Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Huichol - a perfect example of sacred existence.

When someone says "Native American," the stereotypical image that comes to mind is a man of the American plains, bedecked in buckskins, braids, and a feather headdress, hunting buffalo from horseback and living in a tepee.  But the truth is that there are many kinds of Native American tribes, and the Huichol are one of them.  They live high up in the Sierra Madre mountains of central Mexico, and they are an amazing people.

If you read my article "Everyday Huichol Wisdom" in Llewellyn's 2012 Magical Almanac, you already know just how much I appreciate the Huichol. So for everyone else, this post is going to be a short introduction to this tribe and why, as a Pagan, I am so attracted to their culture.

The Huichol, because they are a shamanic culture, are like natural Hedge Witches.  For thousands of years their tribe has been living in isolation according to their traditional way of life:  tending their crops, taking peyote, making art, and communing with nature.  They are a gentle and spiritually evolved people (supposedly there isn't even a word for "war" in their native language) who have really never wanted anything from the outside world except to be left alone.  They have rich and deeply-rooted religious beliefs that foster their connections with each other and with the natural world around them, but they don't have any religion!

Huichol Yarn Painting
To the Huichol, the idea of spirituality being separate from day-to-day life is a totally foreign concept, which is why I say that they don't have religion.  In the Huichol mindset, the sacred and the mundane are intertwined and inseparable, something which we as Pagans constantly strive for.  They go about their work, chores and daily tasks with the same reverence and mindfulness as they would participate in a holy ritual, and in the same vein, the ceremonies they use to mark special occasions are unpretentious and down-to-earth. They are also all-inclusive; although led by the shaman, every member of the village from the youngest up to the oldest gets to participate in the Huichol spiritual life.

I was first introduced to the Huichol culture many years ago through their artwork, which is now quite famous around the world and easily recognized.  Making art is another spiritual activity for the Huichol, because most of their artwork is about their legends or the visions obtained from taking the sacred peyote.  Although the Huichol make many kinds of art (even their vibrant traditional dress could be considered artwork) their most sought-after pieces are yarn paintings and beadwork, with their folk art themes and psychedelic colors.

Beaded gourd offering bowls
One of the main principles of the Huichol belief structure is to live in harmony with the natural world, which is another thing that Pagans are trying to accomplish.  Nature not only provides everything necessary for the Huichol to survive, but is also part of the Huichol cosmology.  Mother Earth, Father Sun, Grandmother Moon, and Grandfather Fire (among many others) are all constantly present and accessible deities, who are worshiped not only through the giving of sacred offerings such as prayers, food or crafts, but also simply by observing the Huichol way of life.  Even peyote is worshiped as a divine being, because it provides a way for the Huichol to communicate with these spirits of nature.

Because peyote is so central to the spiritual life of the Huichol, the annual pilgrimage to the desert of Wirikuta (the Huichol ancestral homeland) to gather peyote is one of the most important events of the year.  Along the way the shaman(s) will guide the pilgrims in fasting, praying, leaving offerings at sacred sites, and observing various codes of conduct for the journey (such as refraining from alcohol, salt, sex, etc.)  A secondary and more modern reason for the pilgrimage is so that the Huichol people can band together to pray and do ritual that will help to offset the harm currently being done to our world by human beings collectively.  It is their hope that in this way, the Huichol can placate their gods, and by doing so, intercede on all of our behalf so that they do not become angry with us and destroy us all to cleanse the Earth.

My version of Huichol beadwork (for sale on Etsy)
I have a great respect for people like the Huichol who are genuinely spiritually concerned for all of humanity without trying to force their beliefs onto others.  I have also been incredibly inspired by their art, and have tried to emulate it myself.  This is a culture that we can learn so much from, and yet these people and their legacy are in real danger of being wiped out.  Plans (although currently suspended) were made by the Canadian and Mexican governments to mine Wirikuta, which would destroy this sacred Huichol site. Further intrusion into Huichol villages is also happening as modern Mexico builds roads, airstrips, churches, ranches, public schools, etc. on Huichol land without any regard for the Huichol as a sovereign nation.  Huichol families have been forced into less hospitable areas of the mountains, and as a result, can no longer hunt or farm enough food and have to get jobs in the cities. Many of these Huichol never return to their villages and homelands, and so fewer Huichol youth are being taught the ways of their ancestors.

I see in the Huichol tradition so many of the same ideals that I value as a Pagan, and believe that it would be criminal if this culture were to die out or become forgotten.  If you would like to know more about the Huichol, you can read my article in the Magical Almanac, and click on any of the links below.  Some have information about active campaigns aimed at helping to preserve Huichol culture and what you can do to help.  Thanks for reading.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huichol_people
http://www.mexconnect.com/articles/190-mexico-s-huichol-resource-page-their-culture-symbolism-art
http://www.thehuicholcenter.org/
http://www.peyotepeople.com/
http://www.thefarm.org/charities/huichol.html

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