issue 251 - January 1994
photo by DAVID RANSOM
The spirit of the Huichol
High in the mountains above Guadalajara a self-confident community, descendants
of people who left the Valley of Mexico before the Spanish Conquest,
still retain their proud traditions and their independence.
But a road is snaking its way into the hills towards them.
Indiana Jones in jeans walks up the sloping floor to the cockpit of the 1943 DC3 aircraft. He stuffs a plastic bag into a hole in the fuselage and cranks up the engines. Around me in the cabin sit a dozen Huichol people, some wearing hats that resemble straw boaters decorated with a circle of feathers and coloured ribbons. But their knuckles are white, like mine. My companion, Dagoberto, is a veteran pilot from the Mexican Air Force via the Amazon. We were supposed to be flying in his plane, but it crashed.
I can look through the cockpit and see the mountain coming, waving about in front of us. Just as we are about to strike, a small path comes into view, running up the mountainside between the trees. We clatter into what looks like someone’s back garden. I make to get off. Dagoberto restrains me. We have three more stops like this to make. The plane turns round and falls down the mountain into the air over a precipice. Indiana Jones seems to enjoy the sensation; I am writing my own obituary.
This is the mountain fastness of the Huichol peoples, some 20,000 of them. They are one of the most important groups among Mexico’s 10 million indigenous peoples, and it’s impossible not to conclude that they are so because to reach them from the outside you must be propelled by a death-wish. Tourists are banned.
The Sierra de los Huicholes, part of the western Sierra Madre range north-west of Guadalajara, must once have been a high plateau. Now it is scored by deep, terraced ravines blanketed with a sparse, fragile covering of mountain oaks, subtropical vegetation and bright patches of cultivated maize.
A reception awaits the plane at San Miguel Huaistita. The men wear white tunics elaborately embroidered in day-glo red, orange, green. There are warm greetings for Carlos, the school teacher, who’s arriving to start a new term. We help him carry his books and papers up the hillside to his house, where he invites us to stay.
The Huichol language remains in common use, so complex that few outsiders have ever been able to speak it. Their culture, deeply devotional to an elaborate matrix of gods, spirits and ancestral presences in everyday life, is expressed with great refinement in weaving, embroidery and intricate representations of the universe achieved by fixing coloured threads to boards with beeswax.
Politically independent and democratic, with all land held in common, the Huichol administer their ‘communities’ through elected officials: governors, second governors, magistrates, police officers. Outsiders are allowed to remain only on sufferance: the Franciscan school, for many years the only source of education in the community, lies vacant since the teachers were asked to leave and replaced by a secular state-run school.
photo by DAVID RANSOM
Geraldo, the Second Governor of San Miguel, explains the strict and by no means tender administration of justice. The severest punishment is to be sent to the stocks in neighbouring San Andrés. It is said (though hard to verify) that the death penalty was once enforced by leading the condemned person, blindfold, to a precipice.
But at the heart of the community is the shaman, or maraakame. Don Ricardo is the maraakame of San Miguel and, coming across him near his house, we arrange to talk to him later that day. When we return he is not there.
In the meantime we visit the village – less a centre of population than a meeting place. Most of the community have small farms or ranchos outside the village. From here they descend to work their fields in the valleys.
The village square has a large tree from which hangs the hide of a cow, a slowly decaying memorial to its slaughter for the most recent fiesta. A swing is tied to the branches of the tree, and children play beneath it. There is a health centre to one side, and in one corner a small window around which a dozen or so men are gathered. Out of this window a hand passes a succession of Modelo beer cans. Empty ones litter the ground. The men are extremely drunk and, despite my attempts to evade them, a young man staggers up to me.
‘Are you pastor?’ asks Cirilo in English.
‘No, reporter,’ I reply.
‘You are pastor,’ he insists.
And so it continues until I realize these are the only words of English that Cirilo knows. A crazed man on horseback gallops up. He has, he says, come from somewhere and doesn’t know where he is. He just got on his nag and off it went. Could I spare him five pesos?
We look for Don Ricardo again. He is sitting on the slope outside his house, throwing pebbles at a chicken. We greet him and prepare to talk. But slowly he subsides to the ground. He too, it seems, is not averse to the odd Modelo.
So we return to Carlos’ house. I talk to Gerania, his niece. She is six and very bright indeed. She is gluing together a ‘book’ out of political leaflets. She’s about to start school – not easy, because the children have to sleep in dormitories during the week, only returning home to their ranchos at weekends. Secondary school means leaving the community and going to Guadalajara, a costly exercise which most Huichol parents cannot afford.
She asks me what I’m doing. Trying to explain (less easy than you might imagine) I show her a copy of the NI I have with me, one I wrote two years ago about the Amazon. I suggest a photograph of her with the magazine, and she agrees.
The night is torn by a vivid thunderstorm. Dagoberto and I set out at dawn. The sun rises over cloud-filled valleys and I reflect that this, the place where they live, must be the origin of the equanimity the Huichol display. Who could ever wish to leave such a place?
We walk through the forest for half an hour along mountain paths to the village where Antonio lives. It is a collection of buildings on a promontory overlooking a valley. He is another ‘big’ person in the community, once a teacher, now the Director of the Regional Funds of Solidarity, a fund administered directly from the office of the President. We have breakfast; a fermented maize and chilli drink, dog meat and tortillas cooked over a wood fire in the kitchen building.
‘No, very few people leave here,’ Antonio assures me, holding his small son Alvaro on his lap. ‘I went away to Guadalajara to school. But I came back. So do most of us.
‘We are not without our difficulties. Loggers want our trees. Just recently we tore up a contract signed by one of our communities without our knowledge and we kicked the logging company out. But we’re not against careful commercial logging which we control. We must plan reforestation, develop our resources. There is a big problem with soil erosion. We also want a road. One has reached San Andrés, and we’ve agreed to use our Regional Funds to extend it here.’
photo by DAVID RANSOM
My heart sinks. But Antonio has few doubts. ‘Look, we are not living in a museum here. We welcome change. Our culture, our traditions, are strong and alive because they adapt, they change. Of course there will be problems. But we think the advantages will be greater.’
He mentions that from time to time military patrols call at his house. He does not say so, but I imagine that they are in search of ‘drugs’. The crooked shadow of this benighted issue falls over even the remotest corners of the country.
I know that there is also a health problem here. Not long ago seven small children died of diarrhoea and dehydration. The health clinic in San Miguel is now well stocked, but there is a suggestion that Huichol parents prefer to use the maraakame, who dissuades them from going to the clinic. Whether the children died for this reason I do not know. Although I am told that a virulent strain of malaria is among the Huichol, it is never mentioned to me in San Miguel.
Dagoberto has an errand to fulfil in Popotita and San Luisito, two smaller communities Antonio tells us are ‘no more than an hour’ away. This means something like two or three hours for Dagoberto and me, stumbling over stones, wandering blindly through mists that suddenly rise up from the valley, pausing for breath ‘to admire the view’ or to inspect religious sites. Perched in trees there are strange pots, while left in piles of stone and ashes are the ‘eyes of god’ – diamond shapes woven in coloured thread, through which the gods can see beneath the earth and make contact with ancestors. The whole landscape is enchanted by the spirit of the Huichol.
We tumble into Popotita. Because it has no airstrip it seems even more undisturbed. Dagoberto has taken up my interest in maraakames with some zeal, and we scour the place in search of one. The men, however, are all down in the valley working the fields. Only women and children inhabit the houses, and there are no female maraakames. Occasionally, from the ranchos below us on the hillsides, I hear laughter, clapping, singing.
We return to San Miguel. Dagoberto recruits Carlos to help with Don Ricardo, who is his uncle and now sits making a new hat. Carlos assures me that Don Ricardo is ‘very well disposed’ to answer my questions, so I plant my tape recorder in front of him and begin.
‘Don Ricardo, I wonder if you could tell me something about the legends of the Huichol. For example, what about the legend of how the world was created?’
At this stage, I am ignorant of the fact that the Huichol creation legends, which the maraakame chants as he leads a pilgrimage in search of the hallucinogenic peyote plant, take a very long time to tell. As long as eight hours.
‘Is there another question you would like to ask?’ suggests Carlos.
‘Perhaps Don Ricardo could tell me, what exactly is a maraakame?’
‘Well, how many maraakames are there?’
‘We do not know,’ replies Carlos. ‘An infinite number. There are many yet to be discovered.’
And then he comes to my rescue. ‘Listen, David, it’s not that Don Ricardo does not want to answer your questions. But a question like “What is a maraakame?”, how is he to answer such a question? A maraakame sings, he prays, he baptizes children and gives them their names. He is like a priest. He gives us understanding. He teaches, he carries with him our tradition, our culture. He celebrates fiestas. He is an important person in our family, you could say the most important. He guides the rest of us. When a child is ill we take her to him to be cured. He must baptize everyone in our community. If someone does not have a maraakame, sometimes they have to ask for another one somewhere else.’
Later, Carlos explains that Don Ricardo may have feared that I might steal the secrets of his office. For, after all, why should someone wish to know? Curiosity is insufficient. As they value it, so must the Huichol protect their culture.
They begin to ask questions of their own. Is there discrimination in England? Well, yes there is. There is discrimination here in Mexico too, says Carlos; against indigenous peoples and by indigenous peoples, who regard the Mexican population at large as ‘mere mestizos’. Cirilo, his head now cleared of Modelo, talks about history, his love of it, his desire to learn more of it, his inability to pay for the learning.
We take the inaugural flight of a small Cessna aircraft back to Guadalajara. We fly for an hour over the land of the Huichol before the city spreads out beneath us, a colourless and uninspired version of a Huichol picture. The Huichol know that you inhabit a land, a community and a spirit, not the image of a world filled with false expectations that seem to rise up with the fumes from the city streets.
Huichol artists construct pictures like this by fixing coloured thread to boards with beeswax. The themes of the pictures reflect complex belief-systems.
Like the Aztecs, the Huichol believe that they themselves made the Sun. In the beginning only the light of the Moon fell upon the earth and people were much inconvenienced. The Huichol came together to decide what to do. They asked the Moon to lend them her only son, a limp, one-eyed boy. At first she objected but finally she agreed. The Huichol gave the boy full ceremonial dress and then threw him into a furnace, where he was consumed. But he revived, ran under the earth and five days later rose as the Sun. In the light of the Sun all the nocturnal animals – jaguars, coyotes, grey foxes, snakes – became angry and shot arrows at him. The only animals to protect the Sun on his first journey across the sky were the grey squirrel and the giant woodpecker. The nocturnal animals – their eyes half-closed against the light – returned to their caves, water-pools and trees. The woodpecker now carries the colour of the Sun on its scarlet crest; the grey squirrel is referred to as ‘father’ by the Huichol – it knows more than other animals because it can find nuts and hide them again.
The deer portrayed in this picture has a very special significance. It is the emblem of sustenance and fertility, its blood sprinkled over seed corn: without the deer, rain and good crops, health and life cannot be obtained. According to Huichol myth corn was once a deer, perhaps because in ancient times deer were the main source of nourishment, as corn is now. Deer hunts were preceded by fasting, and followed by festivities. Finally a ‘race for life’ took place in which boys and girls raced into the forest to retrieve emblems left by the maraakames. However, due to a combination of over-hunting and environmental degradation the deer are now virtually extinct.
Source: Carl Lumholtz Unknown Mexico vol 2 (The Rio Grande Press Inc, Glorieta, New Mexico, 1902).
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7