The Huichols or the Wixáritari (sg. Wixárika) are a group of indigenous people, with a population estimated to be around 42,000, who live in the remote canyonlands of the Sierra Madre Occidental of northwestern Mexico. Their lands are spread amongst the states of Durango, Jalisco, Nayarit, and Zacatecas. Their way of life is extraordinarily old and distinctive. The archeological evidence points to a presence of over 15,000 years. They have maintained a history of eluding outside influences beginning with the Aztecs, through the cycles of attempted Spanish-Catholic conquests, all the way through modern Western industrialization. Despite their quiet, reclusive manner and meager way of living, they reveal no evidence of feeling oppressed or conquered. Often the Huichols are associated with peyote, a sacred, hallucinogenic cactus. However, within their villages and ranchos, they are also acknowledged for their “spiritual specialists”, known as mara’akate (sg. mara’akame), or shamanic healers, counselors, and ceremonial leaders who help guide the people in their relationship with Spirit and the gods as life itself.
In the Sierras, the work of a mara’akame is supported by hundreds of generations of a social-cultural continuum. The work is extraordinarily demanding intellectually, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It requires great knowledge of the customs, forms, teachings, and sacred stories along with a huge range of applied experiences. This all shapes the interpretative “lens” through which the mara’akame sees the world so that they can spiritually support and decipher life to address specific illnesses and difficult situations. It requires mature social skills in order to work with individuals and the community as a peacemaker, facilitator, and leader so that the community can move together into a beneficial future. It takes a steady mind to deal with the destabilizing effects of interacting with the spirits and the intertwining divine forces that make up existence beyond the order that characterizes the human realm.