SIL Mexico

Tepiman Family
Akimel O'odham (Pima), 
Mountain Pima (Pima Bajo),
Tohono O'odham (Papago), Tepehuan

O'odham maze


The Tepiman family is a group of southern Uto-Aztecan languages spoken in northern Mexico and southern Arizona. The family consists of two subfamilies: the Tepehuan group to the south (Durango and Chihuahua) and the Piman group to the north (primarily Sonora and Arizona). The Piman languages are called by various names, including Tohono O'odham (Papago), Akimel O'odham (Pima), and O:b No'ok (Mountain Pima or “Pima Bajo”). There are also several extinct members of this family.


Map of MexicoMap: where the Tepiman languages are spoken


The Tepiman languages are distributed in a nearly straight line from southern Arizona south into Sonora, Chihuahua, and Durango, forming what historians call the “Tepiman Corridor”. It has long been thought that ideas and goods were exchanged between the American Southwest and Mesoamerica (the ancient cultures of central/southern Mexico and Guatemala) along trade routes such as this.

The Piman groups in Arizona include thousands of speakers of Tohono O'odham (Papago) and Akimel O'odham (Pima). There are also a few hundred Tohono O'odham speakers in the state of Sonora along the border with Arizona. These groups are known as “Pima Alto” or “Upper Pima”. Farther south, there are several hundred speakers of Mountain Pima (O:b No'ok) in the Sierra Michi between the states of Chihuahua and Sonora. Mountain Pima is not mutually intelligible with the Pima Alto (O'odham) varieties. (O:b No'ok is sometimes called “Pima Bajo” or “Lower Piman”, but the label “Pima Bajo” can also include some extinct Piman languages that were geographically close to O:b No'ok but linguistically more like the O'odham languages farther north.)

Tepehuan has three major variants, one in Chihuahua and two in Durango. Northern Tepehuan is spoken in the municipio (township) of Guadalupe y Calvo, in western Chihuahua by about 5000 people. Southern Tepehuan is spoken in southern Durango by about 20,000 speakers. They are divided between a western variety spoken in the municipio of Pueblo Nuevo and an eastern variety spoken in the municipio of Mezquital. The Tepehuans were not conquered by the Spanish but they were forced to retreat into the mountains from their ancestral homeland in the central Durango plains. Although they once lived in the towns of Tepehuanes and Papasquiaro, today these towns have no Tepehuan speakers.

Like the cultures of most of the indigenous groups of Mexico, that of the Tepiman peoples is a blend of diverse cultural elements, some surviving from pre-Hispanic times and others adopted since the Spanish conquest. Although the influence from Spanish culture is similar throughout Mexico, the pre-Hispanic cultural elements are quite different from those farther south in Mesoamerica, and are more like those of indigenous groups in the southwestern United States.

Though divided by an international border, the O'odham still maintain close connections with each other. For example, many O'odham in Arizona still participate in the pilgrimage of St. Francis to Magdalena, Sonora, every October. They live scattered across the desert in small settlements of a few families each. They have, over the centuries, developed an intimate relationship to the desert, depending on agriculture adapted to its harsh demands as well as some hunting and gathering. The O'odham are especially well-known for their exquisite basketry.

Speakers of Mountain Pima (Pima Bajo, O:b No'ok) live primarily in small family ranches rather than towns. Their material culture is like that of most of northern Mexico. Unlike many indigenous groups, they never seem to have developed any highly decorative pottery, baskets, or textiles. However, the prehispanic nonmaterial culture is still very much alive, especially the ceremonial system, including such elements as the sacred all-night dance known as the “mitote”.

Like the Mountain Pima, the Tepehuan people live on family ranches. They traditionally cultivate several varieties of squash, beans, and corn (maize), and raise farm animals. Since about 1970 the Tepehuans have owned their own sawmills and distributed profits to members of the community. Many areas of the rugged terrain are now accessible by lumber road. Bilingual schools are staffed by native speakers.

Southern Tepehuan women wear intricately tucked blouses and colorful full skirts decorated with ribbons and lace in the Spanish colonial style. Women are veiled with large black shawls whenever outside their homes, and walk behind their husbands. The traditional dress for men consists of embroidered unbleached muslin tunics and trousers, worn with bright neckerchiefs, sandals with soles of cowhide or rubber from tires, and flat-brimmed straw hats. The young often replace this with western wear, similar to traditional “cowboy” dress in the southwestern U.S.

In the Tepiman languages, the verb generally comes first in a clause, unless some other part of the clause is placed in front of it for special prominence. After the verb, there is some flexibility in the order of subject and object, and sometimes one can only identify which is which by context. Similarly, there is flexibility in the order of adjectives, possessors, and other noun modifiers within a noun phrase. Long words with many prefixes and suffixes are common.

An interesting linguistic feature shared by the Tepiman languages is the reduplication (repetition) of part of a noun or adjective to indicate plural. For example, in Southeastern Tepehuan, ban means 'coyote', while baaban means 'coyotes'; the first two letters ba are repeated (with the vowel lengthened) to indicate plural.


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