The Huichol are proud of being Indian. They have their own language, culture, clothing and religion. It is their religion that makes them special. The Spaniards tried to make them accept Christianity but the Huichol cleverly took what they liked of Christianity, and made it part of their own religion. There are about 10,000 Huichol. Very few speak any Spanish, the national language of Mexico. They not think of themselves as Mexican. They only real authority they recognize are their own councils of Elders.
The Huichol are proud of being Indian. They have their own language, culture, clothing and religion. It is their religion that makes them special. The Spaniards tried to make them accept Christianity but the Huichol cleverly took what they liked of Christianity, and made it part of their own religion. There are about 10,000 Huichol. Very few speak any Spanish, the national language of Mexico. They not think of themselves as Mexican. They only real authority they recognize are their own councils of Elders. The Spaniards tried to make the Huichol live in villages. In this way central government would have more power, and Christian missions would succeed but the Huichol refused. They like to live in loose groups of farms called communidades (Spanish for community). As the Spaniards invaded, trying to take control, the Huichol retreated to the hills. The Spaniards finally conquered Mexico in 1542 but it was another 200 years before they controlled the Huichol too. This delay explains the great independence of the Huichol.
Where did they come from? They are farming people but in their religion there are many symbols of hunting, so perhaps they were hunters. When they retreated from the Spaniards they copied the agriculture of other people. Their agriculture is very simple, and it produces only just enough food. Small fields are cut out of the forest by axe and fire. These are usually high in the hills, at around 2,500 m. They farm these fields with wooden digging sticks. Recently the Mexican government has tried to help them, with gifts of tractors and ploughs but the Huichol think the soil is sacred, it is their Earth Mother. So it is difficult to persuade them to use these tools which “hurt the earth.” Some of them will use tractors only for farming wheat, because wheat is not a traditional food.
Bearded Huichol art bear depicts symbols of Peyote, Scorpion, and Corn
The Huichol are famous for their colorful wool-pictures. The patterns are made from wool on a base of beeswax. They contain the symbols of the Huichol spirit world. The Huichol have many gods. The most important is the Earth Mother, but there are gods too in the rain, the lakes and the plants. Everything is either male or female. There are male rivers, and female rivers. So they have a very balanced idea of the world, male and female together.
The oldest Huichol god is called Tatewam (“Our Grandfather”). He is the god of fire, and was the first shaman (spirit priest). The second oldest is Takutsi Nakawe (“Our Grandmother”), the Earth Mother. There is also a very important animal-god, the deer. The deer is “our elder brother Kauyumari” It is the spirit of the deer which helps the shaman in all ceremonies. He also cures physical and mental sickness, and guards the people.
The Huichol believe everything in the world has life-force. They do not say that “thing is sacred, this thing is not.” Everything, clothes, houses, people, animals is part of the sacred system and like many hunting people, they believe that our life-force is in our bones, not our heart.
Huichol religion centres on the drug peyote. Peyote comes from a small cactus. It has a powerful hallucinatory effect. Peyote and deer are very closely connected. The Huichol say that they are two part of one thing. Deer can turn into peyote, and peyote can turn into deer. The peyote is eaten by the shaman, who enters a trance to speak to the spirits but there is no peyote growing in west Mexico, where the Huichol live. It comes from a sacred land called Wirikuta, 300 miles east. Every year, small groups of Huichol travel to Wirikuta. They go at the hottest time of year, and the journey is very hard. They are only allowed to eat very little, and there are many ceremonies on the journey.
Huichol yarn painting
They say the Tatewam (“Our Grandfather”) first made this journey. He was hunting for the sacred deer, and killed it. From the bones of the deer the first peyote grew. So they journey to Wirikuta is like a hunt. They “hunt” the peyote cactus, using bows and arrows as if they were hunting deer. The first peyote cactus they find is named “elder brother Kauyumari”. Using arrows with wooden points, they shoot the cactus then each of the hunters eats some. They eat large quantities of peyote on the journey, in ceremonies to ask for rain and good fortune then big baskets of peyote are taken home, some for religion, some for medicine and some for pleasure. The long journey wins them health, rain, and fertility. It is the central experience of Huichol life.
Huichol woman and child