Blame it on acculturation, tourism, drug traffic, drought, missionaries, or any other form of intrusion into the Sierra Tarahumara, but it appears that mask use in a ceremonial context among the Rarámuri is all but gone. Less than a dozen carvers represent the rich tradition of carving ceremonial masks among the Rarámuri today, and of these, few demonstrate the skill of their predecessors. The thinly carved walls, the sculptural qualities, and the addition of horsehair adornments seen on forty-year-old and older masks are not observed today (Figure 1). Recently carved masks have become simplified versions of the earlier examples (Figure 2).
Santiago Barnaby, owner and operator of Copper Canyon Guide, specializes in guiding excursions in the Sierra Tarahumara from October through April. He has lived and worked with the Rarámuri since the 1970s, and [End Page 453]
during that time he has seen very few masks used in ceremonial contexts. Over the years, Barnaby has developed friendships with three carvers from the Norogachi region who sell their masks to the tourist market. [End Page 454] Their masks are flat, plaque like, and were never intended to be worn, nor could they fit over a man’s head or face. They are wall hangers, for lack of a better term. Stretched among the ranchos and pueblos of the Sierra Tarahumara there are other woodworkers who carve tourist-style masks, made from lightweight wood, usually chilicote (Erythrina flabelliformis).
This loss of the masking tradition and mask use in ceremonies started a dialogue between Barnaby and Kolaz, a former museum curator, in 2005. We had a common interest in the fast-pace loss of culture among the Rarámuri. Barnaby knew traditionalists who lived in the sierra and canyons and continued the ceremonial expressions we read about in old anthropological and ethnographic literature. We wondered if, with their help, it would be possible to see mask use revitalized in the regions where it once flourished. This led to new, invigorating conversations regarding the possibility of Barnaby taking an active role as an agent of change and reintroducing masks, specifically masks worn during matachine winter dances in the Norogachi region where he lived half of the year.
The decision was made to execute a project to reintroduce the use of masks in 2007 with the help of Barnaby’s mask-carving friends in Norogachi and, more important, with the help and blessings of the governor and Rarámuri elders in this region. We split the project into two phases: one to lay the groundwork and get the participants on board and to actually sponsor a ceremony, and another to see whether the Rarámuri from the Norogachi ranchos kept masks in use during Barnaby’s absence.
Among the Rarámuri Indians of Chihuahua, Mexico, are individuals called chapeyókos1 who often participate in matachine dances—performed at ceremonies and fiestas—by directing the dancers and...