It’s hard to believe that there is still a culture in North America who lives similarly to the way they did centuries ago. The Huichol People of the Sierra Madre mountains just north of the Riviera Maya on mainland Mexico are an anthropological enigma. How did this Native Mexican tribe manage to maintain their ways while civilization all around them changed?
Descendants of the Aztecs, the Huichol people have been around much longer than modern history has recorded. Little is known about exactly when they arrived in Mexico, but their oral history claims that they originated in the state of San Luis Potosí and later migrated westward to live, isolated in the Sierra Madre Mountains. It is probably due to their isolation that they managed to escape domination by other tribes and by the Spanish conquistadors. It wasn’t until the early 18th century, two centuries after the Spanish arrived, that the Franciscan missionaries even penetrated the mountains enough to build a church. Although the missionaries tried hard to convert the Huichol to Christianity and the culture surrounding it, the Huichol remained dedicated to their ways of life. The Franciscans eventually gave up after a century of trying and the Huichol have remained relatively untouched ever since. It wasn’t until the 1890s that any real information was known about the Huichol, after the Norwegian historian, Carl Lumholtz spent almost a decade exploring the Sierra Madre. Lumholtz wrote “Still their ancient beliefs, customs and ceremonies all remain in their pristine vigor.” Today, there are only about 20,000 remaining Huichol people living in villages deep in the Sierra Madre mountains. They call themselves the “Wirrarika” people, meaning healers or prophets.
Being a deeply spiritual people, the Huichol practice animism, or an ancient belief system that attributes souls to non-human entities, such as plants, animals and even inanimate objects. Guided by “marakame,” or shaman priests, their spiritual ceremonies, which involve weeping and singing, rely heavily on the use of peyote cactus to incite visions and enable communication with their gods. The Huichol are widely known for their intricate beaded and woven artwork, which is also closely tied to their spiritual life. The pieces of art, called “nierikas” are created from “dreams” that come to them during their ceremonies and are actually petitions to their gods. Although each artisan develops his or her own style of art, there are symbols that often show up in Huichol pieces, such as deer, corn, peyote, arrows, serpents, and scorpions, among others. They are usually very colorful, invoking a psychedelic feel at times. Selling these deeply spiritual and personal pieces of art is a way of survival for the Huichol in this modern world.
Still living without contemporary amenities, such as running water and electricity, the Huichol struggle to maintain their ancestral traditions and way of life as modern society encroaches upon them. Many Huichol have migrated to larger cities or tobacco farms to find work, while others struggle with poverty, isolation and encroachment on their land. Selling their artwork is a way to maintain their cultural traditions and still survive, financially. Although there are many shops in Puerto Vallarta and the surrounding towns that sell Huichol artwork, if you want to ensure that you are buying from a fair trade cooperative, you are encouraged to do your homework prior to traveling. Peyote People is an organization formed in 1997 to help local Huichol families market and sell their unique pieces of artwork. Part of National Geographic, there is also Novica.com, which is dedicated to providing a place for Huichol artists to sell their work at a fair price. Along with every piece of art comes a bio on the artist. For a list of other shops in and around Puerto Vallarta featuring Huichol art as well as other hand-crafted artwork from all over Mexico, check out Puertovallarta.net. If you’re interested in having a more intimate experience understanding the history and culture of ancient Mexico, you can take a day trip to visit a Huichol Village. There you will learn about their way of life, their spiritual ceremonies, and get an up close look at artwork being created in real-time. To schedule a trip or for more information on where to shop for Huichol art, contact our knowledgeable staff at Exceptional Stays. We are here to answer all of your questions and ensure that your trip is a memorable one! Written by: Kimberley Flores