A quiver full of pray­ers

Na­ture, su­per­na­ture, and the Hui­chol

Pasatiempo - - Pasa Tempos - Michael Wade Simp­son

Mex­i­can yarn paint­ings are pop­u­lar with folk-art col­lec­tors for their vi­brant colors and bold de­signs. The story be­hind this form and its creators, the Hui­chol peo­ple of re­mote west­ern Mex­ico, are the sub­ject of a fas­ci­nat­ing new exhibit and book by the Mu­seum of In­dian Arts & Cul­ture and the Mu­seum of New Mex­ico Press.

Both the ex­hi­bi­tion, spon­sored in part by the Lab­o­ra­tory of An­thro­pol­ogy in Santa Fe, and the com­pan­ion vol­ume, Hui­chol Art and Cul­ture:

Bal­anc­ing the World, high­light the col­lec­tion of Robert M. Zingg, the first Amer­i­can an­thro­pol­o­gist to con­duct ex­ten­sive field­work among the Hui­chol peo­ple in 1934 and 1935. This col­lec­tion of sa­cred art­work and cer­e­mo­nial ob­jects ob­tained by Zingg has been in stor­age for years but is be­ing ex­hib­ited to shed light on the ways of this rel­a­tively un­spoiled tra­di­tional cul­ture.

The Hui­chol’s re­mote home­lands in the Sierra Madre Oc­ci­den­tal Moun­tains — south of Mazat­lan, west of Za­cate­cas and north of Guadala­jara — have al­lowed them to main­tain pre-Chris­tian, pre-His­panic tra­di­tions that are rich in sym­bol­ism, mythol­ogy, and rit­ual.

The Hui­chol were en­cour­aged by out­siders like Zingg to cre­ate the yarn paint­ings as a com­mer­cial folk-art prod­uct. Start­ing in the 1950s, this craft brought money to the Hui­chol com­mu­nity but al­lowed the peo­ple to main­tain a cul­tural bound­ary. Tra­di­tional Hui­chol art prac­tices con­tin­ued, while in work­shops set up closer to dis­tri­bu­tion cen­ters, com­mer­cial prod­ucts were de­vel­oped by Hui­chol artists and crafts­peo­ple, end­ing up in gal­leries, shops, and mu­se­ums all over the world.

Zingg’s col­lec­tion of tra­di­tion­ally dec­o­rated vo­tive gourd bowls, shamans’ chairs, feather work, em­broi­dered cloth­ing, prayer ar­rows, and beaded jew­elry of­fers in­sight into an in­dige­nous cul­ture with a highly de­vel­oped vis­ual aes­thetic. The im­ages and de­signs that dec­o­rate th­ese art­works are even more elab­o­rate in the yarn paint­ings.

“The show is re­ally about the Hui­chol peo­ple and their cul­ture,” said Melissa Pow­ell, MIAC’s cu­ra­tor of ar­chae­ol­ogy. “Theirs is a liv­ing cul­ture.” C. Jill Grady, a Santa Fe res­i­dent and cul­tural an­thro­pol­o­gist, wrote her dis­ser­ta­tion on Hui­chol cul­ture and co-edited Hui­chol Art and Cul­ture with Pow­ell. Both were on hand at MIAC’s base­ment stu­dio to of­fer a preview of the ob­jects from the Zingg col­lec­tion that would soon be moved up­stairs.

“Th­ese are re­li­gious pieces,” Grady said. “The de­signs are dic­tated by Hui­chol mythol­ogy.” She picked up an ar­row dec­o­rated with a feather and tiny wo­ven squares of fab­ric. “Th­ese are prayer ar­rows,” she said. “They shoot pray­ers to God.” The tiny pieces of fab­ric are called nama, and they rep­re­sent lit­tle beds for the gods to rest on while they lis­ten to the pray­ers.

The idea of bal­ance cen­tral to the Hui­chol re­li­gion is re­flected in the cul­ture’s al­most ob­ses­sive re­la­tion­ship to the sea­sons, ac­cord­ing to Grady, who lived with the Hui­chol dur­ing her doc­toral stud­ies. In Hui­chol mythol­ogy, the rainy sea­son is the do­main of the fe­male deities, while the dry months be­long to the male gods. The dry sea­son is a time for hunt­ing deer and col­lect­ing pey­ote for cer­e­mo­nial pur­poses, which re­quires a 300-mile trek to the desert north of Hui­chol ter­ri­tory. The rainy sea­son is a time for plant­ing and hon­or­ing the god­dess of corn. Ac­cord­ing to Grady, the ex­act num­ber of pray­ers and of­fer­ings made to the dry sea­son gods are also made to the wet sea­son deities. Bal­ance is the goal.

Many of the vo­tive ob­jects Grady and Pow­ell chose for the exhibit — like the string of trop­i­cal feathers used to sum­mon the gods or the lac­quered gourd bowls dec­o­rated with beads to be used in cer­e­monies — are not only beau­ti­ful, but their pur­poses ful­fill spe­cific func­tions. The bowls, for ex­am­ple, are fit­ting of­fer­ings for the rain god­desses: they hold wa­ter; they im­ply fem­i­nin­ity.

Shamans, both male and fe­male, play im­por­tant parts in Hui­chol cul­ture, and Pow­ell noted that Zingg brought back a shaman’s chair and two minia­ture chairs — dec­o­rated with prayer ar­rows, thread crosses, and shaman’s wands — where the gods are in­vited to sit dur­ing cer­e­monies.

photo cour­tesy Su­sana Eger Valadez

Girl with cer­e­mo­nial face paint­ing, Las Latas, 2008;

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