High in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains of Mexico, northwest of Guadalajara, the Huichol Indians live in small villages called ranchos scattered throughout this remote, rugged terrain. They integrate peyote use into their lives, culture, and religion today as they have done for at least a thousand years and most likely for thousands of years.
A complex pantheon of gods and goddesses is discussed around a campfire as wood collected during the past week evenly burns. The details and descriptions of this other world are so intricate and exact that they rival theological discussions of the worlds greatest religions. This religion of the Huichols has been passed from generation to generation by word of mouth for probably the same length of time as these great religions. The core of Huichol religion was even brought from east to west during the great migrations 10 to 30 thousand years ago. Today’s teller has their own version of the original text. These versions are discussed with the familiarity of craftsmen with their trade. Each version is defended by the teller, sometimes argued by the audience, and maybe even changed slightly by the next telling, but there always remains the ancient themes and storylines.
Kauyumarie and Tatewari come to life in the smoke where the sky is their church. Most people have heads full of thoughts; I try to empty my mind said a shaman, Don Jose. I am like an antenna that receives messages from the gods. He relays these mesages to his people as shamans of his tribe have done from the beginning. The healthy children play in the brook with clean, clear, fresh water and a hallo of butterflies as Don Jose talks about his plans for the day. At 96 years old he planned to clear an area for another hut. Machete under his arm, he set out to organize the project.
Small seminomadic microbands remind us of our own proto-evolutionary state. The ranchos are based on nuclear families. The larger ones may have a population of 50 to 100 residents with their own shaman. The smaller ranchos could consist of a husband, his two wives, their children and a mother-in-law. They may all go or just send a representative to attend the many scheduled fiestas at larger ranchos or meeting places.
In the larger ranchos there are large extended families and interpersonal relationships that can make soap operas look tame. If there is a big difference of opinion within the group, as there often is, a split can occur producing two small ranchos. As the dwellings they build last only five to ten years and firewood becomes increasingly scarce, a regular move can be in order. Like an amoeba, these organic units split to form two similar but not exact biological units.
Sometimes a shaman takes along some followers chasing after a vision he saw in the flames at the temple the night of the fiesta. Sometimes a hunter takes his family and friends to where the deer are not so far away. Evolution takes its course and some new and old ranches succeed and some fail. The most conservative way is not always right and sometime the young ranchos are resilient with new found strength.
Peyote is not used by all the Huichols but is familiar to them all. Sometimes babies are introduced to it through their mothers milk. As the principal agent for a tribe described as healers, peyote is considered a panacea and a health aid as well as a hallucinogen. It is sometimes given as a pain reliever or as a stimulant to make work easier among other uses. It is also a catalyst to meditation and for religious ceremonies and fiestas it is a purgative and empathetic agent. It replaces alcohol at some of the fiestas where an all nighter on peyote can be quite different from one on alcohol.
“Americans are looking for a Saturday night high” a Huichol told me. Peyote is not like that. Four is the ticket I was told by an old man as many of his friends agreed. Peyote is a cactus about the size of a medium to small potato and grows in central Mexico in the desert at a place the Huichol call Wirikuta and it tastes terrible. To eat a spoonful of something that tastes terrible is difficult, to eat four potato sized peyote that taste terrible one has to be determined. That is a reason why some Huichols don t like it. But others have an affinity for it, they even say it is good, but you never know what a Huichol says means because they have a good sense of humor and sometime speak in opposites: good is bad, cool is hot, etc. Like groups within our culture that use opposites to confuse outsiders; if someone is good they are . Did I mention that peyote causes nausea? It is definitely not material for a Saturday night high.
Some Huichols fast for days and then eat only peyote. At Wirikuta peyoteros walk in the desert sun by day and dance by the fire at night while they talk to the gods and collect peyote to take home to the rancho. The family of the peyoteros wait for their return from the long journey to Wirikuta and keep the home fires constantly burning as a symbol of their vigil. These peyoteros are Huichols who travel the 300 miles from their homes in the Sierra to the distant desert to collect the peyote for the ranchos use during the years fiestas and religious ceremonies. They have the time, the desire and the money to allow them to take a one to two week trip and they have usually been asked by someone with a car or truck to make the journey. Some Wirikuta trips are made by those who want to be cured of an illness or to help cure others of their illness or by older Huichols who want to see the sacred land one time before they die.
The old shaman bends over and removes a rock from a footpath in the Sierras. His grandchildren walk that path now, the same one he walked as a child: the path to San Andres. Now San Andres has an airport where DC 3 cargo planes land with corn, alcohol, limes, Cokes, teachers, doctors, and more. But these conditions are becoming commonplace among the Huichols. Each nearby city extends its tendrils high into the Sierra. The battery powered cassette players and radios of 10 years ago are now amplified by major electric sources from the city and roads that bring ease of access.
National Geographic Magazine did a nice article in June of 1977 on the Huichols and predicted that they soon would be absorbed by assimilation as most other distinct Indian groups have been. In my 20 years of visiting the Huichols I have found them to remain remarkably intact, but they are definitely threatened. Their identity and cultural survival may in a large part depend on interest and support from the outside. The Mexican government and the local government in the state of Nayarit have recognized the Huichols value as a colorful element of their national cultural diversity. Many tourists seek out Huichol handicrafts and are fascinated by the Huichol story. By buying their handicrafts and art work and by learning more about them we can help them. We may even be able to turn the paradise lost scenario around into paradise found. We can learn about ourselves, before cities and macrobands: no electricity, fire for heat, animals that are brothers and the sky for a church.
Is peyote soma? Like many other psychoactive agents used by native peoples throughout the world since before written history, there are many qualities about it that would qualify. Like these other agents, there is so much we do not know. Hopefully through the work of MAPS and other organizations we can find if there are properties that can aid our culture to better health and psychic well being. It is ironic that the older element of our society that could most benefit from new sources of pain relievers and energizers is the most resistant to research in the areas where these answers are most likely to be found.
The Huichols, Mexico’s People of Myth and Magic, James Norman, author, Guillermo Aldana E., photographer, National Geographic Magazine Vol.151, No. 6, June, 1977.
Unknown Mexico, Explorations in the Sierra Madre and Other Regions, 1890-1898. Carl Lumholtz, author. In two volumes, Dover Publications, Inc., New York.
By Tom Meyers and adapted here from the MAPS Site with their kind permission.