by Charmayne McGee
From the archives: August 1997
“The treasure which you think not worth taking trouble and pain to find, this one alone is the real treasure you are longing for all your life. The glittering treasure you are hunting for day and night lies buried on the other side of that hill yonder.”
When B. Traven wrote those words of the Sierra Madre mountains in his 1935 novel, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, he was speaking of the gold the adventurers sought. But the real treasure of the Sierra Madre is a fragile Indigenous culture, a window open to the natural world of preColombian times, that has been preserved for centuries high in the isolated mountain ranges of the Sierra. The Huichol Indians, overlooked and dismissed in outsiders’ lust for the hidden gold and silver mines of the Aztecs, offer us an ancient wisdom that has evolved from thousands of years of total immersion in nature.
The Huicholes call themselves “the healers.” For centuries, hidden away from the modern world and protected by the natural barrier the mountains afforded, the Huicholes have performed ceremonial rituals they believe heal the Earth and keep nature balanced. Key to the ceremonies is the ritual love offering of the white-tailed deer to their nature-deities. The blood of the deer nourishes the earth.
The Huicholes have no word for “god,” but incorporate into their eco-religious philosophy the natural wonders of their environment. The mountains and rocks of the Sierra are the physical embodiments of their ancestors who stand guard with love, willing to teach and guide their descendants in the Huicholes’ obligation to care for the Earth. The rivers are veins of Mother Ocean, conveying her lifegiving blood inland to their lands. Father Sun warms the earth and produces the crops, but when he becomes too strong, offerings must be given to Grandmother-Growth-Nakawe who brings the rains to balance the drought.
The Huicholes embroider their clothing with the symbols of nature which offer them strength and life: the flower, a prayer for rain; the deer, a request for love and bounty of their nature-deities; the scorpion, to ask their protection.
The origins of the Huicholes are debated. Some believe they were nomadic wanderers recently arrived to the Sierra. Others hold the theory that they are a branch of the same family as the Aztecs, both having migranted from their original island homeland near the Pacific coast. The Huicholes themselves say they migranted north from the Valley of Mexico and were forced to take refuge in the Sierra hundreds of years ago by warring Indian tribes.
But we know they were in the Sierra when the first Spanish conquistadores reached the west coast in 1531. The Spaniards, under the orders of Nuno de Guzman, came seeking the lost gold mines of the Aztecs, but, finding only desolate mountains, they soon left. Indians wars led by the shamans in 1540’s, l550’s and l560’s further reduced the Spaniards’ interest in the Sierra’s interior. During the 1860’s, Jesuit missionaries were repulsed by the Indians, leaving behind the shells of small chapels. It was not until l890 that European anthropologist Carl Lumholtz penetrated the Sierra and, with camera and pen, documented the Huichol culture.
Since then, other invaders have come. In the 1970’s, the Mexican government, determined to integrate all Indigenous peoples into mainstream society, opened schools, clinics and agricultural stations to introduce new ways to the Huicholes. Air strips brought small planes bearing tourists and government officials into the most remote areas of the Sierra. Ranchers coveted the high, grassy plateaus on which the Huicholes lived as new grazing lands for their increasing cattle herds. Religious zealots sought to convert the “pagans.” But through it all, the Huicholes held with certainty to their ancestral beliefs.
As the megacity of Guadalajara drained water from the mountains, and forests disappeared, game died, illness and poverty beset the Huicholes and rumors of pollution and environmental devastation reached them from the outside world, the Huicholes felt at fault. Their pact with their nature-deities had been broken. The white-tailed deer could no longer be found in the Sierra forests, and the Huicholes were unable to perform their ancient ceremonies to please their deities and heal the Earth.
The story of their true-life 600 mile pilgrimage from the remote Sierra into the heart of Mexico City–the world’s most populous and polluted city–to obtain 20 white-tailed deer from the city zoo in an effort to save the Earth from environmental destruction is a wonderful comment on the devotion and sacrifice of the Huicholes for the betterment of all men.
In 1988, the Huicholes were awarded the National Ecology Prize of Mexico for their efforts to repopulate the Sierra Madre forests with white-tailed deer.
Efforts are being made to help the Huicholes preserve their traditional culture. The Mexican government’s National Indigenous Institute now works with the Huichol elders in various educational, economic and health programs. The Cousteau Society has initiated the Punta Mita project in the state of Nayarit, an attempt to develop the state’s tourism in a way that will protect the magnificent biodiversity of the Pacific coast and the interior homeland of the Huicholes. And just a few years ago, 50 major businesses of Mexico, backed by Westin Hotels, have joined forces in the Save the Sierra movement. Their stores around the republic promote knowledge of the Sierra Madre flora and fauna, sell books, crafts and shirts to finance beneficial projects–and sponsor ecotours of the Sierra and adjacent coastal jungles.
The rich cultural heritage of the Huichol Indians is indeed the real treasure of the Sierra Madre. The Huicholes teach us that man must be a steward of the Earth, he must feel in his heart the pain of the wounded animal, the crushed blade of grass. For all souls are linked. The univerisal life force, kupuri, flows through all nature’s creations. And when man destroys nature, he destroys the finest part of his own being.
Related: Charmayne McGee’s novel So Sings the Blue Deer via Amazon.com