If you take a look at the map below, you will see a green area, which outlines the tiny corner of the world where the deeply spiritual, shamanic-based Huichol people once lived. This stronghold in the Sierra Madre Mountains long resisted the genocide of the Spanish Conquest, but has recently fallen to the modern world.
Today, only about 10,000 Huichol remain in their homeland, and another 10,000 have migrated to other places throughout Mexico. They are said to be the last tribe in all of North America who’ve managed to remain true to their pre-Columbian traditions, but that changed at a dizzying rate rate as missionaries work feverishly to eradicate their “heathen” shamanic traditions, as tourism increases, and as their land is taken from them by their own government, forcing the Huichol to replace their sacred crops of corn with tobacco.
The Huichol refer to themselves as “Wixáritari”, which is translated into “the people”. Theirs was a vividly rich culture that relied heavily on shamanic tradition to guide them and to keep them in harmony with the land. The encroachment of Christian missionaries as well as the forced farming of tobacco by the government has left the Huichol, not unlike the American Indians, struggling to keep their way of life from fading into nothingness. As Tom Pinkson, PhD so vividly states:
The shamanic wisdom of the Huichol provides time-tested methods for opening the mind to a wider range of awareness than the materialistic-based understanding of the West. It offers an understanding of health and well-being based on ‘finding your life’ through an archetypal vision quest premised on the belief that you are a sacred being, not here by accident but with a sacred purpose to find your heart path as well as the power to walk it all the days of your life…Huichol shamans keep the channels of communication open to the spirit world by working reverently with Tatewari who reminds us that we are luminous beings with love at the core of our being (Pinkson 2010).
Perhaps it’s just me, but those beliefs don’t sound like a “heathen” religion, as has been the justification of those who have destroyed the Huichol’s belief systems and culture.
In response to this systematic encroachment, a warrior named Susana Valdez has founded the Huichol Center For Cultural Survival And Traditional Arts. She has spent half of her life in the Huichol community, and has personally witnessed the destruction of their ancient shamanic culture. She also helps maintain the Huichol Center Ethnographic Archive, which contains documented knowledge from shamans who have recorded their valuable wisdom before it disappears, safeguarding examples of art, material culture, and knowledge for future generations. As she beautifully states:
The Huichols have developed psychic abilities which they use to shift between the sacred and mundane realms, and to communicate with the spirits of plants and animals (a technique known in the literature as “inter-species communication”) This has resulted in their extraordinary powers to manipulate the invisible forces, on “grand intelligence of nature” to their benefit. It is a spiritual component of Huichol farming that is missing in most non-Huichol modern day agricultural endeavors, but is as valid a part of Huichol farming practices as reading weather reports and planting by the moon are in our own. The personification of natural forces and the creation of relationships of reciprocity between human souls and immortal nature Spirits have sustained Huichol survival in their severe environment for centuries (Valdez 1997).
Amazingly enough, the Huichol have absolutely no history of war. They’ve always been a peaceful people who hold the land sacred, with deeply-held beliefs that are beautifully outlined in Pinkerson’s book, The Shamanic Wisdom of the Huichol. As part of a growing chorus of indigenous peoples throughout the world, the Huichol shamans warn of the “toxic ways” in which we are now living, disconnected from the land and from each other. They’re convinced that this can only eventually lead to what was cleverly discussed in books such as Ishmael; we’re living in a world where we’ve jumped off the cliff with wings, thinking that we’re flying, soon to realize that we’re actually crashing into the rocks below.
The Huichol are dependent upon corn, planting their fields along the steep slopes of their mountain homeland. Corn was life for the Huichol Indians, as was a steady diet of deer. Due to overhunting by outsiders and the encroachment of civilization, there are no deer left in the Sierra Madre forests. The yearly cycle of preparing the fields, planting, growing, and harvesting the corn was surrounded by religious ceremony, as was all of Huichol life. But the farming of corn, as mentioned above, has been replaced by cash crops of tobacco. As Susana explains:
When traditional Huichol farmers place corn seed into the ground, they are entering into a sacred bond with the plants and every vital force of nature that contributes to their growth. This obliges the Huichols to carry out sacred obligations which may include: embarking on the mystical deer hunt in order to ritually anoint or “feed” the baby corn plants the blood of the divine animal; to create numerous votive objects that will be sanctified in ceremonies and deposited as “payment” to the deities in various distant sacred locations; caring for the plants as if they were Huichol children and through the performance of numerous ceremonies throughout the year to thank and acknowledge the natural forces for keeping up their part of the bargain. This give-and-take method has provided them with healthy organically grown crops that have fed masses of their people throughout the ages (Valdez 1997).
Huichol life was a continuous cycle of ritual and devotional exercises designed to help the people stay connected to the Ancient Ones – Tate Wari (Grandfather Fire), Takutsi Nakawey (Grandmother Growth), Kauyumari (our brother, the Deer Spirit), and Tatei Yurianaka (Mother Earth), among others. The Huichols say that during ceremony, they’re inviting these spirits to come into the circle of life to be with them, to help empower them and their families, and to help the universe stay in balance. That balance has been broken, and the Huichol now stand as a broken people as well. Old ways are being abandoned, youth are moving away to find work in cities, and those who don’t move away are impoverished in their own lands.
If you’re curious to read more about the personal experience of the Huichol, So Sings The Blue Deer is a novel based upon a true experience of a small group of Huichol. It tells the story of their 600 mile pilgrimage from the remote Sierra mountains into the heart of Mexico City to obtain 20 white-tailed deer from the city zoo in an effort to save the Earth from environmental devastation. With these 20 deer, the Huichol hoped to establish a deer breeding project to repopulate the Sierra with the animals, thus allowing them and future generations to once again perform their ancient ceremonies, to reconnect with their past, and with their traditions.
Now the Huichol themselves are as endangered as the deer they seek to protect. In the last few years, Mexican government development programs for indigenous peoples have been scaled back. As a result, the Huichol are beset by poverty, disease and social ills. But more frightening, the Huichol are battling a “modern day conquest.” Outsiders are invading and seizing their land, and the Mexican government has sought to reduce their autonomy and is now moving to negate community land ownership rights that they won in the Revolution of 1910.
Shamanism of the Huichol
Huichol shamanism honors all of creation, especially the spirit of nature. For the Huichol shamans and peoples, this is, and always has been, their religion. Most cannot understand why they’ve been forced to replace their Earth loving, shamanic religion with the destructive religion that missionaries brought to them by force. The Huichol say we are created from the elements of the natural world: fire, air, water and earth. Because of this, each of us is a miniature universe, a mirror of both the natural and the spiritual worlds. All the knowledge and secrets of these two worlds are inside of us and everything is perfectly arranged. Shamanism teaches us to tap into that arrangement, to understand and to live in harmony with the natural and spiritual worlds. Again, as Pinkson so articulately states:
The Huichol shamanic worldview is obtained experientially through intimate relationship and exploration with the invisible spirit powers of nature and the cosmology of altered states. All aspects of creation are perceived as conscious, alive, containing power, purpose, intelligence, with importance and meaning–the earth, fire, sun, ocean, deer and other animals, plants, rain, rocks, trees, and rivers. Huichol shamanic wisdom recognizes the sacredness of reciprocity with nature, the lack of which puts us on a destructive path whose impact we experience today. Rather than a fear-based, control-with-force patriarchy emphasizing masculine sky-gods running the show, Huichol cosmology honors the Great Cosmic Mother as integral to life and its maintenance (Pinkson 2010).
The Huichol also believe that the practice of shamanism is accessible to all people. Although the shaman are the teachers, healers, and practitioners, we can all learn the ceremonies and rituals that accompany just about every aspect of the Huichol life. Ceremony, sacred dance, vision quest, and pilgrimages to places of power in nature are all essential aspects of the Huichol form of shamanism. They call themselves “the people”, as well as “the healers”. For centuries, they have conducted ceremonial rituals they believe heal the Earth and keep nature balanced. But now, through no action of theirs, the Earth is sick and slowly dying. The land of the Huichol is dying. The forests are shrinking, water is becoming scarce, the animals are disappearing. Illness and poverty are everywhere. The Huichol Wise Man, the Grand Shaman, knows why.
Despite their present day problems, the Huichol cling to their belief that a “magical beauty” is inherent in their lives and has the power to transcend whatever poverty and suffering they’re forced to endure. That alone is a testament to the power of the beliefs that unite them with both the physical and spiritual worlds. Like their Aztec ancestors, Huichol are trained from childhood to communicate with the Spirit World, to see with Second Sight and to understand the nature of the hereafter. As a result, the Huichol people possess an intense spiritual-psychic awareness that knows every object, animate or inanimate, human or animal, is imbued with a soul or energy that exists independently of its physical manifestation. To the Huichol, everything is alive, intrinsically sacred, and all worlds are one.
Again, this doesn’t sound so unlike the general beliefs of the American Indians, another culture that we all know was trampled and destroyed by Western civilization. Although the destruction of the Huichol is on a much smaller scale, the loss is no less significant. Central today to Huichol cultural survival is the continuation of their Marakame, the shamans. They alone are the custodians of the ancient, life-sustaining wisdom, the Singers of Sacred Songs who give living voice to the timeless teachings and beliefs of their ancestors. This voice is disappearing at an alarming rate, and there’s little anyone is doing or can seem to do about it.
Like many indigenous American groups, the Huichol have traditionally used the peyote cactus in religious rituals, and continue to do so, despite efforts to tear this practice from them. The peyote cactus is sacred and is obtained by making an annual 20-day pilgrimage to the Wirikuta peyote fields in San Luis Potosi. The Huichol go each year to collect peyote there. Before reaching their final destination, they pass by the sacred springs of Tatéi Matiniéri (“Where Our Mother Lives”), the house of the eastern rain goddess. Recently, though, Huichol pilgrims, returning from their annual pilgrimage to harvest peyote in the San Luis desert were imprisoned by Mexican military units. Their religious artifacts and peyote harvest were confiscated. The Huichol’s right to practice indigenous religious rites is guaranteed by Mexico’s constitution and United Nations’ international law. The use of peyote as a sacrament has at least been legally given to the American Indians, but this is not so, as of this writing, for the Huichol, as the right to work with their holiest of sacraments is systematically being taken away from them.
Soon after the above tragedy, fifteen Huichol were arrested for hunting deer, a necessity for completing their spiritual obligations to their nature-gods.
The Huichol Center Ethnographic Archive contains documented knowledge from shamans who have recorded this ancient sacred wisdom before it disappears, safeguarding examples of their art, material culture, and knowledge for future generations. The Huicholes are guided by a religious belief system that existed long before Christianity and the missionaries appeared. They recognize that a universal life force called “kupuri” flows through all nature’s creations. All souls are linked. These gentle people, who teeter on the verge of cultural extinction, offer the world great wisdom as we approach the unknown future. They advise us to recognize the fragility of the Earth and be stewards for life that dwells upon it, to the seek the healing power in nature, and to be of one heart with all things.
– by Keith Cleversley
Reprinted With Permission