The Wixarika Territoriality, Between Sacred Geography and Modern Rearrangements1

Receipt: September 13, 2022

Acceptance: January 9, 2023

Los wixaritari. El espacio compartido y la comunidad

Hector Medina Miranda, 2020 CIESAS (Publicaciones de la Casa Chata), Mexico City.

At a time when certain promoters of the perspectivist fad, after having given ethnographic authority to jaguars, would like to make the merger new age of the anthropologist and the shaman, of anthropology and psychedelia,2 the rationalist part that resists among us, in spite of everything, experiences a certain consolation in the reading of a monograph of the Huicholes of Mexico (wixaritari, wixárika in singular, vernacular ethnonym) that escapes the hallucinatory pathos. Divided between historical anthropology and extensive ethnography, this brief book focuses on a specific problem to clarify, rather than confuse, the political meaning of a shamanic culture and a mythical-ritual complex based on a cosmocentric relationship with the territory and the consequent dialectic of identity and otherness. Settled in the Sierra Madre Occidental, the Huicholes, along with the Tarahumara (Rarámuri), are one of the two ethnic groups that have placed the visions provoked by peyote at the center of their ritual apparatus, orchestrated by powerful shamans. We know well the fascination that this "tribe of artists", as Robert M. Zingg called them in the 1930s, was capable of provoking in the ethnologists who frequented them, sometimes to the point of dragging them into an unbridled psychedelic exaltation, ignoring all scientific rigor. This happened, for example, with the true specialists of the Huichol, Barbara Myerhoff and Peter T. Furst, who fostered at the expense of the Wixaritari one of the greatest swindles in the history of the discipline: that of Carlos Castaneda, by agreeing to feed the pages that were to lead the plagiarist down the road to editorial success and, ultimately, to sectarian drift.

Héctor Medina Miranda's book, fortunately, is part of the healthy epistemological reaction that characterizes an abundant contemporary regional ethnology, now anxious to distance itself from the "black legend" of Castaneda. He avoids considering Huichol symbolism, despite its undeniable aesthetic attributes, as a captivating essence, but rather as a mediator of the complex relations between the different Wixaritari communities (defined by a fundamentally unstable territorial identity) and the outside world, that of the teiwarixi (singular teiwari(i.e., mestizos, whites, ethnologists and, obviously, tourists).3 But what distinguishes Medina Miranda's approach -as well as that of other authors, such as Cristina Aguilar Ros or Séverine Durin- is an innovative interest in Huichol groups geographically decentralized by migratory processes, who stubbornly strive to maintain the symbolic system of their culture, within a social life conditioned by contact with the outside world. If Durin and Aguilar Ros were interested in the Huicholes who had become urban and in the tourist exploitation of the communities,4 Medina Miranda focuses on the case of the straggling communities in the highlands, in the states of Durango and Nayarit, but on the margins of a classically Huichol geographical area, limited to the extreme north of the state of Jalisco, around the three communities: San Andrés Cohamiata (Tateikie), San Sebastián Teponahuastlán (Huautɨa) and Santa Catarina Cuexcomatitlán (Tuapurie). However, far from constituting homogeneous urban units, these three communities, which are under the administrative supervision of the mestizo municipality of Mezquitic, distribute their habitat among a village grouped around the church, the royal house of the traditional government, the ceremonial center (tukipa), and the houses assigned to the different ritual offices and to the main hamlets (rancherías), kiekari) dependent on the community, characteristics of the dispersed Wixárika habitat, conducive to the effects of excision.

Our author undertakes to reveal, together with these "canonical" communities of Jalisco, the enormous ethnographic interest of the much less known groups of the states of Durango and Nayarit, coming from rancherías formed by displaced families, which over time have become real villages, such as Bancos de Calítique, Guadalupe Ocotán, Santa Rosa, or even - particularly remarkable cases in our opinion, we will return to this issue later - the new communities recomposed on the shores of the artificial lake created by the Aguamilpa dam, inaugurated in 1993. Thus, it distances itself from an ethnographic mainstream that would tend to sustain, in the face of the stigmatizing "mestizaje" of these neo-communities, a purist ideal with respect to those of Jalisco, which are older and therefore considered the most "authentic" in terms of tradition.

With good method, Medina Miranda patiently reconstructs, from historical documentation consulted in libraries and archives, the dynamic principles that operated in a sierra that was the object, during the colonial period, of mining missions and evangelization, in a climate of violence of which the Mixtón war (1541) constituted the climax. The author analyzes the progressive constitution of the relationship with the Wixárika ethnicity within a territory shared, in some way, with other groups, generally hostile, such as the Coras, the Tepehuanes and the Mexicaneros (Nahua descendants of Tlaxcalan auxiliaries enlisted by the Spanish army to quell the revolt of 1541).

The author considers, in this process, the role of the Hispanic civil and religious authorities, then Mexican, and of internal, territorialized oppositions between Indian farmers -far from a supposed sociological homogeneity-, the structural tendencies to neighborhood rivalries and community splits. Among these groups, first indiscriminately confused with each other by the colonial authorities with the generic pejorative, of Nahua origin, of Chichimecas ("barbarians"), it also seems difficult to recognize the Huichol (exonym Hispanic), but through different names, each one as uncertain as the other, used by chroniclers of the centuries of the Spanish conquest. xvii and xviiisuch as the guachichiles, vizuritas, guisares, bisoritas, hueitzolmes, huitzoles or güicholes (p. 54). However, in a document from 1745, one finds one of the first mentions of the community of San Andrés Cohamiata. Although this is considered today as one of the three most "authentically Indian", the mere fact of having been founded by Franciscans indicates that it is the result of an authoritarian grouping of families whom they intended, as in other places, to sedentarize and, according to the infamous colonial expression, "pacify". Medina Miranda rightly concludes that "From the indigenous point of view, the Wixárika region is not thought of as an exclusive and homogeneous area, but as a product and container of social relations with different othernesses" (p. 56).

Despite having a remarkably consensual symbolic base and the obsessive cosmocentrism that we find in each of the communities today, Wixárika culture is characterized, both in sociology and in myths and rites, by an extremely ambiguous relationship with otherness, starting with that of the Wixárika people. teiwarixiThe "neighbors," the settlers, the invaders, the usurpers, who are also characters whose transforming power borders on the divine dimension: "Transformation," Medina Miranda rightly writes, "is ineluctably part of tradition" (p. 63). Thus the missionary work provoked, as the ethnography of the Huichol does not fail to demonstrate, a display of specular projections of Christian figures, integrated into a ritual apparatus conducive to the Lévi-straussian intellectual "bricolage" (p. 63).do-it-yourself " Here we find exciting clues for approaching the complexity of one of the most studied rituals by ethnographers, the celebration of Holy Week, which incorporates a Holy Christ Teiwari ("Santo Cristo el vecino"), split into two crucified figures: Tatata (male) and Tanana (female), following the classic Mesoamerican dualistic cosmology, to whom they dedicate -as well as to other semi-Christian (the patron saint) and semi-indigenous deities (the mythical fathers)- the blood of several dozen heads of cattle. With respect to this animal of colonial origin, which the Huichols have integrated into both their economy and their symbolic system, it should be noted that, in other publications, Medina Miranda shares with the author of these lines the concern to highlight its cardinal importance, generally underestimated by authors committed to the preservation, in the ethnography of the Wixaritari, of a supposed traditional purity impermeable to the influences of the Wixaritari, of a supposed traditional purity impermeable to the influences of the teiwarixi.5

In this respect, Medina Miranda offers an exegesis of the ancient Huichol myths, in which he shows how much the latter fed on Christianity to absorb it, to "cannibalize" it, if we want to make a concession to the perspectivist fashion. Among the texts of the first religious chroniclers of the sierra, such as Alfonso de la Mota y Escobar (1940 [1605]) and others more recent (Tello 1891 [1653]), he finds the trace of an indigenous legend of giants who died trying to escape the universal flood. He thinks it may be a shared mythology of the origins of contact, where the biblical reference only enhances an indigenous story from the origins. Here, giant ancestors emerge from the sea and the flood caused by the grandmother of growth (Tatutsi Nakawe) to form the streams of the sierra, i.e., the original pilgrimage paths (p. 59 ff.). These watercourses, which flow through the deep gorges of a landscape of arid beauty, appear as territorial markers around which communities are formed and distinguished. Thus, the confluence of the three great rivers: the Jesús María river (associated with the Coras), the Grande de Santiago river (linked to the "whites", teiwariThe Chapalagana River (from the sacred lake of Chapala, from the Lerma River, whose source is in the Altiplano of the State of Mexico) and the Chapalagana River (corresponding to the Huichol), form, for the Indians, a sacred place. In Huichol mythology (p. 78-80), the rivers celebrate the polyandrous marriage of the two enemy indigenous groups and the beautiful white woman, a multidimensional being who is, in turn, a fantastic object of sexual desire, the Virgin of Guadalupe, emblem of mestizo Mexico, and Tanana, the feminine Christ whose sacrificial blood, when coagulated, produces money, a substance that is the source of the mestizo's desire. teiwari which has become vital, especially for the maintenance of a ritual apparatus with sumptuary tendencies.6

The feathered serpent is the mythological indicator of the confrontation of alterities in this shared geography (p. 76), a hybrid being whose transformational nature, like the giant ancestors from which it comes, synthesizes and adapts the exogenous contributions, so easily malleable, of Christianity. However, in his brilliant analysis of a territory whose mythological dimension is systematically reinforced by the fundamental relationship of the Wixaritari with white otherness, we may regret that Medina Miranda does not expand more on the case study of the Aguamilpa hydroelectric dam, built by the federal state precisely at the confluence of the three sacred rivers, where the oratories and offering deposits that were inevitably flooded are located. Around this great aquatic mass, located in the territory of Tepic (state of Nayarit), communities have settled down that live from fishing and develop rural and ethnic tourism, known as "ecotourism", combined with the sale of the famous Huichol handicrafts, and maintain the celebration of their rites. But because the lake receives from the Lerma River ("the beautiful white woman") all the agricultural and industrial pollution from the industrial settlements of the cities it flows through from Mexico City, these recomposed communities face a serious environmental crisis. This last important fact is not mentioned by Medina Miranda, while one can imagine how much an anthropological analysis of this issue would have allowed him to further strengthen his defense of the marginalized Huichol communities of Nayarit and Durango, but he will probably think about it for his future publications.

From a dynamic perspective, Medina Miranda highlights, through historical and ethnographic data, the structural character of dispersed settlement, seasonal migrations and contact. He opposes both the purist ahistorical idealism of Peter Furst, the rigidity of the administrative districts with which Phil Weigand (1992) and his disciple Víctor Téllez (2011) connect the Huichol communities in function -says Medina Miranda- of a conservative inspiration, and the projection of the Lévi-Straussian concept of "house" towards the community and ceremonial center (tukipa) by Johannes Neurath (2000). For Medina Miranda (p. 138), the tukipa is a moral person that does not impose territorial unity, in a system of bilateral kinship that allows individuals to choose to which tukipa prefer to affiliate (p. 147).

He also refutes the analysis of Paul Liffman (2012) who, shocked by the power of the mara'akate (shamans) and by the tyrannical character of the ritual system of which they are the guarantors, he sees in the ceremonial centers a miniaturized state structure, "mythical state, sacrificial state, indian shadow state"(Liffman, 2012: 148). In this sense, Medina Miranda prefers to join Neurath, who detects in the Huichol political model an example of "society against the state". In fact, the mara'akate most influential (kawiterutsixiThe "all-knowing ones"), who meet annually in a council to renew the rods of command and appoint the new holders of traditional governmental positions, follow a particularly arbitrary principle that we would call "onirocracy": they exchange their dreams to make their decisions. This has led Denis Lemaistre (2003: 204) to speak of the "political manipulation of dreams". But the "rulers" thus designated, who hold titles inherited from the colonial administration (governor, prosecutor, lieutenant, topil, judge, etc.), exercise an essentially symbolic power, of ritual order, without any other coercive force than that which they themselves suffer from society: the obligation to go into debt to the point of ruin to fulfill their duties with dignity for a whole year by offering many sacrifices, banquets, pilgrimages and other ritual gifts. This way of analysis seems to us personally more pertinent, in view of this peculiar conception of the politics of the inhabitants of San Andrés Cohamiata Tateikie, where I have verified the depth of the famous thesis of Pierre Clastres (1974), in spite of all the criticisms, many times justified, that he could receive elsewhere for his idealism.

The segmentary structure of Wixárika society, based on a dynamic of conflicts with the "invading" mestizo ranchers and among the Huicholes themselves (apart from traditional rivalries, some convert to Protestantism, refusing to perform traditional rites and corresponding duties; they are excluded and reform communities elsewhere), reminds not only of Society against the State -and to the field of Americanist studies, but also, beyond that, to the classic monographs of Edward Evans-Pritchard on the Nuer (1940) and of Edmund Ronald Leach on the Kachin of Burma (1954). Here, in this case, the system of the ceremonial center and traditional government, plus that of the civic administrative delegations that organize the works of general interest, whose holders play a mediating role regularly trying to appease conflicts without being able to exercise control over a given territorial sector (p. 148), facilitate the claims for autonomy.

Medina Miranda speaks in this regard of "Wixárika multi-territoriality" (p. 152), which refers simultaneously to a universally recognized "sacred geography" that is the foundation of the Huichol cardinality described by all ethnographers, from the Norwegian explorer Carl Lumholtz to the present day,7 and to a community space that can be recomposed by splits, even within cities or mestizo towns. As he acutely observes, the pressure exerted on recent communities, large rancherías that have endowed themselves with their own tukipa and their traditional government, in order to gain independence from the community from which they come, sometimes creates serious problems for the latter, particularly when their territory loses a sacred site or a major ceremonial center. The most striking case in this regard is that of Santa Rosa (Nayarit) and its annex Santa Bárbara, where there is a tukipa considered one of the five original temples, which depended, until the split, on the "canonical" community of San Andrés Cohamiata (Tateikie) (pp. 163, 165). This tukipa is called Tatutsi Witse Teiwari ("Grandfather Hawk the Neighbor"), and here we can only regret that Medina Miranda is content to make our mouths water by not going deeper in his analysis, because this designation, which combines in the classic nomenclature of kinship of sacred beings, the bird of prey and the inevitable white mestizo neighbor, contains in itself all the paradoxes of a Huichol universe of an extensive and encompassing nature. But, once again, it seems evident that this book appeals to others, such as the approach to a society that has distinguished itself ethnographically for its originality and whose research deserves to be prolonged.


Durin, Séverine y Alejandra Aguilar Ros (2008). “Regios en búsqueda de raíces y Wixaritari eculturísticos”, en Séverine Durin (dir.). Entre luces y sombras. Miradas sobre los indígenas en el Área Metropolitana de Monterrey. México: ciesas/cdi, pp. 255-297.

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Lemaistre, Denis (2003). Le chamane et son chant. Relations ethnographiques d’une expérience parmi les Huicholes du Mexique. París: L’Harmattan.

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Marín García, Jorge Luis (2014). “Transformación de la imagen de los wixaritari (huicholes) en el imaginario teiwari (mestizo, foráneo)”, Campos, 15 (2), pp. 121-146.

Medina Miranda, Héctor (2006). “El ancestro transgresor: la figura del charro en la mitología de los huicholes de Durango”, en Ángel B. Espina Barrio (dir.). Conocimiento local, comunicación e interculturalidad. Antropología en Castilla y León e Iberoamérica, ix. Pernambuco: Fundación Joaquim/Editorial Massangana/Instituto de Investigaciones Antropológicas de Castilla y León, pp. 271-276.

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Téllez, Víctor (2011). Xatsitsarie. Territorio, gobierno local y ritual en una comunidad huichola. Zamora: Colmich.

Tello, Antonio (1891 [1653]). Libro segundo de la crónica miscelánea, en que se trata de la conquista espiritual y temporal de la Santa Provincia de Xalisco en el Nuevo Reino de la Galicia y Nueva Vizcaya y descubrimiento del Nuevo México. Guadalajara: Imprenta de la República Literaria de C. L. de Guevara y Ca.

Saumade, Frédéric (2009). “Taureau, cerf, maïs, peyotl : le quadrant de la culture wixárika (huichol)”, L’Homme, 189, pp. 191-228.

— (2013). “De la sangre al oro: la transubstanciación del cristianismo y del capitalismo en la comida ritual de la Semana Santa huichol (México)”, Amérique Latine Histoire et Mémoire. Les Cahiers alhim [en línea], 25 (Actas de la Mesa redonda Del altar al fogón: comida ritual indígena, Aline Hémond y Leopoldo Trejo [dirs.], 54 Congrès International des Américanistes [Viena, Austria, 15-20 de julio de 2012]).

— (2013) “Toro, venado, maíz, peyote: el cuadrante de la cultura wixarika”, La Revista de el Colegio de San Luis, iii, 5, pp. 16-54. (versión revisada en español).

Weigand, Phil (1992). Ensayos sobre el Gran Nayar: entre coras, huicholes y tepehuanos. México: Centro de Estudios Mexicanos y Centroamericanos/Instituto Nacional Indigenista/Colmich.

Frédéric Saumade is Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Aix-Marseille and a member of the Institute of Mediterranean, European and Comparative Ethnology (Institut d'Ethnologie Méditerranée, Européenne et Comparée (idemec) of Aix-en-Provence. His research focuses both on the bull and on bullfighting and livestock practices in the Camargue, Spain, Portugal, Mexico and the United States, as well as on bullfighting rites and representations among various Amerindian populations. In Mexico, he has conducted fieldwork among the Nahua-Mestizo, Otomi and Huichol (wixaritari), and has published several articles in Spanish on the subject. He is the author of a dozen works, including two dealing with the American continent (Mexico and California), Maçatl. Transformations of bullfighting games in Mexico (Bordeaux : Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux, 2008) and Cowboys, clowns and bullfighters. Reversible America (Paris: Berg International, 2014, with the collaboration of Jean-Baptiste Maudet). He has also published works on the epistemology and history of anthropology, and on percussion and material culture in mixed-race and indigenous musics of the United States, his current field of study.


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