Don José Matsuwa with Brant Secunda during a Huichol ceremony.

Dreamers of the sun: Huichol Shamanism

In 1970 at 18 years old, intrigued by the books of Carlos Castaneda , I set out an overland trip to Ixtlan as a tourist in search of Don Juan. Enroute, I met a Huichol school teacher, who gave me the name of his family village – a 5 day walk away. Early the next morning, with the sun blazing down on me in the Sierra Madre Mountains in Central Mexico, I set out on a narrow deer trail leading toward the village. My night’s lodging quickly disappeared form view, my feet tracing deer foot prints up the steep path.

The oak and brazil trees and the thick under bush soon closed in behind me, no human habitation in sight as I hurried along. After a 3 day trek, I found myself hopelessly lost. I had drank my last sip of water and tried to calm the panic rising inside of me. Pressing on in hope of finding the village, dehydration and sun exposure overtook me. The trees around me began spinning. I collapsed, sinking into unconsciousness, miles from my start.

As I lay dying on the parched earth, I dreamt of circles full of light spinning in front of me. Visions of deer and an old Indian man appeared. Suddenly, cold water hit my face. Startled into consciousness my beautiful dreams and visions faded. Slowly opening my eyes, above me loomed the dark faces of three Indians. They told me in Spanish of an old shaman in their Huichol village who had dreamt I was dying at this spot and sent them to save me.

Still weak, I was led down a narrow path to a clearing with mud and stick huts, the smell of tortillas cooking and sounds of children playing. Amazed at this scene and that I was alive, I was taken to their shaman Don Jose, in a nearby village who had also dreamt of me. He summoned me to his hacienda . The same three Indians who had originally saved me led me through the thick woods to his hut.

I became Don Jose’s apprentice, eventually completing a 12 year apprenticeship and being adopted as his grandson. Over these amazing years, he trained me in the mysteries of the world of Huichol shamanism.

“The dream world brings together the past, present and future. It helps us to remember who we are now, who we were, and who we will always be. This is the power of dreams.”
– Don Jose Matsuwa

One of the aspects of this cosmology, is their belief in “dreaming reality into existence”. In ancient times, the gods dreamed themselves into existence at the birthplace of Grandmother Ocean. Form emerged from formlessness as they dreamed, spinning visions into physical matter.

The gods dreamed they should make a pilgrimage to the east to Mt. Raunasha, “The Lord of Dreams”. The Magical Deer Spirit dreamed the gods in their way to the sacred mountain. When they arrived at the ancient volcano, the Magical Deer Spirit dreamt they should throw a young girl form the top of the mountain in to the molten fire below.

All the gods were there: Grandmother Eagle, Grandfather Fire, Mother Earth and the Deer. The Deer took the terrified young girl to the top. At the edge of the volcano, he pushed her into the flaming cavity. But the molten fire flung her back out, intact, into the sky.

The young girl could not fly. Her mother, Grandmother Eagle, swooped down and caught her daughter pushing her higher and higher in the sky. As she rose above the earth, the young girl transformed into a man, then gradually beginning to shine brighter and brighter until condensed into a burning ball, the sun. The sun is man who retained the heart of a young girl.

Every year, the Huichols return to the sacred Raunasha in pilgrimage retracing this original path of the ancients re-dreaming the birth of the sun.

During my twelve year apprenticeship, dreaming was emphasized daily. The Huichols put me in the hut of an old woman. Every morning, before the sun rose, she woke me and sent me to Grandfather Fire to tell my dreams to him. I worked with my dreams every night. I learned to remember a dream by staring at a part of the body of a god or goddess, animal or human to become conscious in the dream. In this way, the gods began to speak to me in my dreaming.

I was on a fourteen month fruit fast during my apprenticeship. This fast increased the intensity of my dreams. The Huichols also took me places of power – caves, lakes, mountains, and rock formations in the cave of Grandmother Growth. I went five days with no food or water, dreaming the dreams of her cave. At the other caves, we spent a night in each one again to dream the dream of the “Kaukuyari” or places of power. For in ancient times the gods and goddesses transformed into new forms and became these lakes, caves, mountains and rock formations. Through pilgrimage and dreaming, the ancient ones can be remembered and can teach us their mysteries and wisdom.

After my apprenticeship with Don Jose, I returned to the United States. The Dance of the Deer Foundation — Center for Shamanic Studies — was founded to support the Huichol Indians in keeping their shamanic traditions alive and to bring the power of joy of this ancient wisdom into our modern lives. The Foundation is located in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California.