The Huichols of Nayarit

By David Simmonds

One of my favorite states in Mexico is Nayarit. They have the perfect mix of the Sierra Madres and a beautiful coastline, featuring San Blas, Chacala, and the ever-popular Sayulita. But it may be the Huichols that make the state so intriguing.

While many of the native peoples of the Western hemisphere have been assimilated into the mainstream of the modern world, the native Huichols have been able to maintain their traditional language, mores and spiritual ways for centuries…although they, and we, are now in danger of losing a pristine culture that has much to teach the world about the reciprocal relationship people can have with the planet.

The number of Huichols, who are some of the last remaining descendants of the Aztecs, is estimated at around 7,000. The rugged and remote terrain of the mountainous Huichol homeland, as well as the fact that the Huichols had little to plunder, helped these people escape the pillage of the Spanish conquistadors (and in fact, this is the only group in Mexico spared by the Iberian conquest). The Huichol Indians today live in small communities high in the Western Sierra Madre in the state of Nayarit.

The Huichols call themselves Wixalika, meaning “prophets” or “healers,” and they are proud of their freedom and purity of race. The Huichols are a refreshing reminder of a world past in which entire communities worked together as caretakers of the planet. Many of their ways could exemplify the techniques that could be used by more modern cultures to come to terms with ecological balance.

The primary focus of their belief system is the ritual ingestion of the hallucinogenic peyote cactus. (It is used, of course, as an integral part of their religious ceremonies, and is never used recreationally…a more modern cultural phenomenon.) The Shaman priest or sorcerer of the tribe, called the Marakame, accompanies members of the tribe on several spiritual journeys each year to the Wirikuta Desert, a six-hundred mile round-trip journey on foot, in search of this cactus. When the plant is finally found, it is ceremonially shot with an arrow, a means of sacrificing the Deer God (or Venado) inside the cactus. When the drug is eaten the voyager goes into a ritual dream in search of a pantheon of 90 deities, mostly female, and this becomes the basis for a translation to other member of the tribe of the symbolic meaning of the induced visions.

The Christian missionaries arrived in the 17th century and introduced to the Huichols the glass beads made in Europe. The Huichol Indians immediately incorporated these objects into their intricate beaded devotional art in the form of beaded masks, prayer bowls, and beaded yarn paintings, art forms that continue to the present day. While all Huichol art is seen as a spiritual manifestation of the induced peyote experience, they see no conflict in offering it for sale.

While most Huichols support themselves through hunting and agriculture, there are several families, numbering perhaps 15 or 20, who devote themselves to the creation of beaded and yarn art. The artist applies a thin layer of soft beeswax to a wood sculpture or a gourd. With a fine pointed wood stick, he picks up one glass bead at a time and sets it into the wax, pressing in the bead with his finger. He starts from the outside of the piece and painstakingly works toward the center in a representation of one of his intense spiritual visions.

In some areas of the Huichol homeland the traditions remain strong, but in others the influence of the modern “conquistadores” is being felt. With the building of roads and airstrips and greater exposure to the ways of the modern world, social ills such as alcoholism, disease, cultural alienation, and suicide have had a negative impact on the Huichols.

The Huichols do not necessarily have to make the journey to complete assimilation, and, in effect, extinction. The knowledge of the Wixalika is much too valuable for the world to lose. In a sense it is perhaps our duty to find ways to allow the Huichols to enter the 21st century without compromising the spirit of these people.

Disclosure:  I am being compensated for my work in creating and managing content as a Contributor for the México Today Program.  All stories, opinions and passion for all things México shared here are completely my own. Mexico Today is a joint public and private sector initiative designed to help promote Mexico as a global business partner and an unrivaled tourist destination.