Tepehuan of Chihuahua - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. The amalgam of Tepehuan and Catholic beliefs, ceremonies, practices, and myth is a kind of "folk Catholicism" with strong aboriginal components. A single creator, called "God Our Father," is accompanied by a number of other deities of ancient origin. The Lord of the Deer is named Kukúduli and is responsible for success in hunting. When someone dies, Úgai is a spirit that appears as a light in the sky, and another god, in the mountains, takes the form of an owl as a herald of death. There is also a spirit that is the master of the wind. Mythology includes tales of the Cocoyomes, a group of giants who ate children. The church and churchyard are the center of Sunday meetings, which are important for the dispensation of justice and the sharing of information and tradition.

Religious Practitioners. As a spiritual intermediary, the shaman-curer is called bajadios, "he who brings God down." The term is derived from Spanish. The Tarahumara refer to this specialist as overúame ; there must be a similar term in the language of the Tepehuan, but it is not recorded in the literature. Not only a diagnostician and healer of illness, the shaman is reputed to see the unseen and is called upon in many instances, such as when a valuable object has been lost. The shaman makes entreaties to the supernatural through the performance of a kind of séance. Courses of action are often revealed to him afterward in a dream. Tesguino (maize beer) is used in curing and blessing, in addition to its communal functions.

Ceremonies. Like the mestizo communities in the region, the Tepehuan observe and perform the customary Catholic pastoral dramas, introduced by the Jesuits in colonial times, during Christmas, Holy Week, and the October fiestas of San Francisco. The fiestas have an urban, mestizo phase and a Tepehuan phase, with the two groups working together on occasion. The fiestas consist of ritual activities surrounding defense and ultimate destruction of the figure of Judas and groups of participants called fariseos who engage in sham battles. There are also ceremonies led by the shaman to ask for good crops, to show reverence for the dead, and to petition for the physical well-being of both people and animals. The festivities are lively affairs with much dancing, the placing of offerings of food in front of a cross, and an ample supply of tesguino, an alcoholic beverage of fermented maize sprouts. Some ceremonies are held in secret with all outsiders excluded.

Arts. Music is important in Tepehuan life. Old Spanish matachines tunes, songs with Tepehuan themes sung in Tepehuan, and popular Spanish-Mexican songs are played at dances and fiestas on homemade violins, gourd rattles, reed flutes, rasping sticks, and drums. Oral tradition is carried on by some adult members of the communities in the spirited performance of folklore. Stories include animal tales of regional origin, as well as local renderings of familiar tales of Old World derivation.

Medicine, Death, and Afterlife. Sickness and death are blamed on spirits and witchcraft, revealed by—or made manifest in—the singing of one of three birds in the mountains. The three birds are called Tukurai, Kukuvuri, and Tokovi. There is a wide array of medicinal treatment using indigenous plants. Various poultices, solutions, and teas are made from an extraordinary number of roots, leaves, seeds, and stems of at least fifty-six plant families and a good many others that are still unidentified by outsiders.

The soul exists in the heart, but leaves the body when a person is asleep or unconscious. Upon death, the soul lingers around the house of the dead person for a month until a fiesta is held as a way of saying good-bye. After this, the house may be abandoned in fearful respect for the vicious ill will of a returned soul. If all goes well, the soul departs to live in the sky. The church cemetery is the usual place of burial. A coherent description of the Tepehuan conception of the afterlife has not yet been recorded.


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