The Tepehuan were hunters and gatherers who came from near the present border between the modern states of Sonora and Arizona, the originating place for all Tepiman speakers. In their present location, they were influenced by Mesoamerican culture, the culture of the more urbanized people to the south, especially in their acceptance of farming, ceramics, platform architecture, and religion. At the time of the arrival of Spaniards in the Durango region in the mid-sixteenth century, the Tepehuan were horticulturists who supplemented their subsistence with hunting and gathering during certain times of the year.
The Spaniards introduced the use of oxen in farming; the raising of cattle, sheep, and goats; the use of animal fertilizer; and new religious and political forms and clothing styles. Spanish occupation and control of the central part of present-day Durango state, around the city of Durango and immediately to the north, created a split between the Southern and Northern Tepehuan. Although there is no lucid setting apart of the two Tepehuan in the early Spanish records, there is no real evidence to confirm that they were much closer culturally at the time of the Conquest than they are now. The distance of several hundred kilometers between the two divisions may have been sufficient to create the cultural and linguistic differences that now exist. Interestingly, considered separately, it is apparent that a long period of isolation was necessary to produce the remarkable language dissimilarity. Although it is generally observed that the Northern Tepehuan are closer to the culture pattern of the Indians of the Greater Southwest and the Southern Tepehuan are closer to that of Mesoamerica, appraised as a whole, the Tepehuan emerge as a kind of bridge between the two. Today the Southern Tepehuan seem particularly close to the Cora and the Huichol in the neighboring states of Nayarit and Jalisco.
Upon their arrival, the Spaniards immediately subjugated the Indians, forcing them to labor in mines and on farms, imposing virtual slavery, brutality, and rape, and confiscating their goods and lands. Following the era of the gold seekers, the missionizing process became a concerted and intense effort in Durango between 1607 and 1615. After the establishment of missions and the settlement of Indians in towns, the Spaniards built garrisons to protect their settlements and haciendas to farm and tend cattle. This encroachment was not passively received. Continuous trouble culminated in a bloody uprising from 1616 to 1618, the first large—and possibly the most devastating—Indian rebellion in the border regions in the seventeenth century. The Spanish settlement that is now Durango city came under siege, and there was fighting at Mezquital in the south and at Canatlán in the north. By early 1621, pacification was well enough under way to allow the Spanish appointment of forty-six Tepehuan political officers to govern the Indian communities. Although sporadic insurgency continued (raids on Spanish farms and ranches were common around Mezquital), the two decades that followed are seen as the time of conclusive efforts to quell significant resistance.
Drought and widespread epidemics in Southern Tepehuan towns in the late seventeenth century decreased the population and pushed many Tepehuan away from their native homes and closer toward Spanish settlements and influences, or further into the southern mountains. After the Spanish colonial administration expelled the Jesuits in 1767, a period of relative isolation allowed the Southern Tepehuan to produce an amalgamated, distinct culture. Continued inroads by mestizo culture, the seizing of lands, and continued poverty, as well as isolation in a rugged country, have ensured that this distinct culture would develop without interference from outside governmental agencies. The greatest threats to cultural integrity and survival today are changes in national land-tenure laws, the exploitation of forests, continued labor migration, and—most devastating—the invasion of Tepehuan lands by drug lords, who impose a regime of forced labor.