Magazine article New Internationalist

The Spirit of the Huichol: Descendents of People Who Left the Valley of Mexico before the Spanish Conquest Still Retain Their Proud Traditions and Their Independence

Magazine article New Internationalist

The Spirit of the Huichol: Descendents of People Who Left the Valley of Mexico before the Spanish Conquest Still Retain Their Proud Traditions and Their Independence

Article excerpt

INDIANA JONES in jeans walks up the sloping floor to the cockpit of the 1943 DC3 aircraft. He stuffs a plastic bag into a hole in the fuselage and cranks up the engines. Around me in the cabin sit a dozen Huichol people, some wearing hats that resemble straw boaters decorated with a circle of feathers and coloured ribbons. But their knuckles are white, like mine. My companion, Dagoberto, is a veteran pilot from the Mexican Air Force via the Amazon. We were supposed to be flying in his plane, but it crashed.~

I can look through the cockpit and see the mountain coming, waving about in front of us. Just as we are about to strike, a small path comes into view, running up the mountainside between the trees. We clatter into what looks like someone's back garden. I make to get off. Dagoberto restrains me. We have three more stops like this to make. The plane turns round and falls down the mountain into the air over a precipice. Indiana Jones seems to enjoy the sensation; I am writing my own obituary.

This is the mountain fastness of the Huichol peoples, some 20,000 of them. They are one of the most important groups among Mexico's 10 million indigenous peoples, and it's impossible not to conclude that they are so because to reach them from the outside you must be propelled by a death - wish. Tourists are banned.

The Sierra de los Huicholes, part of the western Sierra Madre range north - west of Guadalajara, must once have been a high plateau. Now it is scored by deep, terraced ravines blanketed with a sparse, fragile covering of mountain oaks, subtropical vegetation and bright patches of cultivated maize.

A reception awaits the plane at San Miguel Huaistita. The men wear white tunics elaborately embroidered in day - glored, orange, green. There are warm greetings for Carlos, the school teacher, who's arriving to start a new term. We help him carry his books and papers up the hillside to his house, where he invites us to stay.

The Huichol language remains in common use, so complex that few outsiders have ever been able to speak it. Their culture, deeply devotional to an elaborate matrix of gods, spirits and ancestral presences in everyday life, is expressed with great refinement in weaving, embroidery and intricate representations of the universe achieved by fixing coloured threads to boards with beeswax.

Politically independent and democratic, with all land held in common, the Huichol administer their 'communities' through elected officials: governors, second governors, magistrates, police officers. Outsiders are allowed to remain only on sufferance: the Franciscan school, for many years the only source of education in the community, lies vacant since the teachers were asked to leave and replaced by a secular state - run school.

Geraldo, the Second Governor of San Miguel, explains the strict and by no means tender administration of justice. The severest punishment is to be sent to the stocks in neighbouring San Andres. It is said (though hard to verify) that the death penalty was once enforced by leading the condemned person, blindfold, to a precipice.

But at the heart of the community is the shaman, or maraakame. Don Ricardo is the maraakame of San Miguel and, coming across him near his house, we arrange to talk to him later that day. When we return he is not there.

In the meantime we visit the village - less a centre of population than a meeting place. Most of the community have small farms or ranchos outside the village. From here they descend to work their fields in the valleys.

The village square has a large tree from which hangs the hide of a cow, a slowly decaying memorial to its slaughter for the most recent fiesta. A swing is tied to the branches of the tree, and children play beneath it. There is a health centre to one side, and in one corner a small window around which a dozen or so men are gathered. Out of this window a hand passes a succession of Modelo beer cans. …

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