Art of the Huichol People: A Symbolic Link to an Ancient Culture

Article excerpt

Understanding the Power of Huichol Art

The goal of the instructional resource is to provide an opportunity for students to understand and appreciate the meaning and purpose of art created by people from a culture whose customs and lifestyle are different from their own. By learning principles of tolerance and respect, students can avoid inadvertently offending people of another culture, particularly if teachers ask students to adapt visual ideas from another culture for their own artmaking experiences (Getty ArtsEdnet, 2001). The artworks in this instructional resource come from "The Huichol Web of Life: Creation and Prayer" exhibition at The Bead Museum in Glendale, Arizona. Judy Butzine and Gabrielle Liese (2001), co-curators of the museum, explain what the artworks will help to teach the students about the link between art and ancient cultures. "In ancient communities all symbolic manifestations had the capacity to transmit energies from heaven to earth and modify the earth if necessary for the people to survive. This process occurred through the power and significance of the arts. Art and life were inseparable entities." This information can be adapted for middle school and high school students by using key inquiry questions from "Worlds of Art" in the Getty web site ArtsEdNet.


Students demonstrate an ability to:

1. recognize the cultural and historical significance of Huichol art (art history).

2. identify and describe sensory, formal, technical, and subject matter ideas in artworks made by the Huichol people (art criticism).

3. recognize that art is a form of communication and identify symbols in art that aid in interpretation or suggest possible meanings (aesthetics).

About the Huichol People

Secluded for centuries in the remote and rugged Sierra Madre Mountains of northwestern Mexico, the Huichol (pronounced "Wee-chol") people, sheltered from the influences of the outside world, preserved what is probably the most unaltered preColombian culture in the Northern Hemisphere. Huichol Indians live in small villages called ranchos on land characterized by steep canyons, river valleys, and mesas (Butzine & Jaurique, 2001).

Traditionally, families build homes of adobe or stone with grass-thatched roofs that last only 5 or 10 years. They live without electricity or running water and cook over open fires. Fifty to 100 people live on a large rancho consisting of nuclear families that include the father, his two wives, their children, and a mother-in-law (Meyers, 2001). Most Huicholes farm their own maize, beans, squash, and chiles in fields plowed with digging sticks and animal-drawn wooden plows. Not an easy task in terrain covered primarily with scrub and thorns.

Women collect herbs, grasshoppers, and wasp larvae for soup, and men hunt for food (Moore, 1993). While the Huichol people live their simple lives, they are also creating beautiful artwork that is intimately connected to their religious beliefs.

Religious Beliefs of the Huichol

The Huichol call themselves "the healers." They conduct sacred ceremonies, create beautiful artifacts, play music on primitive musical instruments, and sing spiritual songs all connected to their belief that they can preserve all life by healing the Earth and balancing nature. The Huicholes worship a group of deities. The Trinity of their divine preColombian mythology are the deer, corn plant, and the peyote plant. Deer represent the Huichol spirit guide, teacher, and channel of knowledge for the shamans. The unity of men and women on their spiritual journeys is symbolized by the male and female deer depicted together. Corn is the essence of Huichol physical survival and symbolizes spiritual wisdom (Butzine & Jaurique, 2001). The peyote represents knowledge. People place small stone carvings that represent the Huichol gods in caves or cliffs and bring offerings of food, feathers, and beadwork to them. …