Who are the Huichol and Why are they Unique?

As we are preparing for A Taste of HAP in San Francisco, we wanted to give you a little bite of cultural facets that make the Huichol unique and how The Huichol Center for Cultural Survival came to be.  It is crucial to understand Huichol traditional culture, beliefs, and cosmology from its original root in order to understand the distinction from Western culture and influence.  Through creating the Huichol Herbarium, the people will hold a valuable tool to safeguard and defend their traditional knowledge and practices.

One important distinction to start with is the variation in naming you might come across.  Many indigenous peoples have both endonyms and exonyms by which they are identified.  What’s the difference?  An endonym is the name that a people call themselves and an exonym is the name that an outside culture created for a group.  In this case, “Wixárika” is the endonym and “Huichol” is the exonym given to the Wixárika by Spanish colonialists.  Which name to use can be tricky and often researchers, organizations, and indigenous communities themselves face the dilemma of using the correct name (the original endonym) versus the name that is easily recognizable by the outside world.  Often, indigenous groups will retain exonyms for communication with cultural outsiders.  A current example of this in the United States is with the ongoing demonstrations against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which has garnered strong attention in the past few days, as the “Sioux” Nation stands up to protect its land and waters.  “Sioux” is an exonym given to the Lakota people by French colonists.  However, because so few Americans know the name “Lakota,” in its public campaigns, the community retains the usage of “Sioux.”

This is why the Huichol Center for Cultural Survival chose to name itself “Huichol” and not “Wixárika” and also why we at Herbal Anthropology are calling this project the Huichol Herbarium and are using the exonym “Huichol” in our broad public correspondence.  However, if you hear the Huichol speak of themselves (in the Huicholes: The Last Peyote Guardians film for instance), you will hear them use Wixárika.  So why do we need to know this?  Although to some it may seem like just a matter of translation, taking the time to understand and actively use the correct name for ourselves shows that we honor and respect a people’s cultural identity.  Curious and intrigued about exonyms and endonyms, the history behind them, and ethical language choices in indigenous contexts?  Stay tuned on our blog for a future post explaining the importance of exo- and endonyms in more detail!

Now to dive into the origins of the Huichol…The historias, or ancestral stories, of the Huichol have been carried on through their rituals, oral traditions, and within their tukis, or temple.   In Huichol cosmology, the center of the universe is believed to lie within the tuki where life enters the world.  Akin to the kiva (of the Puebloan Southwest), the tuki is a circular, thatch-roofed temple where the Huichol gather to track the movements of the Sun and to see the heavens.  Why the Sun?  For the Huichol, the beginning of time was only a sea of darkness.  Even the gods could not see anything because there was no sun.  Guided by Tamatsi Kauyumarie (the elder brother deer), the Huichol traveled for a long time searching for the sunrise.  This “deer hunt” ended in the deer giving itself to the hunters and then transforming into hikuri (peyote).  After eating the hikuri, the Huichol had a vision of the sunrise and were since able to see.  Tamatsi Kauyumarie and all of their deities carry their own symbols which the Huichol incorporate in their artwork and stories.

Each year, the Huichol embark on pilgrimages to the sacred land of the Wirikuta (their sacred mountain and “womb of life”) to hunt the Blue Deer (peyote).  The Huichol believe their deified ancient ancestors, the First People, once dwelled in the Wirikuta desert and were driven out into the Sierra Madre Occidental to live a mortal agrarian existence.  The pilgrims (individuals and families of all ages) are led by a mara’akame (shaman) to cleanse the way, traveling 600 miles round trip to re-enter the sacred land.  They carry with them ceremonial offerings, such as pictures, masks, and candles, in return for the gift of making art and entering priesthood.  This ancient pilgrimage is done to renew their alliance with their gods and ancestors to keep their cycles of rain, harvests, and all of life going.  The Huichol view themselves as the guardians of all life on the planet.  By performing this ritual pilgrimage, they are effectively bringing the rain to the Earth, stabilizing the harvests to feed the people, and the entire ecosystem.  This is why the pilgrimage is so important!  Without it, the whole planet would fall out of balance and sustaining life on Earth in this natural, elemental way would become impossible. 

The stories of Huichol cosmology, their rituals, and traditions go far deeper than all of this.  Yet without hearing every story or going to the sacred mountain itself, their historias live on through their vibrant artwork.  The key symbols from their stories are woven into yarn paintings, beadwork, weavings, rainmakers, bead sculptures, and other traditional artisanal art.  Some outsiders might take a look at their art and just appreciate the beauty and color palette, yet there is always a deeper meaning connected to their culture, cosmology, and belief system.  For the Huichol people, art is a means of encoding and channeling sacred knowledge.  It is considered a form of prayer, providing direct communion with the sacred realm.  (Stay connected with our blog for future post diving deeper into Huichol artwork and the prominent symbols within!)

Although the Huichol have strived to keep their cultural heritage alive for thousands of years, they still face many threats.  One of these is against land infringement and mining of their sacred mountain.  The imminently threatening, but currently suspended efforts, from mining industries in Huichol territory will cause a devastating effect on the environment, toxic pollution levels, people’s health, and ancient aquifers.  (Be sure to watch this incredible film highlighting more on this: Huicholes: The Last Peyote Guardians).  How can the Herbarium project help this?  Well, remember how important the pilgrimage is for the Huichol?  If their sacred land were taken from them, they would lose their entire cultural purpose.  All of their historias, acts of prayer, hikuri hunting, visionary art, and rainmaking are centered around their sacred mountain and land, also residing in the center of the land at risk for being mined.  Building the Herbarium will directly help guard against future infringements like environmental degradation of these sacred lands and biopiracy of genetic resources.  This kind of protection is invaluable for safeguarding an ancient culture against modern issues!

Bioprospecting of traditional agricultural resources is another major threat the Huichol face.  One of the more recent examples of this is by the controversial patent of the “Enola bean.”  This is a publicized act of biopiracy where John Proctor of POD-NERS, LLC patented the “Enola bean” in the U.S. despite it being a staple crop of the Huichol diet that had been traditionally grown there for thousands of years.  As a result of the U.S. patent, imports of Mexican (primarily Huichol) yellow beans in the U.S. fell by 90%, resulting in significant economic deprivations for the Huichol and Tarahumara farmers involved.  However, whereas the international outcry to the patents was significant, based in large part on the economic impact felt by the Huichol and Tarahumara farmers, we find it critical to point out that in all of the legal analyses of the patent, the Huichol and the Tarahumara are never named.  Instead they are listed at best as “indigenous farmers” with little to no cultural context.  This is a prime example of colonial bias in Western writing.

Facing territorial encroachment of their sacred land and a need to survive in a modern world, the Huichol Center serves as a bridge between a cultural divide.  Within the rugged mountains of the Sierra Madre Occidental, The Huichol Center is working in collaboration with several international organizations to raise awareness of these imminent threats. At the same time, they are also working with the Mexican Government and NGOs to implement water-resource management techniques and are excited to participate in a state-run training center in Huejuquilla called Centro Supera ( “Center for Advancement”). This center will teach, among other things, skills in gardening, animal husbandry and eco-friendly resource management. The Huichol Center empowers both Huichol individuals and communities across the country to maintain their spiritual, artistic, and cultural heritage by preparing them to coexist with the outside world on their own terms.  With careful planning and education, the Huichol people can thrive in today’s world without sacrificing their native traditions or language.  One of their projects created an interactive Ethnographic Archive of the Huichol arts and traditions.  The interactive aspect allows the Huichol elders, shamans, and those educated in theses arts to add their knowledge to this database at any time.  This archive not only gives the Huichol a physically preserved location to reference and inspire for future generations, but also draws public awareness on the value of these traditions.  Learn more about The Huichol Center, their current offerings, and ways you can support them here.

What questions do you all have for The Huichol Center?  Comment below and we will ask them to Susana, the founder of the Huichol Center, herself!  All of your questions will be answered right here in the blog in a fascinating Q & A with Susana next month.

Stay tuned…

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