Shamanism in Mexico
1970 Guadalupe and the Huichol Indians
I met Carlos Castaneda at Bookshop Santa Cruz, California; he was there to promote his first book about Mexican Indian shamanism. He completely captivated the audience with his stories about don Juan, the Yaqui shaman medicine man, healer and sorcerer who Castaneda had met at a Greyhound bus station in Nogales, Arizona. His primary interest, he explained to the audience, and also tells in his book, is to learn about peyote.
Within a month of hearing his lecture I found myself traveling in Mexico on a bus headed to Yelapa, a small cove and beach near Puerta Vallarta. I spoke very little Spanish and I was lucky to have a bilingual Mexican seated next to me on the bus, who was headed to Puerto Vallarta, where he worked as with a hotel in tourism. When we arrived in the town of Tepic, Nayarit, we discovered that his luggage had been lost, and the bus line recommended staying there for the night, which we did. The next morning when passing through the main plaza of Tepic I saw a small group of people dressed in very elaborate psychedelic costumes, and I asked my translator who there people are. He said they were Huichol Indians visiting town to sell their art crafts, buy supplies and then return back to their mountain villages in the Sierra Madre mountain ranges of Nayarit or Jalisco. I was very impressed by the extraordinary beauty of their costumes, and the people reminded me of Tibetan refugees that I had seen near Rishikesh in India. We went on to the bus station and then traveled to Puerto Vallarta; from there I traveled alone to Yelapa (“Night of the Iguanas” was filmed there).
At this tranquil cove on the Pacific ocean I rented a small grass hut, on a small hill overlooking the sea. My plan was to spend time practicing yoga, reading and enjoying the warm winter months in Mexico. This had been the recommendation of Jasper Sunshine, a friend who had also traveled to India. He and I both hoped Baba Hari Dass would be in the USA by springtime or early summer of the next year; disciples both in India and the Americas were eagerly waiting for his move to the United States, in order to continue with their yoga instruction (too many disciples were getting sick in India, and there was no means to support the group that was forming).
In Yelapa I met several young American tourists who had stories to tell about their encounter with the Huichol Indians, and about the amazing psychedelic yarn paintings which some of their artists make. They invited me to travel with them, in their van, to Tepic where they sought to buy more art crafts. We went to several shops that had an incredible collection of intensely psychedelic - visionary art crafts. The shop attendant spoke some English and told us more about the Huichol people. While in one of these shops I was approached an American Chicano who spoke both english and Spanish fluently. He asked is I would like to buy art crafts directly from the Huichol, rather than from the shop. My Anglo- American guides offered their van to drive us all out to the edge of town where we could meet the Huichol family of artists.
One of the first yarn paintings* that I saw blew my mind. It showed a shaman - healer climbing up a path toward the sun, that was depicted at the top. The shaman had to reach it by first transiting six flower like vortexes, and then passing through a fiery solar curtain before reaching the sun realm. This blew my mind because it so closely resembled the yoga path and chakras I had been learning about on the opposite side of the planet, in India.
From Ramon, yarn painting artist and shaman, I bought one richly embroidered medicine bag and one peyote plant I returned to Yelapa via bus, and the others began their trip back to the US border. The peyote tasted very bitter, yet I got it down without throwing up, and then sat back in the palapa hut to see what would happen. The effects were very mild. It was a nice glowing high without any visions, but did make for a wonderful day and night of bright colors and clear vision. I remember looking at the embroidered medicine bag and seeing why the Huichol artists choose the intricate patterns and bright colors: they seemed alive and joyful with peyote.
After a few months in California, I returned to Tepic, Nayarit, Mexico: I wanted to learn more about these psychedelic artists and maybe something more about their life style and history; I hoped Joaquin - the Chicano from Los Angeles would help translate some questions. Unfortunately, he was not there when I returned on my next visit. Instead, I found the family grieving, and I could barely understand what they were saying. I could understand when they spoke very slowly, a few words at a time, and thus get the basic idea. Ramon (artist and shaman) had been shot at a drinking party by an unknown Huichol assailant. He was mortally wounded and did not survive the attempt of the villagers to carry him down the mountain trail. His widow, Guadalupe, was also crying because her brothers who had chased down the assailant had been put in prison. Now she was without husband, brothers or the financial means to pay the bail to get them out of prison. I was shocked. This family was so full of joy, laughter and happiness when I had seen them last, and now this calamity. Guadalupe asked me if I could help, showed me some yarn paintings and medicine bags which she hoped I could sell in the USA , and then use the funds to help get her brothers freed from prison.
Guadalupe had given me the phone number of Barbara Myerhoff, PhD who had been a close friend of theirs (anthropologist, author of “Peyote Hunt”, and assistant to Dr. Furst). I called and explained to Dr. Myerhoff what had happened. She gave me the phone number of another anthropologist, Lowell Bean, PhD, Cal. State Hayward. This professor bought some of the art crafts and then connected me with one of his students who bought all the remaining crafts. Guadalupe had also given me the phone number of Carlos Castaneda, also a family friend that she hoped would be able to help. I called Dr. Castaneda and he was shocked by the news, however he was about to leave on a lecture tour and so was not able to get away at that time.
A plan to bring up a small group of Huichols for a visit to Hayward State University was proposed. Lowie Museum at UCB and also friends at UCSC were interested. About a year later this plan materialized, and was made possible with letters of invitation from the universities that were addressed to the Mexican passport office and American consulate. Unfortunately, we presented at none of universities due to vested business interests that had become a small, yet critically relevant part of the picture. The Huichols, including Guadalupe, who came to visit the USA needed to sell crafts to make the journey worthwhile, and a business entrepreneur who financed the trip wanted a small return on his investment: for the universities this was not permissible due to strict rules.
I called Richard Price at Esalen Institute and explained to him our situation with the universities. His response was to invite us to Esalen for an informal workshop presentation, and we graciously accepted. I had met Richard, one of the co-founders of Esalen Institute several years prior, while visiting with John Blietreu (Parable of the Beast) and during Swami Muktananda’s first US tour, with Baba Ram Dass.
My story continues: “Initiation by a Huichol Shaman”, Prem Das, in “Art of the Huichol Indians, 1978; pub. by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco/Harry N. Abrams, NY.
“Looking at Shamanism” Sept./Oct 1983 issue of the Yoga Journal
“Don Jose” by Prem Das, anthology, “Shamanic Voices”, by Joan Halifax, PhD
*The yarn painting was a copy: the original was made by the same artist for anthropologist Peter Furst and was used in a major museum exhibit at the Latin American Studies Center, UCLA ( where Carlos Castaneda received his PhD).
This exhibit was on Huichol Indian culture, and included an extraordinary film documentary called, “To Find Our Life” about the pilgrimage to the Huichol holy land and to find peyote. (This film is available from UCLA for purchase or rental, filmed l966-67).
The yarn painting referred to can be seen on page 19, “Myth in Art: A Huichol Depicts his Reality”, by Peter Furst PhD, reprint #11, Latin American Study Center, University of California Los Angeles, Reprinted from: Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History - Quarterly, 7(3):16-25, Winter 1968-1969. There is another article by Peter Furst titled, “To Find Our Life, Peyote Among the Huichol Indians of Mexico, from an anthology called, “Flesh of the Gods”, 1972, Praeger Publishers, NY (Dr Furst chaired the Dept. of Anthropology at the State University of New York, Albany, NY.
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