Sierra Madre Mountains

Power Places

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.

Watching the sunset over Crete on a spiritual retreat

Crete – A Special Place

I have been to Crete several times with my dad and it is always a special place for me. The land is very rugged and wild, yet it has a gentle vibe. When you go to Crete you know when you have arrived because all your senses are overwhelmed. The place where we stay is not only one of the most visually stunning places on earth, with flower covered mountain ranges and crystal clear oceans, but it is the other things that set it apart from so many other vacation destinations. It is how the air is dominated by the smell of wild herbs that grow where we meet everyday, how the food is some of the best I have every eaten ( I eat about twice as much as I do at home), and the people are so courteous and kind. Crete is simply a place where you can go and enjoy a land that is so different from your own, yet comforting and strangely familiar.

Huichol girl with a ceremonial rattle

Huichol Pilgrimage and Ceremony

How do you celebrate your life? How do you honor this radiantly beautiful Mother Earth that we call home?

For the Huichol Indians — a small tribe of around 15,000 who live in the Sierra Madre Mountains of central-western Mexico, these are easy questions to answer. For them, shamanism is a way of being — the practice of honoring all life and remembering how we relate to the world around us through ceremony, prayer and pilgrimage.

The Huichols go on pilgrimage to sacred places of power in nature. They go to pray and honor the earth, and to honor the spirit of those places of power. As humans, it is our responsibility to pray and make pilgrimages. We can help to heal Mother Earth and ourselves through this ancient tradition of pilgrimage. The Huichols say that we are surrounded by the Ancient Ones, and that it is our responsibility to stay connected with them. All places of power – kakuyari – are dreaming gods, dreaming goddesses. By connecting to the spirit of a mountain or a lake for example, we open ourselves to the power and energy (the kupuri) of that place, bringing unity and harmony into our own lives and that of our communities. And, with our prayer offerings, we in turn give love and respect back to the earth. This reciprocal interaction creates a sacred circle, what the Huichols call a nierikaThis helps us to develop more fully the connection between our hearts and the natural world, and gives our lives meaning filled with strength, healing, and love.

As the Huichols believe it is important for people to go to sacred places of power, I have led many people on spiritual journeys all over the world. Every year we go to Mt. Shasta, one of the most spectacular places of power in North America.
We go to Alaska, where our ceremonial chanting and dancing is answered by the calls of whales and eagles circling. We go to Grandmother Ocean, to various hot springs and other special places. In Europe we travel to Mt. Blanc, the tallest mountain on the European continent, and to Crete, the birthplace of Western civilization, and a place filled with power. While there, we always make ceremonies to honor the spirit of the place and tap into the life force Mother Earth has to offer at each one of these special locations.

Huichol life is a continuous cycle of ritual and ceremony designed to help them stay in touch with the Ancient Ones. In making these ceremonies, they are celebrating their lives and the life of all nature. During ceremony, with their drumming and chanting, the Huichols invite the spirits to come into the circle to be with them. The shamans guide the people through the doorway between the worlds, once again helping to empower them and their families to achieve lives of balance and integrity, and to help the universe stay in balance as well.

The Huichols say that human beings are in the middle, between the earth and the sky, and that we are mirrors of the gods. You don’t necessarily have to make special ceremonies like the Huichol do in order to connect your heart, your spirit with the natural world. But you can celebrate your lives with humbleness; celebrate the life of nature all around you. Remember and honor the sacredness within you, within each living thing. Go out and honor the sunrise and the sunset. Pray to the four directions. Honor each one of the seasons. Doing these things helps us to become one with the spirit. When we open our hearts to the beauty all around us, when we stay aware and present in the moment, we can truly connect to the spirit of all creation; we have the possibility of transforming ourselves.

Coming together at Mount Shasta to build a long lasting powerful spiritual community.

Building a Spiritual Community

Brant takes people to Mount Shasta annually to do ceremony, learn the traditions of the Huichols, and to go on pilgrimage to the sacred and magnificent mountain, Mount Shasta.  All the participants build a spiritual community for the duration of our visit at the base of the mountain.  We sit in circle in a pristine meadow, we learn the ancient exercises and practices that help us feel the powers of the four directions, experience the truth in the fire, water, earth and air, we celebrate life in the circle when we dance the Huichol Deer Dance and pray for our lives and the lives of all living things.  What is unique about Brant Secunda’s seminars is that you are in nature experiencing genuine Huichol Indian traditions as they have existed for thousands of years.  I feel deeply grateful that I am able to bring my children to the Dance of the Deer’s spiritual retreats, and they can learn and feel and see and dance in the circle of the Huichol traditions.  There is nothing more fulfilling for them to connect with nature and learn how to honor life in this way.  I look forward to sharing this beautiful path with my family for many years to come.