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Huichol Voices

Christopher Jordan English

Summer solstice 2003 would be memorable. A local paper mentioned a Huichol vigil to be held near the shoreline of Mexico’s Lake Chapala at a site called Isla de los Patos. The ceremony was to peak on June 21, the solstice. Under the leadership of shaman Pablo Taizan, supporters intended to contact ancestral gods through Huichol ritual, enticing helper spirits to reconnect with the human family and to restore the lake to healthier life.

I feel kinship with indigenous people and their visceral connections to earth, so the event seemed the right ticket. I knew my friend Michelle would be interested. Her heart embraces all cultures. We decided to check the location the day before just in case we ended up arriving at night. A twisting dirt road led from the paved carretera, one stretch passing hardy thorn bushes which combed the paint on Michelle’s new-model van. She said a good wax job would heal nature’s abrasive touch. I loved her stoic attitude, my style of trooper for such an adventure. Hand-clippers headed the list of items for our return. We could transform this thorny intimacy with less than an hour’s work.

Kalihuey, or Huichol temple
A kalihuey, or Huichol temple
© Christopher Jordan English, 2010

The once water-surrounded Duck Island distinguishes itself as a knob of crusted earth rising from low sedimentary stony banks. Two large angular rock slabs establish the highest points. From there, a plane of silted clay slopes eastward toward silvery vistas laced with stringers of raucous darting birds; cow tracks fan toward a distant shoreline. A new rounded kalihuey temple sits at the southern edge of the ceremonial lookout. Its construction spun from shaman Pablo’s vision of a sacred altar honoring ancient gods. Many indigenous elders believe that Man has lost touch with his roots and it is time to call back all our relations. This event presented an opportunity for individuals on the outer fringes of the circle to get involved.

The parking area showed few vehicles. We stopped near a footpath, heading for the fire site to check the wood supply, leaving food and some white sage. People busied themselves raking organic debris and loose rocks. Lots of happy children helped while playing. We noticed they found a nest of scorpions soon to be exiled from the gathering. Advanced indications of treading on scorpion turf raised caution. I knew I wouldn’t be hanging out near the woodpile. Pablo recommended a return at sundown the next day.

Plans to spend one night awake didn’t seem too complex. Michelle grew up in Alaska and I have lived in primitive settings for years. We stacked choice logs into her R.V. and tossed in sweatshirts, an afghan, space blankets, water, some green coconuts, and simple food. We planned basic survival without frills.

On our return the next day, we were presented with a transformation. Late afternoon arrived with hard rain and the reality of wet clay sank in. The twisting road became a parking strip near the thornbush zone because someone had parked a chunky vehicle which encroached onto precious road, leaving a good walking distance to the gathering. We halted at the bottleneck for a radical clipping, clearing a route free of barbed car-paint combs. We squeezed past the wide-body car with inches to spare from sinking into a drainage ditch. Our four-wheel drive did not diminish the sensation of reckless skating through swales. A sense of child-like adventure ignited in us both. We became drunken cowboys trekking on ice. We tried to keep a one-pointed objective with a night of prayers and song ahead, getting back out existed in a warp called distant future. We slid across parking flats to the main area and enlisted help from youngsters to haul the logs. Gooey clay absconded with my sandals after a few steps. It felt good beginning with bared soles. A return to earth did seem fitting.

Attendees had swelled to over two-hundred who knotted around a raised location near the big fire north of the temple. Mejicano and Indian bloodlines composed the body of participants. Elders seemed in short supply though a smiling grandmother welcomed us with a strong suggestion to locate a place under the cover of a tarp.

The wave of youthful exuberance swept us into this new reality. Young people had left homes, families, and jobs and had come from distant parts of Mexico to give their energy to the cause of restoring Lake Chapala. The health of the lake had floundered from the impact of man’s imprudent and impudent use, from continuous inordinate water consumption, from the leaching of toxins into the drainage basin, and from the effects of contentious political forces jockeying for self interest while failing to provide Lake Chapala with a viable chance for life. This made the gathering a significant rally of reclamation. Perhaps, the outcome hinged on a mysterious partner many indigenous people refer to as Grandfather. A spiritual outlook leaves rays of hope and these bright faces of young adults were here with open hearts. How might parents respond if they heard voices of their children crying-out in the wilderness? Something in the Huichol invitation brought people to this place of destiny.

As if anticipating the rituals, dark clouds loomed on the horizon. We found a sheltered area to sit under and relaxed into the night ahead. Shaman Pablo Taizan offered prayers while he blew streams of tobacco smoke skyward. A ritual altar of objects lay spread over the damp earth between Pablo and the fire. He began singing rounds of Huichol chants while helpers responded in chorus. Each chanting session ended with silent prayers mingling with the smoke of ceremonial tobacco. The songs lasted until 3 a.m.

The words alacran and inyección rippled through the crowd during the night. Scorpions are nocturnal and a few people received personal lessons. Two mestizo Indians we gave a lift to the day before repeated vertical leaps from the woodpile doing possible variations of Shake Rattle And Roll. Everyone empathized with their pain and admired the warrior spirit. They were assigned as fire keepers; scorpion venom didn’t seem to faze their determination.

A final predawn break moved the group to another focus. Before the ceremonial offering of tamales and fermented corn beverage tejuino, a Mejicano farmer engaged the shaman in a spirited discussion about the lake, its animals, ancient traditions, and the future. The words Noah’s Ark with a reference to animals entering two by two caught my attention, but my Spanish fell short of following the whole message. The farmer delivered his words with passion then directly asked each person in the circle if their heart and soul was committed to seeing a rebirth of the lake. Practically everyone gave an affirmative "Si". When it came my turn to respond, I consented with yes, but had to admit I didn’t understand the entire message. How much was I agreeing to? What could have been a point of tension turned into an embrace from the gathering when they realized two people without Spanish fluency were present who didn’t grasp the greater vision. Pablo asked a girl with dreadlocks to talk with us and explain things. I learned the farmer wanted to gather support to plant Indian corn in a traditional way. Bringing Lake Chapala back to health required other steps in the ritual. I started to see a holistic web of actions spinning outward from this focus of intentions. How could the God of maiz be expected to bless the undertaking unless his seed had been offered near the lake in the way shown to grandmothers and grandfathers? Others gathered around. We felt guided into a fold of purpose through gentle concern.

Click for enlargement We were encouraged to visit the temple for personal time before having food and drink. Night kept our sight painted black. A tall scholarly man led us past rock obstacles and slippery steps to the temple door and gestured for us to enter. The place glowed from candlelight, sculptures of ancestral deities ringed the kalihuey, herbs, seeds and liquid offerings sat everywhere. The setting reflected a micro-world of glittering ancient history. We absorbed the unique atmosphere and headed back to the circle before tamales and tejuino were passed around.

A smiling grandmother served the tamales and drink. People ate quietly, watching the storm head our way. Nature’s advancing light show spread ascending wings of veined patterns. Michelle and I were happy to have a toehold under a tarp because our space soon became a forest of tired people who hoped to find any dry place. The event took on comedic proportions. An adjacent tarp collected a virtual pond. I cautioned the people underneath who leaped to action like squealing children in a water bucket fray. Dry became a rarity, existing as a concept, the rains pounded on. Then silence.

We decided to take this opportunity to head for Michelle’s R.V. and get rest before first light. The reclining heated seats were a luxury we had overlooked. I hadn’t kept mechanical sophistication high on my list of priorities but this gem brought a potent dose of appreciation. How many human beings would reject warmth after harsh wet-cold?

At dawn, cascades of rain hammered the windshield. Straight ahead, we could see the hazy form of a V.W. sinking, spinning tires into muck. With our mouths unconsciously open, we gazed at one another, sensing the predicament. Without delay, we had to move toward the highway or face a survival nightmare with kids we couldn’t keep pace with. We were in no mood to count how many Huichols it might take to drift a vehicle to the highway during a monsoon. Returning to the carretera unfolded like time-lapse photography through pelting blankets of water. The god of compassion for senior citizens must have been with us. The true story of what happened this day may be told for generations through legendary stories reaching epic proportions. Maybe an ark arrived and floated everyone to land. June 22 began with the most relentless rains I can recall.

While I ponder a memorable solstice of 2003, I see floods which, in the blink of an eye, seemed to rise from the center of the earth, covering the firm surface we take for granted. With this wakeup call of wild terror from Nature’s hand, I remember hopeful faces of young people and their voices expressing passion for all life rising from noble depths behind their innocent eyes. The circle of concern for Lake Chapala stands strong with eager limbs of vital youth latching on to wise old souls. The hearts of young and old have awakened. They will walk together as one family and hold open a place of respect for each human being. Should their undying love for life merit such a harsh response from nature or might it have been Spirit’s declaration that greater power is on the way?

Addendum

By early November, Michelle and I felt called upon to check the June 21st ceremonial gathering site at Isla de Los Patos.

The lakeshore turnoff was marked with a new sign that read "Huichol Temple". We neared the thornbush area where a series of dusty swales had been last June and halted. Lake Chapala had reclaimed the road and had made Duck Island into a legitimate island again. Many species of birds circled in a vortex of activity. Two "dog soldiers" were camped at the dead-end junction, anticipating the logistics of boats needed to haul people to the rocky promontory for another ceremony on November 8th, a night of full moon accompanied by a lunar eclipse. The friendly warriors remembered us from the last ceremony and recommended a return before sundown on Saturday.

Ever since the lake's dramatic comeback, stories about crocodiles had been circulating through the local community. We meandered a bit and discovered two portly fishermen on the banks of a canal to the west who had just polished off a comida of fish tacos. They told an animated story, seasoned with laughs, about a crew of bomberos rushing into their camp looking for crocodiles because a local person had reported a sighting. It appears the firemen may have been bored with no fires to extinguish in this land of stone homes, so the prospect of a "croc" chase may have kindled a sense of purpose. Perhaps, a bombero had kin gifted in the art of boot-making and hoped to see his companions in matching crocodile boots by Christmas. We left with a hearty dose of excitement.

This ceremony had an altar in each of the four cardinal directions and its structure seemed complex. The ritual revealed another level into the traditions of Huichol history. After shaman Pablo Taizan, had completed his cycles of ritual by 1:00 AM it seemed like a cosmic switch flipped on. Strong eastern winds lashed at tents and carried away loose materials. People were talking about the sudden change. I looked toward Pablo and noticed he radiated a broad grin.

Participants witnessed torrents of rain after the June ceremony and this time, blasts of wind. Drums and dancers carried night into sunrise until a pink orb pierced silvery waters and began its daily climb.

While attending these Huichol events I have seen authoritative expressions from the voice of Nature. I can't stop wondering about what might happen next. Lake Chapala returning to its former glory would bring smiles and abundant life.

Published or Updated on: August 1, 2003 by Christopher Jordan English © 2003
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