This comprehensive study of one of the world's great indigenous arts explores issues surrounding dreams and visions, ranging from what shamanic vision is to how artists use vision and how they perceive the soul in relation to their art.
Huichol Indian yarn paintings are one of the world's great indigenous arts, sold around the world and advertised as authentic records of dreams and visions of the shamans. Using glowing colored yarns, the Huichol Indians of Mexico paint the mystical symbols of their culture—the hallucinogenic peyote cactus, the blue deer-spirit who appears to the shamans as they croon their songs around the fire in all-night ceremonies deep in the Sierra Madre mountains, and the pilgrimages to sacred sites, high in the central Mexican desert of Wirikuta.
Hope MacLean provides the first comprehensive study of Huichol yarn paintings, from their origins as sacred offerings to their transformation into commercial art. Drawing on twenty years of ethnographic fieldwork, she interviews Huichol artists who have innovated important themes and styles. She compares the artists' views with those of art dealers and government officials to show how yarn painters respond to market influences while still keeping their religious beliefs.
Most innovative is her exploration of what it means to say a tourist art is based on dreams and visions of the shamans. She explains what visionary experience means in Huichol culture and discusses the influence of the hallucinogenic peyote cactus on the Huichol's remarkable use of color. She uncovers a deep structure of visionary experience, rooted in Huichol concepts of soul-energy, and shows how this remarkable conception may be linked to visionary experiences as described by other Uto-Aztecan and Meso-American cultures.
- Foreword by Peter T. Furst
- 1. The Path to the Sierra Madre
- 2. Wixárika: Children of the Ancestor Gods
- 3. Kakauyari: The Gods and the Land Are Alive
- 4. Gifts for the Gods
- 5. Sacred Yarn Paintings
- 6. Commercialization of the Nierika
- 7. Footprints of the Founders
- 8. Making Yarn Paintings
- 9. The Colors Speak
- 10. Sacred Colors and Shamanic Vision
- 11. The Artist as Visionary
- 12. The "Deified Heart": Huichol Soul Concepts and Shamanic Art
- 13. Arte Mágico: Magical Power in Yarn Paintings
- 14. Shamanic Art, Global Market
- 15. The Influence of the Market
- 16. Ancient Aesthetics, Modern Images
- Glossary of Huichol and Spanish Terms
It was December 1988, and I had traveled four days and thousands of miles, from Ottawa, Canada, to Tepic, Mexico, and from there to Tucson, Arizona, to meet a Huichol Indian woman I barely knew. When I finally found Guadalupe de la Cruz Ríos (Lupe) in a house on the outskirts of Tucson, I realized that the tourist Spanish I had been learning from tapes was wholly inadequate. I could hardly understand anything she and her family were saying. I felt lost and discouraged.
"Why did I come so far to see someone I can't even speak to?" I asked myself. I was ready to turn around and go home again.
The next morning, Lupe and I were sitting in the living room. Everyone else had gone out. On the table next to us was a copy of Art of the Huichol Indians, a beautifully illustrated book with many reproductions of yarn paintings—an art made by pressing colored yarn into beeswax spread on a plywood board. Lupe picked up the book and opened it to one of her own yarn paintings.
"Esto es Tamatsi Kauyumari" (Sp.: This is Tamatsi Kauyumari, the Deer God), she said, pointing to a picture of a deer-person holding a bow. I wrote down "Tamatsi Calumari."
"Es el poderoso del venado" (Sp.: It is the power of the deer). She spoke slowly, sounding out each syllable. I wrote down the words she used. She waited while I looked up poderoso and venado in my dictionary.
Slowly, we worked our way through all the images in the yarn painting: the altar in the foreground; the Deer God, Tamatsi Kauyumari, a shamanic figure who wields a bow; the evil brujo (Sp.: sorcerer) called Kieri (Lat.: Datura),2 who is being shot by Tamatsi Kauyumari; the deception practiced by those who follow the evil plant, Datura, instead of the good spirit of the peyote cactus (Lat.: Lophophora williamsii); the deer, as the source of spiritual power; and the deer's way of helping the shaman sing.
In a few hours, even though I was almost incapable of carrying on a conversation in Spanish, Lupe used her yarn painting to give me a lesson in some of the basic concepts of Huichol shamanism. One yarn painting became a teaching tool, a vehicle for establishing a relationship between two people from very different cultures and a window into Huichol mysticism.
From that day, I realized that yarn paintings were more than just pretty ethnic designs made for sale to tourists. A study of Huichol yarn paintings might provide a deeper insight into Huichol culture and the shamanism it is based on. This book is the result.
I first met Guadalupe de la Cruz Ríos (Lupe) in the summer of 1988. She and her family were traveling around North America, visiting Native reservations and performing basic ceremonies. The man who had arranged their tour was a Canadian named Edmond Faubert. His family lived near the village of Wakefield in the Gatineau Hills of Quebec, Canada, where I also lived.
During their tour, they stopped in Wakefield. One day, they held an exhibition in our local art gallery, and that is where I met Lupe. We formed a bond, and she invited me to visit her in Mexico. I made several trips over the next few years, and Lupe stayed with me when she and her family made more tours of Canada.
For the first few years, my interest was purely personal. I lived with Lupe and her family for weeks or months at a time, sleeping on the floor of a one-room concrete-block house in the slums of Tepic or on the ground around a campfire in the countryside. Lupe took me with her on pilgrimages to sacred sites. We traveled on rickety old polleros—buses with people and chickens riding on top—back into the hills behind Tepic. We rode crowded, second-class buses down the coastal mountains to the beach town of San Blas, home of aging American hippies and of a white rock jutting out of the Pacific Ocean that is sacred to Tatei Haramara, Our Mother the Pacific Ocean. In 1990, we went on the pilgrimage to Wirikuta, in the desert of San Luís Potosí, where we gathered peyote, a hallucinogenic cactus, and encountered the spirit of a tiny deer. Each visit took me deeper into Huichol mysticism, and I began to learn some shamanic practices.
At the same time, I was becoming overwhelmed by the mystical events I was experiencing. When I started, I knew little about the Huichol or about shamanism as a whole. There were few people I knew who could comment on these experiences, and none who could provide guidance. Perhaps optimistically, I decided to go back to university and work on a doctorate on shamanism as a way of structuring what I was learning. (I say "optimistically" because, in retrospect, I feel that many in the academic world still retain a deep suspicion of the more mystical and paranormal aspects of shamanism.) I chose the University of Alberta, where David E. Young was doing innovative research with a Cree healer named Russell Willier (Young et al. 1989). Willier was trying to describe how he healed, and his explanations included accounts of his visionary experiences with spiritual beings. The story that these coinvestigators told was most like what I had experienced among the Huichol. Therefore, I felt that here was a supervisor who might understand my experience. To his credit, David Young has always lived up to that expectation.
When I flew into Puerto Vallarta on my way to visit Lupe, I often visited the galleries that sold Huichol art. They were full of Huichol yarn paintings—gorgeous paintings with glowing colors and obscure symbolism. The paintings seemed saturated with a shamanic worldview that both invited understanding and yet remained curiously beyond reach. I thought that by studying yarn paintings, I could learn what they had to say about Huichol shamanism and its worldview, so I chose the paintings as a focus of my research.
At first, I could hardly understand what the yarn paintings meant. The vivid colors exploded off the boards, and the paintings seemed to be confusing combinations of symbols and figures, jumbled together in ways I could not understand. It was hard to know what to focus on or how to see stories and styles. What the paintings "meant" was the first question I wanted to ask.
As I asked around, I discovered that comparatively little had been recorded about either the history of the yarn paintings or the artists themselves. Only three authors had written about yarn paintings at any length, and those accounts dealt mainly with only three artists. The American anthropologists Peter T. Furst and Barbara Myerhoff had written about my friend Lupe's late husband, the artist Ramón Medina Silva. The Mexican author Juan Negrín had collaborated with a Huichol artist, José Benítez Sánchez, on a series of exhibitions and catalogues. Susana Eger Valadez, an American, had written about her then husband, the Huichol artist Mariano Valadez. Most other references to commercial yarn painting were passing remarks in articles concerned with other matters. Little had been written about the paintings' origins or about the many unsung artists who had produced thousands of paintings over the years.
These unanswered questions piqued my curiosity about the history of the art and the artists who made it. Where did this art come from? Who had transformed it from a sacred art to a commercial one? Who are the mysterious artists who produce it, many barely known even to the dealers?
My friend Lupe and her late husband, Ramón Medina Silva, were two of the first Huichol to become well-known yarn artists. Lupe could talk with authority about the early years of commercial Huichol art. Although she no longer made yarn paintings, Lupe was a tireless artisan who supported herself by making embroidered clothes and shoulder bags, beadwork jewelry, and backstrap loom weavings. She taught several men in her family to make yarn paintings in Ramón's style. Lupe and her family became my first guides into the meaning of yarn paintings. They explained the legends and stories and helped me understand the basic vocabulary of symbols.
In 1992, I went to Mexico to discuss my research strategy with Lupe's family. I was thinking of using a research technique called photo-elicitation, gathering all the pictures of yarn paintings I could find and then asking Lupe and her family to explain what the paintings meant. The family quickly told me why my plan would not work. Lupe's brother-in-law, Domingo González Robles, told me that I should not ask them to interpret another artist's work. Only the original artist could say what a painting meant. Chavelo González de la Cruz, a younger artist, was willing to try to identify what individual figures might mean, but he too insisted that only the original artist could say what the combination of figures signified.
The family's reaction gave me clear guidance. It meant I had to locate more painters and get them to interpret their work. In 1993–1994, I expanded my research to other artists. The Mexican government gave me a scholarship that funded six months of field research, as well as—and equally valuable—a letter of introduction from Guillermo Espinosa Velasco, then head of the Instituto Nacional Indigenista (INI). This official support was particularly helpful in gaining access to the Sierra Madre comunidades. Nonetheless, most of my contacts were made without government help, and grew out of my initial relationship with one Huichol family. Usually, Huichol introduced me to other Huichol; some private dealers also shared their contacts. I spent six months traveling around the Sierra Madre, tracking down Huichol artists and interviewing them about their lives and art. Finding artists was not easy. They were scattered among urban slums, tiny villages, and isolated mountain ranchos (Sp.: homestead), and did not have telephones. Often, I would travel for days to reach an artist, only to find that he had just left to go to a fiesta at another rancho or that he had just returned from the city, where he had sold all his paintings. I began to realize it was no easy matter to put an artist together with a good selection of his or her own paintings, as Lupe's family advised.
Moreover, I wanted to interview a wide and representative sample of Huichol yarn painters rather than just a few well-known artists, those popularly regarded as the "best" artists. Artists such as José Benítez Sánchez and Mariano Valadez were already famous, but I did not know whether their art or interpretations were typical of the majority of Huichol artists. So I was just as interested in little-known artists, such as beginner, "souvenir," or folk art painters, as I was in the older, experienced "fine" artists. I wanted to see whether there were differences between artists from different communities, or between artists who lived in cities and those in the Sierra. I wanted to test whether the artists might be considered highly acculturated people, with little background in Huichol culture, or whether they had grown up within the culture, practicing its ceremonies, speaking the language, and learning the mythology. Most of all, I wanted to find out whether the artists themselves were shamans or on a shamanic path.
I wasn't fussy about whom I talked to. I spoke to anyone who would speak to me. I visited the Sierra communities of San Andrés and Santa Catarina; I met artists in Tepic and the surrounding countryside, and in towns and cities such as Santiago Ixcuintla, Puerto Vallarta, Guadalajara, and Mexico City. I talked to yarn painters and to artists who specialized in other crafts, such as beadwork. These artists represented a range of experience along different dimensions, including their ages; the number of years they had spent doing yarn painting; whether they had ever attended school and, if so, for how long; whether they grew up in an urban, a rural, or an indigenous community; whether they had learned about Huichol religion and shamanic practices as children; and whether they personally considered themselves shamans. I have transcribed a cross section of their viewpoints in order to portray what the Huichol artists have to say about their shamanic and visionary experiences.
I conducted all the interviews myself, in Spanish. I did not use an interpreter. All the artists I located spoke Spanish, but they often spoke a Huichol version of a rural Mexican dialect. They used phrases and ideas based in Huichol concepts, or imposed Huichol grammar on Spanish constructions. Their Spanish can be quite difficult to understand, even for Spanish speakers, unless one has a background knowledge of Huichol culture. In this book, I have translated our conversations from Spanish into colloquial English and added clarifying notes in square brackets to make the interviews easier to understand.
Some artists allowed themselves to be tape-recorded. These artists tended to be older, mature men who were comfortable dealing with foreigners. Their accounts are verbatim transcripts of our interviews. Some other Huichol believe that being photographed or tape-recorded is dangerous. This seems to be particularly a concern of people from San Andrés. Some who refused at first changed their minds once they got to know me. When artists did not wish to be taped, I took notes, and I have paraphrased their answers.
I use the artists' real names rather than pseudonyms. This reflects the fact that the artists are professional artists, making art for the public, rather than anonymous folk artists. Most participated in interviews because they wanted to become better known and were quite aware that publicity is good for business. A number expressed pleasure that someone was asking them about their art and making their views known. I have used the artists' real names when I had clear permission to do so, such as when I conducted formal interviews after explaining that the material would be used for research. I have not used artists' names regarding material given in casual conversation, observed during daily life in a community, or given in confidence.
Between trips to the Sierra, I visited the tourist centers and cities where most yarn paintings are sold—Puerto Vallarta, Guadalajara, Tepic, and Mexico City. I talked to gallery owners, to dealers who bought paintings for resale in North America and Europe, and to Mexican government officials, museum personnel, and other anthropologists. Most allowed me to photograph the yarn paintings they had on hand. This gave me a representative sample of the paintings moving through the markets in 1993–1994. With photographs in hand, I could then discuss the paintings with the artists when I found them. I have since returned to Mexico for five more winters and have spent several months investigating the market for Huichol art in the American Southwest.
I have now followed the development of yarn painting since 1988. There has been a gradual evolution in styles and subjects as innovative artists have introduced new themes and developed new products. I have seen the lives of artists change as they respond to commercial success or to setbacks such as the devaluation of the peso. I have seen children grow up and decide whether to try to live by emulating their parents' artistic practices or by working for wages at the bottom of the Mexican economy.
Several major themes have emerged from my research. One theme is how a sacred art changes when it becomes commercialized, and how this relates to the commodification of culture in the global marketplace. This process affects both the deep structure of Huichol aesthetic values and its manifestation in yarn painting.
What happens when a sacred art enters the commercial marketplace? A number of case studies exploring this process have shown that cultures use a variety of strategies to manage the transition. For example, Navajo singers resisted the commercialization of their sand paintings for many years, fearing supernatural danger from the nonceremonial use of the images. The final compromise was to change the figures somewhat so that they no longer duplicated the sacred art (Parezo 1991). The Haida refused to allow the use of sacred themes in their argillite carvings until the religion was no longer widely practiced (Kaufmann 1976, 65–67). To the Pueblo tribes, weaving has kept its ceremonial significance, and so has never become a commercial product. In contrast, weaving has little religious significance to the Navajo, although Western buyers often think it does, and so the images can easily be changed, or weaving can be abandoned for better ways of making money (Kent 1976, 97–101).
These studies suggest the range of solutions that cultures may adopt in response to pressures to commercialize their sacred arts: from completely refusing to sell, to modifying the figures, to allowing unrestricted freedom once the religion becomes attenuated. One question is how the Huichol have coped with the commercialization of their sacred yarn paintings.
One may also ask, who are the people responsible for this transformation, and what processes led them to modify their art? Did the Huichol decide to do commercial yarn painting on their own, or were non-Huichol involved in the transition? How are yarn paintings regarded by the Huichol, and is there any restriction on the reproduction or sale of sacred images? To what extent have yarn paintings been modified to suit a Western market? Do the dealers or buyers influence the art, and in what ways?
The commercialization of a sacred art is related to broader themes—the growth of tourism to indigenous communities around the world and the commodification of culture in the global marketplace. Tourism has become the largest service industry in the world (Smith and Brent 2001, xvi, 8-9). The sale of local products to tourists is a major component of this industry. There is growing concern about the effect of tourism on indigenous peoples, and about whether it is beneficial, harmful, or somewhere in between.
Clearly, yarn paintings are a part of the global tourism industry, since most are sold in tourist centers in Mexico, and they are marketed as the mystical product of one of Mexico's most exotic pre-Columbian cultures. From both sides, complex negotiations about identity are being played out in this process. Foreign buyers have images about the Huichol, which drive the products offered in the marketplace, and the Huichol have their own set of images about buyers, which may affect what they produce. How this dance of identity plays out is another theme that I explore.
A related theme is whether yarn paintings manifest a deep aesthetic structure that is distinctively Huichol or whether they have become lovely, but culturally sterile, merchandise. Richard Anderson (1990, 235–236) suggests that a consistent pattern in colonial situations is for the colonized culture to "eventually discard the sophisticated systems of aesthetic thought they once possessed and adopt more commercially pragmatic, materially utilitarian and aesthetically superficial values." Technical skill tends to become more important than the religious thought or philosophy underlying the work. Market value becomes the dominant standard. Tyler Cowen (2005, 5) suggests that there may be a cycle in which indigenous artists enter the market and generate excitement because of their unique worldviews, and then, as they prosper, the artists may move into the cultural mainstream and end by losing the traditional culture that made them unique.
Shamanic Vision and Extraordinary Experience
When I first began to study yarn paintings, I was intrigued by statements that they were spiritually inspired. The dealers in Puerto Vallarta insisted in their sales patter that all Huichol artists were shamans and that all their art was the product of dreams and visions. It made a good story for selling art, since Western tourists are often fascinated by the mystical products of another culture. But was it really true? Were all the artists shamans? Were the paintings the products of dreams and visions? Even if not all the paintings were the product of shamanic inspiration, some might be. If so, how fascinating! What could we learn about the process of envisioning shamanically from a culture that painted pictures of their visions?
My curiosity was driven by my own experiences. Shortly after our first meeting, Lupe gave me peyote, and I had a vision of multicolored deer heads falling like confetti out of the sky. They were preparing the way for a deer spirit who was on his way. In the distance, I heard the sound of deer-hoof rattles announcing his coming. Somehow I knew they were deer-hoof rattles, although I had never seen deer-hoof rattles before, nor even heard of them. In the morning, I sketched the shape of the deer head in my notebook. At the time, I had seen few yarn paintings, but none that reproduced this image. Months later, I saw the same deer head in a yarn painting in a store. The coincidence seemed amazing.
Many years later, I told Eligio Carillo about my vision, and he confirmed that it was a Huichol experience and said he had seen it too. He told me that the deer is a spirit called Tüki, who gives off something like pollen (Sp.: suelte polvo), which takes the form of tiny multicolored deer.
ELIGIO: Yes, that means that it is a deer that brings a powder. It is called Tüki. He brings . . . it is one who brings this. He brings little deer, but it is a powder that he goes along giving off, that is showering down.
Years after my dream of the deer, I discovered a similar description of multicolored spirits of the deer family in a book on Dene shamanism by Robin Ridington (1988, 103). A dreamer was describing the moose spirits that live under the ground around springs where moose like to congregate.
Even in cold time, those moose under the ground are lonesome.
They don't like it there and get tired of it.
Even if it is frozen over with ice, they just break through. . . .
They are white with red eyes or some of them are just blue when they come out. Just like blue horses.
Some of them just really blue, some of them white, and some of them pure yellow.
The similarity was striking. Was it possible that my own vision was a common experience, shared not only by the Huichol but by shamans of other cultures as well?
There are accounts of anthropologists sharing visionary experiences with their consultants. Bruce Grindal (1983, 68) records a vision of the corpse dancing and drumming in an African funeral ceremony.
From both the corpse and the goka [shamans] came flashes of light so fleeting that I cannot say exactly where they originated. The hand of the goka would beat down on the iron hoe, the spit would fly from his mouth, and suddenly the flashes of light flew like sparks from a fire.
Then I felt my body become rigid. . . . Stretching from the amazingly delicate fingers and mouths of the goka, strands of fibrous light played upon the head, fingers, and toes of the dead man. The corpse, shaken by spasms, then rose to its feet, spinning and dancing in a frenzy. . . . The talking drums on the roof of the dead man's house began to glow with a light so strong that it drew the dancers to the rooftop. The corpse picked up the drumsticks and began to play.
The participants later told Grindal that "seeing the ancestors dance" and hearing the dead man drum was an experience shared by some, but not all, of the participants. He concluded that the fundamental problem raised by his vision was epistemological. Since a vision is not subject to consensual validation by rational observers, one must depart from the ordinary canons of research and assume that reality is relative to one's consciousness of it.
Sharing visions, and the dilemma of what to do about it, has become a theoretical springboard for some anthropologists. Victor Turner (cited in E. Turner 1996, xxii–xxiii) labeled his insight the anthropology of experience and challenged his colleagues to learn about ritual processes "'on their pulses,' in coactivity with their enactors." An increasing number of anthropologists now write about their own extraordinary experiences. Lupe's husband, Ramón, gave peyote to Barbara Myerhoff (1974, 40–42), and she had a vision of herself "impaled on an enormous tree with its roots buried far below the earth and its branches rising beyond sight, toward the sky." She interpreted it as the world tree and said that she saw exactly the same image in a Mayan glyph several years later.
Edith Turner (1996, xxii) saw an African healer extract a grey mass, like smoke, from a patient, then later learned to feel illness through her own hands in an Inupiat village. Her experience inspired her to admonish fellow anthropologists: "It is time that we recognize the ability to experience different levels of reality as one of the normal human abilities and place it where it belongs, central to the study of ritual" (Turner 1994, 94).
While attending a lecture by a Métis healer, Jean-Guy Goulet (1998, 178–179) had a vision of a Dene girl who had died; after he described his vision to Dene consultants, he found that they were much more forthcoming in sharing their own visionary experiences. David Young and Jean-Guy Goulet (1994, 328–329) call on anthropologists to develop theoretical models that encompass such experiences. Visionary experience is an important part of Native American culture. As Goulet (1998, xxv–xxxiii) points out, information gained through vision is considered as valid and important as information gained through other senses such as sight, sound, or touch.
We do our consultants a disservice if we reject this information. Moreover, we risk failing to understand the complex metaphysical explanations of Huichol religion if we automatically reject the subjective visionary experiences that may underlie it. I would venture to say that sharing our consultants' experiences may give a whole new perspective to fieldwork. For example, once while participating in a ceremony, I suddenly saw a deer standing in the middle of the circle, facing the shaman. I asked one of the other Huichol whether I had really seen what I thought I saw. She replied, "Of course, the shaman has been standing there talking to that deer for a while."
If we, as anthropologists, do not realize that this is what is going on, we may simply see a shaman standing and singing or waving his plumes in the air. We may miss the whole point of what the ceremony is about and what is really happening from the participants' points of view.
As I attended ceremonies and asked the artists about the meaning of their paintings, the Huichol stressed repeatedly the importance of visionary experience. Visions may include hearing sounds and voices, seeing images, or otherwise knowing or apprehending information through empathy or "gut feeling." Visionary experience may include dreams while asleep or visions experienced while awake or in some form of trance. They may include phenomena induced by hallucinogens such as peyote, or experiences undergone while a person is cold sober. Shamans envision when they sing. Ordinary Huichol may envision when they attend ceremonies. Visions are also a recurring part of everyday life that anyone, including young children, are able to experience. Discussion of dreams and visions is a regular part of conversation in some Huichol families.
I deal at length with visionary experience in this book. Here, I will address some methodological issues. Some readers may subscribe to the Western, scientific view that humans have five senses only and that what might be called psychic phenomena have little place in anthropological research (Krakauer 2003, 338; Bateson 1984, 209). Such readers may feel that reports of psychic and shamanic experience cannot be verified and may be falsified by consultants trying to gain some sort of advantage. However, I feel that if we are to understand how the Huichol feel and think about their religion and their art, we must at the very least suspend disbelief and listen closely to what they say. David Young suggests proceeding as if the information were true, and then following the conversations and ideas where they might lead. For example, if a person reports seeing a deer spirit, the researcher may ask what kind of deer, what it said or did, what it meant to the person, and so on. A skeptical reader may at some point choose to believe that reports of visionary experience are false or are the product of cultural fantasy. However, at the very least, we should understand that many Huichol take these phenomena absolutely seriously. If we are to understand what the Huichol are talking about, then we need to listen to them with attention.
An anonymous reviewer of one of my articles once suggested that Huichol artists make up stories of visionary experience in order to entice buyers, and that therefore this information cannot be trusted. I suggest that this concern be dealt with by the usual anthropological methods of verification, such as getting to know consultants well, finding out how they are regarded by others in the community, and using multiple consultants. I occasionally met artists who made up stories to impress me; for example, one young man showed me a photograph of a Mariano Valadez painting and claimed he had painted it. He quickly backed down when I recognized the painting and challenged him. Another artist claimed to be an important shaman, and at the time I was skeptical. I found out several years later that he had completed the required number of pilgrimages and was regarded by others in the community as having some shamanic powers, although he was not as influential as he claimed.
Not all Huichol claim shamanic or visionary experience. Many Huichol told me quite clearly that they were not shamans or did not have these abilities. Their disclaimers indicate that these consultants were not trying to gain any advantage by claiming to be shamans.
It is also valuable to check the consistency of shamanic claims—in particular, whether verbal claims are consistent with observed behavior. Is the person recognized by others in the community as having visionary ability? (In Huichol culture, a person may have visionary ability without being a shaman.) Has the person completed the steps required to become a shaman? Do other people come to the person for shamanic services such as singing or curing? Is the person practicing what he or she preaches? Does the person live according to shamanic principles? Does he or she practice the ceremonies and leave offerings? Does he or she consistently offer the same kinds of explanations for phenomena? For example, does he or she have a clear and consistent explanation of the activities of deities? Is visionary experience a regular part of family discourse? Do people dream and then talk about it with their families in the morning?
The same anonymous reviewer asked whether Huichol are not normally secretive and reluctant to explain their shamanic thought to outsiders. I agree this can be so, and like most anthropologists, I have certainly met people who did not want to talk to me. Several artists told me that some shamans did not wish to share information with anyone, even within their own families. Nonetheless, I consistently found that the artists were willing to explain their yarn paintings in considerable detail, and without hesitation. More than that, the artists were usually pleased and proud to have a chance to explain their work. They were also willing to tell me about visionary or dream experiences. The key factor was that I asked for an explanation and was willing to listen to the response. This means that I spoke Spanish well enough to understand, and respected indigenous etiquette by allowing the speaker ample time to explore his or her thought without interrupting. Also, after spending a considerable amount of time among the Huichol, I developed personal relationships with people who were known to the artists. Sometimes I asked artists why they were telling me certain things, and their answer was simple: "Because you asked." I have concluded that a sincere and interested questioner will be taken at face value and will be given an intelligent and comprehensive response.
It is also possible that some shamans see things in me that make them willing to share information; one shaman told me that I had "many beautiful colors painted on me" and that this attracted him. This means of gaining entrée is not the usual one recommended in manuals on fieldwork methods, but it may be the reality of what happens in an indigenous culture.
Indigenous consultants have sometimes confided dreams and visionary experiences to anthropologists. Extraordinary images and symbols are scattered like fragments throughout the anthropological literature. Whether those images and symbols are recognized as visionary is another matter. In addition, such visionary statements have not been collected systematically. (Ethnographers may set out with a list of categories for data collection, such as house building or agricultural techniques, but few have set out to collect data on visions.) As a result, accounts of visionary experience occur randomly, such as when an ethnographer wrote down what a shaman or other visionary said. Sometimes they are just presented as myths. Nonetheless, despite being unsystematic, these accounts are vital information on shamanic perception.
I have pulled together some of these references and compared them to my own Huichol information; they deepen our understanding of how vision forms a constant source of information in indigenous thought. I have mainly compared the Huichol to other Uto-Aztecans, such as the Aztec, Paiute, Yaqui, Papago, and Hopi, who share similarities of thought and worldview. The information is spotty in the anthropological record. It often depends on whether an anthropologist was sensitive about recording it and on how open his or her consultants were to talking about it. For example, Ruth Underhill (1938, 1939, 1979), an early Boasian ethnographer, recorded remarkable material about Papago dreams and visions. The Yaqui seem to have been very open in describing their views of a spiritual flower world to ethnographers such as Muriel Painter (1986) and Edward Spicer (1980).
Occasionally, I have extended the comparison to other Native peoples, especially to the Navajo, who are Dene (Athapaskan), but who intermarried extensively with the Uto-Aztecan Hopi. I suspect that some Navajo thought is strongly influenced by Uto-Aztecan ideas of visionary experience. When I have drawn on other cultures, such as the Cree or Winnebago, it is usually because I found a specific description of visionary experience that sheds light on my own Huichol data.
Eligio Carrillo Vicente, Artist and Shaman
Eligio Carrillo Vicente is one of my most important consultants on yarn painting and visionary experience. I first met Eligio in 1994. Lupe's family had recommended that I talk to Eligio if I wanted to learn more about yarn painting from a very good artist. Eligio was the uncle of Presiliano Carrillo Ríos, a young man who was married to Lupe's niece, María Feliz. After about a week of false starts and cancelled trips, I prevailed upon Presiliano to take me to Eligio and introduce me.
We took a Volkswagen combi (minivan) along the newly built highway leading into the Santiago River region. The combi dropped us at the side of the highway, and we walked down a cobblestone road to a small rancho. As we approached a concrete-block house, I saw a stocky, heavily muscled man sitting at a wooden table. Eligio waved hello and immediately offered me a chair. I presented my credentials, including my letter of introduction from the Instituto Nacional Indigenista. Eligio read the letter carefully, and I felt that it made him more willing to talk to me. He asked me a few questions, then agreed to a tape-recorded interview. I talked to him for several hours that day. He gave me some of my most important clues to the inner meaning of yarn paintings, although I did not realize it at the time. After our talk, I continued to travel around the Sierra, looking for and interviewing other artists. It was only much later, when I had finished transcribing my tapes and was writing my thesis, that I realized how significant were some of the things he said.
At the end of our interview, he described a dream he had had several times over the past week. He saw a woman in white walking up the path to visit him. When he saw me coming—by coincidence, I was dressed all in white—he turned to his wife and said, "Watch what will happen. That is the one I was dreaming about." His dream was the reason he decided to answer my questions.
I returned to Mexico in the winter of 1999–2000 and decided to look up Eligio again. I wanted to clarify some points raised by our previous interview. I expected to do perhaps one or two interviews. Instead, I spent the whole winter interviewing him. I would tape a long interview of several hours, return home to transcribe it, then go back to ask more questions raised by our conversation. Often, it was only while making a word-by-word transcription that I realized the underlying significance of something Eligio said as a passing comment. For example, his phrase "the colors speak" led me into a discussion of color as a language used by the shamans and gods to communicate. Since then, Eligio has given me an enormous amount of information on Huichol philosophy and on shamanic meaning in yarn painting. We have discussed the nature of the soul, shamanic healing, and the inner structure of energy in the Huichol shamanic universe.
Eligio is one of the most experienced and skilful Huichol artists. (For his biography, see Chapter 7.) He has participated in many pilgrimages to Wirikuta over the past thirty years. As a result, he says that the gods have given him some shamanic abilities, including visionary ability. Nevertheless, he says that he did not ask to become a shaman and that his healing abilities are limited to curing children's diseases. Thus, he might be classed as an "intermediate" or "minor" shaman rather than a senior shaman who leads ceremonies, is an important singer, and is in demand as a healer.
I have confirmed part of what Eligio says with other Huichol and from the literature, but there is also much that is new and so far unpublished elsewhere. Eligio's family left the Huichol community of San Andrés and moved down to the Santiago River during the Mexican Revolution. Thus, his cultural roots and his knowledge go back to San Andrés. There can be variation between communities and between individuals. His knowledge forms a coherent body of philosophy, but it is quite possible that other shamans and other artists might have different explanations for the same concepts.
I have used many of our conversations verbatim in this book, presenting the actual words, translated into English, because I feel that the language and the phrasing are significant. Perhaps others will see meanings that I may have missed or that were lost in paraphrasing. He is not always easy to understand, and so I have provided explanatory notes in square brackets in the texts. Often, these notes relate to another of our conversations that can help clarify his meaning.
Eligio wanted to discuss this information because of his concerns about transparency and cultural survival. He feels that Huichol young people are often not interested in the kinds of knowledge he has, and he wants to make sure that it is recorded. He takes pride in sharing information: "I don't want to take this with me when I die." I explained at the outset that I was writing for publication, and he allowed me to tape-record all our interviews. He is a strong, intelligent man with a powerful character, and I have trusted his ability to judge what he is prepared to say and have published. I only hope that I can do credit to the information he has entrusted to me.