Durango is a state located in northwest Mexico that is home to several indigenous peoples and tribes. The two main native groups that have historically inhabited the Durango region are the Tepehuan and the Huichol.
The Tepehuan (or Tepehuán) are an indigenous group concentrated in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains in northwestern and central Durango. They speak the Tepehuan language, part of the Uto-Aztecan language family. The Tepehuan typically live in small villages and sustain themselves through a combination of agriculture, cattle ranching, forestry, and gathering.
Archaeological evidence indicates the Tepehuan have inhabited the Sierra Madre Occidental region for at least 2,000 years. In the 16th century, the Spanish arrived in the area occupied by the Tepehuan. The Tepehuan fiercely resisted Spanish colonization and attempts to convert them to Catholicism. This resistance led to armed conflict with the Spanish from the late 1500s through the mid-1600s.
Despite concerted efforts by Jesuit missionaries in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Tepehuan were never fully subjugated by the Spanish nor completely converted to Catholicism. Many elements of traditional Tepehuan culture, religion, and language survived the colonial era.
Today, there are around 29,000 Tepehuan living in northern and central Durango. Many Tepehuan communities remain isolated and retain much of their traditional lifestyle into modern times. However, external economic and cultural influences have impacted the Tepehuan over the 20th and 21st centuries.
Traditional Tepehuan Culture
Traditional Tepehuan society was organized into small autonomous bands comprised of extended families. There was no overarching Tepehuan political structure or authority. Each band had its own chief or leader, with important decisions being made collectively by adult males.
Tepehuan religion was centered around shamanism and animism, the belief that everything has a spirit. Shamans served as spiritual leaders and healers. Important rituals, dances, and ceremonies were carried out by shamans to cure illnesses, bring rain, and ensure successful harvests.
Subsistence strategies focused on slash-and-burn agriculture, raising domesticated animals such as dogs, turkeys and chickens, gathering wild plants, and limited hunting. The Tepehuan grew crops of maize, beans, squash, and chili peppers. Men tended to agricultural and livestock duties, while women focused on domestic chores, gathering, weaving, and pottery making.
Traditional Tepehuan homes were constructed of adobe brick and palm thatch. Villages were purposefully situated in remote, defensible locations high in mountain valleys and canyon areas. The rugged terrain helped the Tepehuan maintain their autonomy and avoid domination by outside groups.
The first major contact between the Tepehuan and Europeans came in 1530, when the Spanish explorer Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán led an expedition into the Sierra Madre Occidental region. Guzmán demanded food, gold, and slaves from Tepehuan villages his forces came across.
In response, the Tepehuan attacked the Spanish column and wiped out more than 150 soldiers. This left the Spanish temporarily discouraged from attempting to penetrate into Tepehuan lands. However, in the 1590s, Spanish settler expansion and Jesuit missionary efforts into the region reignited conflict with the Tepehuan.
From 1590 to 1610, the Tepehuan clashed fiercely with Spanish military and settler forces. In 1593-1594, the Tepehuan razed and plundered the Spanish missions and settlements in Durango. The governor of the province of Nueva Vizcaya responded by sending soldiers against Tepehuan villages, executing hundreds of natives.
Over the next two decades, Spanish soldiers repeatedly marched into the Sierra Madre to attack the Tepehuan. In turn, Tepehuan warriors ambushed Spanish forces, utilized guerilla tactics, and fortified their villages. Both sides committed atrocities and wholesale slaughter during the conflict. The fighting resulted in massive population losses among the Tepehuan.
By the early 1600s, the severely depleted Tepehuan were forced to make peace with the Spanish. Jesuit missionaries returned to the area and resuscitated abandoned missions. However, the Jesuits initially made little headway in converting the Tepehuan to Christianity.
Missionary Efforts Among the Tepehuan
It was not until the 1630s that the Jesuits enjoyed any success in establishing permanent missions in Tepehuan territory. Jesuit priests learned the native language, reduced onerous demands on the Tepehuan, and lured children into schools with presents and treats.
Gradually, a significant minority of Tepehuan converted to Catholicism and settled around the missions permanentlty. However, many traditionalists remained hostile to the Spanish presence and outside influences. Outbreaks of violence between Christianized natives and traditionalists were common.
By 1767, when the Jesuits were expelled from Spanish domains, they had founded around 40 missions among the Tepehuan. Thousands of natives lived in mission villages, spoke Spanish, and considered themselves Catholics. Yet pre-contact beliefs and ways persisted in many remote areas.
Over the next centuries into modern times, the Tepehuan have slowly assimilated into the broader Mexican society. However, indigenous language, religious practices, household production of goods, oral traditions, and isolation from external influences continue among traditional Tepehuan.
The Huichol or Wixáritari are another prominent indigenous group centered in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains in western Durango and adjacent Mexican states. Numbering around 45,000 individuals, the Huichol practice a syncretic folk Catholicism combined with traditional spiritual beliefs emphasizing shamans and peyote rituals.
The Huichol language belongs to the Corachol branch of the Uto-Aztecan family. Traditionally, the Huichol lived in small settlements located high in mountain valleys and basins. Staple crops included maize, beans, squash, and chili peppers. Gathering wild plants, hunting, fishing, and raising livestock supplemented agriculture.
During the colonial era, the remote and dispersed Huichol villages allowed the group to maintain political autonomy and avoid domination by the Spanish. The Huichol rejected Catholic missionaries and resisted assimilation into Hispanic society.
Today, many Huichol communities retain communal traditional ways within their isolated homeland. But increasing numbers of Huichol now speak Spanish, have converted to Christianity, and work in towns or cities. Traditional culture faces mounting pressure but endures strongly in less accessible areas.
Traditional Huichol Society
Pre-contact Huichol society was organized into loosely linked extended family networks defined by common ancestry and shared ritual practices. There was no state-level political system, just local community governance by male elders and shamans.
The Huichol held communal lands but assigned plots for dwelling and cultivation to nuclear families. Reciprocal labor exchanges enabled households to carry out agricultural and pastoral activities cooperatively.
Shamanism and animism formed the core of traditional Huichol spirituality. Shamans mediated between the material and spiritual realms. Peyote was considered a sacred plant and consumed ritually to induce visions and heal sickness. Mythology, ceremonies, oral traditions, music, and art were integral to Huichol culture.
Within their remote homeland, the fiercely independent Huichol successfully resisted Aztec dominance and initial Spanish incursions. Early colonial era slave raiding provoked violent Huichol reprisals against Spanish settlements in the 1560s-1570s.
Missionary Activity and Huichol Resistance
In the late 1600s, Franciscan missionaries sought to bring the Huichol under Spanish control and convert them to Catholicism. They founded mission villages on the outer fringes of Huichol territory, attracted a limited number of converts, and produced dictionaries and grammars of the Huichol language.
However, the majority of Huichol refused to congregate into missions or adopt Christianity. Over the 18th century, most Huichol mission villages were depopulated as inhabitants fled back into the Sierra highlands. Isolation allowed traditional Huichol religion, language, social structure, and economy to endure largely intact.
During the 19th century, the Huichol were not integrated into independent Mexico. The Sierra homeland remained closed off from external influence. Huichol political autonomy and cultural independence persisted into the early 20th century.
Huichol Integration into Mexican Society
It was not until the 1920s and 1930s that the Mexican government finally asserted control over the Huichol heartland. Roads were built into the mountains, schools were constructed, the Huichol were considered Mexican citizens, and missionaries renewed conversion efforts.
Government development projects and missionary activity had divisive impacts on Huichol communities. Some natives adopted Catholicism, moved to towns, and assimilated into the Hispanic society. Many migrated seasonally as laborers to coastal plantations.
However, the more remote Huichol communities staunchly clung to indigenous language, religion, and self-sufficiency. Shamanism, peyote rituals, and other traditions survived as dominant cultural traits.
In recent decades, Huichol families have increasingly engaged with the cash economy through small-scale farming of coffee, sugarcane, and citrus for sale. Ecotourism ventures and selling colorful yarn paintings and decorative handicrafts to outside markets also provides income.
Ongoing modernization pressures exist, but core elements of Huichol spirituality and identity remain vitally intact. Indigenous language, communal governance, ritual practices, oral traditions, and ties to ancestral lands maintain continuity with the pre-contact past.
The native peoples of Durango, particularly the Tepehuan and Huichol ethnic groups, have inhabited the picturesque Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range of northwestern Mexico for millennia. Both cultures fiercely resisted initial Spanish incursions into the region and made their mountainous homelands notoriously difficult for outsiders to dominate.
Despite the onslaught of disease, colonial pressures, and religious assimilation campaigns, elements of traditional society and spirituality endured among the Tepehuan and Huichol. Core aspects of indigenous language, social structure, economy, and religious practices survived centuries of change into modern times.
However, increased integration into the broader Mexican society and emigration to towns and cities over the last century has impacted traditional lifeways. Ongoing pressures from modernization and globalization exist, yet the native peoples of the Sierra Madre Occidental have proven remarkably resilient over the long term. The indigenous identities and rich cultural traditions of the Tepehuan and Huichol endure as defining facets of the Durango landscape.