Wednesday, June 21st 2023

The Wixárika, Kauyumari Deer, and Sacred Medicine

Written by

Rafael Bracho

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The Wixárika, Kauyumari Deer, and Sacred Medicine

Mexico is blessed with a cultural diversity far richer than is commonly known. You may recall from our article on the Mexican Whistle Language that some scholars estimate that the state of Oaxaca alone has a broader cultural diversity than the whole of Europe—and that’s just one of thirty two states.

This article will focus on the Wixárika (we-SHAH-ree-ka) people of northern Mexico—or more commonly known by their Nahuatl name: the Huichol. The people refer to themselves as “Wixáritari”, which means “the people”. Scholars call their language “huichol”, but Wixárika refer to themselves and their language as Wixárika. Huichol is the Nahuatl adaptation for Wixárika, though their languages are closely related.

In this article, we will use both Wixárika and Huichol interchangeably, but it’s important to note that they prefer Wixárika. We’ll cover a brief history of the tribe, one of their most important myths, and finally we’ll offer an overview of some of the challenges they face looking toward the future.


About the Wixárika

The Wixárika, Kauyumari Deer, and Sacred Medicine

The Wixárika Origins in San Luis Potosi

The Wixárika tribe’s oral history states that they came from the region now called San Luis Potosi, and there is anthropological evidence to support this claim. For example, once a year, many Huichol make a pilgrimage to San Luis Potosi as their ancestors have for centuries. The tribe living in San Luis Potosi is called the Guachichiles—a fiercely territorial people.

Scholars note that the Guachichiles would never have allowed outsiders into their territory for their annual pilgrimage, so it’s likely that the Guachichiles and the Huichol are related. This is supported by the fact that their two languages are similar, clearly stemming from a common root: Uto-Aztecan language related to Cora, which is spoken by roughly 30,000 people, mostly in the coastal Mexican state of Nayarit.

Also, in 1587, Alonso Ponce, the 16th century Franciscan monk, wrote that a tribe used to unite with the Guachichiles to carry out attacks on Spanish caravans after the arrival of the smallpox epidemic. This was likely the Huichol, showing that these relations with the Guachichiles had stood the test of time.

Migrating to the Sierra Madres

The Wixárika migrated to Bolaños Canyon in modern-day Jalisco where a tribe called the Tepehuanes already lived. Neither of their oral traditions claim that the Huichol conquered or subjugated the Tepehuanes, instead it seems likely that they coexisted peacefully and even intermarried. Also, numerous accounts from just after the conquest verify that these two tribes joined together to fight the Spanish, so they must have been on good terms.

War and plague forced them deeper into the Sierra Madre mountain range where they would remain isolated from Western influence for hundreds of years. Anthropologists have described the Wixárika as one of the most authentic examples of pre-columbian civilization in the northern hemisphere. Where many other tribes merged with Catholicism to form an amalgamation of the two, Huichol rituals have remained much as they did since pre-hispanic times.

About the Huichol Religion

The Wixárika, Kauyumari Deer, and Sacred Medicine

The Huichol religion has four principal deities: Corn, Blue Deer, Eagle, and the Sun God. For them, two opposing forces exist, an igneous force—represented by the Sun, and an aquatic force represented by the rain. The Sun created earthly beings with his saliva, which is represented by the red foam that settles on ocean waves. New things can still be created, however, and for the Wixárika, they’re born from essences called “hearts”.

Huichols have traditionally believed that in rituals they interact with the primal ancestor spirits of fire, deer, and other elements of the natural world. ‘A newborn, separated from its umbilical cord, will still have ... the agave plant where the cord was buried. When children grow up they need to obtain cuttings from their protector so that they can bury their children's umbilical cords under them’. The ‘Huichol ... keep ... the souls of ancestors who have returned to the world in the shape of rock crystals.’

It’s no exaggeration to say that their religion is based around the psychedelic cactus, peyote. It’s fundamental to their rituals. They believe that the peyote cactus is sacred medicine which allows them to talk to their ancestors—as well as conduct a series of rituals that preserve the sacred balance of the universe. Many of these rituals involve the use of “hikuri / mitote” (peyote), and afterward communal singing, weeping, and contacting ancestor spirits—these rites having changed little in millenia.

The Huichol see themselves as healers of the planet, and through the use of peyote they can heal the Earth, keep nature balanced, and keep life moving. Ritual is the “love offering” of the white-tailed deer to their nature deities. The deer represents goodness and is the food of the gods. However, due to overhunting and destruction of their natural habitat, the deer have disappeared from the forests. When the Wixárika could no longer conduct their ancient ceremonies, the pact with their gods couldn’t be fulfilled, and as they saw it, their gods became angry.

The Kauyumari deer is deeply interrelated with peyote to where they are literally seen as the same substance. This is evidenced by one of their most important creation myths.


The Myth of Peyote and the Kauyumari Deer

The Wixárika, Kauyumari Deer, and Sacred Medicine

The Huichol come from a terrain with little food and water. Struggling with hunger and thirst, the tribe sent out four men—each one representing one of the four Aristotelian elements: air, earth, fire, and water. They were instructed to find anything edible and bring it back to feed the tribe.

One the first day, the four Wixárika saw a big blue deer. Eager to bring back such a bounty, they chased it, but the deer was too fast. The deer noticed that they were tiring and felt sympathy for the men. It stopped just long enough to allow the men to rest. The next day, the blue deer repeated this cycle of chasing and stopping; and the following day as well. The blue deer led the men up into the mountains—known as the Cerro de las Narices in San Luis Potosi—where they believed the Earth Spirit lived.

One of the young men saw an opportunity to kill the blue deer. He fired an arrow just as the deer jumped behind a large rock. The four Wixárika hunters approached to see if the deer had been wounded. Instead, they saw a pile of peyote cacti in the shape of a deer—shining like emeralds in the morning sun.

The youths brought back the peyote and shared it with the tribe. Magically, all their hunger and thirst disappeared. Since then, every year the tribe goes on a vision quest to hunt and ingest the sacred cactus. Peyote is seen as medicine, crucial for spiritual cleansing. When you vomit, you’re expelling negative energies. This helps the Huichol get in touch with their ancestors who taught them to be the guardians of the planet.

*To see a 3-minute, animated version of this myth (in Spanish), click here.


The Wixárika Today

The Wixárika, Kauyumari Deer, and Sacred Medicine

Where Do the Wixárika Live Today?

The Wixárika live in Sierra Madre Occidental Range, in the Mexican states of Nayarit, Jalisco, Zacatecas, Durango—as well as the American states of California, Arizona, Texas, New Mexico. Though few live in San Luis Potosi today, many go on a pilgrimage once a year to hunt for their sacred medicine, “hikuri” and engage in sacred rituals designed to heal the planet.

An annual pilgrimage takes place from Jalisco to San Luis Potosi. The Wixárika stop at the Tatei Matinieri springs, which are sacred for it’s where they believe the Eastern rain goddess lives. They stop there on pilgrimage to Wirikuta (their name for San Luis Potosi).

Then the hunt begins. The first cactus that’s found is shared by everyone. Though they only make one trip a year, they harvest enough cactus for the whole year. After the work is completed, they eat enough peyote to have visions. It’s at this point that the Huichol believe their shaman is able to speak to the gods and ensure their soul’s regeneration.

The three main Huichol communities are located in Jalisco. They are:

  • Wautüa – San Sebastian Teponohuastlan
  • Tuapuri – Santa Maria Cuexcomatitlan
  • Tatei Kie – San Andres Cohamiata

Huichol have a local government for the native population. Also, in larger settlements, they have a separate legislative body that answers to the Mexican government through the work of municipal agents.

Most Wixárika live on ranches making cheese from dairy cattle, which they only slaughter for important celebrations. Most often, their diet consists of corn, beans, rice, and pasta. They eat very little meat, but occasionally they’ll indulge in chicken or pork. In addition, they ingest wild legumes and seasonal fruits like chili peppers, ciruelas (a type of Mexican plum), and guayabas (guava).

Huichol marriages are arranged by parents when children are very young. They usually marry between the ages of 14 and 17 years old. These extended families will live together on ranches in quaint, individual houses mostly made of adobe with thatched roofs.

However, some 4,000 Wixárika have moved to cities. The four main urban communities are located in Tepic, Mexico City, Guadalajara, and Nayarit. In doing so, they’ve been able to bring attention to their rich cultural heritage, such as their art—and acquire modern art supplies that allow for a greater variety of colors and techniques, which has really helped propel Huichol art to the forefront of the Mexican art scene.


The Art of the Wixárika

Art has been the saving grace for the Huichol culture. Known for having bright colors in psychedelic patterns, the art of the Wixárika is related to the Huichol religion, much of it descended from the “xiriki”, which is the family shrine—especially the nieli’ka (a small tablet with hole in the center where yarn is pressed (coated in wax or pine resin). Nieli’kas can also be found in places sacred to the Wixárika, such as temples, springs, and caves.

Traditionally, Wixárika art was made of bone, seeds, jade, and ceramics. Now Huichol use modern materials, like colored glass beads and modern yarn, which is tighter and thinner and allows for greater detail. Huichol artisans have also adapted to the use of commercial dyes over traditional vegetable dyes, allowing for more variety. These are all borne from Huichol moving to cities.

Wixárika crafts include embroidery, beadwork, hats, embroidered clothing, musical instruments, archery equipment, prayer arrows and weaving—including “cuchuries” (which are their embroidered bags). Often, you can see these crafts being sold in the historical centers of pueblos near Huichol communities. However, they’re famous for two types of works of art: their yarn "paintings" and their beadwork figurines.

The first—known as “yarn paintings”—are Wixárika tapestries inlaid in contrasting patterns that seem to sharpen the crisp lines of their art. They’re stunning. The first large yarn tapestries exhibited in Mexico were shown in Guadalajara in 1962. They were simple and traditional, however, now the artworks are higher quality and of a more refined style.

Perhaps the most famous Huichol artist was Jose Benitez Sanchez (1938 – 2009), whose artworks have been displayed in Mexico, United States, Canada, Europe, and as far away as Japan. Wikipedia has this biographical sketch:

According to the artist's own words in an interview with Jesús Jáuregui, he was born in San Pablo, Mesa del Jueroche, Municipality of El Nayar, Nayarit. According to the tradition of his people, he was called Yucauye Kukame which means Silent Walker , and, like his ancestors, he was educated to be a mara' akame or shaman. He was raised by his maternal grandfather and his stepfather, Pascual Benítez. Shortly after his 14th birthday, he was engaged to be married but he ran away from his community to work as a day laborer on the Nayarit coast. It was then that he learned to speak the Spanish language.

In the 1960s, he worked as a street sweeper and eventually a translator for a government service in the most remote Huichol communities. He began making his first pictures of woolen yarn in 1963 in a workshop that he set up in Tepic, Nayarit. In 1968, he danced and performed the music of his town on the xaweri (violin) during the Olympic Games in Mexico. Parallel to his workshop activities, he worked at the Coordinating Center of the Huichol Cora and Tepehuano Plan, choosing the authentic crafts of the indigenous peoples of the region.

His talent began to be recognized in 1971. The technique he used to manufacture woolen yarn paintings glued to wooden boards with Campeche wax was transmitted to several Huichol apprentices, including Juan Ruiz Martínez, who later developed a particular style. Encouraged by his wife Yvonne, he resumed the shamanic tradition that he had interrupted, he made several pilgrimages through the land of his town, in the mountains, in the desert and on the coast. Those prolonged absences renewed his artistic inspiration which was reflected in his works that gradually became more complex and sophisticated. Around 1985, Benítez's technique evolved when the campeche wax and woolen yarn that he used to use gradually disappeared. He died on the morning of July 1, 2009 in a Tepic hospital.

The second—and arguably their most-recognized—type of artwork are their beaded figurines. To make these works of art, glass, plastic, or metal beads are pushed onto a wooden figure covered in pine resin or beeswax. These sculptures can be in the shape of masks, bowls, or figurines—most often of local wildlife sacred in their religion.

The beadwork features patterns and symbols sacred in the Huichol religion. Their art is heavily influenced by the peyote cactus and its effects—primarily bright colors and repeating symbols each with their own significance, which reflects their worship of the Sun, Earth, deer, rain. . . etc. Their works of art can also depict bears, lions, jaguars, and eggs; however, their chief relationship is with the deer, which is linked to peyote as a symbol for prosperity—as is seen in the myth with the blue deer.

Challenges Moving Forward for the Wixárika

The Wixárika, Kauyumari Deer, and Sacred Medicine

The future holds many challenges for the Huichol people. For one, the constant environmental threat that plagues us all, threatens native communities more for they rely on nature and its fragile balance to a greater degree. Particular threats include the encroaching development of their territory and the destruction of the land where peyote grows.

Mining Operations on their Sacred Land

Cerro Quemado (Leunaxu in their language) is an important mountain in their rituals, and also a home for protected species. It was purchased by a Canadian mining company named First Majestic Silver on November 13th, 2009. The company was able to purchase the land despite 80% of the land being protected Wixárika territory. The mining process creates toxic byproducts.

Since 2009 numerous legal battles have taken place. First Majestic Silver claims that it returned some of the mining concessions to protect the Wirikuta (the Huichol territory), but this claim has been exposed as false. Huichol have been seeking legal help outside their own groups to help protect them against the mining operations. In support, UNESCO has designated the site as a cultural heritage site.

Modern Infrastructure Encroaching upon their Territory

Then there’s the lingering threats posed by modernity. The lure of technology can be seductive to indigenous youths, as is seen by those Huichol who have moved to the cities. But modernity hasn’t been content with staying away from the Wirikuta.

Before, the main transportation was by mule, horse, or donkey. Huichol fought against the construction of a road through Wixárika land. The Huichol community made it clear that they didn’t want a road, and that the Mexican government didn’t have authority to build on that land.

But in 2008, the first of the roads were constructed, which are now bringing trucks—not only carrying western goods like medicines, food, and beer, but bringing new ideas. As if that weren’t enough, the Solidaridad program built a high school in the middle of the Huichol zone.

Prejudice and Assimilation to Christianity

Friction exists between the Wixárika who still follow their sacred religion and Huichol converts to Christianity. The Wixárika are known for rejecting Catholic influences and having traditional shamanistic rituals without Catholic amalgamation. For this reason, they’re a favorite among Anthropologists for their culture is one of the traditional cultures most similar to those that existed on the continent before the arrival of Columbus.

Historically, the Wixárika have been victims of indigenous rights violations and discrimination; they have even been stripped of their lands—all because they refused to convert to Catholicism. Now, the Huichol culture is increasingly in danger of assimilation from Protestant influences, in particular American evangelical missionaries.

However, in recent decades, the Mexican government has passed laws to protect the Wixárika—allowing them to cultivate and ingest peyote, though only for religious practices. Any other use or distribution and it’s punishable by 25 years in prison. Also, the government has now protected a section of their sacred trail because it’s gotten harder and harder to find their sacred plant. “If peyote disappears, then their whole culture disappears,” said Pedro Medellin, head of a government-funded study on the peyote population in Huichol sacred areas.


The Wixárika, Kauyumari Deer, and Sacred Medicine

Throughout this article, as we’ve learned about the Wixárika, we’ve discovered a part of our own past—a glimpse into the way our own ancestors lived since the foundations of humankind’s hunt for divinity. It’s our curiosity and our ability to experience the divine that makes us so unique as a species.

For this reason, we must all protect those native cultures that existed on this land before us. They’re fragile, and for being so, they are precious. In the last sixty years, the Wixárika showed us just how beautiful these traditions are.

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