Tepehuan of Durango - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs, Ceremonies, and Religious Practitioners. The Tepehuan have accepted Catholicism while maintaining aspects of their original religious precepts, an example of what anthropologists call "compartmentalism." This means that the two religions are practiced separately at different times of the year, with different rituals, and for different purposes. Catholics are served by a resident priest at San Bernardino, who also serves the surrounding areas. Other communities are served by visiting missionaries who arrive before Easter Sunday and stay several weeks. The archbishop comes yearly from Durango to baptize and confirm children. No other priests or members of Protestant religions missionize or visit the region.

A traditional pantheon of gods is syncretized in name and ritual with Catholic religious figures. Dios Padre (God the Father) is associated with the sun, whereas Jesús Nazareno (Jesus the Nazarene) is identified with the moon. Madre María (the Holy Mother) is represented by several figures, one of which is the Virgin of Guadalupe. The Morning Star is referred to as "our elder brother." There is a local figure named Ixaitiung whose heroic story of a fall from grace through the human failings of drunkenness and fornication, absolvement by performing the first sacred dance, and ultimate passage into heaven recounts a conventional religious theme. He also provided the xiotahl ritual.

Like other Indians in Mexico, the Southern Tepehuan celebrate the Christian holy days of Easter, the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe (12 December), Christmas, and village saints' days with spirited fiestas that are predominantly Mexican in character, during which the standard matachines are danced. The elote (tender maize) first-fruits festival is a non-Christian celebration that takes place in early October; fresh maize cannot be eaten until this festival is held.

The ceremonies that set the Tepehuan apart from mestizo culture in Durango are the ceremonies of fertility and thanksgiving called mitotes (Spanish) or xiotahl (Tepehuan) . Shamans function as directors of these sacred ceremonies during the fiestas and as curers. For five days there is fasting and much prayer. On the fifth night there is a grand display of ritual dancing, and, when the sun rises, the celebrants break their fast by eating food that has been set as offerings at the east end of the dance platform, on an altar dedicated to the rising sun. Mitotes are not as frequent nor as extravagant as they were in the past. Today they are held, on average, three times a year, in accordance with the agricultural cycle (to appeal for protection against the harsh dry winter, to bless the spring sowing, to give thanks for the fall harvest) and on other occasions, including the blessing of newly elected officers. During times of drought a special mitote may be given to ask for rain. Traditional native mitotes are more reverent occasions of abstinence and prayer, whereas mestizo-influenced fiestas are opportunities for revelry and mescal drinking.

Each family and community has a patio where ceremonies are conducted. At both the village and the apellido-group level, there is an officer called the jefe del patio who organizes and leads the mitotes. The jefe of the apellido group—almost always an elderly male shaman—is in charge of special apellido festivals, which are celebrated by the production of a xiotahl in May and October. At these times, recently born children are ritually inducted into the apellido group, and young adults of 15 years of age are recognized as adults of the group. Some feel that the shamans held ruling power in ancient Tepehuan culture. It is traditional that there be a female jefe del patio in both apellidos groups and territorial villages to preside over the affairs of female members.


Arts and Industrial Arts. By Jesuit accounts, precolonial musical instruments that were played during dances and ceremonies included rasping sticks, rattles, and reed or ceramic flutes. These instruments along with the musical bow played on a gourd sounder, are still used to provide music during the ceremonial mitote. The drum and the violin, an instrument of Spanish origin, are added when playing corridos and other popular Mexican songs at the fiestas. Clay pipes and incense burners similar to pre-Spanish objects that have been unearthed are sometimes used by curers for their healing rituals. Although some pottery is still made, it is, for the most part, strictly functional and undecorated, and weaving has all but vanished.


Illness and Death. When illness strikes, anyone in the family of the afflicted may petition the supernatural through prayer, but more serious conditions require the efforts of shaman curers. These individuals are endowed with the gift of healing, may be of either sex but are usually male, and specialize in the treatment of specific infirmities. Well-known curers are often consulted by mestizo neighbors. A young person who is called to be a shaman will train for five years as an apprentice to an older shaman. During this time he learns ritual prayers and makes an ascetic retreat of seclusion for one month each year, nourished only by plain tortillas, water, meditation, and prayer.

Treatment entails a long, elaborate ceremony that normally lasts for five days. The curer fasts, prays, and chants long routinized orations. The sick person is massaged and has smoke from the curer's pipe blown over his or her body. Typical of shamanistic healing in this part of the world, the ritual involves sucking the material object that caused the disease from the body of the patient, the use of eagle feathers for sweeping the patient, incantations including invocation of Catholic saints, the symbolic use of the cross and images of saints, and the use of various herbs. Ritualized confession of the patient, the participation of other family members as beneficiaries of healing, and special healing mitotes, in which a large number of people are cured en masse by the spiritually charged aura of the ceremony, are some of the curing practices with wider social dimensions.

The malady that brings death is believed to be both spiritual and physical in nature, a result of sickness and sorcery. Throughout the life cycle, intervals of five are of significant symbolic importance: note the lengths of the premarriage visits of the parents (five successive days), the shaman's training period (five years), and mitotes (five days). A special five-day ceremony, which is conducted by the shaman and closely involves the surviving family members, marks the end of a life on earth and concludes with the driving of the soul out from the body and into heaven. In this capacity as funeral director, the shaman's role has been interpreted as that of a practitioner whose principal responsibility is to prevent the soul from coming back to its corporeal home. The usual place of interment of the dead is the village burial ground, which is commonly located in the churchyard.

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