle as a protection.

The services of the shaman are indispensable for the foot-runners. He helps the manager, himself often a shaman, to rub the men with herbs and smooth stones to make them strong. He also makes passes over them to guard them against sorcery. On the day before the races he "cures" them. Food and remedies are placed on a blanket beneath the cross, together with many magical things. The herbs are very powerful and have to be tied up in bags of buckskin or cotton cloth, as otherwise they might break away. The water for the runners to drink is also placed underneath the cross, and candles are set on either side of the pile. The runners bring their balls and stand in a row around the cross. Then the shaman, taking his position in front of the latter, smokes incense of copal over them, and sings of the tail of the grey fox, and other songs. He also makes a speech, warning them not to accept pinole or water in other people's houses. All their food and drink must come from their relatives as a guard against witchcraft and illness. The runners drink three times from the water and the strengthening remedies; then the principal runner leads the others in a ceremonial circuit around the cross, walking as many times around it as there are circuits to be run in the race. The men sleep near the cross, to watch the remedies on the blanket. With them they have some old man, for old men see even when they sleep, and watch against sorcery.

After the ceremony the shaman takes each runner aside and subjects him to a rigid examination in regard to his recent food and his relations with women. Fat, potatoes, eggs, and anything sweet are prohibited, because all these things make the men heavy; but rabbits, deer, rats, turkeys, and chaparral-cocks are wholesome, and such nourishment enables them to win.

An augury as to which side will win is also taken. Water is poured into a large wooden tray, and the two balls are started simultaneously and rolled through the water over the tray. The party whose ball first reaches the other end will surely win. This test is gone through as many times as there are to be circuits in the race.

A race is never won by natural means. The losers always say that they have been bewitched by the others. Once I was taking the temperature of some foot-runners before they started, and their opponents, seeing this, lost heart, thinking that I had made their contestants strong to win the race. Often one of the principal runners becomes disheartened, and may simulate illness and declare that their rivals have bewitched him. Then the whole affair may come to nothing and the race be declared off. There are stories about injurious herbs that have been given in pinole or water, and actually made some racers sick. It may even happen that some dishonest fellow will pay to the best runner of one party a cow if he lets the other party win. But, as a rule, everything goes on straightforwardly. No one will, however, wonder that there are six watchmen appointed by each side to guard the runners from any possible peradventure, and to see that everything goes on in a proper, formal way. Tipsy persons are not admitted, and women in a delicate condition are carefully kept away, as the runners become heavy even by touching such a woman's blanket.

On the day of the race the forenoon is spent in making bets, the managers acting as stakeholders. These people, poor as they are, wager their bows and arrows, girdles, head-bands, clothes, blankets, beads, ari, balls of yarn, corn, and even sheep, goats, and cattle. The stakes of whatever nature are tied together — a blanket against so many balls of yarn, a stick of ari against so many arrows, etc. At big races the wagers may amount to considerable heaps of such articles, and the position of manager requires a man of decision and memory, for he has to carry all the bets in his head and makes no written record of them. The total value of the wagers may reach a thousand dollars, and what to the Indians are fortunes may change hands in accordance with the result of the race. One man on one occasion had $50 worth of property at stake.

The scene is one of great animation. As many as two hundred people may assemble, among them women and children. At the gathering-point, which is called in Tarahumare "the betting-place", all the bets are made, and here the race is started and concluded. Here the managers also place a row of stones, one stone for each circuit to be run, and whenever a circuit is completed one stone is taken away. In this way the count is kept. The runners walk about wrapped in their blankets like the rest of the people. They have had nothing to eat all day but pinole and tepid water, and their legs have been rubbed with warm water in the morning by the managers.

When finally all the people have arranged their stakes the gobernador steps forward and makes a speech, in which he specially exhorts the runners not to throw the ball with their hands; if they do, they certainly will go to hell! He also warns them against cheating of any kind.

At a given signal, quick as lightning, the runners throw off their blankets, and one man in each party, previously selected, throws his ball as far as he can, and all the runners start after it. A second ball is always kept in reserve, in case the first should be lost.

The racers wear rattles of deer-hoofs and bits of reeds tied together on a strip of leather, which they stick in the backs of their girdle or hang over their backs. The magic rattling keeps them from falling asleep while running, so they say; besides, the deer-hoofs lend them the swiftness of the stag. Some runners adorn themselves with feathers from various birds, preferably the macaw and the peacock, tying them to short sticks. The few Tarahumares who have ever seen a peacock think a good deal of this bird, because it is considered light-footed and mystic, being foreign to their country. Some runners may be seen who paint their faces and legs with white chalk, near Batopilas, for instance.

They do not run at an extraordinary speed, but very steadily, hour after hour, mile after mile. Good runners make forty miles in six or eight hours. At one race, when they covered according to calculation twenty-one miles in two hours, I timed the leading runner and found that he made 290 feet in nineteen seconds on the first circuit, and on the next in twenty-four seconds. At a race rehearsal I saw them cover four miles in half an hour.

The public follows the race with great enthusiasm from beginning to end, the interest growing with each circuit. Many begin to follow the runners, shouting to them and urging them on. They also help them by pointing out the ball so that they can kick it without stopping to look for it. The wives of the contestants heat water and prepare pinole, which they hold out in drinking-gourds to the men as they pass. The latter stop for a few seconds to partake of this their favourite dish; and if this cannot be done, the tepid water is thrown over the shoulders of the runners, by way of refreshing them. As darkness comes on, torches of resinous pine wood are lighted and carried along to illuminate the path for the runners, that they may not stumble, making the scene one of extreme picturesqueness, as these torchbearers, demon-like, hurry through the forest.

One contestant after another drops out. The excitement becomes wilder; more and more people join in accompanying the few runners left, their principal motive being to shout encouraging words to the runners and urge them to exert themselves to the utmost. And at last the best man comes in, generally alone, the others having either given up the contest or being far behind.

The race usually commences at midday; but often the bets are not finished until late in the afternoon. It may last four hours and even longer. A famous runner, now dead, could run from midday until sunrise. There is no prize for the winner himself, except the golden opinions he earns among the women; and his father may accept presents from lucky bettors. A man who wins a cow is expected to give two pesos to the victorious runner; in case he wins a goat he gives half a real.

The race over, the wagers are immediately paid and the Indians quickly disperse, soon to arrange for another contest.

Sometimes there is an old man's race preceding that of the young men, the latter being always the principal event of the day. Races are also run by women, and the betting and excitement that prevail on these occasions run as high as at the men's races, though on a smaller scale. Instead of tossing the ball with their toes, they use a large wooden fork, with two or three prongs, to pitch it forward. Sometimes they have a ring of twisted strips of yucca leaves instead of the ball, but more often two interlocked rings which they throw ahead with a stick curved at the end. This game, which is called rowé-mala (rowé signifies a ring), must be very ancient, for rings of this kind have sometimes been found in ancient cliff-dwellings. It is certainly a strange sight to see these sturdy amazons race heavily along with astonishing perseverance, when creeks and water-holes come in their way, simply lifting their skirts à la Diane and making short work of the crossing.

Credits - This text has been reprinted from the book "Unknown Mexico - A Record of Five Years' Exploration Among the Tribes of the Western Sierra Madre; In the Tierra Caliente of Tepic and Jalisco; and Among the Tarascos of Michoacan" by Carl Lumholtz, Volume I, Chapter XV, London, Macmillan and Co. Ltd., 1902.


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