I find the ancient Huichol people to be most fascinating. I have marveled at their incredible handiwork for many years, trying to understand how spirit forms are represented by what they create.
I have traveled extensively and have always been drawn to explore the history and native peoples of the countries I visit. We all have access to wonderful tourist locations, but often the real past of these locations and their inhabitants has been lost to the hands of the modern-day developer.
History of the Huichol People
The Huichol claim that their people originated in the state of San Luis Potosí. It is believed that they have been living there for at least 15,000 years according to carbon dating of ashes from hikuri (a hallucinogenic cactus) found in their sacred ﬁreplaces.
Eventually, the Huichol migrated westward to parts of Nayarit – the state where Punta Mita and Sayulita are located – Jalisco (which includes Puerto Vallarta) all the way to the Desert of Zacatecas and the Sierra of Durango. However, once a year some Huichol journey back to their ancestral homeland to perform “Mitote” or peyote ceremonies.
Traditional Huichol Culture
The Huichol have their own language, which is Uto-Aztecan language related to Cora.
We are used to seeing the Huichol here in Sayulita in shops, restaurants and hotels creating their art to sell for tourist dollars. But, the majority work in tobacco fields – which has been ruinous to their health due to the hazardous pesticides used. Many pesticides made in Mexico and central and south America do not have to conform to the rigorous testing and licensing that those north of the border do – hence the danger.
The Huichol who have not migrated to the coasts live on their ranchos (farms) in tiny rancherias (hamlets) and make cheese from the milk from their cattle, which they slaughter and eat at celebration time. For the most part, their diet consists of tortillas, made from the Blue, Red, Yellow or White “sacred corn”, beans, rice and pasta, chili peppers and the occasional chicken or pig – supplemented with wild fruits and local vegetables.
Marriages are arranged by the parents when the children are very young. The Huichol usually marry between the ages of fourteen and seventeen. Extended Huichol families live together in rancherias where they share a communal kitchen and the family shrine dedicated to the ancestors of the rancho.
Individual houses are traditionally built of stone or adobe with rudimentary grass-thatched roofs. You will see magnificent examples of this thatching in the numerous Palapa roofs featured in homes and hotels up and down the Pacific Coast.
Like many Native American groups, the Huichol traditionally use the peyote (hikuri) cactus in religious rituals. Huichol practices seem to accurately reflect those followed by other pre-Columbian peoples. These rituals involve singing, weeping, and contact with ancestor spirits.
They harvest enough peyote for the year (since they only make the trip once a year). After the work is done, they eat enough peyote (a hallucinogen) to transport them to another sphere.
It has become harder and harder for the Huichol to find their sacred plant to the point where they have had to ask for an intervention from the Mexican government to protect a section of their peyote trail. It is feared that if the cactus disappears the Huichol may well cease to exist, too.
Huichol crafts include embroidery, beadwork and weaving as well as “cuchuries” (woven or embroidered bags). If you have time to study the Huichol on your visit, take a look at the incredibly intricate embroidery on their clothing and see fine examples of these bags slung across their bodies. Apart from being able to watch them make these incredible pieces in Sayulita’s main plaza, there are several wonderful shops in the village where you can see amazing examples of very fine Huichol handicraft.
Of course, these talented people make wonderful photo opportunities – but please be respectful and ask them if they mind if you take their picture. It is customary, if they agree, to give them a payment for their time. Many indigenous people have an aversion to having their photo taken as they believe you may be taking their soul from them.
Sayulita is a prime example of watching Old World Mexico combine with New World Mexico. Here, you have these colourfully-dressed ancient Indians living side-by-side with equally colourful, scantily-clad tourists who are very defiantly representative of the 21st century.
These new influences are impacting the social fabric of the Huichol. Where mules, horses and burros used to be the main forms of transport, trucks are becoming more prominent, carrying food, medicines and beer. Although this can, of course, be beneficial, it is also degrading the culture as a whole. As recently as 1986, the Huichol continued to live very isolated traditional lives in every respect. But, since these new state-of-the-art influences abound, they have had to adapt and become more modern.
I have a deep desire to go on a journey into the heart of the Sierra Madre to experience, first hand, a peyote ceremony. I also have a deep fear of how it may be and my controlled self has stopped me from accepting the invitation to go on this ancient voyage of ritualistic self-discovery.
There is a wonderful gallery and coffee shop in La Cruz de Huanacaxtle (10 minutes south of Punta Mita). Ask them to explain the significance of Huichol symbols and how they represent their beliefs in the stories they tell. The sun, the rain goddess, the eagle, the deer and the bird are common subjects for the Huichol to depict.
You can even buy Huichol art online. Elias Lopez has an online boutique, Aramara Art, which features a wide selection of Huichol crafts including jewelry, prayer bowls and yarn paintings.
There is so much more that I could write, but I am just attempting to give our guests a little insight into the people who really call this home and are struggling to survive in our modern world.
Lisa Bruno is a long-term Punta Mita resident. She is a frustrated golfer, party princess and proud owner of Tank and Tonica,
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