Life Transformed by Fire


September 4, 2022
Don David working on the ritual aspects of Tuki Fiesta with elder shaman Don José Sandoval de la Cruz. September, 2022 Tuki Fiesta.
My Story

As I stood in the maze-like garden of Villa Calmecac, a retreat center in Cuernavaca, Mexico, my heart was pounding and my mind was reeling from disbelief, as the form of a short, deeply-aged indigenous man materialized in front of me. He had skin the color of coffee, small brown eyes and was wearing a crude, brown-dyed manta tunic and pants. Only moments before, I thought I was talking to myself in a fanciful conversation about deep subjects of life, during a break in my first-ever meditation retreat. What was now manifesting as the source of that voice confronted my sense of reality in a way that I hadn’t been prepared for by my forty-three years of life. My initial reaction was to scurry away in fear, only to return again in 20 minutes to see if what I had experienced was real or a fiction of my mind. The figure appeared once again.

This happened on the warm Sunday afternoon of March 17, 1996. I had moved to Mexico in 1994, to engage in a new relationship and to start a job as a trade consultant, as part of a treaty between Mexico, the U.S. and Canada. I was in a difficult situation. The Mexican economy had tanked in late 1994, cutting off my potential for income. This precipitated financial and legal problems with my ex-wife and prevented me from seeing my kids. There seemed no possibility for resolution. This led me into a deep sense of futility, grief and despair. I found myself marooned in Mexico. This motivated me to accept an invitation from Jaimie Velez, a Shambhala Buddhist practitioner, to attend a weekend meditation program with my new partner, despite my deep skepticism regarding all things spiritual.

On that afternoon during that break, I found myself conversing with this apparition who was offering me a way out of my difficulties if I committed to what I would come to understand as a shamanic path and sacred promise. I made the promise and from. that point on, my life and, I would discover, the lives of many others, would be greatly changed.

As I moved into my life, the specter presented himself one more time, then became a voice-like thought-form that spoke to me periodically. Besides being guided to a miracle contract that solved my previous struggles, I was asked to seek out a man named Eliot Cowan, an author and accomplished teacher of Plant Spirit Medicine. It turned out that Eliot was being apprenticed by a Huichol mara’akame, Don Lupe González Ríos. Don Lupe was waiting for my arrival to begin an apprenticeship in that tradition. Through Don Lupe’s help, Eliot and I discovered that this insistent spiritual presence was Tatewarí, “Our Grandfather Fire”, the deity of Fire, the very first and supreme Mara’akame, the teacher of this tradition for all of the mara’akate since the beginning.

Never having been a “seeker,” I began wondering who the Huichols were, what was behind all this effort by this divine Spirit and how could this tradition matter so much?

The Huichols

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 along with the plant.

The word “shamanic” can prompt many different responses. Frequently, it inspires feelings of hope, of a kind of connection that feeds an inner longing to once again experience something mysterious that we intrinsically know about the spiritual quality of being alive. For others, it contrives a romanticized “Carlos Castaneda” fantasy of wielding power over nature, spirits or other humans. It can provoke skepticism or cynicism for some who have turned their thoughts to only the secular. Regardless, the fact that these people have persisted in the face of unimaginable difficulties for thousands of years through the efficacy of their tradition and their otherworldly relationship with the gods is remarkable and undeniable. This has provided them with an abiding connection to and humbling experience of a divine, living world articulated through a diverse pantheon of mysterious yet familiar gods and goddesses. As I continued on my path, I began to experience a greater and mysterious vision that was connected to all of this for me and for others in the Western world.

My Path Unfolds

I began my apprenticeship with Don Lupe and started my work in earnest that fall. This precipitated another series of events. “Grandfather”, as we sometimes called Him, the specter, the voice, sent me to Don Lucio Campos Elizalde, a well-respected Nahua Weather Worker (quiapaquiz-granicero) and healer. He also confirmed the reality of my relationship with Grandfather Fire. They call Him Xiuhtecuhtli or Huehueteotl in Nahuatl. Don Lucio recognized me as a “Worker” and called me to also begin a commitment in the Nahua tradition.

Through another surprising, spontaneous event I then became an axituatakame (Wixárika for “god-speaker-man”, orteotlixiptla, “god-expressing” in Nahuatl). This is a traditional role, a form of “channeling” which is produced through a dramatic physiological state that includes a high fever and a coma-like condition. In this state the voice that provided guidance and instruction to me could now speak directly with others through my body within a particular ceremonial setting. I began serving in this role for Grandfather Fire. This would prove to be a game-changer.

Before Sacred Fire came into existence, students inspired by Eliot’s Plant Spirit Medicine work yearned to connect to spirit and nature, looking for a deeper, more meaningful way of life. Because of this, Eliot sought out Grandfather’s help to benefit those who felt they were struggling with all the disconnecting ways of modern society. He solicited Grandfather’s willingness to provide rare but helpful audiences to his students and friends. In the late 1990’s Grandfather encouraged people to start sitting around a fire, His primal form. He then provided a way to train Firekeepers in methods to host fires in order to deepen relationships. Grandfather’s guidance gave rise to four non-profit organizations—the Blue Deer Center to support Plant Spirit Medicine and traditional healing, Sacred Fire to reestablish a heart-centered way of living through the connection of fire and community, the Sacred Fire Foundation to assist indigenous wisdom traditions and the Temple of Sacred Fire Healing to legally protect indigenous healing practitioners in our modern society. It was clear that this was World-Fire aiding us. However, for this story of us as mara’akate Grandfather, as Tatewarí, had a foundational influence in supporting us to begin bringing the medicine to our people.

In the course of the work, Eliot and I would receive inquiries as to whether a person had a soul calling to the path. This could show up as special dreams, experiences or illnesses pushing the person towards healing through the path. Eliot would bring these requests to Don Lupe and later to Grandfather for confirmation. If they were confirmed the person would be engaged as an apprentice. In this way Grandfather, as Tatewarí, had a foundational influence in supporting us to begin bringing the medicine to our people. This medicine, addressing the spiritual roots of illness, providing healing and wise counsel, is only possible through the traditionally guided relationships with the living world and with the specific help of divine beings and forces.

Shamans in the Huichol Tradition at a ceremony in Tepoztlan Mexico.
Some of the initiated mara'akate of Grupo Tatewarí gathered in back of the Tuki in Tepotzlan. This photo was taken during the Tuki Fiesta in September, 2022.
Becoming a Mara’akame

How does one go about becoming a mara’akame after the potential has been identified in a person by the great Maestro Mara’akame, Tatewarí? No matter how spiritually talented people may believe they are, this is going to be profoundly challenging for them to comprehend when they have been raised in a non-indigenous culture.

In the Sierras, the work of a mara’akame is supported by hundreds of generations of 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 an advantageous 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. It also requires an understanding of the values that are important to the Huichols and therefore the mara’akame. Living existence is experienced as a complex counterbalancing of antagonistic forces such as hot-cold, light-dark, dry-wet, life-death, and productive-destructive. While nature does this instinctively, this is not so for humans. Therefore, to walk through life as a Huichol—and, I would argue, as a human being—is to understand that the mind has the capacity, through a dark side of human nature, to produce imbalance. This requires a practical sacred wisdom to both discern and navigate the difficult complexities of spiritual and communal life. Consequently, the Huichols, and therefore the mara’akate, are deeply moral people.

One of the last essential qualities of becoming a mara’akame is a relationship to personal sacrifice. Sacrifice, as embodied through the sacred deer-person and deity, Kauyumari, represents this principle as a mysterious and transformational commitment. Mara’akate epitomize these qualities as a “Kauyumari” themselves. This is more than the giving of offerings, which is common during pilgrimages and ceremonies. This is more than a negotiation for blessings or outcome. The quality of the deer-person is the giving oneself up, one’s life, for the highest purpose, just as the deer does through the sacred agreement of surrender. Its blood will anoint the offerings and therefore help insure they are received by the gods. This ultimate act of giving and courage is necessary for life to transform. Hence, the mara’akame chooses to give his or her life to the community. This involves engaging their personal physical, spiritual, emotional and mental struggles as a willing and difficult choice for the rest of their lives. This includes facing the perpetual challenges of the dark side of one’s inner voice. All of this presents itself as a complex, interconnecting “package deal” that identifies what it is to endeavor to be a mara’akame. This serves as a way to understand that this undertaking is met with reluctance by the one who has been identified by the elders. Yet, all of this is necessary to achieve even a modicum of authority and efficacy to appeal and receive the help from the divine forces of life itself, for healing, advising and in ceremonies.

Even with this deeply rooted understanding, not everyone makes it. Huichols consider those who make their commitment to achieve the status of mara’akame but fail, or those once initiated default on their personal-spiritual-social agreements as dangerous to the community and the elders.

The Medicine Path Unfolds in the Modern World

Keeping in mind what I have outlined, as though this isn’t daunting enough, it is important to speak about the headwinds that are present within our current society. Cultivating truth, beauty and good, which are essential moral values, can be seen as quaint and irrelevant. Wisdom can be seen as being only about information or it might be left to one’s personal interpretation. Social accord, concern for common good, and cooperation are often subverted for individual benefit. Respect for elders and teachers can be met with contempt and envy. Spiritual life-purpose can be countered with rational-secularism, cynicism and resentment. Sacrifice and courage to work, releasing the whims and insecurities of the ego, can be replaced with desire for ease, avoidance or blame when one is confronted with difficulties that require personal responsibility. Most of this is the result of the outsized authority our society has granted the frail ego-mind and its impulsive desire for certainty.

In reflecting back to the beginning of my journey and the journey of others on this path, was it possible to grasp all of this when we began? Was it possible to grasp any of it? Emphatically “No!” None of us can see what we can’t see without seeking help outside of our own echo chambers, even with the support of Grandfather’s teachings.

So, how did Grandfather deal with this? He did it in the same manner that it is done in the Sierras, because, despite the Huichols’ cultural and historical advantages, as humans we have natural blindness. It is a vulnerable place to be in. Therefore, as mentioned before, the apprentice mara’akate make sacred promises to the community, to the guiding elders, to themselves, to the gods and goddesses they will be petitioning, to Tatewarí, and to the deer that will give up their lives to actualize the offerings. Therefore, they choose trust so that they can be shown what isn’t possible to see through their own agency. This is what was done through Don Lupe and then directly through Grandfather. This always has been the price of admission. One grants this permission or declines. Our word, our integrity, our commitment is a bonding force and not provisionally dependent on our minds’ desires or justifications.

So, what was the process? There seemed to have been an implicit understanding between Don Lupe and Grandfather. Don Lupe would lead the pilgrimages and show how to make and place offerings. Grandfather would provide prayers, songs, guidance, protocols and teachings. A pattern began to arise that Grandfather has called “the method in the madness,” a way to learn and grow towards something beyond our understanding: “becoming mara’akame.”

The Five Phases of Becoming a Mara’akame

To frame all of this as five “phases,” I can identify the first phase as learning-to-pilgrimage. This required applications, interviews and then making the sacred promises to begin. The apprentice then receives a special basket (takwatsi) with feather wands (muvieris). These could eventually become primary healing tools. The apprentice learns to fast, journey and then “meet” and sometimes receive from a sacred, living divine-form known as a kakayari, such as a special mountain, desert or the ocean. Typically, there would be two or three sacred sites identified by Grandfather as calling the apprentice. To the extreme, Eliot had nine sites and I would have twelve. Eliot graduated and was initiated by Grandfather in an initiation “fiesta” in 1998. Don Lupe retired in 2000 and Eliot took over leading pilgrimages. He conducted initiations in 2002 and 2003 for me and others, facilitated by Grandfather and with Grandfather’s ritual instructions. At Don Lupe’s passing in 2003, Grandfather enlisted senior mara’akame and singer (tsaurirrakame) Don José Sandoval de la Cruz to take over the initiation ceremonies. At some point I began to lead pilgrimages as well.

It’s important to take a moment and talk about “initiation” since there is often a common misunderstanding about this ceremony. To “initiate” means “to begin”. It isn’t a point of permanent accomplishment or a final destination. It’s like becoming a doctor. It gives the initiates certain rights to begin their practice and start gaining experience in the medicine. If they stop doing what it takes to be a doctor then they are no longer doctors, except in history. The same is true for being a mara’akame. Initiation is a validation of the completion of a certain level of learning, not a finality. There is a great deal to learn about the forms, stories, songs and the “lens” of the traditional perspective. To grow you need peers and elders to support your learning, to mirror and reinforce ethical behavior. The mara’akame needs to serve a community and challenge themself. The feather wands need to be fed; ceremonies need to be participated in. The mara’akame’s role requires ongoing responsibilities and accountability. This led to our traditional group’s obligation to meet, discuss, debate and engage in gatherings in order to grow, learn and align. Sadly, it also began the process of some choosing to leave rather than continue with the effort and devotion necessary to keep their promises and understanding the wisdom behind the promises themselves.

The second phase involved establishing relationships and ceremonial places. Grandfather sent us to the Sierras to establish relationships with the Huichols and their mara’akate. If we were to benefit from the culture, we needed to know and experience it. Through Grandfather’s help our medicine group received recognition as part of the San Andres Cohamiata lineage as Grupo Tatewarí. We have a compound near the village where we do our work and have our own Huichol temple (Tuki). Outside of the Sierras, we established another, more accessible Tuki in Tepoztlan, Mexico. It has been consecrated and registered by elders of San Andres. Grandfather provided the authority for us to establish our own council of elders, called kawiteros or kawiterutsirri, to guide and support the integrity of the medicine and path. With Grandfather’s support the non-profit Temple of Sacred Fire Healing was established to provide protection for our work and the work of related spiritual healers.

We also recognize our obligation to give something back. We created the Huichol Art Project, which provides a stream of income to artisans in the village. We also provide financial support for various pilgrimage groups, ceremonies and construction projects in San Andres. Part of our work has been to be of service to our communities as well as to those in the Sierras. And, while Sacred Fire is a community that supports the lives of people of all traditions and of no traditions, to be of value we volunteer our efforts and hold various positions in Sacred Fire, the Blue Deer Center and the Temple of Sacred Fire Healing.

The third phase is working with the mind-ego to learn the difference between heart and mind. Grandfather brings us many challenges to learn from and to do our best to see the difficulties that the ego produces. A particular problem of our Western culture is to use the mind in service to heart or NeNepureumaimirrke (to think with a good heart). Don Lupe spoke about Tamatsi Parisika, the god of “taking away,” of emptiness. With the influence of this spirit on one’s mind, something holy and important can be taken away and not be returned. Studies in ethics, honesty and good processes for resolving conflicts are vitally important.

In the fourth phase we’re working on incorporating and building on all of the previous phases by learning the history, customs, forms and wisdom to build the perspective that this tradition uses to see the world. Our present culture has the flotsam and jetsam of many spiritual views. Which ones are authentically of this tradition? Who are we as mara’akate and why? What are our values? For this phase, I have received teachings and transmissions with Grandfather’s help, so that I can teach the other mara’akate.

The fifth phase, five, the sacred number in our tradition, is the phase of succession. As Eliot neared the end of his life, he embodied the later stage of his elder role, working diligently to pass along his duties so that the path can endure into the future. This acts as a reminder to me as the path teacher and to others that we are getting older and that this is a rare and precious gift. It ultimately doesn’t belong to us, but to future generations that can build on what has been wise, sustainable and hard-earned by the sweat, blood and sacrifice of our forbearers and ancestors. There is now a process for handing off responsibilities to other mara’akate who hopefully will become spiritual leaders, teachers and guides in the future championing this work into a blossoming contribution to others and society.

Life Transformed

My life has been transformed. While the path is challenging it has been rewarding beyond my imagination. It is a real and authentic work with deep connections to Spirit. I’ve learned that as part of life, we anticipate future adversities along the way. Grandfather has brought us many challenges so that we can learn through our difficulties. This produces real growth. There is no other way. There are brave men and women who remain devoted to bringing this medicine to our people through this path. This medicine holds unique and important benefits in these times. This is why is it so important that the Great Maestro, Tatewarí, called on us to commit our lives, to be granted the chance to embody Kauyumari, the sacred deer, to serve the Gods and to give these gifts to our people. Just as it is in the Sierras, there is a higher purpose behind all of this— to wake up to this experience, to feel and understand the World and all the aspects of reality as being alive.

This is our divine vocation. This is the path of the mara’akate.

About the Author

Don David Wiley is a Tsaurixika, known as a “singer” or Elder Shaman & Healer in the Wixárika or Huichol tradition. He serves his community as a counselor and ceremonial leader & is recognized as a spiritual conduit (axihuatakame) for the Spirit of fire known by the Wixárika as Tatewarí or Grandfather Fire. David is also a primary founder of Sacred Fire, an international community working to rekindle humankind’s relationship with one’s self, each other and the divine, natural world through the process of Firekeeping and gathering around the fire.

This article was first published in the Fire Gazette, published by Sacred Fire.