Descendents of the Aztec, the Huichol (or Wixáritari) number about 24,000, most of whom live in the sierra of Jalisco and Nayarit. Having withstood the Spanish Invasion, they are still striving to keep their culture alive and viable, despite the ever increasing physical and cultural encroachment of their Mexican neighbors. Peyote is a focal point for their ceremonies, and their colorful beadwork and yarnwork reflects a reverent and symbiotic relationship with nature.
The Huichol people are a culture in transition as modern life encroaches upon their traditional ways. Many have migrated to cities such as Tepic and Guadalajara; others struggle with poverty, land-invasion and illness caused by pesticides in tobacco plantations where many find work as day laborers. Few outsiders are welcome in Huichol villages located in the high sierra.
Huichols have traditionally believed that in rituals they interact with the primal ancestor spirits of fire, deer, and other elements of the natural world. A newborn, separated from its umbilical cord, will still have the agave plant where the cord was buried. When children grow up they need to obtain cuttings from their protector so that they can bury their children’s umbilical cords under them.The Huichol keep the souls of ancestors who have returned to the world in the shape of rock crystals.
The Huichol religion is intricate and elaborate and difficult to separate from social and political practices. The 120 deities of the Huichol include three chief gods: Tatemari, Tayau, and Kauyumaki. Tatemari – “our Grandfather fire” – is the main god, the ruler over the ret of the gods. He led the tribe on the first peyote hunt, built their first temple, and taught the Huichol how to behave.”
Tayau is “our father sun,” the sun god. He is dangerously powerful and can send misfortunes as warnings or punishments. Kauyumaki – “sacred deer person” – is the trickster god, sometimes clever and sometimes stupid, yet holding magical powers. He taught the Huichol many things through stories, including about sex. He is regarded as having often behaved questionably before becoming sacred.
The primary event in Huichol religious practice is the peyote hunt, an annual pilgrimage that acts out a desire to return to the source of all life and heal oneself. For the hunt, Huichol travel 300 miles to their paradise, Wirikuta. The pilgrimage traces the journey of the original Ancient Ones of the tribe. It begins with a ceremony in front of the community as the pilgrims declare the names of all illicit sexual partners they ever had.
During the journey, which is usually done on foot, the pilgrims assume the characteristics of gods. When the pilgrims arrive at Wirikuta, they hunt for the deer god, the source of peyote, they search for peyote and all eat a piece from the first plant found. They collect enough peyote for a year’s supply and then eat enough to have visions. The shaman talks to the gods to ensure the regeneration of the pilgrims’ souls. Peyote is central because it allows the shaman to contact the gods. The pilgrimage can be done several times in one’s life and is usually regarded as a privilege.
What are their lives like?
Most Huichol provide for themselves by growing their own food. Maize, beans, squash, and chilies are common crops. These crops are cultivated with animal-drawn wooden plows and digging sticks. Most families own livestock such as cattle, donkeys, horses, pigs, chickens, and turkeys.
Huichol men wear brightly embroidered cotton or muslin shirts as part of their ethnic costumes. They also wear leather sandals and braided palm hats. Women wear colored skirts and blouses and decorate themselves with bright necklaces.
Marriages are arranged by the parents when the children are very young. Huichol usually marry between the ages of fourteen and seventeen. Extended Huichol families live together in rancho settlements. These tiny communities consist of individual houses which belong to a nuclear family. Each settlement has a communal kitchen and the family shrine, called a xiriki, which is dedicated to the ancestors of the rancho. The buildings surround a central patio. The individual houses are traditionally built of stone or adobe with grass-thatched roofs.
A district of related ranchos is known as a temple district. Temple districts are all members of a larger community district. Each community district is ruled by a council of kawiteros, elder men who are usually also shamans, or witch doctors.
The marakame, or shaman priest, plays a central role in everyday Huichol life. He is the nexus with the gods, invoked through the ceremonial use of peyote, and receives instructions from the spirit world through visions, dreams and trances.
The Fiesta de las Plantas Medicinales:
The Fiesta de las Plantas Medicinales is held every year in a different pueblo in Mexico. This three day event features workshops given by curanderos (native healers), herbalists, and other native specialists in various traditional practices and beliefs involving alternative or traditional medicine.