Personal reminiscences of Mexico’s Huichol people I: A disappearing way of life?

articles Culture & Arts

Ronald A. Barnett ©

Mexican History

Part 1 of a seven part series

“You see, my boy,” grandpa says, “this is the way it is done.” A Huichol man and boy in traditional dress on a Melaque street. © Gerry Soroka, 2009
“You see, my boy,” grandpa says, “this is the way it is done.” A Huichol man and boy in traditional dress on a Melaque street. © Gerry Soroka, 2009

I began reading about Indians when I was a boy and my sympathies were always with the underdog, so I warn you that what follows is not a scholarly objective study of the Huichol Indians (probably one of the most studied and least understood peoples on earth) but simply my personal opinions based on my experiences.

My parents and I first visited Mexico in 1951,but my interest in the Huichol Indians of Jalisco and Nayarit began even before I came to live permanently in Mexico. When I arrived, one of the first things I did was to look for information on these fascinating people. In April, 1971, I visited the Huichol museum at the twin-towered Basilica of Zapopan in the northern section of Guadalajara. I was so overwhelmed by the display of Huichol art and culture I began buying everything I could – ceremonial bows and arrows for the peyote hunt, a takuatzin to hold the sacred arrows, the muwieries used by the shamans, and books about the Huichol. This was the start of my own personal Huichol museum, which I had in my home in Canada, until we moved permanently to Mexico and I brought everything back with me.

A huge photo of a Catholic nun surrounded by a crowd of Huichol children hung over the entrance to the museum. My first impression was that the main purpose of the museum was not to preserve Huichol customs and way of life, but to raise money from the sale of Huichol art and hasten their conversion to Catholicism. However, the photos of ceremonies and the carefully arranged displays of arts and crafts showed certain sympathy if not complete support for the traditional beliefs and lifestyle of the people. I learned that the Huichol regarded Tatewarí (Grandfather Fire) and Nakawé (Our Grandmother Creator) as somehow related to the Christian God, and therefore they didn’t see any great conflict between their own religion and the new Christian religion. I saw confirmation of this later on, but I’m not sure how many priests and missionaries realize how thin the veneer of Christianity is over the native religion.

I began to appreciate the pressure the Huichol had been under from outside influences, first the Spanish Conquistadores, then the missionaries, followed by land exploiters and various “projects” in the Huichol sierra designed to integrate them into the mainstream of Mexican society.

For example, at the Zapopan Basilica I met Father Buenventura, who struck me as more of an ecclesiastical hippy than a priest of the Catholic Church. He was wearing an old sweater, an embroidered Huichol side bag over his shoulder, with the carefree air of a casual hitchhiker. He showed me a book in which priests were instructed in subtle ways of converting the Indians to Christianity without their being really aware of what was happening. I was shown a picture of a ririki, a small Huichol temple, in which various traditional items were arranged as if for a ceremony. Father Buenventura explained to me that by rearranging the sacred objects and gradually replacing them with Catholic symbols, the Indians would be painlessly weaned from their pagan rites and become good Catholics. The book appeared to be a thesis of some sort from a Guadalajara university or institute. However, we did talk about Huichol language and culture, and I showed him letters from Joseph Grimes, one of the few outsiders to become fluent in the language and produce a grammar, and others who encouraged me to do research on the Cora-Huichol dialect and culture. We arranged to meet again, with the possibility of my accompanying him to the Huichol sierra.

Meanwhile, I followed up various leads. Although I did meet Father Buenventura again, I never made that trip into the Huichol territory with him. Mr. Thurston, founder and editor of the Colony Reporter newspaper in Guadalajara, warned me that if I were to be seen with a priest in the Huichol community I would not be welcomed by the more conservative Indians, especially the shamans. So I politely declined the invitation.

That was when I began to discover that certain vested interests involving the Huichol did not welcome outsiders. There was almost a political rivalry among various individuals and groups who regarded the Huichol as their own private preserve.

I did not give up trying, but on one occasion I was grateful I didn’t make it. I was once offered a ride in a light aircraft carrying supplies and a physician and his assistant into Huichol territory. For some reason I could not make the flight. A few days later I was on the square in Ajijic when I got the news that the plane had crashed and all aboard had been killed. Nakawé was watching over me that day.

I heard of an artist in Guadalajara who was engaged in painting portraits of the Huichols. The maid at first refused to let me in, but finally Maria Arichega came to the door and reluctantly invited me in. She was interested in the Cora-Huichol bibliography I was compiling, although she didn’t think anyone could write a grammar of Huichol because each word had so many different meanings, but she thought someone should do it. Maria had spent some time with the Huichol but she grimaced a little when she described their communal meals and peyote sessions in which each person takes a bite and then passes it on. Although she obviously admired the independent spirit of the people and deplored the drastic changes even then taking place in Old Mexico, she nevertheless described them as “liars” and “thieves,” an opinion I later learned was based on fundamental cultural misunderstanding. At any rate, I got the distinct impression that the Arichega family felt that they had some kind of special monopoly over the Huichol and inquisitive Canadians were not particularly welcome.

This sense of proprietary rights by over the Huichol was confirmed later when I went to Mexico City to look up Marina Anguiano, an anthropologist at U.N.A.M., who had published studies on Huichol ceremonies, etc. Marina was most friendly and sympathetic toward my quest. She knew most of the people working in the field: missionaries, government officials, social workers, film makers, anthropologists, ethnologists, linguists, popular writers, and Ph.D. students writing yet another thesis on the Huichol. In the 1970s, the Mexican government started a general economic and social development program for indigenous peoples in the Jalisco-Nayarit region. Marina had worked for Plan Huicot for three weeks before being fired for complaining that the Huichol were not being paid enough for their handicrafts.

At that time, not much hope was held out for the survival of the Huichol language, culture, and way of life. Because of increasing outside pressure, the people were becoming more and more suspicious and hostile fearing that their traditional lifestyle was doomed. Marina told me of one older man who finally persuaded a Marakame (Huichol shaman-priest) to record some sacred peyote songs so that Mexico would know about the Huichol. Years later, I made a similar attempt with very limited success.

Back then there was intense rivalry among people working with the Huichol. Even Marina had her problems. She was asked to write an article for the Guadalajara newspaper Excelsior on the Huichol, but her article came out under the name of O. Vasconcelos, another “expert” in the field I had heard about. She did all the work, he got the credit. On another occasion, she agreed to share her notes and recorded tapes with “Mata,” another popular writer on the Huichol, He never returned them. The story goes on and on.

When I first met Marina she was discussing a thesis topic on the Huichol with two of her students. One of them mumbled something about how difficult it was to get to meet Huichols in their own territory. I got the distinct impression that the student resented my presence as an intruder into his special field. I was right. Marina offered to arrange a trip for me to San Andres, one of the more accessible Huichol communities. But a short time later Marina informed me that the members of her student group felt that my presence would be a disruption to their studies of the Huichol. Another trip cancelled. But at least I was learning firsthand the politics of doing research among the Huichol.

Much later I did meet up with some real Huichols but not through any intermediary. I’ll tell you how next time.

Published or Updated on: June 1, 2009 by Ronald A. Barnett © © 2009
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