The Huichols:
Enduring, Evolving or in Crisis?

By Teresita Sabin de Simental
May 2005 Guadalajara-Lakeside Volume 21, Number 9

     My 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 Huichol life.
     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 offensive.
     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 suicide.
     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 non-Huichols, either.
     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.