Enduring, Evolving or in Crisis?
By Teresita Sabin de Simental
May 2005 Guadalajara-Lakeside Volume 21, Number 9
first exposure to the Huichol Indians in Nayarit, Alto Jalisco, and
northwestern Zacatecas was not at all what I expected. When I first
went among them, I was captivated by their brilliant clothing and extraordinary
and unique artisans. I thought, they have not lost their identity, as
it was forcibly taken away from many northern Native Americans. In my
naiveté, I saw only what showed on the surface.
My friend Susana Valadez, the anthroplogist
who had convinced me to go to the Sierra Madre Occidental in Mexico
in 1991, later told me that when she had first arrived almost 20 years
earlier, the Huichols were doing their intricate embroidery work on
their husbands’ clothing in designs of Micky Mouse and Donald
Duck. She was shocked to discover that many of the young women were
not copying the old traditional designs, but rather were copying designs
from coloring books given to the children by missionaries.
On her next trip to a city, she bought
graph paper and colored pencils, and began the still-continuing project
of having the older women help her save the old designs by making paper
“pattern” copies. She has put together hundreds of books,
working desperately to keep some of the more ancient designs, not only
of their embroidery but all their artwork, from disappearing altogether.
That is only a small part of her now 30-years-plus
work to help preserve the incredibly distinctive and incomparable artwork
of the Huichol people...artwork that epitomizes the essence of their
spirituality. She is the founder and Director of the Huichol Center
for Cultural Survival and Traditional Arts, headquartered in Huejuquilla,
Alto Jalisco. That was my introduction to the dichotomy of present day
The Huichol are muy andariego
— always moving about, yet they are not nomadic in the truest
sense of the word. They have newer government-subsidized settlements,
usually built around schools and clinics provided by the government,
but they also still have many settlements hundreds of years old. Residents
of both are constantly coming and going, so the population of any given
area is always changing.
They travel for religious ceremonies,
to visit relatives, to look for work in the cities, to various towns
to sell their handcrafted items, especially taking advantage of ferias
and fiestas patronales, and often travel just because they
want to see someplace new, or just because they feel the urge to move
about. Most never stay in one place for very long, and frequently go
back to wherever they consider home. After a few weeks or months, they
are on the move again.
They also travel frequently as a way of
maintaining their independence and freedom. They generally do not recognize
the authority of the Mexican government, and insist on judging anyone
accused of a crime by their own tribunals.
Sometimes, some stay on the move to avoid
the Mexican judiciary system. The two Huichol men who eventually confessed
to killing San Antonio (Texas) Express News reporter Phillip
True in December 1999 are typical examples. I was living in the area
where it occurred at the time. They robbed Mr. True after killing him,
but said that was not their motivation. They originally became angry
with him for taking pictures of their women without permission. I believe
them. To take a Huichol’s photograph without asking permission
first is not only discourteous and disrespectful, but insulting and
Most Huichol men will let you take their
picture if you ask first, and offer 20 or 30 pesos por un refresco
(“for a soda”—a common expression in Mexico). Occasionally
(but rarely) they will also let you take pictures of their wives and/or
children. The pictures that have been taken for National Geographic,
or by anthropologists, and authors of books about the Huichol, have
been taken only with their permission, and usually after a relationship
of trust has been built up between all parties, indicating that the
pictures will be used in a respectful way, so that people may learn
about them and their culture.
The Huichols have their own perception
of “justice.” I attended a Huichol tribunal “trial”
once, concerning a five-year-old girl who had been raped by a 50-year-old
man. The rapist was not the one on trial, but rather the father and
older brothers of the young girl, who had killed the rapist. The headman
allowed the judicial (police) to attend the trial, but not
participate, except to help carry out the punishment later decided.
The father and brothers were sentenced to one year in a Mexican jail,
and the entire family had to help support the widow and minor children
of the dead rapist.
A sense of shame is also taken very seriously
among the Huichol, and suicide by hanging themselves is very common.
Alcoholism is rampant among the men, and many feel suicide is their
only “cure.” Abused wives of alcoholics also often commit
The Catholic Church has sent many missionaries,
mostly Franciscan Friars, among the Huichol, to convert them to Catholicism,
the predominant religion in Mexico. The Huichol have not given up their
gods and goddesses though. Those who are considered “converted”
by the Church have really just become convinced that the Saints and
their own gods and goddesses are the same spiritual entities, just called
by different names. They have shown me figures of Catholic Saints, dressed
in Huichol clothing, saying, “The priests call her (or him) Saint,
and so do we when they are around, but we know they are really...”
(the name of a particular god or goddess).
The spiritual beliefs of the Huichol are
hundreds of years old, probably even pre-Columbian. Those beliefs are
the essence of who they are. They follow no formal religion nor dogma,
as we know it, although they still celebrate centuries-old ceremonies.
They are extremely united with nature, and their spirituality is that
constant, all-encompassing relationship with nature. Everything has
a purpose, and is the will of the Creators. As with the Native Americans
north of the border, their different gods and goddesses are really just
different aspects of one Infinite Divine Force. Their connection with
that Force is very strong, which is why their spiritual leaders are
able to do truly incredible things.
That is a concept very difficult for non-indigenous
people to grasp. That’s why intermarriage between Huichols and
non-Huichols is frowned upon so strongly. They feel, and rightfully
so, that intermarriage will pull their people away from the old ways
and the old beliefs. By losing or weakening their spiritual beliefs
and practices, the Huichol become less, not quite Huichol, yet not like
Ironically, many Huichols see no contradiction
in enjoying modern technology, from wrist watches and radios to CD players
and cell phones. Many do not allow those conveniences to take away from
their spirituality, but rather to enrich it. For example, they will
record songs and ceremonies, so they will not be “lost.”Others,
unfortunately, have become seduced by a more modern way of living, and
have abandoned their traditional ways and manner of dress.
There is no doubt that modern medicine
has saved many Huichol lives, where tuberculosis, brucellosis and other
diseases are almost epidemic. Learning to read and write and speak Spanish
can only be a benefit as well. Being able to communicate with non-Huichols
has helped them to protect themselves from being victimized and exploited
by the unscrupulous.
Becoming educated also helps them learn
about the legal system which ultimately governs them, like it or not.
While some have learned to utilize modern things to their benefit, without
compromising their ancient beliefs nor their spiritual power, others
are teetering, one foot in the past, one in the rapidly changing future,
not sure where they are, nor where they are going.
How much can “modernization”
help without seriously hindering? Only time will tell.