Scattered across the steep mountains and deep canyons of the Sierra Madre Occidental in northwestern Mexico, the Tarahumara Indians have preserved their traditional way of life, in part because of the rugged terrain.
Now the encroachment of logging roads, telephones, satellite dishes and tourists on the Chihuahua el Pacifico railroad threatens to transform the Tarahumara culture.
A new WILL-Channel 12 production, "Tarahumara: Pillars of the World," offers a portrait of the Tarahumara culture under stress. Airing at 7 p.m. Oct. 22, the documentary was produced and directed by WILL-TV executive producer Jack Kelly. Eric Hostetter, UI professor of art and design, was co-producer and writer.
Hostetter's stepfather, John Steelquist, provided medical assistance to the Tarahumara during the late 1950s and early 1960s. While there, he shot some 7,000 feet of 16mm film documenting the Tarahumara culture.
That film, along with archival film and photography from anthropologist Robert Zingg (1930s) and ethnographer Carl Lumholz (1890s), has been combined with new footage from the WILL documentary team to produce a remarkable portrait of cultural stability and change over a 100-year period.
What is striking about Steelquist's film, including scenes of farming, fishing, weaving, radio-schooling, dancing, religious fiestas and music making, is how little the culture of the Tarahumara has changed since the 1890s when Lumholtz lived among the Tarahumara, Kelly said.
Yet modernizing forces are moving in on the Tarahumara culture. "Tarahumara: Pillars of the World" analyzes the dynamics of these changes and examines what is being lost and what is being gained.
The documentary draws its title from the Tarahumara's belief that they represent the last columns that support the world. "They believe their cultural and religious practices please God and allow all of us to live," Kelly said.
Production of "Tarahumara: Pillars of the World" was made possible by grants from the Illinois Humanities Council, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Illinois General Assembly and the Friends of WILL. Additional funding was provided by the UI School of Art and Design and the UI Research Board. Additional information is available on the program Web site: http://www.staff.uiuc.edu/~jkelly1.