Two indigenous Huichol shamans from western Mexico met a packed lecture theatre at the University of London’s School of Asian and Oriental Studies (SOAS) last Tuesday night, where the audience enjoyed a screening of the intimate and urgent ‘Huicholes: The Last Peyote Guardians’.
Playing rustic violins and guitarritas – sacred instruments that are ever-present in Huichol ritual life – Enrique Ramírez Ramírez and Juan José Ramírez García entered the stage attired in traditional Huichol costumes, including white trousers and tunics embroidered with emblems of their culture: peyote, maize and deer. The audience was invited to participate in a ritual blessing that called on the five Huichol cardinal points before the film’s director, Hernán Vilchez, opened the screening.
Shot between the rugged sierras of the Huichol homeland and their five places of spiritual pilgrimage, the Last Peyote Guardians proved to be a fascinating and ambitious odyssey into the complex cultural landscape of Mexico’s ‘purest’ indigenous people. Known as the Wixárika in their own language, the Huichol claim pre-Toltec ancestry and an unbroken living tradition said to be more than two millennia old. Unlike many other Mexican cultures whose cosmovisions were diluted or destroyed by overzealous Catholic missions, the Huichol guard a form of untainted pre-Columbian mysticism rooted in the worship of land and nature. Pantheistic and animistic, their spiritual life orbits around the collection, cultivation, consumption, and reverence of Lophophora williamsii – the hallucinogenic peyote cactus native to Mexico, whose visions teach, bond and connect the Huichol with their ancestors and guardian spirits.
During its two hour running time, The Last Peyote Guardians supplies an astonishingly personal document of Huichol cultural life, including scores of startling scenes never before captured by outsiders. Punctuated with otherworldly songs, chants and ritual dances, footage of an all-night peyote vigil dedicated to the light of dawn marks the stunning visual climax of Vilchez’s highly aesthetic work.
Such images are entirely thanks to a collective decision by the greater Huichol community to open their doors to the media in an effort to raise awareness and solidarity. Starting in 2011, the Mexican government has granted some 78 mining concessions in and around the ore-filled deserts of Wirikuta, an ecologically diverse stretch of arid wilderness sprawled at the foot of the sierras near the crumbling colonial town of Real de Catorce. Here, the desert’s the fragile cacti garden is the land where the beloved peyote blooms – the holiest of holy sites in the annual Huichol pilgrimage.
Thus the Last Peyote Guardians is not simply a treasure of anthropological inquiry, but a vital record of social and political struggle. Bolstered by an army of experts and interviewees on all sides, Vilchez explores a thorough and almost sprawling range of themes as he narrates the Huichol’s efforts to protect their ancestral heritage: the economic benefits of mining versus its environmental impacts; the sacred and profane in the pursuit of profit; the destructive nature of neoliberal economics; sustainable development; modernity and cultural tourism; to name a few. At the end of two hours, viewers are confronted with their own contribution (or lack of) to the state of the planet – what are you doing for nature, asks Vilchez.
The screening in London last Tuesday was not without problems: the start was delayed by 30 minutes due to a technical hitch, and later, less than half-way through, a tripped fire alarm caused the entire building to be evacuated until the fire brigade arrived (‘there are strong energies in this city’, joked Vilchez, adding that the previous night’s screening had had to be cancelled due to a technical problem). Nonetheless, the audience remained patient to the end, when they were rewarded by a Q and A with Vilchez and José Ramírez.
Questions ranged from ‘do you let foreigners take the pilgrimage’ to ‘what are the best ways to support you in your struggle?’ One of the most intriguing responses came from Ramírez as he explained why, according to Huichol thought, nature had bestowed humanity with powerful plants such as peyote.
“It is like food and water.” Said Ramírez, translated into English by Vilchez. “Five days without that and you don’t have energy. Spiritually, it gives you the essence… these are the tools the earth gives us to connect to the essence… to realise that we are all temples, each one of us, we are temples…
“This is the seed of the essence of what is contained in the earth. The plants come from this essence, all the plants of certain use. The bees are carrying pollen and fertilising the flowers and bringing all this mixture of herbal knowledge that is contained in the earth. The peyote and the other sacred medicines are like the essence contained and concentrated. They are very old plants.
We are connectors, antennas between the sky and the earth… for humanity there are no frontiers, we are all one. There are no borders and we all have to check that from our own temple… each one of us is important in this big network.”