What Price Survival?

By Ronald A. Barnett
From the Ojo Archives

huichol mascaras

 

The Huichol Indians of Jalisco and Nayarit have been the focus of much attention ever since they were “discovered” by the Norwegian explorer Carl Lumholtz in the late nineteenth century. Many interested persons and groups have shown concern for the health and welfare of these hardy and independent native people. Missionaries seek to convert them, doctors and nurses introduce new medical treatments, academics and others continue to write books about them. But few of these well-meaning benefactors ever stop to ask the Huichols what they really want.

Now the tables have turned. Led by Aemilio, a Huichol marakame or shaman-priest, one group of Huichols, along with sympathetic Mexican supporters from different parts of Mexico, have decided to carry the Huichol message to the world. Their mission is to tell the outside world who the Huichols really are and why they are so determined to preserve their traditional way of life in the face of increasing pressure from the demands of modern technological society.

Perhaps the real turning point came in 1992 during the 500th year celebration of the “discovery” of America by Christopher Columbus. Thousands of Indian runners and their supporters entered a two-continent marathon to celebrate not the so-called “discovery “ of America but rather the 500th year of the survival of the native peoples under European domination.

Runners, setting out from all parts of the Americas, eventually converged upon the sacred site of Teotihuacan near Mexico City for a final grand celebration of Native American solidarity, Today the Huichols are part of a continent-wide movement to enable native peoples to preserve their customs and languages. Their geographical isolation in the mountains of northwestern Mexico and their strong core of religious beliefs have enabled the Huichols to preserve more of their pre-European world outlook than almost any other native group in the Americas. Today, they even have their own web sites on the Internet, where they are broadcasting their message around the world.

The Huichol religion is based on the use and veneration of peyote. The three most important elements in Huichol religion are the maize (corn), the deer, and the peyote. Maize represents the daily sustenance of the people, deer blood the means by which the maize is nurtured, and peyote the magical elixir that binds everything together into a highly integrated world outlook. Hikuri, as they call peyote, is a form of cactus, which for the Huichols, is capable of producing the visions that guide their spiritual life and help them to maintain the ancient customs of their forefathers.

Central to Huichol religion is the annual pilgrimage to Wirikuta, a sacred area in the desert around San Luis Potosi, where the Huichols gather the peyote. The main purpose of the pilgrimage is to enable the people to “find themselves” again. Various groups of peyoteros or “peyote-seekers,” set out from the different Huichol religious centers in the Sierras. During the trip the peyoteros cross over from this material world to the realm of the supernatural.

To assist in the transition, the names of people and things are all changed. For example, the sun may be called a hill. The names of the participants are also changed. In this way they distance themselves mentally and spiritually from the everyday world of cause and effect, and prepare themselves to enter the world of the spirit.

Their religious beliefs and ceremonies provide the Huichols with a psychologically sound and essentially integrated way of life. They have not only survived but have preserved their own unique view of the universe and the place of human beings in the cosmic scheme of things.

We may not agree with many of their explanations of the physical universe but in matters of the spirit the Huichols are at least our equals, if not our betters. For them, religion is a daily concern and their calendar of religious ceremonies is fuller today than ever, for they have incorporated into it the most compatible elements of the Christian religion.

Modern science and technology may make our lives easier but cannot answer the deeper questions also addressed by the Huichol shamans, such as why we are here and what this life is all about. If we doubt the visions of the Huichol shaman under the divine influence of Dios Hikuri, the peyote god, how many of us have actually seen an atom? And yet we take such scientific “facts” for granted. If we regard Huichol religious beliefs as mere superstition, they may well regard our “science” as a form of mythology. It all depends upon your point of view.

The price of survival for the Huichol people has been the sacrifice of many material comforts in favor of things of the spirit, a fact often overlooked by many well-meaning persons who seek to help the Huichols by changing their way of life. So, if you have a chance to buy some of their arts and crafts, remember that you are not simply putting money in someone else’s pocket but helping to preserve and cultivate a way of life without which the world would be a much poorer place.

 

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