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In the track of the deer.

Despite recent efforts to market their exquisite artwork commercially, the Huichol Indians of north-central Mexico remain rooted in an ancient, life-sustaining, mystical tradition

Pablo Taizan is known in his village of Mesa de Tirador, in the arid mountains of Mexico's western Sierra Madre, as maraca'ame, which, in his native Huichol, means medicine man. "God gave me everything. . . . I asked Tacutzi Nakahue [the mother of all gods] to teach me to sing, to bead, and to cure. This was many years ago. I am still bound by a promise to God, and every year I come with my family to Wirikuta to hunt the Blue Deer [peyote] and make my offering."

Taizan's artwork is reminiscent of prehistoric paintings. His beadwork is decorated in strong colors with symbolic figures of the Huichol cosmogony. Snakes, lizards, scorpions, and eagles - animals that the Huichol associate with curing - also animate his designs.

Today numbering some fifty thousand, the Huichol people live primarily in remote mountain communities in the states of Jalisco and Nayarit, in north-central Mexico; in recent years many Huichol have been obliged to move to areas where they could more readily find work, such as in the tobacco fields on the coast or in cities such as Guadalajara. Their original home was the central plateau, near San Luis Potosi, and it is to this region they regularly return, on pilgrimages to Wirikuta, their most important natural sanctuary.

The word Huichol is derived from Wirrarika, the people's original name, which means soothsayer or medicine man. Although the Huichol were converted to Christianity during the colonial period by the Franciscan missionaries who founded their largest settlements - San Andres Coamiata, Santa Catarina, and San Sebastian - they have kept alive their shamanistic and artistic tradition.

Manifesting their religious fervor in heavily symbolic, esoteric art, the Huichol not only sing their myths, but they also embroider them on clothes and carve them on masks and gourds and on their musical instruments. Masters of highly decorative, intricate artworks, they express their spirituality and virtuosity using beads, yarn, and wood as their basic materials. Eagles, deer, peyote, flowers, corn, and snakes are depicted symbolically in a symmetrical, harmonious, and sensitive style.

The art of the Huichol conveys a mysticism that transcends their poverty and marginalization. For they also inhabit another world, a legacy from their ancestors, based on principles of magic and spiritualism, through which they depict the inherent struggle for life.

Mexican writer Fernando Benitez states that "in Mexico, the Huichols have probably maintained their ancient beliefs more faithfully than any other Indian group. They feel the need to relive their gods' heroic feats of creation in the places where they occurred and spend four or five months journeying to such sites as Lake Chapala, the Nayarit coast, or Wirikuta, birthplace of peyote, the Shining Divine One. They may be the most assiduous pilgrims in the world."

Their contemporary art forms are derived from the ceremonial offerings that the Huichol for centuries made for presentation to their gods. The social trend toward making ceremonial objects for commercial purposes did not begin until the middle of this century. Through their art the Huichol found an important, sustainable source of income, as hundreds of families could support themselves through making and selling their own artworks, thus ensuring that their skills were passed on to the generations that followed. Aware of their potential market, Huichol artists would consciously adapt new materials and incorporate new objects into their works, yet preserving always their original symbols.

However, the relationship between art and the marketplace has not been an easy one for the Huichol. While some artists have sought tourist outlets such as Puerto Vallarta, Guadalajara, and San Miguel de Allende to sell their works, a regular income is by no means assured them. Increasingly, many artists are seeing their works remain unsold or undervalued. So uncomfortable have the Huichol become with this situation - feeling that they are giving so much of their culture without fair compensation - that in recent community meetings authorities have agreed that if their artistic works were not valued they would stop commercializing them.

Using feathers, wood, animal pictures, symbolic colors, and other materials, the Huichol create objects that are closely identified with a particular god. The finished ceremonial offerings are a material form of prayer. They include arrows, gourds, pictures of gods and animals, candles, food, and masks.

"We take candles, pictures, and masks as offerings to God," says Pablo Taizan. "They're the same as the ones we sell, but when they are for God we think of him while we are making them, and we pray and thank him for our health, our family, our work."

Mesquite wood and the color reddish brown belong to Tatewari, who lives on earth; while the wood of the Brazil tree and mahogany color are related to Tayuapa, "our Father Sun," who lives in the sky. Tatewari is the god of life and health, the spirit of fire that cures, and the chief ally of shamans. The golden eagle, the guacamaya, and the cardinal belong to him. He is represented by those figures or by the flames of a bonfire in front of the ceremonial temple, or calihuey. Tatewari accompanies pilgrims. His original temple is located in the hills of San Sebastian, the most isolated of all Huichol villages. Tamat's Kauyumari, the older brother who shaped the world, appears in various guises: deer, coyote, pine tree, or whirlwind. Takutzi Nakahue is the mother of all gods and of corn. Because of her great age, prayers for a long life are addressed to her. The salate, or sacred tree, the armadillo, and the bear are her symbols, as are the water serpent and rain.

The other female deities dwell together with the Grandmother in four of the six areas sacred to the Huichol. Rapabiyeme, symbolized by a blue serpent, lives in the south; Kapuri, the white serpent, in the north. Sakaymuka, in the west, is represented as a black serpent, while Vaaliwa'me, the Earth Mother, symbolized by corn, dwells in the east as a red serpent. Earth and sky, home to Tatewari and Tayuapa, respectively, are the remaining sacred areas.

The life of a Huichol who follows the traditional ways, revolves around his promises to the gods. Accordingly, the major fiestas and ceremonial activities are held in Wirikuta and in the communities during the agricultural calendar.

Says artist Rogelio Carrillo, from San Andres Coamiata, "Since 1993, I have been going to Wirikuta, where I ask God to teach me to make pictures and do beadwork. I take him candles and offerings. . . . I have promised to go to visit him for five years, and I've already made three pilgrimages. My family and all the rest have made the same promise. There in Blue Hill we have a fiesta for him with jicuri [peyote] and pray and dance and sing to him. . . . Before we leave on the journey, we fast and do not sleep with our wives."

The jicuri is, for the Huichol, the plant of life, an element that promotes a harmonious relation with the gods. It also represents the original ear of corn (because both peyote and corn have the colors of white, yellowish green, red, and blue), while the antlers of the deer represent the first jicuri. Consequently, corn, deer, and peyote are one and the same, as explained in Huichol myth.

Every year groups of Huichol, together with the priest, or maraca'ame, make the pilgrimage to Wirikuta wearing special clothing and carrying offerings to God and ask for protection and favors. Wirikuta is also a temple of initiation for art and shamanism, where all novices undertake a ceremonial promise and sacrifices (periods of fasting, sexual abstention, pilgrimages, and offerings) lasting for at least five years.

The pilgrimage to Wirikuta becomes a feast of the spirit, and its ceremonies sacred communions with the Huichols' guardian gods. The novice in art and shamanism deposits his offerings and entreats God to confer upon him the gift of making art or entering the priesthood. He then spends several days in the desert to "hunt" and commune with the peyote. In this way he talks to God and receives instructions about how to proceed or begins immediately to sing, cure, or create.

"If we celebrate with the fiestas and with the land, we are free," says Pablo Taizan. "We celebrate with God and relations are better among us, we help ourselves, and we are united. That is the most important thing for us - to be good with God."

Carlos Rios Uribe writes about native peoples of the Americas. Victoria Anne Dryfoos is a freelance photographer working to promote different cultures.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Organization of American States
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Huichol Indian artwork
Author:Uribe, Carlos Rios
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Sep 1, 1996
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