On a recent trip to Mexico, I had a unique opportunity to spend time with Huichol indians and partake in their Fiesta del Tambor — a festival and religious ceremony celebrating the new corn harvest, and bringing offerings to the Huichol gods as well as initiating the Huichol children into their religion.
The trip came together out of pure serendipity, as I was visiting my friends Rafe and Laura in Mexico, when I had an opportunity to tag along with Laura, who was tagging along with the parents of a childhood friend of Rafe’s — Jack and Sandy — long time friends of a Huichol family. Laura and I met up with Jack and Sandy at night in the Guadalajara airport and from there we drove to the town of Tepíc, capital of the state of Nayarit just north of Jalisco. This is Mexico-central where the landscape alternates from rugged canyons and sierras to soft rolling fields with endless rows of blue agave — the plant that produces the heralded Tequila. The Huichols don’t live in Tepíc, but do come down from their villages in the sierra to buy goods in the local hardware stores and supermarkets, and also sell their artwork — a mixture of textile and bead work that is very colorful and quite pretty to look at. Mid day we left Tepíc for our host family’s settlement set back 10km or so off the main road. After a bumpy ride in our capable front wheel drive rental car we pulled into the village. Instantly the car was surrounded with kids, but after they all came and said hello to Jack and Sandy and met us they went back to their business of playing and hanging out. A little girl called Brisa proudly showed Laura and I the family pets, a pair of falcons found as babies. The male bird, obviously was used to Brisa, cooing gently when she walked up and not really paying too much attention when she yanked on his tail a few times, as if he were the family Labrador. Brisa’s mom yelled out from the kitchen to leave the bird alone, and later she came over to feed these impressive predators their daily meal of raw meat. Eagles (same as falcons to the indians) have important symbolical meaning in Huichol religion as they reside in the sky and their feathers impart special powers to the shaman.
Preparations for the festival were already under way when we arrived, and at night, the first ceremony kicked off and we met Joaquin, patriarch and budding shaman of the family. This was Joaquin’s first year solely conducting the Fiesta del Tambor, and his powers as a shaman and confidence of the family had yet to be garnered. The ceremony had been complicated as well by a family strife between Joaquin and his brother (who lives 20 yards away) much to his mother’s discontent. Notwithstanding his internal stresses Joaquin welcomed Laura and I and expressed his joy at us sharing the ceremony with his family. Chanting and some early offerings occurred, and the beating of the drum and the stoking of the sacred fire commenced. We were invited to participate and made offerings of corn and chocolate to the altar. We also placed corn in the fire, an important symbol for the Huichols, and throughout the night, shaman Joaquin would shake his feather-clad prayer wand called a muwieri from the fire to the heavens and back while mumbling prayers and apparently having deep exchanges of some sort. A young bull had been brought out during the day and was tied on a string nearby quietly grazing whatever he could reach. Jack clued us in that the bull was to be slaughtered by knife at some point late in the night. At one point the whole party got up and gathered around the bull, now a little spooked by the sudden attention and probably wondering what we wanted from him. As Joaquin chanted the group passed around the ceremonial knife that we all flashed to the chosen bovine. As I showed this animal its tool of imminent death, I couldn’t help but notice the knife seemed kind of shiny and cheap, more of decoration quality, but I guessed it would have to do the job. The group moved back to the fire and the drum, and the bull went back to grazing. Laura and I vowed to try to stay awake for the slaughter, but I went to bed not a 100% convinced I wanted to watch. I, in fact, did not get up, but was awakened in the night by a long protesting mooing – a swift death it was not.
The following day was marked by a ceremony involving the young children of the settlement. The children perform this spiritual voyage the first seven years by shaking their prayer rattlers for hours while the Shaman goes around and performs some rituals on them. I was impressed how these young children sat still on a chair in the sun for so long without much protest. The night held some more chanting, and fire, and drumbeating though the energy level wasn’t quite what it had been the day before. The heat of the daytime ceremony and the continuous praying and ceremony leading had left the shaman and his troupe exhausted.
The final day, a Sunday, made me think of Christmas. It was a day where the extended family and village friends gathered and exchanged offerings and gifts. Joaquin’s brother also came, and it was clear this was an emotional healing for both of them. Everybody received a portion food offerings and took them to be blessed by Joaquin. The food we ate consisted of squash, elote (corn), and jerked bull. the corn was dry and chewy but very tasty, and the squash tasted delicious. The woman had also been brewing a corn beer called tesguino, a wild-fermentation, acidic, and mildly alcoholic beverage that looks like café con leche. Most of it was hard to get down, but all the women came around with their bucket (as in the plastic rubbermaid kind) and spooned out a teacup’s worth expecting you to down it. I was sure I would have some dire intestinal effects following this force feeding, but all turned out all right in the end.
At the end of the weekend, I felt truly privileged to have had the opportunity to spend time with such a gracious group in their special time, and felt very grateful for our new friends Jack and Sandy’s who shared so freely their garnered knowledge of the Huichols. Thank you both, and Laura for letting me tag along!
You can read more about Huichols here: