Huichol Religion

Copyright © 1995 Centro Cultural Huichol, A.C.

From Shaman's Drum, Fall, 1986:

There are still approximately 8,000 Huichols living in five autonomous communities scattered throughout remote areas of the Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico. For centuries the Huichols have lived as sedentary agriculturalists, surviving by cultivating maize, beans and squash, gathering wild plants, hunting, and tending domesticated animals. The ancient methods of survival that served so well in the past, however, are now being challenged as a viable means of sustaining the Huichol population.

Over the last two decades, the Mexican govemment has attempted to integrate the Huichols into the mainstream of Mexican life by building roads, schools, airstrips, clinics, and lumber mills in the Sierras. The influx of civilization has had a disintegrative impact on all aspects of the Huichol way of life. The Huichols are now discovering they need currency - to pay for high taxes on their land, to purchase costly materials for their native dress and votive arts, to pay their passage on buses so they can make religious pilgrimages once made on foot, and to buy cattle for use in their ceremonies now that the deer is nearly extinct in their homeland. Money has started to play increasingly significant roles in Huichol life, and the activities needed to generate it are threatening the survival of their traditional way of life.

The apprenticeship of Huichol shamans is filled with challenges to the mind, body and soul: eating bird hearts, sucking lizard tails, grabbing rattlesnakes, entering the lion's den and running with the wolves. Once they undertake these alliances, there's no going back for fear of fatal consequences. The key to obtaining metaphysical powers for the Huichols is overcoming their fears, not once, not twice, but five times for each ally they acquire. Their boldness is a statement of faith to their gods, and is rewarded by a step up the spiritual ladder.

Kieli, The Jealous Ally

The powerful Kieli plant (in the Solanaceae family, an hallucinogenic plant resembling datura), is highly esteemed for its magical properties. Kieli is used by shamans and nonshamans for a variety of reasons: to excel in the shamanic arts, to become good artists, musicians or deer hunters, and for love spells. Different Kieli plants rule over these various powers, and the mara'akames dream about which plants pertain to the desires of each individual.

Once the person finds the plant that pertains to him, the individual must pledge himself to it for five to ten years. The person is then obligated to bring it offerings which express his/her prayers - such as shaman's wands for becoming shamans, deer antlers for hunting, embroidery and artwork samples for becoming good artists, tiny guitars or violins for becoming good musicians, and lipstick, rings and beads for love spells.

The Kieli plant is described by Huichols as being a very jealous ally. It won't stand for any sexual relationships outside of marriage by either partner after one of them has vowed to it. This rule stays in effect until the person completes with the plant for a period of five or ten years. If an unmarried person pledges himself to the plant, he is obligated to forego sex until the vow is complete. This is often a difficult restriction for the Huichols to maintain, in spite of the benefits.

Arrow Man comments:

"Many people are afraid of Kieli hecause it can cause great harm to someone who doesn't complete as he should. Most people don't ingest the plant. It's so powerful that just carrying a piece of the branch in one's tacuatsi is enough to gain its powers."

While bewitchers and hexers are scorned by the Huichols, they nonetheless have their following by Indians who wish to avenge and settle 'scores.' The atmosphere of mistrust and hate bred by the hexers looms over Huichol consciousness like a black cloud. People are constantly paranoid about the doings of these black magicians, and those shamans who are famous for their abilities to reverse the damage caused by sorcerers never 'hurt for business.'

Here Arrow Man describes the difference between good and bad shamans:

"The bad shamans inflict harm onto others because someone has commissioned them to do so. The good shamans know how to do bad things but they don't ever do them. That's because the good shamans aspire to reach very high, and surpass the lowly level of the bewitchers, who are dedicated to using harm and can reach no higher."

Every year from December through June, hundreds of Huichol families migrate from their homelands in the Sierras to the humid coast of Nayarit in search of jobs on the Mexican tobacco plantations. Once the Huichols leave the protection of their homelands and enter the world of twentieth century Mexico, they are like strangers in a strange land. Whether or not the shamans can hold onto their cultural legacy in the face of so many challenges remains to be seen.

While in some areas of the Huichol Sierras the traditions are still strong, in other areas the knowledge of some elders who have recently died was buried with them. The outside world has discovered the Huichols, and now many of the youngsters have traded their rattles and gods' eyes for school notebooks and pencils. Unless something is done in the near future to help the Huichol people to hold onto their traditional culture, the voice of the wind and the teachings of the deer will soon be gone.

The Huichol Center
for Cultural Survival and Traditional Arts
801 2nd Ave., Suite 1400
Seattle WA 98105
Phone: 206-622-4067
Fax: 206-622-0646

        M a k e    a    D o n a t i o n
Centro Huichol
20 de Noviembre 452
Santiago Ixcuintla, Nayarit, Mexico
Phone: 011-52-323-5-11-71
Fax: 011-52-323-5-10-06

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