Environments of Learning: Rarámuri Children’s Plant Knowledge and Experience of Schooling, Family, and Landscapes in the Sierra Tarahumara, Mexico


This paper investigates social-environmental factors contributing to differential ethnobotanical expertise among children in Rarámuri (Tarahumara) communities in Chihuahua, Mexico, to explore processes of indigenous ecological education and epistemologies of research. One hundred and four children from two schools (one with a Ráramuri knowledge curriculum and one without) were interviewed about their knowledge of 40 useful plants. Overall, children showed less ethnobotanical expertise than expected and a great deal of variability by age, though most shared knowledge of a core set of culturally and ecologically salient plants. No significant difference was found between girls’ and boys’ knowledge. The overall use-knowledge scores were almost twice as high as naming scores (mean of 40% vs. 24.4%). This supports the conclusion that use-context is more culturally relevant, salient or easier for children to remember than names. The social–environmental factors significant in predicting levels of plant knowledge among children were whether a child attended a Rarámuri or Spanish-instruction school, and, to a lesser extent, age. However, these effects were not strong, and individual variability in expertise is best interpreted using ethnographic knowledge of each child’s family and personal history, leading to a model of ethnobotanical education that foregrounds experiential learning and personal and family interest in useful plants. Though overall plant knowledge may be lower among children today compared to previous generations, a community knowledge structure seems to be reproduced in which a few individuals in each age cohort show great proficiency, and children make the same kinds of mistakes and share specialized names for plants.

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  1. 1.

    Voucher specimens were deposited at the herbarium of the Instituto Politécnico Nacional in Durango, Mexico (CIIDIR), where identifications were made.

  2. 2.

    Two were the same species, in order to check for consistency in interview answers.

  3. 3.

    The adult responses were not uniform; in cases of disagreement I inquired with others and referenced published sources and my own ethnobotanical observations.

  4. 4.

    Assumptions for ANOVA test include, 1) a random sample; 2) independence of variates; 3) normal data. The data presented here conform to assumptions 2 and 3, and, though the sample was not collected randomly, it constitutes a large percentage of the population and can be considered representative (see earlier discussion).


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In Mexico, my deep gratitude goes to the people of Basíhuare and Rejogochi for their guidance and friendship over the years. I am particularly indebted to Moreno Vatista and Margarita León, Silvino León González, Martha Sitánachi, María Elena Lirio and Martín Sanchez, Salomena Ramírez and Efigenia Ramírez, Azucena Zafiro, Roberto Morales González and Julián Morales González, Stanislaus Rascón, Marianita Morales González and Juan Rico León, Felipe Ramírez, Francisco Cardenal, Ubaldo Gardea, Martín Chavez and his family, all my comadres and compadres and ahijados and the Rejogochi and Basíhuare primary schools as well as the secondary school Cruz Rarámuri. At the Instituto Politécnico Nacional of Durango, Mexico thanks to Dra. Socorro González Elizondo for identifying and curating my plant collections. This research was funded by an American Education Research Association/Spencer Foundation Fellowship and grant BCS-0135306 from the National Science Foundation. I thank Brent Berlin, Bill Merrill, Ben Blount, Judith Preissle and Elois Ann Berlin for their comments on an earlier version of this work. The mistakes and shortfalls are all mine. Matéteraba.

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Correspondence to Felice S. Wyndham.

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Wyndham, F.S. Environments of Learning: Rarámuri Children’s Plant Knowledge and Experience of Schooling, Family, and Landscapes in the Sierra Tarahumara, Mexico. Hum Ecol 38, 87–99 (2010).

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  • Rarámuri
  • Northern Mexico
  • Ethnobotany
  • Children’s local knowledge
  • Cultural transmission
  • Experiential knowledge