National Geographic : 1977 Jun
have become scarce) had been sacrificed with great pomp at the beginning of the festivities. Although rain began falling, five men, their arms loaded with firewood, marched around the compound. They were led by a shaman who carried a piece of green wood in his palms as though it were a baby. He presented it to the five sacred directions, then laid it carefully on the ground while the other men arranged their sticks of firewood over it so as to point east and west. Soon an enormous bonfire blazed. I asked the shaman if his con tribution made a special smoke. He shook his head, saying, "It is the pillow for Our Grand father Fire." The activities continued into the night. Along with dancing and singing there was considerable drinking of both nawa and a much stronger distilled liquor made of a small agave plant. The drinking, the dancing, and the flickering light made me feel as if I had been caught in a Dionysian revel. Lightning forked the sky and the chilling rain became a downpour, but the festivities went on. The music and chants grew louder; it was as if the Huichols were intensifying their dialogue with the deities to prevent the precious rain from stopping. Missionaries Keep General Store The ceremony echoed pre-Columbian days. Curious, now, to see how Christianity fared among the Huichols, I hiked to Santa Clara, six miles southwest of San Jose, one of the three Franciscan missions in the region. Here two priests and several Mexican nuns con ducted a free boarding school for Huichol children. They also maintained the regional general store, where Indians could purchase batteries, candy, matches, and soft drinks. Although most Indians accept both native and Christian forms of baptism, and almost all Huichols adopt Christian names, their suspicion of missionaries harks back for sev eral centuries. (Continued on page 845) Taut with suspicion, a boy brandishes his toy weapon. The Huichols lived by the bow until about fifty years ago, when they began using guns for hunting deer, rabbit, and squirrel. But children still learn to use the bow, for with it the peyote is ritually "cap tured" in the sacred hunt. Virtually self-governing, about 9,000 Huichols till isolated ranchos in 1,500 square miles of Mexican mountains. They gather in ceremonial centers for religious celebrations.