Huichol Center's founder discusses its impact on local culture

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HUEJUQUILLA EL ALTO, Mexico - Susana Valadez, founder of the Huichol Center, recently spoke with Indian Country Today in Jalisco state about the center's vision of Huichol culture.

Indian Country Today: The Huichol are known as the ''people of the peyote.'' What role does peyote play in the culture?

Susana Valadez: The peyote speaks to humans through the visual imagery, and the Huichols use art to record the imagery and the knowledge of ancestors and the spirit world. I call this room my ''Huichol university'' because within the four walls of this very small office are symbols of what could be years of learning for people who want to follow the shamanic path. The imagery on all of these masks has transmitted to people what they need to do in order to become healers or, as we say, technicians of the sacred, the highest shamans, the most well-versed in the knowledge of the spirit world.

The shaman, or someone else who took peyote, would have beaded the mask. Only the artist knows what the personal message was from the spirit world, what they have to do to trade off for the knowledge they received. They call these niericas, ''telephones to the spirit world.''

ICT: How strong are Native healing traditions today?

Valadez: The population in the Huichol communities is steadily declining for economic reasons as more and more people leave all the time. And because of the level of poverty and health care, and the push of the government to accept Western medicine, when they have this Native healing tradition, people don't know what to do anymore. They'll get their box of pink little pills for a sore throat, and if the baby starts to have stomach cramps, they'll give the pills for anything. Their lack of knowledge about Western medicine sometimes makes things worse. And the traditional healing isn't getting passed on. In order to become shamans and have that healing knowledge, you have to be thoroughly involved in the Native religion and the ceremonial cycles, a long apprenticeship. Now that the government has schools there, that knowledge isn't being passed down. The shamans are dying off. The age-old process of the link in the chain is now broken. This generation I call the lost generation.

ICT: What is the Huichol Center doing to restore that link?

Valadez: I'm a hands-on anthropologist. What I do isn't very popular among the purists, marrying into the tribe and interfering in their lives the way I do. But you see enough people carrying babies to the cemetery, and know in your heart, ''I can change that, I can do something about that. I don't have to be a millionaire.'' I started actively training people so they could survive as artists, and now it's inter-generational. Some of the old people that I worked with, their kids were suckling at their breast; now they're successful artists with their own kids.

All of this is a multipronged strategy toward cultural survival. There are so many issues facing the Huichol. If I want to bring artists in, they come with families; and families have illnesses and nutritional needs. They need education. You can't just close your eyes to the other aspects of Huichol life; you have to focus on the whole picture. That's why the Huichol Center has the organic garden, the soy project, the school lunch program.

ICT: What do you see as your own role?

Valadez: I feel that I've come into this culture with the function of being a guardian of the symbols. The symbols were reproduced in the art, the clothing, the weaving, the embroidery, the bags, the votive art bowls, the yarn paintings. Everything we see in Huichol art has a religious context. Except if you see Mickey Mouse or McDonald's golden arches - that's new. I'd see this beautiful, exquisite hand-embroidered clothing - and then I'd see little Volkswagens on them and think, ''What's wrong with this picture?''

I started seeing the corrosion of the traditional symbols being replaced with the new ones. So my first massive effort in the culture was to record the embroidery patterns, and I have an enormous collection of embroidery samples and samples that have actually been graphed out on paper. That's what got me interested in being a recorder of the symbols. It was a vocation I took on.

ICT: Why the commitment to modern technology?

Valadez: I think educators will agree that when you learn something in your maternal language, that's what sticks in your mind and that really identifies who you are as a person. And that's not happening with the Huichol children in the modern-day schools. So the center focus is to provide this visual stimulus where they're taught with their own icons and symbols, as well as giving them the literacy mold - not in Spanish, but in their maternal language. The computers are allowing us to do this. We have kids 4 and 5 years old sitting at computers here, coloring a Huichol peyote button or a gourd bowl.

ICT: Does the center have relevance beyond the Huichol homeland?

Valadez: I'm sure that at one point the cultural traditions of the Huichol and many of their belief systems originated from tribes in the U.S. - the Hopi, Pima, Utes, the Uto-Aztecan tribes. I think those people would be thrilled to know how this culture has evolved and managed to keep some of the basic premises of the religious tradition going all these centuries, incubating this knowledge.