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Restoring Deer to the Huichol: Sacred Animals Return to Jalisco, Mexico

Thanks to the efforts of many volunteers and donors, sacred deer are returning to traditional Huichol lands in Mexico.

Luis Guerra had a dream, an aspiration that started 28 years ago. He was up in the Sierra Madre, in the Mexican state of Jalisco, 300 miles from his Mexican home in Real de Catorce, a remote mountain village in San Luis Potosí. He was visiting the Huichol Indians during one of their most significant times, the Festival of the Drum, the Corn and the Squash.

Guerra was invited to the festival by Huichol he met during their annual pilgrimage to their ancestral lands in San Luis Potosí—a place they call Wirikuta—to witness the birth of the sun. Huichol oral tradition teaches that Wirikuta was the site of the first deer hunt.

It was during the Festival of the Drum, the Corn and the Squash that Guerra learned there were no longer abundant deer in the Huichol parts of the Sierra Madre because of settler encroachment and overhunting by poachers. Because deer are central to the Huichol cosmology and ceremonial cycle, as depicted in the work of Huichol artist Marcos García López below, Guerra gave thought to the daunting practicalities of doing something about the situation. He dreamed of bringing the deer back.

Venado Azul, Huichol yarn painting by Marcos García López.

Guerra is a visual artist, a writer, and has been a regular storyteller on National Public Radio’s Latino USA. It’s a good thing for the deer that Guerra is also a political activist. He was born in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, and raised in Laredo, Texas. Since 1985, he has divided his time between Austin and Real de Catorce and learned a great deal about the Huichol people.

On this side of the Rio Bravo, the Huichol have a reputation as mystics among the sorts of gringos who believe that Carlos Casteneda was a serious scholar, though Casteneda picked on the Yaqui when he attributed his spiritual fakery. The Huichol are peyoteros not in the Native American Church (NAC) sense but rather as heirs of the 10,000-year-old peyote culture that was syncretized with Christianity by Quanah Parker and others to establish the NAC.

The shamanic tradition so abused for profit by Casteneda is alive to this day among the Huichol, who value the sort of introspection that makes the ideas of pressing their beliefs on others or commercializing those beliefs unthinkable. Just as many Huichol kept their tribal traditions in the face of aggression by the Roman Catholic Church, they also managed to stay out of the waves of revolution that have defined the political landscape of Mexico.

As Guerra’s Huichol friendships expanded from traditional Wirikuta to the Sierra Madre, his dream remained on his mind, and so it was that he mentioned it to a classmate at the 50th high school reunion of St. Joseph’s Academy in Laredo. Abraham Garcia had since high school become the owner of a successful deer-hunting ranch, La Palma, near Nuevo Laredo. Garcia offered to donate the beginning of a new deer herd on Huichol lands in Jalisco, and so was born the Huichol Deer Repopulation Project.

Garcia would have been generous to just say, “The deer are yours. Come and get them.” But moving wild animals is a task barely begun when the animals are located. The project requires expertise and attention to the legalities. Garcia helped with both. During the roundup, Guerra called one of the skilled ranch hands at La Palma, Chano Mares, “the indispensable deer whisperer.”

Guerra took on fundraising, which meant explaining the purpose of the project far and wide. I heard about it on KOOP, the community owned and operated radio station in Austin.

As the project gained momentum it came to the attention of Sharon Greenhill, a documentary producer who had a track record of respectful treatment of indigenous culture with Agave Is Lifeand Chocolate Pathway to the Gods.

Greenhill has formed a production company, Blue Deer Productions, for the purpose of filming a new documentary, Restoring the Sacred Deer. The plan is to use the drama of restoring the deer to highlight modern threats to Huichol culture.

Even without the documentary, when people of goodwill hear about the cultural significance of the deer among the Huichol, they are eager to help. Although a dozen deer were captured one at a time with tranquilizer darts, the rest were gathered in a two-day period with net guns deployed from a helicopter, which Cathy and Kevin Reed of Dragonfly Aviation deployed at a discount once they understood the purpose.

Photo: Ismael Trujillo, Courtesy Blue Deer Productions

Some deer were captured with tranquilizer darts, while others were scooped up in nets from a helicopter.

Abraham Garcia, the donor of the 33 deer, paid for the veterinarian, assigned ranch hands to help (including the indispensable deer whisperer), provided accommodations for the crews from Dragonfly and Blue Deer Productions, and acquired the permits required to transport deer across state lines.

The deer were moved from the state of Tamaulipas to the state of Jalisco by truck. During the process, Luis Guerra said, “it seemed to me that these noble creatures felt, while not scared, a bit helpless. I asked them to forgive us for the indignity that we were causing them, and promised them that they would like their new home.” The experts advised that the trauma of capture and 17 hours in a truck might kill 10 percent of the deer—three or four.

Photo: Ismael Trujillo, Courtesy Blue Deer Productions

Once captured, the deer were transported by truck.

On January 22 of this year, all 30 does and three bucks were released into a holding corral built for them in Jalisco, where they were fed, watered and watched over by a Huichol family that camped next to the corral. One doe died soon after arrival. All the others were released in good condition on February 23.

Photo: Ismael Trujillo, Courtesy Blue Deer Productions

Once released, the deer bolted to freedom.

The Huichol elders, the neighboring Tepehuano people and the nearest Mexican government of Villa Guerrero all agree that there will be no hunting of deer for four years, and then only of older deer. The indigenous communities and the closest settler communities are all embracing the project.

The coordinator of the project at the Jalisco end is Mateo Borghi, a respected traditional healer, and Borghi intends to visit all the nearby villages to keep the elders informed. The ecologist for Villa Guerrero, Servando Ramirez, is working to educate the teachers to educate the children to educate the parents that no deer may be taken for four years. By getting everybody to understand prudent game management, the idea is to get anti-poaching laws from the municipalities farther away than Villa Guerrero and to get them enforced.

Borghi told Guerra that his Huichol wife, Pati, had a vivid dream of happy deer returned to Huichol lands. “I knew then,” Guerra said, “that this project would be successful.”

While Borghi works to keep the deer safe, he is raising money in Mexico as Guerra is raising money in the U.S. for the next deer roundup. It was a great deal of work, but the first roundup was such a success that Abraham Garcia has volunteered to do it all again.

La Peña, an Austin nonprofit with a long history of supporting Latino and indigenous cultures, has adopted the Huichol Deer Repopulation Project to make contributions tax deductible. So far, the Project is not so much a victory as “so far—so good.” It’s necessary to protect the deer in their new home and raise the money to move more.

It does offer some hope that the Indigenous Peoples—Huichol and Tepehuano—are supported by citizens of both settler states, the U.S. and Mexico, in a united effort to reverse the decline of the sacred deer.