Friday, October 23, 2015


The Huichol (pronounced wē-ˈchōl in english) of Mexico are an indigenous tribe of people with a unique and fascinating culture. Who the Huichol are, where they came from, and why their culture is so special will be highlighted with some of the facts I personally find intriguing about this indigenous people.  In Part Two of this introduction to the Huichol I will also be touching on what makes this culture "tick" including the practice of shamanism and their art.  I hope you enjoy this peek into a very interesting and unique people of Mexico.

The Huichol are Native Mexicans living in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range in the Mexican states of Nayarit, Jalisco, Zacatecas, and Durango. They are best known to the larger world as the Huichol, however, they refer to themselves as Wixáritari (Huichol pronunciation: /wiˈraɾitaɾi/ or phonetically as: we-SHA-re-kaareor) meaning "those who dress in honor of our Ancestors." I dare you to say Wixáritari a few times rapidly!

The origins of the Huichol is an on-going debate by anthropologists, historians, and the Huichol themselves. Some believe the theory that they are a branch of the same family as the Aztecs both having migrated from their original island homeland near the Pacific coast named Mexcaltitán

Aerial views of the Island of Mexcaltitán in the state of Nayarit, Mexico

Others say they migrated north from the Valley of Mexico and were forced to take refuge in the Sierra hundreds of years ago by warring Indian tribes. Another theory is that they originated in the state of San Luis Potosí, but later migrated westward to the parts of the rugged Sierra where the Huichol are currently found. Evidence has been found that the Huichol have lived there for thousands of years according to carbon dating of the ashes from their sacred fireplaces! Irregardless of the many theories, it is fact that the Huichol call the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain area their home.

The Sierra Madre region before the Spanish Conquest (see the Huichol territory in lime)


The Huichol number is roughly estimated at approximately 24,000 most of whom live in the sierra mountains of the states of Jalisco, Nayarit, and Zacatecas. Having withstood the Spanish invasion, they are still striving to keep their culture alive and viable despite the ever increasing physical and cultural encroachment of the outside world. They live in scattered extended family settlements (ranchos) and rely entirely on oral tradition. They are intensely religious and see their time-honored responsiblity as protecting nature’s creations. Their shamen perform elaborate ceremonies to a pantheon of gods to ensure bountiful crops, health and prosperity as well as to preserve nature and heal the Earth.  (See Part Two of this posting for insight into the Huichol tradition of shamanism)


The Huichol often refer to themselves collectively as “the healers." For centuries, hidden away from the modern world and protected by the natural barrier the mountains provide, the Huichols have performed ceremonial rituals they believe heal the Earth and keep nature balanced. Key to the ceremonies is the ritual offering of the white-tailed deer to their nature-deities.

The Huichol have no word for “god,” but incorporate into their eco-religious philosophy the natural wonders of their environment. The mountains and rocks of the Sierra are the physical embodiments of their ancestors who stand guard with love willing to teach and guide their descendants in their obligation to care for the Earth. The rivers are veins of Mother Ocean conveying her lifegiving blood inland to their lands. Father Sun warms the earth and produces the crops, but when he becomes too strong offerings must be given to Grandmother Growth (aka Nakawe) who brings the rains to balance the drought.  Keeping this balance in nature is central to the Huichol's philosophy of life and vital to the well-being of Earth in their culture.


Most Huichol provide for themselves by growing their own food. Maize (corn), beans, squash, and chilis are common crops. These crops are cultivated with animal-drawn wooden plows and digging sticks. Most families own livestock such as cattle, donkeys, horses, pigs, chickens, and turkeys.

Huichol men wear brightly embroidered cotton or muslin shirts as part of their ethnic trajes (outfits). They also wear leather sandals and braided palm hats. Women wear colored skirts and blouses and decorate themselves with bright necklaces. The Huichol embroider their clothing with the symbols of nature which offer them strength and life a few of which are:  the flower, a prayer for rain; the deer, a request for love and bounty of their nature-deities; and the scorpion to ask for their protection.

Huichol marriages are arranged by the parents when children are very young and often occur between the ages of fourteen and seventeen. Extended Huichol families live together in rancho settlements. These tiny communities consist of individual houses which belong to a nuclear family. Each settlement has a communal kitchen and the family shrine, called a xiriki, which is dedicated to the ancestors of the rancho. The buildings surround a central patio. The individual houses are traditionally built of stone or adobe with grass-thatched roofs.

A district of related ranchos is known as a temple district. Temple districts are all members of a larger community district. Each community district is ruled by a council of kawiteros, elder men who are usually also shamans, or witch doctors. The marakame, or shaman priest, plays a central role in everyday Huichol life. He is the nexus with the gods, invoked through the ceremonial use of peyote, and receives instructions from the spirit world through visions, dreams and trances.


Don José Matsuwa was the renowned Huichol shaman from Mexico who passed away in 1990 at the age of 110. He was a farmer, healer, master ceremonial leader, and a revered and respected elder throughout the Sierras. He dedicated his life to completing the sacred path of the shaman.

Through the ceremonial use of peyote (see above) Shamans receive instructions from the spirit world through visions, dreams and trances.


The Huichol people are a culture in transition as modern life encroaches upon their traditional ways. Among the many challenges the Huichols face is the disregard for the ecology of their homelnd including deforestation, commercial mining, encroachments by ranchers, and disregard for water conservation by the surrounding mega-cities.  Many have migrated to cities such as Tepic in the state of Nayarit and Guadalajara in the state of Jalisco for employment.  Others struggle with poverty and illness caused by the pesticides used in the tobacco plantations where many find work as day laborers.

The Huichol feel their pact with their nature-deities has been broken by forces beyond the control. Their sacred white-tailed deer could no longer be found in the Sierra forests and the Huichols were unable to perform their ancient ceremonies to please and honor their deities and heal the Earth.* In despite of these huge challenges, the Huichols have amazingly found a way to hold on to their ancestral beliefs at least for the time being. Their tenaciousness is to be admired, respected, and honored.

The following is a ray of hope that the Huichol and their lifestyle will not be entirely lost:

The Huichols, seeing themselves as stewards of the planet, decided to take action.  In l986, they made a 600 mile (965 km) pilgrimage to Mexico City to ask the government for a white-tail deer from the National Zoo. They were given 20 to revive the white-tail deer population in the Sierra Madre mountains.  Huichol elders now work with the National Indigenous Institute on educational, economic, and health programs....The Huichols were awarded Mexico's National Ecology Prize in 1988 for their genuine efforts to save the environment.  Bravo!


The preceding paragraph was compiled from the outstanding book "MEXICO -Cultures of the World" Second Edition by Mary-Jo Reilly and Leslie Jermyn in the section entitled "The Real Treasures of the Sierra Madre."  Thank you!

We can only hope that the challenges of the Huichol will not be ignored.  It is a plight that reflects on all of us as fellow citizens and keepers of Mother Earth. The following quoted words from Charmayne McGee's book SO SINGS THE BLUE DEER are especially moving to me:

"The rich cultural heritage of the Huichol is indeed the real treasure of the Sierra Madre. The Huichols teach us that man must be a steward of the Earth, he must feel in his heart the pain of the wounded animal, the crushed blade of grass. For all souls are linked. The universal life force, kupuri, flows through all nature’s creations. And when man destroys nature, he destroys the finest part of his own being."   

"Huicholes: The Last Peyote Guardians is a story about the Wixárika People and their struggle to preserve Wirikuta, their most sacred territory and the land where the peyote grows, the traditional medicine that keeps alive the knowledge of this iconic people of Mexico.We enter the Wixárika world accompanying the Ramírez, a typical family of the Sierra Madre, in the traditional pilgrimage to Wirikuta held every year to honor their spiritual tradition. But this time something is different. The “Heart of the World”, where everything is sacred, is in serious danger."

                            Memories are just a click or smile away!                                                                                                                             

I remember hearing many years ago that a picture is worth a thousand words. Those words definitely contributed to and inspired me in the creation of MEXICO AND BEYOND: LAURA'S PHOTO JOURNEY. Below you will find my WEB ALBUM which has additional photos for this posting. 


I hope you have enjoyed this visit to the Huichol of the Sierra Madres in Mexico. I will be posting Part Two covering the Shamanism and Art of the Huichol in the near future. Until then, gracias and safe travels!  Laura

DISCLAIMER: Images taken from the Internet are assumed to be in the public domain. In the event that there is a problem or error with copyrighted material, the break of the copyright is unintentional and the material will be removed immediately upon request.

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