Pilgrimage & Huichol Shamanism
– Originally published in the Share Guide ➔
For the Huichol Indians of Mexico, shamanism is a way of life, a way of living and being on this altar we call Mother Earth. It is a way of bridging the gap between our ordinary world and the natural world, the realm of the gods – a way of tapping in to the power of that realm. In doing so, we also tap into the power we each carry inside of ourselves, the power to transform our lives and affect change in our environment. For the Huichols, this is not a matter of blind faith, but of direct experience. Making regular pilgrimages to places of power is one important way we can share in that experience.
The Huichols have a word, Kaukuyari, which translated literally means, “dreaming god ” or “dreaming goddess.” We say that just after this world came into existence, some of the gods and goddesses left the spirit world and emerged from the ocean. These ancient ones then walked over the entire earth, and some transformed themselves into mountains, lakes, springs and other sacred places, so that we could go back and learn from them. By making pilgrimages to these places, we recreate the journey of the gods, and in the process also learn to recreate our own lives.
“If you want to be a shaman, watch a thousand sunrises and a thousand sunsets.”
Don José Matsuwa, Huichol Shaman
During my 12-year apprenticeship with Don José Matsuwa, I made many pilgrimages to sacred places. We went to these places so I would develop my relationship with the gods and goddesses by learning to communicate with them directly.
In the beginning, Don José, who was my adopted grandfather and close companion as well as my teacher, would take me along with a small group of Huichol apprentices. We would go together to places in nature, and Don José would say, “We will learn the language of this cave. We will listen to the cave speaking in the night.” Then we would leave offerings in the cave and sleep there.
We also went to various rock formations in the Sierra Madre mountains to talk to the different rock people, and we would go to the ocean and various fresh water springs to try to learn the language of the waters. Later I would go to these places alone. During one of my vision quests, I went 5 days alone with no food or water, dreaming and learning from one particularly powerful place, the Cave of Grandmother Growth.
In order to become empowered as a shaman, you have to go where there is power. You gain empowerment by fasting and praying at these sacred places, and by receiving a dream or vision from each place. It’s like a contract: you give a prayer and offerings to the place of power, and you get to take back the power of that place. In fact, one traditional way of learning to become a Huichol shaman is by going to a place of power for 5 years in a row. But pilgrimage is for everyone, not just for shamans.
I spend much of my year at places of power, not only seeking to empower myself, but also leading other people on pilgrimage – teaching them how to make offerings and communicate with the gods, and working with the gods to help transfer the power of these places to the people. Each year, through the sponsorship of the Dance of the Deer Foundation, I lead a number of pilgrimages throughout the U.S and Europe. We go to help heal the Earth, to take power back into our lives, and to learn the language of the gods.
For the last 13 years, I’ve led summer pilgrimages here in California to Mt. Shasta, the Healing Mountain, which is famous for its power and visions among many North American Indian tribes. Last summer, I led my first pilgrimage to Alaska – to the Tsongas Mountains near the sea, where our ceremonial chanting was often answered by the calls of humpback whales. We also make an annual pilgrimage to the Pacific Ocean in Mexico, where we are joined by my Huichol grandmother, Doña Josefa Medrano, and some of our family.
“You don’t have to go far to find a place of power. You can take a place near you and make it sacred.”
When we go on pilgrimage in the Huichol tradition, we make prayer arrows and leave them as an offering, along with a candle and some cornmeal or chocolate. Then we verbalize what it is we’re asking for. Generally, we’ll ask for a vision or for good luck, but you can also ask for something very specific such as a new job, or happiness in your marriage. You call aloud to the spirit of the place, communicating from your heart. We say, “You pray as if your life depended on it.” You leave your offerings, and you might also lie down and try to have a dream or vision of that place. Then you use that vision to help transform your life.
There are places of power everywhere. In California, there’s the Pacific Ocean – we call her Tate Haramara, Grandmother Ocean, the birthplace of all life. There’s Mr. St. Helena in Sonoma County, Cone Peak and Pico Blanco in Big Sur, Mt. Shasta, and many more. But you don’t have to go far to find a place of power. You can take a place near you and make it sacred. The Huichols make their back yards sacred places. They build a temple, an altar, and leave offerings for the gods there.
A pilgrimage is something you do once in a while, but for everyday existence, you can go to your personal place: an altar in your home; a tree; a large stone. These become places of power with the energy we give them. Don José told me the whole Earth is a place of power. He used to say, “Love the gods as you love another person. They’re your ancestors, your relatives. People love everything else and they forget the gods.” Through pilgrimage and prayer, the ancient ones can be remembered and teach us their mysteries and wisdom.