Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Practically every household grows food for its own consumption on small plots. Maize, squashes, and beans are the staple crops whereas wheat, barley, potatoes, oats, and peas are also commonly grown. Tobacco and chilies are grown in the lowlands. The dibble stick and wooden plows drawn by oxen are adjuncts to farming. A dibble stick is a sharpened pole used to punch a hole in the plowed earth or a slashand-burn plot for planting seeds. One season for cultivating is available in the highlands compared to two in the hotter lowlands. Maize fields are cultivated separately from garden plots dedicated to the other vegetables. Old World fruit trees, introduced by the missionaries, are also tended near the settlements. In the highlands, there are small groves of fig, pomegranate, peach, and apple trees, and, in the hot canyon lands, there are orange and lemon trees. Gathering wild foods is still an important activity as well. Seasonal wild fruits, piñon nuts, walnuts, and edible species of acorns are collected, as is crude honey. Certain insects, reptiles, grubs, and the occasional rattlesnake round out the choices of consumable undomesticated resources. Hunting and trapping also supplement the diet, and deer and wild turkeys are the most highly prized game.
The raising of chickens and, to a lesser extent, turkeys and pigs provides additional sustenance. Livestock are a source of wealth and prestige. Horses—ridden for transportation—and burros and mules—used as pack animals—are much valued. There are many sheep and goats, which are prized for their wool and as food during fiestas. For the most part, the family is the unit of production and consumption, but this configuration is changing. One frequent pattern is an unfortunate circle of need. During hard times, some of the maize harvest is sold, but because most families only grow enough in their gardens to feed themselves, the maize is bought back at an inflated price before the next harvest. Off-farm income usually consists of low pay for unskilled labor. Those who take jobs in the mines receive a slightly better wage. Forestry is an increasingly important economic factor in the region.
Industrial Arts. Crafts and industry include basket and mat weaving and the making of rope and hats. There is also the manufacture of small violins, an art learned from the Jesuits. Skilled carvers make bowls, utensils, and bows and arrows, used mainly for costume and ceremony, and many other wooden articles. Skins of various animals are utilized for the manufacture of sandals, sleeping mats, carrying baskets, and other items useful in everyday activities. Canteens, bowls, and dippers are made from common gourds. Cooking pots are expertly made from clay. A wide variety of clothing, adornments, and other household items, such as blankets, are woven from domestic wool or sewn from purchased cloth.
Trade. There is little evidence of much trade and commercial exchange. Between Indians and mestizos, there was some petty trading of subsistence commodities. The household is the basic production unit, but exchange of labor (e.g., for house building or harvesting activities) accompanies beer-drinking festivals similar to the tesguinadas of the Tarahumara.
Division of Labor. The household division of labor by sex and age is generally egalitarian, with the exception that Tepehuan women have more numerous and diverse responsibilities, laboring both in and around the house and in the fields. Along with the usual household and family-related chores, women also weave, make pottery and baskets, milk cows and goats, and participate in the harvesting of maize. Most of the heavy work—such as cutting and preparing logs, house building, and preparing the fields—is by men. Hat making, basket weaving, and rope making are also generally men's activities. Women weave blankets and sash-belts on a horizontal loom.
Land Tenure. Ejidos are communal properties established by the Mexican constitution after the 1917 Revolution. Large estates were broken up and either indigenous or peasant residents took possession. Neighbors or interested others could apply for membership. Membership is not hereditary—continued membership depends upon residence and continued use of the land—but the rules are bent for absent friends or relatives. Land may stay within a family for an extended period of time, but because a long fallow period is required for most plots, land frequently changes hands between families.
Comunidades are an older type of communal organization found in both Durango and Chihuahua. Membership is entirely indigenous, unlike that of ejidos. Members, usually males, are approved for membership by the asamblea, which is the governing body. Occasionally mestizos are allowed membership because of intermarriage into—and long-standing loyalty to—the community. Membership in the comunidad is preserved, and passed on to the widow, also in contrast to ejido membership.
Land-tenure law promulgated in 1992 (Article 27 of the Mexican constitution) includes changes that will affect the future of rural and indigenous people. Communal lands have now become rentable, can be divided and owned individually, and sold or pledged as collateral for loans. Each ejido or comunidad will be able to make a decision among its members whether to hold title to their lands individually or collectively. Indigenous comunidades and ejidos appear to favor the option of adopting comunidad status in lieu of privatization.