Communication Currents

An-Arche: Indigenous Ways of Structuring Authority in a Rarámuri Community

June 1, 2016
Intercultural Communication

On the balmy summer night of her research team’s arrival to a small rural Rarámuri community in Ciudad del Urique in northwestern Mexico, S. Lily Mendoza, then an ethnographer-in-training, had the chance to attend a political rally in the village’s municipal plaza. In the crowd were men in their long-sleeved white shirts, khaki pants, and white buri hats standing off to one side, while women and youth sat on benches along the plaza’s periphery, listening or chatting. There were also children of varying ages, playing and moving around freely. As Mendoza took in the scene, a sight caught her attention.

A toddler, no older than two years old, who earlier in the evening had appeared “fresh and powdered from a bath in his immaculate pajamas,” was now rolling happily on the dirt-caked cement floor, seemingly unsupervised. Now and then, he would crawl on all fours, at one point picking up a candy wrapper from the floor and biting off a piece. When a large stray dog wandered into the plaza, the boy made fast friends with it, wrapping his tiny arms around its neck, and receiving in return a generous licking. Later, an older boy joined them and the two boys wrestled and played until they collapsed, exhausted, on the dirt floor.

Mendoza did not know it then, but her astonishment at the seeming lack of adult concern and supervision over the toddler would inspire one of the themes of her recently published ethnographic project: an-archic ways of structuring authority among the Rarámuri as shown in adult/parent-child interactions.

Adult/Parent-Child Interactions 

As she spent more time among the Rarámuri, Mendoza observed that in the more informal context of parent-child relationships, three elements characterized the interactions. First, she noticed the tendency to let children do things on their own. She noticed that parents allowed children to negotiate difficult tasks such as walking down narrow, elevated pathways without any hand-holding, and that children tended to help themselves to things they needed without asking adults. For example, one child, three-year-old Yair, crawled up by himself onto a chair to reach an outdoor sink and fill a (possibly dirty) plastic scooper to drink water.

Second, there was a tendency to allow children to explore and satisfy their curiosity without restraint or prohibition, from letting children run around or wander off on their own, to allowing them “unmonitored” fun, to letting them momentarily handle potentially dangerous objects with only a gentle caution and without fussing. At one point, a one-and-a-half-year-old child was allowed to handle the dull knife his mother was using to pare an unripe mango when he reached for it. After a moment, the mother gently and unobtrusively took back the knife, with the child offering no resistance.

Mendoza’s third set of observations regarding these interactions was that parents showed unobtrusive watchfulness and protection without any forceful intervention. They secured the children’s safety without too much fuss and gave children timely caution in the form of verbal instruction without a reprimanding tone. When a small child picked up a steel-bladed axe that was lying around, the parent gently and unexcitedly approached and let the child put the axe down by himself, leaving it right where he found it, as if dutiful compliance was assumed without any further precaution.

To this, the children responded with willing compliance, nonrebellion, quick recovery from physical hurt (such as falling and scraping a knee), curiosity, independence, and receptivity to adult instruction.

Teacher-Student Interactions 

These attitudes at home were also evident in the more formal context of the classroom. At school, there was a quality of informality, evidenced by instructors’ use of conversational, nonlecturing tones, relaxed posture, treatment of interruptions as normal (burros passing by the window and children distracting themselves with the animals), and permission of free movement in the classroom.

Mendoza observed a consistent nondisciplinary style of classroom management. This was apparent from the teacher allowing students to answer in chorus, waiting for volunteers to respond to questions instead of quizzing students to see who had done the reading, ignoring minor disturbances such as students deciding to sit on the floor, and allowing students to vent restless energy. Finally, Mendoza observed a total lack of reprimand or disciplinary regulation of behavior in class.

In response to this nondisciplinarian style of teaching, students reacted with active participation, eagerly responding to questions, speaking up without waiting to be called, and feeling free to interrupt when someone else was talking. Students also displayed lively curiosity through attentive listening and eye contact with the instructor, conscientious tracking of points being discussed in the book, and diligent note-taking.


Mendoza hypothesizes that there is a direct relationship between the ways in which adults in the community structure and exercise their (in)formal authority vis-à-vis those under their care and the children’s responses, attitudes, and behavior. She explains her assumption this way: 

The healthypsychological mode of being for all humans is that of freedom and self-determination in the context of a loving and nurturing community; therefore, those subjected to any form of dominant power would have a tendency to resist, whether covertly or overtly…[Conversely] where there is an absence of such a centralized, disciplinary mode of supervision, one can reasonably expect the inverse outcome, i.e., more inner-directed forms of self-discipline, initiative, and cooperation in those under authority as a result of not stifling their autonomous ways of being. 

Mendoza refers to such non-dominating exercise of authority anarchy, “defined not in its popular use connoting chaos or total disorder, but in its more generic sense from the root word, ‘an-arche,’ literally, ‘no head’ or no domination.”  She concludes, “[W]hat we have seen of the dominant lessons from the indigenous culture in regard to child-rearing practices outlined here remain instructive for our own modern industrial culture.” She quotes Canadian physician Gabor Mate, who noted that “the optimal conditions for child development are those…where children enjoy tremendous freedom and learning takes place mainly by imitation and modeling”—a norm observed in most indigenous cultures that still retain a measure of their originary intactness and have not been completely taken over by modern industrial culture.  

The Rarámuri culture, known to have resisted the widespread Spanish invasion and colonization of the 1600s, today continues to undergo tremendous pressure to assimilate with the influx of roads, tourists, and the market economy.Mendoza writes, “It is…remarkable, then, given their struggle to remain themselves despite such an assault on their entire way of life, that glimpses of the originary culture even remain.” To listen and learn from such keepers of the old ways is to invoke a line from another indigenous writer, Martin Prechtel, who admonished cryptically, “The only reason to explore another culture is to be able to smell the poverty in your own.” 

About the author (s)

S. Lily Mendoza

Oakland University

Associate Professor