Cross-border tribe faces a tough future

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Sep 162013
 

In this post, we consider the unfortunate plight of the Tohono O’odham people, whose ancestral lands now lie on either side of the Mexico-USA border.

How did this happen?

Following Mexico’s War of Independence (1810-1821), the rush was on to draw an accurate map of all of Mexico’s territory. Mexico’s boundaries following independence were very different to today. At that time, the major flows of migrants linking the USA to Mexico were from the USA to Mexico, the reverse of the direction of more recent flows, where millions of Mexicans have migrated north.

As this map of Mexico in 1824 shows, Mexico’s territory extended well to the north of its present-day limits.

Map of Mexico, 1824

Map of Mexico, 1824

At the end of the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ceded over half of Mexico’s territory to the USA. A few years later, under the 1853 Gadsden Purchase (Treaty of La Mesilla), northern portions of Sonora and Chihuahua (shaded brown on the map below) were transferred to the USA.

Mexico 1853

Source: National Atlas of the United States (public domain)

With minor exceptions since, to take account of changes in the meanders of the Río Bravo (Grande), this established the current border between the two countries.

Impacts on the Tohono O’odham people

One of the immediate impacts of the Gadsden purchase was to split the lands of the Tohono O’odham people into two parts: one in present-day Arizona and the other in the Mexican state of Sonora, divided by the international border. The O’odham who reside in Mexico are often known as Sonoran O’odham.

There are an estimated 25,000 Tohono O’odham living today. Most are in Arizona, but about 1500 live in northern Sonora. In contrast to First Nations (aboriginal) groups living on the USA-Canada border who were allowed dual citizenship, the Tohono O’odham were not granted this right. For decades, this did not really matter, since the two groups of Tohono O’odham kept in regular contact for work, religious ceremonies and festivals, crossing the border when needed without any problem. Stricter border controls introduced in the 1980s, and much tightened since, have greatly reduced the number of Tohono O’odham able to travel freely. This is a particular problem for the Tohono O’odham in Sonora, most of whom were born in Mexico but lack sufficient documentation to acquire a passport.

Tohono o'odhum border protest

Tohono O’odham border protest

Since 2001, several attempts have been made in the USA to solve the “one people-two country” problem by granting U.S. citizenship to all registered members of the Tohono O’odham, regardless of their residence. So far, none has succeeded.

The largest community in the Tohono O’odham Nation (the Arizona section of Tohono O’odham lands) is Sells, which functions as the Nation’s capital. The Sonoran O’odham live in nine villages in Mexico, only five of which are offically recognized as O’odham by the Mexican government.

The border between the two areas is relatively unprotected compared to most other parts of the Mexico-USA border.

The Tohono O’odham Nation is often called upon to provide emergency assistance to undocumented workers (and drug traffickers) from south of the border who have underestimated the severe challenges of crossing this section of the harsh Sonora desert. Tribal officials regularly complain about the failure of the U.S. federal government to reimburse their expenses.

ABC News reports (Tohono O’odham Nation’s Harrowing Mexican-Border War) that the border “has made life a daily hell for a tribe of Native Americans” and that drug seizures on the Tohono O’odham Nation’s lands have increased sharply.

Want to read more?

Early maps of Mexico

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Jun 152013
 

If you find maps, especially old maps, as fascinating as I do, you’ll enjoy reading the chapter on “Mesoamerican Cartography” (link is to pdf file) in the University of Chicago’s History of Cartography. In this wide-ranging chapter, author Dr. Barbara Mundy explores many aspects of Mesoamerican Cartography, from the different styles and materials used to the subtle changes that followed the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the sixteenth century.

The chapter has numerous illustrations of early maps, as well as an interesting diagram showing some of the regional and ethnic differences in the pictographs used to depict common geographic features such as hills, fields, sources of water and stones.

This image shows a page from the Codex Mendoza depicting the Aztec capital Tenochititlan.

Codex Mendoza

Codex Mendoza

The map, thought to have been painted in 1541, shows the founding of Tenochtitlan (by the Mexica) in 1325 (this date is shown by a symbol for a house crowned by two dots in the upper left hand corner). The glyphs around the edge of the map show the passage of time. The central illustration shows Tenochtitlan, dominated by a blue X, marking the four canals that divided the city both geographically and socially. Around the four quadrants sit the ten original founders of the city. Their leader, Tenoch, is seen immediately left of center. The hieroglyphic place-name for Tenochititlan, in the middle of the page, at the juncture of the canals, is a stone with a cactus growing out of it. (Description based on caption in History of Cartography).

On top of the cactus sits a bird of prey (popularly thought to be an eagle, but more probably a Crested Cara-Cara), the sign that the Mexica believed would tell them where to found their new city.

“Mesoamerican Cartography” is chapter 5 of Volume Two, Book Three (“Cartography in the Traditional African, American, Arctic, Australian, and Pacific Societies”) of the History of Cartography. The first volume of the History of Cartography was published in 1987 and the three books that constitute Volume Two appeared over the following eleven years. The University of Chicago Press website has links to a series of pdf files for the first three volumes of the History of Cartography (each chapter is a separate pdf).

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Apr 212013
 

One of the most curious of Mexico’s dozens of indigenous languages is the whistled language of one group of the Chinantec people who live in the state of Oaxaca. This group’s conventional spoken language is complemented by a language based entirely on whistles. Only a few people remain who speak this whistled language fluently. The language is whistled primarily by men (and much less fluently by children); female members of the group understand it but do not use it.

It is thought that whistled languages developed to enable communication between isolated settlements in areas that were too remote for conventional spoken languages to be effective. The Chinantec’s whistled language has three distinct subsets, designed to be used over different distances. The loudest enables effective communication over a distance of around 200 meters (650 ft).

The Whistled Language of Oaxaca, Mexico

The Chinantec whistled language is now largely confined to the mist- and fog-shrouded slopes of the eastern side of the Sierra Juárez in the northern part of Oaxaca state, a region of high rainfall totals and luxuriant vegetation.

This 27 minute documentary relates the field studies investigating the Chinantec whistling language conducted by Dr. Mark Sicoli, Assistant Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University. The main center of population of speakers of the whistling language is San Pedro Sochiapam. Sicoli believes that the whistled language may become extinct in the next decade; he hopes that his work documenting the language may one day provide the basis for its reintroduction or restoration.

A transcription of a whistled conversation in Sochiapam Chinantec between two men in different fields is available on the Summer Institute of Linguistics website, which also includes this useful summary of the Chinantec people and language.

If you only have a few minutes to devote to this video, then look at the section around 16 minutes in, where in a controlled experiment, one experienced Chinantec whistler helps a friend “navigate” through a fictitious village. The men each have a copy of a made-up map of the village, but are out of sight and able to communicate only by whistling.

The astonishing whistled language of the Chinantec is yet another of Mexico’s many cultural wonders that currently appears to be headed for extinction.

Further reading:

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Environmental news briefs relating to Mexico

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Apr 022013
 

This post describes several newsworthy developments relating to Mexico’s natural environment.

Financing to fight deforestation

The Inter-American Development Bank is giving Mexico $15 million in financial and technical assistance to support climate change mitigation efforts. The program will help communities and ejidos finance low carbon projects in forest landscapes in five states, all of which have high levels of net forest loss: Oaxaca, Yucatán, Quintana Roo, Jalisco and Campeche.

The program includes a $10 million loan for financing projects that must reconcile economic profit for the communities and generate environmental benefits through reducing the pressure on forests and promoting enhancement of carbon stocks. In addition, a $5 million grant will provide financial and technical assistance to support the viability of individual projects, by strengthening technical, financial and management skills.

The IDB says that the program is a pilot project that will allow lessons to be learned for its replication in other key geographic areas in Mexico. It should demonstrate a viable business model that promotes the reduction of deforestation and degradation while increasing economic returns. [based on an IDB press release]

Mexican company converts avocado seeds into biodegradable plastic

A Mexican company called Biofase has developed a way to turn avocado pits into 100% biodegradable plastic resins. Avocado pits are normally discarded as waste. Biofase will collect some of the estimated 30,000 metric tons of avocado pits discarded each month for processing. The company has patented the technology and is looking for additional raw material containing some of the same chemicals as avocados.

Huichol Indians oppose peyote conservation measure

A presidential decree signed last November prohibits the harvesting of the hallucinogenic peyote cactus from two protected areas in the state of San Luis Potosí. The decree has met fierce opposition from the indigenous Huichol (Wixarika) people, for whom the peyote is a sacred plant. The Huichol undertake a lengthy pilgrimage each year to gather peyote for subsequent use in their ceremonies.

The restriction on peyote harvesting is the latest in a long line of problems faced by the Huichol including the incursion by a large number of mining companies onto traditional territory. The Regional Council for the Defense of Wirikuta has demanded that the government guarantee the Huichol’s right to pick peyote, and called for the cancellation of 79 mining concessions (most of them to Canadian companies) that impinge on their sacred land. Critics claim that mining is having a devastating impact on the local environment, especially because the companies involved are using large quantities of highly toxic cyanide.

Expand the port or protect the coral reef?

In Avalan destruir arrecifes para ampliar puerto de Veracruz published in Mexico City daily La Jornada, Luz María Rivera describes how one of the final acts of the previous administration was to redraw the boundaries of the protected area of coral reef off the coast of Veracruz state. The new boundaries have reduced the protected offshore area near the cities of Veracruz, Boca del Río and Alvarado by about 1200 hectares (3000 acres). The redrawing of the protected area is to enable the expansion of the port of Veracruz, one of the country’s largest, and almost double its capacity. Government officials claimed that the area affected was already “damaged” and that the reef system was 98% or 99% “dead”.

Government-NGO accord to protect Mexican whale sanctuary

The Mexican government has signed an accord with the NGO Pronatura Noroeste to improve the protection of Laguna San Ignacio, the Pacific coastal lagoon which is a major breeding ground for gray whales. The lagoon has 400 kilometers (250 miles) of coastline, bounded by wetlands and mangroves, and is part of the El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve in the northern part of the state of Baja California Sur. The accord calls for joint development of plans for protection, monitoring and tracking the whales and other species that inhabit the lagoon, as well as  establishing protocols for resolving any eventual environmental contingencies.

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Angahuan, the nearest village to Paricutín Volcano in Michoacán, Mexico

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Mar 142013
 

Last month we recounted the events surrounding the birth of Paricutín Volcano in 1943 in the state of Michoacán in western Mexico:

Angahuan, the nearest village to Paricutín Volcano, is fascinating in its own right, quite apart from its connections to the volcano. The village has a lovely mid-sixteenth century church with many Moorish characteristics, as well as peculiar and distinctive house styles which make widespread use of local timber.

The original name was Andanhuan, which the Indians say the Spanish couldn’t manage to pronounce, hence its transformation to Angahuan. The Purépecha name meant “place on high where people stopped” or “place where the person on high (captain) stopped”.

The Spanish, complete with captain, arrived in 1527, under the command of Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán. One of the first missionaries here, Jacobo Daciano, ordered a Moorish stonemason who was with him, to stay in Angahuan and build a convent. The mason did a fine job—the church ceiling is truly magnificent—and Angahuan church is one of the very few in the country with such marked Moorish influences. The church is dedicated to Santiago (Saint James) and, as elsewhere in Mexico, he is shown astride his horse.

Across the small plaza is a wooden door richly carved in a series of panels which depict the story, or at least one version of it, of the eruption of Paricutín. Judging by one panel, the indigenous Purépecha artist-carpenter responsible for the door, Simón Lázaro Jiménez, clearly had a sense of humor about tourism. His design won first prize in a regional handicraft competition in 1981. The artist rejected the prize, copyrighted his unusual design, and used the finished handiwork as his own front door. He later penned a short book, Paricutín, 50 years after its birth, a vivid first-hand account of the fateful day when the volcano erupted and changed the lives of the local people for ever.

House types in Angahuan: traditional and modern. Photo: Tony Burton; all rights reserved

House types in Angahuan: traditional and modern. Photo: Tony Burton; all rights reserved

The distinctive house-types of Angahuan called trojes, are built of wooden beams with steep roofs. They are slowly giving way to modern monstrosities built with concrete blocks. The roofs of the traditional houses have either two or four slopes. Those with two slopes, one each side of the house, are called techos a dos aguas (literally “two waters”, “saddle roof” in English), those with four slopes techos a cuatro aguas (“four waters” or “hip roof”).

Angahuan: loudspeakers like this one relay village news.

Angahuan: loudspeakers like this one relay village news. Photo: Tony Burton; all rights reserved

Many small Mexican towns and villages rely on a village loudspeaker system for relaying all important events and news. Angahuan is no exception; look for the speakers mounted high over the plaza. Local announcements are in Purépecha, the local Indian language totally unintelligible to Spanish speakers. This is the only common language for the Indians in this area, since many of the older people do not speak Spanish. When necessary, their children will often translate for them. The Purépecha language is not closely linked to any other native Mexican language, but is apparently distantly related to that spoken by the Zuni of the USA and the Quechua and Aymara of South America.

Angahuan is one of the most accessible Purépecha villages in Mexico and well worth visiting, especially if your interests lie more in indigenous ways of life than in the splendid scenery and interesting geology of its surroundings.

This post is a lightly edited extract from my “Western Mexico: A Traveler’s Treasury” (Sombrero Books, 2013). “Western Mexico: A Traveler’s Treasury” is also available as either a Kindle edition or Kobo ebook.

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The geography of the Huichol Indians: cultural change

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Feb 182013
 

Huichol Indians may have retained many of their ancestral traditions, such as shamans and their annual cycle of ceremonies, but Huichol culture has changed significantly in the past three hundred years.

During colonial times, the Huichol adopted string instruments, the use of metal tools, and the keeping of animals such as sheep, horses and cattle. They also accepted some aspects of Catholic religion.

Beginning in the 1950s, government programs financed the first airstrips in the region. Government agencies have since improved roads, opened clinics and constructed schools for basic education and trades. The government’s efforts have included agricultural aid stations, the drilling of wells, and support for the introduction of more modern agricultural techniques and equipment, such as barbed wire and tractors. Other programs have focused on providing alternative sources of revenue such as beekeeping.

Modern adaptation: Huichol "vocho" exhibited at the Smithsonian in 2012

Modern adaptation: Huichol “vocho” exhibited at the Smithsonian in 2012

All these changes have come at a price. The ancestors of the Huichol practiced a nomadic lifestyle over a large expanse of land in order to acquire the resources they needed for survival. When the Huichol were pushed back into the mountains,they adapted by undertaking an annual migration to gather their sacred peyote. At the same time, they became increasingly dependent on the cultivation of corn. However, in such marginal areas where rainfall is unreliable the corn harvest is never guaranteed and in bad years starvation is a real possibility.

Closer links to the outside world have meant that the Huichol can now buy cheap, bottled alcohol, and face increased pressure from outsiders who want more grazing land, timber and minerals. They have also led to the out-migration of many Huichol, whether permanently to nearby cities or seasonally to work on tobacco plantations in Nayarit. In the past fifty years, this has led to some innovations in Huichol art, including the addition of large yarn paintings and larger items decorated with complex bead work (see image) to their traditional arts and crafts.

Even though the Huichol are one of the most isolated (not just geographically but also economically and socially) indigenous groups in Mexico, there is nothing static about their culture. It will be interesting to see what changes the future brings.

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Bibliography:

This mini-series has made extensive use of several resources, including:

  • Barrin, Kathleed (ed) Art of the Huichol Indians. The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1978.
  • Mata Torres, Ramón. La Vida de los Huicholes. Tomo I. 1980. Guadalajara, Jalisco.
  • Mata Torres, Ramón. El Arte de los Huicholes. Tomo II. 1980. Guadalajara, Jalisco.
  • Neurath, Johannes. Pueblos Indígenas del México Contemporáneo: Huicholes. Comisión Nacional para el Desarrollo de los Pueblos Indígenas / UN Development Program. 2003. [link is a pdf download]

The geography of the Huichol Indians: economy, lifestyles and settlements

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Feb 072013
 

In this post we take a closer look at the traditional life and settlement patterns of the Huichol Indians.

The origins of the Huichol are unclear. The Wixárika themselves believe they arrived in the Jalisco-Nayarit area from the Valley of the Mexico, though most anthropologists believe it is more likely that they came originally either from the north or from the Nayarit coast.

Huichol economy and lifestyle

In the Huichol heartland area (shown on the map) the rainy season normally begins in June and lasts until October, a similar timing to most of central and western Mexico. While average temperatures in the area are usually between 15 and 20 degrees Centigrade, there can be sharp frosts in winter.

huichol-villages

The dispersed rural settlement pattern of the Huichol heartland. Credit: Tony Burton / Geo-Mexico; all rights reserved

Huichol family groups rely on the subsistence farming of corn, beans and squash, which are grown together in a small plot or garden (coamil). Tomatoes, chiles and gourds are also produced, Cultivation is often on steep slopes. Land is cleared by slash and burn. A few cattle may be kept, largely because of their value as trade items. Meat is rarely available except on ceremonial occasions. Some fishing is practiced, and wild plants also form part of the typical Huichol diet. Merchants supply other items such as salt, shells, feathers, canned drinks and sandals.

The typical Huichol home is a simple, one-room dwelling, usually rectangular in plan, with a thatched roof. Some homes have a second room for cooking.

The isolation of the Huichol has enabled them to retain almost all of their traditional customs. Anthropologists who have lived among the Huichol affirm that religion for the Huichol is not part of life, it is life.

Three of the most important symbols for the Huichol are deer, corn (maize) and peyote. In some ways, these three items underline the fact that the Huichol culture has undergone a transition from a lifestyle based on hunting and gathering towards one based on sedentary agriculture.

Settlements and districts

During colonial times, the area inhabited by the Huichol Indians was first divided into three and then, later, five administrative districts:

  • Santa Catarina (elevation about 1000 meters above sea level). Santa Catarina is a day’s walk from the nearest airstrip.
  • San Sebastián (elevation 1400 meters).
  • Tuxpan (aka Tuxpan de Bolaños; elevation 1060 meters).
  • San Andrés Cohamiata (elevation 1860 meters). This has the best airstrip and is the main Huichol ceremonial center. While many of the people did not adopt Catholicism, San Andrés has more services, including a medical clinic, and more working opportunities.
  • Guadalupe Ocotán (elevation 1050 meters). More of the Huichol living here accepted Catholicism and are more acculturated. Most children attend school; many people wear “mestizo” clothing.

Each of these districts has its own autonomous government, and there are relatively few formal links between the districts or “communities”. Each community is headed by a governor (Tatohuani), with the office transferred to a new leader every January following an elaborate ceremony. Each community also has a parallel religious government headed by its shamans (maraakames).

The transportation challenges in this region are evident from the number of small airstrips shown on the map and the paucity of road links. Villages only 5 or 10 kilometers away from each other “as the crow flies” may be almost impossible to travel between because of the river canyons and steep slopes. A relief map of this area shows that most settlements are perched on whatever flatter land is available, often on the plateau top.

Given the lack of formal links between districts, and the terrain, it is not surprising that the settlement pattern in the Huichol heartland area is highly dispersed, with a very large number of tiny settlements, mostly kinship settlements where all members belong to the same extended family. There are more than 400 distinct settlements (rancherías or ranchos) in the region and many of the settlements are a considerable distance from their nearest neighbors. This part of Mexico exhibits one of the clearest examples in the country of dispersed rural settlements.

Key questions raised by the dispersed settlement patterns of this area:

  • What does “development” mean in the context of the Huichol Indians?
  • Does this dispersed settlement pattern inhibit the future economic and social development of the Huichol people? If so, how does it do so, and what could be done to overcome the difficulties it causes?
  • Would development be easier if most or all of the small scattered communities were congregated into a smaller number of larger settlements?

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Jan 312013
 

The remote mountains and plateaus of the north-west corner of Jalisco where it shares borders with the states of Nayarit, Durango and Zacatecas (see map) is home to some 18,000 Huichol Indians, as well as their close cousins, the Cora.

The Huichol heartland (central part of the rectangle on map) is an area of about 4100 square kilometers which straddles the main ridges of the Western Sierra Madre, with elevations of between 1000 and 3000 meters above sea level. There are dozens of dispersed small Huichol rural settlements (ranchos) in the area. We will take a detailed look at their settlements and traditional way of life in a future post.

In this post we focus on the regional setting of the Huichol heartland and the links that now exist between the Huichol and other places in the same general region of Mexico.

huichol-regional-setting

The Huichol refer to all other Mexicans (whatever their ethnic origin) as “mestizo”. The nearest non-Huichol “mestizo” towns are  Mezquitic, Colotlán, Bolaños, Chimaltitán and Villa Guerrero, all in Jalisco, and all about 2-3 days’ walk from most Huichol settlements.

Migration to the tobacco fields

Many Huichol have left their home villages, where economic prospects are limited, in search of employment elsewhere. This kind of migration is often temporary or seasonal. For example, some Huichol undertake seasonal agricultural work, from November to May, on the tobacco plantations of coastal Nayarit. This may guarantee some income but the living conditions are poor, the work is hazardous and pesticide poisoning is all too common. Most of these Huichol return home each summer to plant their corn, beans and squash.

The center of tobacco cultivation is Santiago Ixcuintla, a town which has a very interesting support center for Huichol Indian culture and crafts. Tobacco cultivation, no longer as important as it once was, required as many as 15,000 local plus 27,000 temporary workers. While the businesses involved all have guidelines about how chemical sprays (including including Lannate, Diquat, Paraquat and Parathion) should be applied, these have rarely been effectively enforced. Many of the Huichol live in shanty-like accommodation in the fields, with no ready access to potable water. Some studies have shown that pesticide containers are sometimes used to carry drinking water. There have also been many cases of organophosphate (fertilizer) intoxication from working and living in the tobacco fields.

The tobacco workers often have no place to purchase basic food supplies apart from a store run by the same company they work for. The company holds their wages until the end of the week, and deducts the cost of any items they have bought. This is a virtually identical system to the “tienda de raya” system that was employed by colonial hacienda owners to economically enslave their workers.

Making the pesticide problems for the Huichol even worse is the fact that chemicals including DDT have been used to fumigate parts of Sierra Huichol in order to kill malarial mosquitoes. The Huichol refer to the DDT sprayers as “matagatos” (cat killers). The effects of most of these chemicals are cumulative over time.

Movement to the cities

In the past thirty years, about four thousand Huichols have migrated to cities, primarily Tepic (Nayarit), Guadalajara (Jalisco) and Mexico City. It has also become quite common to see Huichol Indians (usually the menfolk in their distinctive embroidered clothing) in tourist-oriented towns, such as San Blas and Puerto Vallarta. To a large extent, it is these city-wise Huichols who, in search of funds, have drawn attention to their rich culture through their artwork and handicrafts. In addition to embroidered bags and belts, the Huichol make vibrant-colored bead work, yarn crosses and (more recently) yarn paintings, often depicting ancient legends. Income from artwork is very variable, but it is an activity that can include the participation of women. However, trading may depend on middle men who siphon off potential profits, and the Huichol artists now face stiff competition from non-Huichol imitators.

Encroachment by outsiders

As we saw in an earlier post—The sacred geography of Mexico’s Huichol Indians—the Huichol consider themselves the guardians of a large part of western Mexico. Inevitably, traditional Huichol lands have been encroached upon by outsiders for agriculture and ranching. Some non-Huichol ejidos have been established on land that was formerly communal Huichol land. Unfortunatley, the Huichol have had little defence against these pressures.

Mining interests are also threatening some traditional Huichol areas. For example, there is a serious dispute between the Huichol and the First Magestic Silver company over the area the Huichol call Wirikuta (where they gather their sacred peyote on an annual 800-km round-trip pilgrimage). First Majestic Silver has obtained permission from the Mexican government for its proposed La Luz Silver Project, which will extract silver from the Sierra de Catorce, despite this area’s historic significance for the Huichol.

Want to see their artwork?

One of the museums in the city of Zacatecas houses one of the relatively few museum quality displays of Huichol Indian art anywhere in Mexico. The collection was bought by the Zacatecas state government, in order to prevent its sale to the University of Colorado. The 185 embroideries (as well as many other items) were collected by Dr. Mertens, an American doctor who lived in Bolaños and worked for the Bolaños mining company. After the company closed its mines, Mertens continued to live in Bolaños, and to offer medical services to the Huichol, asking only for the occasional embroidery in lieu of payment. Another place to see high quality Huichol art is the small museum in the Basilica de Zapopan in the Guadalajara Metropolitan Area.

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The sacred geography of Mexico’s Huichol Indians

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Jan 242013
 

The remote mountains and plateaus where the states of Jalisco, Nayarit and Zacatecas all meet is home to some 18,000 Huichol Indians, as well as their close cousins, the Cora. The Huichol (Wixárika = “the healers” in their own language) live in scattered, extended family, settlements (ranchos) and rely entirely on oral tradition. They are intensely religious, and see their time-honored responsiblity as protecting nature’s creations. Their shamen perform elaborate ceremonies to a pantheon of gods to ensure  bountiful crops, health and prosperity, as well as to preserve nature and heal the Earth.

The center of the Huichol world – Tee’kata (see map) – coincides with the village of Santa Catarina in the Huichol heartland. Central to some Huichol ceremonies is peyote, an hallucinogenic cactus, obtained from an annual pilgrimage eastwards to the sacred land of Wirikuta, near Real de Catorce in San Luis Potosí. The pilgrimage is an 800 km (500 mile) round trip. Peyote (Lophophora williamsii) is called jicuri by the Huichol.

Map of the sacred geography of Mexico's Huichol Indians

The sacred geography of Mexico’s Huichol Indians. Credit: Tony Burton/Geo-Mexico; all rights reserved.

Equally important points in the Huichol cosmos lie to the north, west and south:

  • north: Huaxa Manaká =  the mountain of Cerro Gordo in Durango
  • west: Tatéi Haramara = the Isla del Rey, an island near San Blas
  • south: Xapawiyemeta =  Scorpion Island (Isla de los Alacranes) in Lake Chapala

The sacred geography of the Huichol (shown by the rhombus on the map) echoes the significance they attach to the number 5. They view the world as having five regions, corresponding to five mothers (one under the earth and the other four at cardinal points). They believe that the sun is carried through the universe by five serpents. The flowers of their sacred peyote come in five colors, as do their cobs of corn  (Blue, white, reddish purple, yellow, multicolor). The Huichol have different terms for the five colors of corn, which are closely associated with the five main points of their cosmos:

  • yuawime – blue – south
  • tuxame – white- north
  • ta+lawime  – purple – west
  • taxawime – yellow – east
  • tsayule – multicolor – center

huichol-yarn-crossEvery rhombus has four corner points and a center. Their traditional yarn crosses (often mistakenly referred to as “God’s Eyes”) are made by wrapping colored yarn around two twigs to form a rhombus of color. Most yarn crosses use several different colors. Compound yarn crosses are made by adding small yarn crosses at each end of the two main supporting twigs, giving five crosses (eyes) in total. Huichol fathers will make a simple yarn cross when a child is born, adding additional crosses annually until the yarn cross is considered complete. This, of course, is assuming that the child survives, given that infant mortality among the Huichol is very high.

The colors used in Huichol artwork also carry lots of symbolism. For example, blue is taken to mean water or rain and associated with Lake Chapala to the south. Black symbolizes death and is linked to the Pacific Ocean in the west. Red, the color for mother, is usually reserved for sacred places such as Wirikuta in the east. White (clouds) is associated with the north.

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The Day of the Dead – a Mexican celebration with regional variations

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Oct 292012
 

The indigenous Mexican peoples held many strong beliefs connected with death; for example that the dead needed the same things as the living, hence their bodies should be buried with their personal possessions, sandals and other objects.

With the arrival of the Spanish, the Indians’ pagan ideas and customs were gradually assimilated into the official Catholic calendar. Dead children are remembered on November 1st, All Saints’ Day, while deceased adults are honored on November 2nd, All Souls’ Day. On either day, most of the activity takes place in the local cemetery.

Children's graves on Day of the Dead in Santa Rosa Xochiac, Mexico D.F. Photo: Tony Burton; all rights reserved.

Children’s graves on Day of the Dead in Santa Rosa Xochiac, Mexico D.F. Photo: Tony Burton; all rights reserved.

Children’s graves have toys placed upon them and are decorated with colorful streamers and balloons. Adult graves are more elaborately decorated with offerings of the departed’s favorite foods and drinks, candles, flowers, and even personal items. Brightly colored Mexican marigolds, or zempasuchitl as the Indians call them, are the traditional flowers used to guide the spirits home. Unusual art forms which appear only at this time of year include richly decorated pan de muerto (bread of death), skull-shaped sugar-sweets, and papier-mâché skeletons.

Finishing touches being put to a Day of the Dead altar, Oaxaca City. Photo: Tony Burton; all rights reserved.

Finishing touches being put to a Day of the Dead altar, Oaxaca City. Photo: Tony Burton; all rights reserved.

The graves and altars for the Day of the Dead are prepared by the entire family who then stand vigil throughout the night to ensure that their dearly departed recognize close friends or relatives when they come to partake of the feast offered them. The following day, the spirits presumably having had their fill, family, friends and neighbors consume what is left. The village of Janitzio in Lake Pátzcuaro, is perhaps the single most famous place for witnessing Day of the Dead celebrations, but equally interesting observances of the Day of the Dead are held in many small villages elsewhere in Michoacán, off the usual tourist trail. In most of these places, the local Indians are uninfluenced and unaffected by outside contacts.

There are also significant regional variations in the observance of Day of the Dead. The link below is an index to more than forty original MexConnect articles relating to Day of the Dead:

The magic of the traditional decorated altars can also be appreciated by visiting one of the replicas constructed in local museums or cultural centers. You will be looking into the dim and distant pre-Columbian past of Mexico and the Mexican people.

[This is a lightly edited extract from Tony Burton’s Western Mexico: A Traveler’s Treasury (Sombrero Books 2013). Also available as a Kindle e-book.]

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