Don Burgess collection gifted to the Archives of the Big Bend 

Rare books, photographs and manuscripts document the language and culture of the Indigenous Tarahumara people of Chihuahua, Mexico 

ALPINE — The collection of linguist and photographer Don Burgess, a man originally from Alpine who spent most of his life in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico documenting the Indigenous Tarahumara people, was donated to the Archives of the Big Bend at Sul Ross State University in December. 

Burgess, who passed away in 2022 at age 83, worked to promote and preserve the language of the Tarahumara, also referred to as the Ralámuli, an isolated, agricultural community living in the rough terrain of the Sierra Madre Mountains historically under threat due to encroaching settlements and cartel violence. 

His daughter, Lisa Maria Burgess, said he wished to donate and make available his research materials — oral histories, manuscripts, books and photographs — for future generations. “He fell in love with that place and those people, and he found a way to be part of protecting that culture,” Lisa said. “His goal with this collection is to make it accessible to generations in the future, whether they’re academics or the Tarahumaras themselves.” 

The Archives of the Big Bend also houses the photographic collection of Glenn Burgess — Don’s father who notably documented the establishment of Big Bend National Park. Don first traveled to Chihuahua as a teenager in 1955 with Glenn who was covering the construction of the Chihuahua al Pacífico Railroad (the Chepe) for newspapers in Texas. 

El Chepe. Photo by Don Burgess. Courtesy of the Don Burgess Collection, Archives of the Big Bend, Sul Ross State University.

The two collaborated on a book about the harrowing construction of the route, which expanded trading opportunities by connecting the Pacific Coast to the central U.S. Don returned to Chihuahua in 1959 to work as a construction worker on the project before obtaining degrees from Texas Western College (now The University of Texas at El Paso). 

He and his first wife, Esther Carlson — who was from Samachique and familiar with a specific dialect of the Tarahumara language — returned again in 1964 specifically to study the languages. “We went out to Tarahumara country to survey the different dialects, and we spent about a year just walking up and down the mountains trying to figure out where the language changed, to see if it changed enough in some areas to where we would have to do books for different parts of the tribe,” Don said in an oral history interview collected by UTEP’s Institute for Oral History in 1977. 

In 1965 Don and Esther received permission from the ejido, communal land held by the Tarahumara, to build an adobe home in a valley in Rocoroibo near a creek. In the oral history interview, Don recounts the challenges of making contact with the Tarahumara in those early days. 

“[We were] trying to establish relations with people who didn’t particularly want to establish relations with us,” he said. “We had to prove ourselves first to them. A lot of times we’d go to a house, and we’d be walking up to the front door, and they’d be running out the back.” 

Photo by Don Burgess. Courtesy of the Don Burgess Collection, Archives of the Big Bend, Sul Ross State University.

Developing conversational abilities was difficult because Tarahumara homesteads were spread across the landscape and there was no central village. Don and Esther went as long as two weeks without seeing another person, he said. Initially, community members feared the acts of tape recording or writing down the language would effectively take it away from them, Don said. 

“There’s a lot of cultural opposition to anybody helping an outsider, especially to do something like learning the language,” he said. “They’re not quite sure what you are going to do with it.” 

When Don and Esther arrived in the Sierras, the three dialects the Tarahumara spoke were all oral and had never been translated into writing. Don worked alongside Tarahumaras for decades to develop a written form of the language, one that evolved over time as they decided how to write out various sounds. 

He worked with Mexico’s Ministry of Education to produce books in Ralámuli for schools on family genealogy, history and culture. He also worked — with the help of second wife Marie Burgess, who had experience as an I.C.U. nurse — to produce medical books on common illnesses such as tuberculosis and diarrhea. Some of the work was supported financially by the Mexican government, who desired to strengthen the country’s Indigenous communities by preserving their languages. 

Photo by Don Burgess. Courtesy of the Don Burgess Collection, Archives of the Big Bend, Sul Ross State University.

“The government of Chihuahua was really interested in having the written language but then also producing books for that community — collections of stories or vocabulary books or whatever was going to support that community in maintaining that culture and in being a healthy community,” Lisa said. 

In his oral history interview, Don said he also encouraged the Ralámuli to author their own books on their cultural traditions. “One of the main things that I’ve tried to do is get Tarahumaras to write their own books,” he said. “To write down how they hunt and fish, how they play their sports.” 

There was also a missionary aspect to Don’s work — he translated the Bible into Ralámuli and received some funding from churches in addition to funding from the Mexican government and from individual donors. He took countless photographs during the time he spent living amongst the Tarahumara in Rocoroibo, Tierra Blanca, San Rafael and Creel. He documented sporting events and special events like rain ceremonies. 

Photo by Don Burgess. Courtesy of the Don Burgess Collection, Archives of the Big Bend, Sul Ross State University.

Lisa, who grew up in the Sierras with two other siblings, said her brother recalls an instance where he and Don walked for two straight days to photograph a game involving two teams competing for a ball with wooden sticks. “He would go to great lengths to get to places where he could take photographs of a cultural event,” Lisa said. 

The Tarahumara are known for their long-distance running abilities as well as their agricultural traditions, cultivating maize and beans in the mountains and fruit in the canyons, Lisa said. Her father, initially an outsider, managed to find his place there. “My dad had been going out there for years, and he was a very quiet, respectful listener. He really gelled with the Tarahumara culture.” 

“If you saw him speaking Ralámuli with somebody he would be speaking in the way they speak,” Lisa said. “If you didn’t realize that he was a foreigner you would think that he was really part of the community.” 

In 1997, the government of Chihuahua formed a committee to codify how the Ralámuli language was written. Don served as the committee chair and worked alongside Mexican linguists and Tarahumara peoples. In 2015, Don was recognized by the government as a “guardian of the word” for his work to protect the native language. 

Photo by Don Burgess. Courtesy of the Don Burgess Collection, Archives of the Big Bend, Sul Ross State University.

He published dozens of books — some of which are available for free online — on Tarahumara language and culture in his lifetime and was documenting one of the specific dialects up until his death in 2022. Don collected rare, old dictionaries of the Tarahumara vocabulary — earlier attempts to document the language from 1571, 1826 and the 1900s. 

Victoria Contreras, head of archives at Sul Ross, is now in the process of accessioning, digitizing and storing the Don Burgess collection, which measures 13 linear feet of books alone, with another 6 to 8 feet of manuscripts, color slides and prints. 

“From what I’ve been able to find, it seems to be the largest collection of specifically Ralámuli Tarahumara materials from either side of the border,” Contreras said. 

Don’s artifact collection — baskets, pottery, sports equipment and other cultural items relating to Indigenous communities of the Chihuahua region — did not meet the archive’s scope and was gifted to the Amerind Museum in Arizona. 

Head of Archives Victoria Contreras sifts through print materials in the Don Burgess collection, one of the repository’s newest acquisitions. Photo by Maisie Crow.

Contreras said she was grateful for the ongoing efforts in both the U.S. and Mexico to preserve native languages, and Don’s collection may prove useful for faculty of Sul Ross’ newly-established Anthropology Department.  

Lisa, who is fluent in three languages and writes bilingual children’s books, said she is grateful to have grown up with a sense of a multilingual world — aware that learning other languages allows for travel and exposure to different world views. Don researched the ways the Tarahumara viewed colors –– for example, how they ascribed genders to rainbows and considered blue and green two shades of the same color. 

“If we can value a multilingual approach to the world, it opens doors and makes it possible to speak to people and travel and not feel that you have to be isolated in one language or one culture,” Lisa said. 

For more information or to make an appointment to view the Archives of the Big Bend, visit library.sulross.edu/archives/