SAN DIEGO — They plant corn blessed by bull's blood in steep, precipitous terrain, where grazing cattle are often lost to falls in deep gorges and rubber tire-tread sandals protect calloused feet from jagged rocks.
In a remote region of the Sierra Madre Occidental range about 600 miles northwest of Mexico City, a tenacious tribe of Huichol (HWEE-chol) Indians work the land, worship gods and dream peyote visions as they have for centuries and possibly millenia. Resisting outside encroachment, yet accepting elements of the modern world as embellishments of their ancient way of life, the Huichols have preserved a religious temple cult in an isolated mountain area once accessible only by foot.
Eight Huichol Indians traveled out of their country for the first time to assist San Diego's Museum of Man and four guest curators in forming the first exhibition documenting the Huichol way of life. "Mirrors of the Gods: Reflections of a Huichol Reality," which opened Saturday and will be on view through March, 1987, at the museum in Balboa Park, displays artifacts, artworks, photographs, drawings, life-size scenes and an audio-visual show depicting the lives of the isolated mountain people.
The visiting Huichols made replicas of objects used in sacred ceremonies (blessed artifacts could not be put on display) and drew pictures of Huichol activities and customs that were captioned in Spanish and English--translated from their native language.
A thatched "God House" shows offerings of tiny sandals, deer traps and prayer arrows hanging from the ceiling; dioramas depict women working in the kitchen or altars made in the peyote desert, and photographs, both contemporary and historic, document Huichol ceremonies and agriculture.
"Yarn paintings" of brightly dyed wool pressed into beeswax reveal myths and visions in about 30 works on view alongside beaded jewelry, feather headdresses, woven bags and embroidered clothing.
According to John Lilly, a film maker and ethnographer who has studied the Huichols for 17 years, anthropologists and researchers think Huichols have been living in the mountains for thousands of years, but many were pushed into the isolated terrain during the Spanish conquest about 450 years ago.
Lilly and his wife, Colette, focused their research on Toapuri (also called Santa Catarina), one of the five communities in the region, and one of the most remote. A single dirt road and an airstrip allow access to the five Huichol communities. According to Lilly, Toapuri is still accessible only on foot after days of travel through deep canyons.
The curators were reluctant to discuss exactly where the Huichols live in an effort to protect the High Sierra Indians and discourage tourists.
The Lillys have not publicly talked about their research for years in an attempt to shield the people.
"This is the first display of very esoteric new research," Lilly said. "We didn't want to tell anyone in order to defend them. Now they can defend themselves against outsiders."
"If anyone really threatens them now, there will be a great human outcry," Colette Lilly said.
"We were in a race against time," John Lilly said. "They were being done in by outside intrusion before they were appreciated. But now we think they have another 80 years. Young kids are learning to be shamans now."
"Other Indians were conquered. The Huichols do not have a vanquished attitude," Colette Lilly said. "They feel that their culture is very superior to the white culture."
The Lillys, along with curators Susana and Mariano Valadez, hope awareness of the Huichols will help preserve the ancient culture.
It is a culture rich in ritual, spirituality and reverence for nature. And it is intrinsically tied to the hallucinogenic power of peyote.
Peyote visions help name newborns, elect officials and inspire brilliantly colored artworks and new songs. The bitter cactus is eaten on the journeys to the "Peyoteland" desert east of the mountains and in many ceremonies back home dedicated to communicating with the gods. Shamans, or spiritual leaders, use it to listen to the gods, to heal and to arbitrate.
"It is their passport to the supernatural. They conjure up the gods and talk to them. It is a vehicle of worship," said Susana Valadez, a Chicago native and UCLA graduate in Latin American studies. Valadez, who lived with the Huichols in San Andres and married Huichol artist Mariano Valadez, runs a Huichol Center for Cultural Survival and Traditional Arts in Santiago Ixcuintla in the Mexican state of Nayarit.
"They use the mind-altering substance to explore. It helps them find their priorities in the wilderness, to form a value system. It is not recreational," Susana Valadez said.
"Religion and art are the pivots of their lives."