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ETHNONYMS: Huichole, Tevi, Wizarika


Identification. The Huichol are a Mexican Indian group located in the states of Jalisco, Nayarit, Zacatecas, and Durango. The name "Huichol" is the term Spaniards used when referring to this group and is possibly a corruption of the name for either the Guachichil or the Wizarika. Some scholars believe the Huichol were originally the desert-dwelling culture known as the "Guachichil," who, in turn were one of the many people collectively called "Chichimec." "Wizarika" is the term the Huichol use to identify themselves. Its meaning is unclear, but scholars have proposed various interpretations: "the healers," "the sandal wearers," and "the ones." The Huichol use the term "Tevi," meaning one of "the people" when making distinctions between Huichol and non-Huichol individuals.

Location. The majority of the Huichol live in the Sierra Madre Occidental in the states of Jalisco, Nayarit, Zacatecas, and Durango. This area covers the span of 21°30 to 22°35 N and 104°00 to 104°30 W. The rugged sierra was formed in the Tertiary period with the lava flows from active volcanoes. The Huichol occupy some of the most rugged terrain in the mountain chain, characterized by high mesas, sheer cliffs, and deep river valleys ranging in elevation from approximately 600 meters to over 1,800 meters. The geography of the sierra consists of extremes, creating natural barriers that have served to insulate the Huichol from the outside world. The tops of the mesa are covered with oak and pine forest. In the lower elevations are subtropical scrub vegetation and thorn forests, which include such genera as Acacia, Ficus, Lysiloma, Ceiba, Bombax, Bursera, Opuntia, and Agave. The herbaceous vegetation is predominantly grasses and geophytes.

The major river running through the Huichol territory, the Chapalagana, divides the land into two sections. The Huichol who inhabit the land west of the river have experienced more acculturative pressures. They live in small groups in or around Cora Indian or mestizo settlements, or in urban centers. Those who live to the east have maintained more of their traditions. In this sierra environment, there are two major seasonsrainy and dry. The driest months are December through May. Eighty percent of the annual precipitation of 80 centimeters falls in the rainy season, from June to October. During the rainy season, the canyons at lower elevations are hotter and more humid than the mesas. In the dry seasons, the mesas are subject to colder weather, sometimes with frost and strong winds.

Demography. The number of Huichol at the time of Spanish contact is unknown. Rampant epidemics of measles and smallpox greatly reduced the population. Franciscan missionary documents from the 1780s report a population of 2,000 in the more assimilated communities of Tenzompa, San Nicolás, Soledad, and Huajuquilla. In the three most traditional Huichol communities (San Andres, Santa Catarina, and San Sebastián), the population totaled 1,000 inhabitants. In 1894 a Mexican government census placed the Huichol population at 4,000. From 1910 to 1940 numerous Huichol fled the sierra because of the turmoil created by the Mexican Revolution and the Cristero revolt (see "History and Cultural Relations") and settled in several areas of Nayarit. Larger numbers of Huichol began to migrate to the Nayarit coast as seasonal laborers, and, beginning in the 1960s, some Huichol began to live in urban centers such as Tepic, Guadalajara, Zacatecas, and Mexico City. In 1981 the total number of Huichol was estimated to be around 10,000, with the greatest concentration, 6,000, living in rural Jalisco, and approximately 2,000 residing in urban centers. The 1990 Mexican census placed the Huichol population over the age of 5 at 20,000.

Linguistic Affiliation. Huichol, the native language, is classified with languages of the Aztecoiden Branch of the Uto-Aztecan Family. It is most closely related to the Cora language. Some Nahuatl terms have been borrowed from Tlaxcalan Indians and incorporated into Huichol.

History and Cultural Relations

Little is known about the origins of the Huichol. Some scholars propose that in pre-Columbian times the Huichol were originally Guachichil from the desert around Zacatecas and San Luis Potosí and were part of the Chichimec culture. According to this theory, ancestors of contemporary Huichol sought refuge in the sierra shortly before or after the arrival of the Spaniards. Others believe that the Huichol had been longtime residents in the sierra, with a strong orientation to the Pacific coast. Regardless of their origins, it is likely that the Huichol culture consisted of four or five tribes, each with distinct regional traditions.

Because of the rugged terrain of the sierra and physical resistence on the part of the Indians, the Huichol held out against direct Spanish domination until the 1720s. By this time their territory and population had been drastically reduced. The Franciscans established centers that served as missions and frontier posts in the area. Some of the first Franciscan missionaries established communities in Tenzompa, Soledad, and San Nicolas, all of which eventually assimilated with the mestizo population. San Andres, Santa Catarina, and San Sebastián were the most remote of these Franciscan centers, and the Huichol there maintained more of their native beliefs and practices. Since the Huichol area was located along the fringe of Spanish-controlled lands within the frontier of San Luis Colotlán, the centers became outposts to protect the region from Indian attacks. The Huichol received a more privileged status in which they were allowed to have their own tribal government and were exempt from paying tribute.

Intensive missionary influences in the sierra declined after Mexican independence, and by 1860 virtually all clergy left the sierra because of increasing tension among the Indians over land rights. Independence from Spain also meant the end of Spanish-chartered Indian communities in the sierra, which consequently opened Huichol communal lands to mestizo cattlemen and colonists. A ten-year revolution ensued in which Huichol and Cora joined forces under the Indian leader Lozada to protect the sierra from further foreign encroachment. Until the arrival of several ethnographers at the end of the nineteenth century and at the beginning of the twentieth, little was actually known about the Huichol and their cultural traditions. The best known of these ethnographers was the Norwegian Carl Lumholtz, who, under the sponsorship of the Museum of Natural History in New York, documented much of Huichol culture through journals and photographs and assembled an extensive collection of Huichol material culture for the museum.

Shortly thereafter, the Mexican Revolution began, and by 1913 had reached the sierra. The neighboring mestizos, who had been trying to invade Huichol land, sided with Pancho Villa. In response, the Huichol fought under their chief, General Mezquite, who allied himself with Carranza. Mezquite received help from Guadalajara, and he and his Huichol troops were successful in driving the mestizos from their territory. The tranquility in the sierra was to be short-lived. Christian rebels known as Cristeros were campaigning against the recently imposed government policy separating the Catholic church from the state. Those who escaped government troops fled to the protection of the sierra. The Huichol were experiencing strife between their own communities. Members of the community of San Sebastián joined the Cristeros under the leadership of a Huichol named Juan Bautista, taking this opportunity to invade and ransack the ranches and ceremonial centers of Santa Catarina. Juan Bautista was eventually ambushed and killed by Huichol from Tuxpan de Bolaños. During this period, many Huichol fled the sierra to regional towns, cities, and the coast or went to live among the Cora. Some never returned to the sierra. Most Huichol remained neutral or progovernment, depending upon the security of each one's communal lands. Land-reform issues originating with the Mexican Revolution had still not been resolved, and, with the disruption caused by the Cristero rebels, mestizos seized this opportunity to move onto Huichol lands.

In the 1950s the Catholic church again began to make inroads into Huichol communities, constructing airstrips and several missions nearby. Even greater changes occurred in the 1960s when, under then President Luis Echeverría, the National Indian Institute (INI) sponsored a regional development program known as Plan HUICOT (for Huichol-Cora-Tepehuan). This government agency developed projects designed to integrate Huichol into the mainstream of Mexican national culture. Airstrips and roads were built linking the isolated communities to the outside world. Agricultural projects were begun that introduced tractors, fertilizers, and different strains of crops.

Additional projects focused on improving cattle and livestock in the communities. Medical clinics and schools were also created, the latter run by bilingual Huichol teachers.

The Huichol are now tied into the national economy and seek ways of generating cash income, usually as artisans or migrant wage laborers in the cities or on mestizo-owned lands. They are in contact with an increasing number of outsiders, both Mexican nationals and foreigners from such diverse places as the United States, Canada, Europe, Central and South America, and Japan. Huichol lands are still being invaded by mestizos seeking land on which to build homes and graze cattle and forests to exploit for timber. The Huichol, represented by INI officials and other nonprofit development organizations, are still trying to gain legal title to their lands.


The Huichol sierra is divided into four major community districts. In the state of Jalisco and bordering on Durango and Zacatecas are the communities of San Andrés Cohamiata (including Banco de Calítique), San Sebastián Teponahuaztlán along with the annexed Tuxpan de Bolaños, and Santa Catarina Cuexcomatitlán. The area in Nayarit includes Guadalupe Ocotán and various small communities in which Cora Indians also live, such as Jess María and Santa Bárbara. In each district there is a ceremonial center where the governing officials reside and where communitywide political and ceremonial activities take place. Within the community district are temple districts made up of family lineages. Most Huichol live in dispersed family ranchos within the vicinity of the temple district corresponding to the lineage of the elder of the rancho. Rancho settlements consist of individual houses belonging to the eldest couple, to their adult children and grandchildren, and to extended-family members who have received permission from the elder to construct their homes in the rancho. There is usually a communal kitchen and a house that is the family's xiriki (shrine). The xiriki is dedicated to the ancestors of the elders of the rancho. In some instances, there is more than one xiriki, to honor the ancestors of other, more distantly related kin members. All of these buildings encircle a main patio, which features an outdoor fireplace and sacred stone disk where family ceremonies take place. Huichol houses have dirt floors, stone or adobe walls, and grass-thatched roofs. In each rancho there is usually at least one house made of bamboo that is built on stilts above the ground, where maize and other crops are stored after the harvest. Some Huichol are replacing grass roofs with cement or store-bought prefabricated shingles. The walls of some houses are now made of oven-fired bricks.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Huichol economy is based on hunting, gathering, and fishing along with slash-and-burn subsistence agriculture. Wild animals such as deer, rabbits, peccaries, iguanas, and assorted birds were originally hunted by men with traps, bows and arrows, and a kind of slingshot. Now guns have largely supplanted these devices. Fish and crayfish are caught with handmade nets. Wild greens, roots and tubers, mesquite beans, mushrooms, avocados, nopal cactus and fruits, huamuchili fruits, berries, and plums are collected. Animal-pulled wooden plows and digging sticks are used for cultivation, the primary crops being maize, beans, squashes and chilies. Families also own cattle, mules, donkeys, horses, goats, sheep, pigs, chickens, and turkeys. Cheese is made from cows' milk. Various Huichol migrate seasonally to the west coast to work as wage laborers in the harvest of tobacco and commercial food crops. Others are artisans who sell their artwork in the sierra, in the Mexican cities and resorts, and along the U.S.-Mexico border. Much of the money earned in these ventures is earmarked for expenses incurred in sponsoring ceremonies. Some Huichol move to the cities to work as manual laborers. A select group pursues such occupations as bilingual teacher, engineer, economist, and health professional.

Industrial Arts. Huichol men weave baskets, hats, and baby cradles from plant fibers. They also manufacture chairs, musical instruments, bows and arrows, loom tools, and spindles. Women embroider, weave on backstrap looms, and make some pottery. The multitude of ritual offerings made are divided into male objects, such as prayer arrows, and female ones, which include votive bowls. Both men and women make beaded jewelry, gourd bowls, masks, and other figures for commercial ventures. Woven and embroidered belts, bags, and clothes are made for sale, as well as yarn paintings and other commercially developed art forms.

Division of Labor. Women gather wild foods, help in horticultural activities, milk cows, prepare food, carry water, sew, weave and embroider, make clothing and accessories, and care for children. Men hunt, fish, perform the heavy manual labor in cultivation, gather firewood, construct buildings, and help with child care. Young boys herd animals and help the men hunt; girls care for younger siblings, make tortillas, and help in household chores. Most shamans are male; those women who are shamans tend to be more discreet about their specialized training. Men are the political leaders and musicians. Women can specialize as midwives and master artisans. Ritual traditions emphasize the importance of male and female counterparts in ceremonial roles.

Land Tenure. The sierra is divided into districts of community lands. Local Huichol governing officials allocate land to family members of the community. Many families occupy several plots of land, where they reside on a seasonal basis in conjunction with their subsistence activities. A community member can petition for a parcel of unoccupied land. Land is passed down through the family, and inheritance rules place special importance on the oldest and youngest children. Huichol are constantly under pressure from neighboring mestizos encroaching upon their land. There is a great deal of uncertainty among the Huchol about the effect that the 1992 amendment of Article 27 of the Mexican constitution will have on agrarian law.


Kin Groups and Descent. The extended family constitutes the core Huichol social structure. Family lineages are organized within temple districts based on bilineal descent.

Disruption of these districts makes it difficult to reconstruct the original social organization. In some temple districts, the group is organized into moieties of dry- and rainy-season lineages. Each half is united under an ancestor deity. Members of surrounding temple districts are linked to their ritual cargo-holding counterparts in each temple group.

Kinship Terminology. Huichol kinship terminology is Hawaiian. Terms of address distinguish kin one generation from Ego, but in the second generation and beyond, the terms are reciprocal.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Traditional marriages are bilateral, between first cousins, and arranged by parents when children are very young. When they reach puberty, they are wed. Women generally share equally in this decision making. Presently marriages frequently occur between more distant kin; however, it is preferred that the spouse be from the same temple district, or at least from the same community. The union of the couple does not include the joining of economic assets; women and men maintain their own property separately, especially cattle and other livestock. Polygynous marriages are more common in some communities; however, this practice appears to be gaining popularity in others as well. Postmarital residence for the first year is at the rancho of the wife's family. Afterwards, the couple decide in which family rancho they will eventually build their own house. If either one of the couple is the oldest or youngest of the family, they will reside in his or her family's rancho. Divorce, although discouraged, is permissible, especially in cases of excessive cruelty. If family members cannot reconcile the couple through mediation, the matter will go before the governor of the community for his decision. Remarriage is less formal: the two families involved are consulted and if they are in agreement the couple starts living together.

Domestic Unit. The rancho consists of a number of nuclear-family households that usually form an extended family spanning three to four generations, along with sons-in-law, grandchildren, and widowed or divorced adults, who are most likely women. The elder is the decision maker of the group and also represents the family at the community-wide level. Although the elder is usually male, an older female can also hold this position. The family's shrine (xiriki) is located in the rancho of its oldest living elder. Occasionally aunts, uncles, cousins, or godchildren visit and even live at the rancho for extended periods.

Inheritance. Parents begin to pass on their inheritance to children while they are still living. From an early age, offspring start receiving gifts of cattle, horses, mules, donkeys, pigs, sheep, goats, chickens, and turkeys. In some communities, inheritance may be patrilateral. The eldest and youngest usually receive the largest amount of the wealth and property of the deceased parent. They also inherit the primary responsibilty for fulfilling the temple, government, and church cargos previously held by their parents.

Socialization. Children are the center of attention, and all family members help in caring for them. Both the mother and father are major figures in child rearing; however, grandparents have a special relationship with their children's offspring. Shortly after birth, children are named by a grandparent or shaman. If a child falls seriously ill, he or she will receive an additional name. Every year for the first five years, children, with the help of their parents, are the major participants in the harvest ceremony, Tatei Neixra. Upon reaching 5 years of age, they are considered complete human beings. Education is informal and nonformal, most of it taking place in the rancho setting among adults and older children, as well as in the ceremonies, deer hunts, and pilgrimages. Children who follow the path of becoming a shaman, master musician, or artist learn from family members proficient in these areas. Some Huichol children attend bilingual government schools in their communities or Catholic missionary schools. When a girl reaches puberty, she has usually mastered the basic embroidery and backstrap-weaving techniques, which she visually displays to mark her intitiation into womanhood. With her first menses, a lock of hair is cut to symbolize this passage.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Huichol society was traditionally based on hunting, gathering, and horticulture. Participation in the larger economic market has created some inequality in access to wealth and advantages. Nevertheless, many Huichol rituals involve redistribution of wealth among community members. Huichol ideology retains strong elements of egalitarianism. Social status is based on age (the elders having the highest position) and participation in government, temple, and church cargo roles. Specialists, such as shamans, musicians, or master artists receive higher status and recognition.

Political Organization. The community is led by a council of kawiteros, wise elder men who are usually shamans. Through the consensus of their dreams, they annually select the new governor, tribal council, and church cargos. Much of the political organization was structured from eighteenth-century Franciscan missionary teachings. The governor is the major decision maker and serves as arbitrator for the community. Council members include commissioners for each temple-group area, a constable, a judge, a bilingual secretary, and community representatives. The governor, who redistributes goods and services in the community, is a religious figurehead. The governor's wife, who shares the position with him, has much influence in decision making.

Social Control. The most common conflicts involve land disputes, cattle and livestock thefts and transactions, domestic family problems, neglected cargo responsibilities, sorcery, and relations with outsiders. The governor and council members present serve as arbitrators between the parties involved. Punishment varies from fines, service rendered, jail (sometimes in the stocks), and ousting from the community. Matters of murder are settled by the mestizo authorities in the cities.

Conflict. Most conflicts with other groups involve land and property disputes arising, for instance, from mestizo land encroachment and exploitation of natural resources. International outsiders who arrive to make movies, take photographs, write books, and seek messianic experiences can also cause disruptions.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Religion permeates all aspects of life, and most Huichol make no real distinction between the sacred and everyday worlds. For the Huichol, religion is life itself. Following these beliefs and rituals, they petition the deities for sun and rain for the crops, successful deer hunts, fertility, good health, and protection from the dangers of the natural and supernatural worlds. The gods in the Huichol pantheon embody and personify nature in all of its manifestations, with the oldest being Takutsi Nakawé, Grandmother of Growth and Germination, who created the world, and Tatewari, Grandfather Fire. The large company of deities includes the sun, rain, wind, ocean, earth, and deer. Votive offerings, artistically rendered, are made as visual prayers to the deities and communicate innermost Huichol needs and desires. Peyote (Lophophora williamsii ) has a strong presence in Huichol culture. The Huichol make annual pilgrimages to the sacred peyote land, Wirikuta, in the San Luis Potosí desert. Peyote's psychoactive properties enable participants to see bright, colorful visions that are interpreted as personal communications from their gods. Huichol look upon peyote, which is identified with the deer, as a sacred gift; its consumption is highly ritualized and serves as a unifying force among community members. Some Christian elements have entered into Huichol religious beliefs, and certain Christian ceremonies are observed. The amount of Christian influence varies. In some communities, there is a relatively minor degree of syncretism between the two religions.

Religious Practitioners. The core of Huichol existence lies in the hands of the shamans, known as mara' akames. Through five to ten years of intensive training, these men (and sometimes women) acquire knowledge as healers, priests, and diviners. In their dreams, they perceive the causes of illness and environmental instability and the actions to be taken in such cases. Their dreams also instruct them in the performance of major ceremonial functions. They summon souls into the bodies of newborn babies and follow the souls of the dead to send them off to the other world. Shamans who sing travel with their animal messengers to the many worlds in order to communicate with the gods on behalf of the family and community.

Ceremonies. The annual cycle is divided into wet- and dry-season temple ceremonies and activities. Ceremonies for rain and planting of crops take place around the summer solstice. Harvest ceremonies occur close to the fall equinox. Deer hunting and the peyote pilgrimage ensue, completing the cycle. Ceremonies usually last at least two days and nights, during which shamans sing extensive myth cycles with the help of two assistants. When the gods' presence is known, animals are sacrificed to provide them blood, which embodies the life force, and ritual food. Ceremonies also take place in the center of the community and at family ranchos.

Arts. Art is an important part of the traditional Huichol way of life. Through art they express materially their innermost feelings. The designs, which are meticulously embroidered on a shirt or brightly colored bag, or woven into a wide wool belt, are symbols representing their gods and the sacredness of nature. Peyote visions are the source of many of these designs, which are used to decorate ceremonial objects, guitars and violins, gourd bowls, and feathered arrows and for face painting. The contemporary yarn paintings are a relatively new development and are intended for outside consumption. They are unmistakably a form of storytelling, and many designs incorporate elements from Huichol folklore, mythology, beliefs, and rituals. Other kinds of commerical art include beaded earrings, necklaces, gourd bowls, masks, and embroidered and woven textiles.

Medicine. Illnesses and diseases can result from various causes: not completing ritual vows, dissatisfaction on the part of the gods, revenge taken by the souls of animals or plants for poor and reckless treatment when alive, sorcery, soul loss (especially among children), evil winds, and the return of ancestors who have not been properly propitiated. To diagnose an illness, a shaman undergoes a period of dietary restrictions and he or she dreams for several nights, during which time the patient is treated daily. The shaman sweeps the patient with feathered wands, sucks out foreign objects from the patient's body, and sprays holy water from his or her mouth onto the patient. When the cause of the illness is known, the shaman instructs the patient's family in the appropriate rituals and offerings that must be carried out. If the patient is extremely ill, a shaman will perform a ceremony in which he or she sings through the night to discover the reason for the patient's poor health. Herbs are still used extensively; however, knowledge of these medicinal plants and their lore is not as widesread as it once was. Owing to the introduction of numerous foreign diseases, most Huichol have adopted Western medicine into their traditional practices. Shamans will bless the medicine before it is administered and may work their healings in conjunction with Western doctors.

Death and Afterlife. Upon death, the soul of the individual retraces its life, following a path into the underworld, where it is faced with trials and tribulations that are a consequence of the actions of the individual while living. If a person has had sexual relations with a non-Huichol, his or her soul is banished to a corral around which stampeding mules or horses eternally run in circles. If the soul has lived a more pure life, it eventually reaches a temple of the dead in the west, where it dances to unwind itself from the thread of life. Five days after the death, the shaman and family hold a ceremony to bid farewell to the soul. The shaman then helps the soul reach the other world in the sky to join the souls of the previously deceased. Five years later, a special ceremony is performed in which the shaman captures the soul in the form of a rock crystal, which is cared for upon the altar in the family shrine. It is anointed with sacrificai animal blood and offered food during family ceremonies.


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Myerhoff, Barbara (1974). Peyote Hunt: The Sacred Journey of the Huichol Indians. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

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Zingg, Robert (1938). The Huichols: Primitive Artists. New York: G. E. Stechert & Co.