In the Lands of Fire and Sun: Resistance and Accommodation in the Huichol Sierra, 1723-1930

In the Lands of Fire and Sun: Resistance and Accommodation in the Huichol Sierra, 1723-1930

by Michele McArdle Stephens


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The Huichols (or Wixárika) of western Mexico are among the most resilient and iconic indigenous groups in Mexico today. In the Lands of Fire and Sun examines the Huichol Indians as they have struggled to maintain their independence over two centuries. From the days of the Aztec Empire, the history of west-central Mesoamerica has been one of isolation and a fiercely independent spirit, and one group that maintained its autonomy into the days of Spanish colonization was the Huichol tribe. Rather than assimilating into the Hispanic fold, as did so many other indigenous peoples, the Huichols sustained their distinct identity even as the Spanish Crown sought to integrate them. In confronting first the Spanish colonial government, then the Mexican state, the Huichols displayed resilience and cunning as they selectively adapted their culture, land, and society to the challenges of multiple new eras.

By incorporating elements of archaeology, anthropology, cultural geography, and history, Michele McArdle Stephens fills the gaps in the historical documentation, teasing out the indigenous voices from travel accounts, Spanish legal sources, and European ethnographic reports. The result is a thorough examination of one of the most vibrant, visible societies in Latin America.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803288584
Publisher: UNP - Nebraska
Publication date: 05/01/2018
Pages: 222
Sales rank: 910,982
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Michele McArdle Stephens is an assistant professor of Latin American history at West Virginia University specializing in Latin American communities. 

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From Native Neighbors to Spanish Conquerors

The Huichols and other indigenous peoples who lived beyond the valley of Mexico, in the mountains and deserts to the north of Tenochtitlán, remained just out of the Aztecs' reach. Yet the Aztecs knew about the various peoples, whom they termed "Chichimeca" (Chichimecatl, Nahuatl, sing.), a catchall phrase; through trade relationships that spread throughout Mesoamerica, the Chichimecs knew of the Aztecs. Shortly after the conquest of Mexico, Nahua scribes working with Bernardino de Sahagún explained some curious religious practices of the mountain and desert peoples. From their descriptions, Sahagún wrote:

The real Chichimeca, that is to say, those who lived on the grassy plains, in the forests — these were the ones who lived far away; they lived in the forests, the grassy plains, the deserts, among the crags ... where night came upon them, there they sought a cave, a craggy place, there they slept ... they knew the qualities, the essence, of herbs, of roots, the so-called peyote was their discovery. These, when they ate peyote, esteemed it above wine or mushrooms. They assembled together somewhere in the desert; they came together; there they danced, they sang all night, all day. ... And on the morrow, once more they assembled together. They wept, they wept exceedingly ... thus they cleansed their eyes.

While not using the word "Huichol," this passage depicted peyote ceremonies with startling accuracy. Indeed, this section of the Florentine Codex could describe a twenty-first century peyote ceremony, so little having changed in the past centuries.

The Nahuas' description illustrates a few key points that emerge in this chapter. First, Mesoamerica was truly an interconnected space, within which many groups interacted, either directly or indirectly. Second, the Huichols were not isolated in their mountain redoubts, despite the inability of larger, stronger groups to conquer them. (The Aztecs never could and the Spanish, as we shall see, had a difficult time.) Finally, the peyote ceremony made enough of a cultural impact upon someone in the central Mexican world that the practice was recorded for posterity. Even deep in the Sierra Madre Occidental, seemingly removed from the larger problems of competing empires before and after the conquest, the Huichols both participated in and adapted to their changing environment.

For centuries the native peoples of the Sierra Madre Occidental, its foothills, and the plains to the south lived with the presence of powerful empires that frequently surrounded them. By the post-Classic period (900 BCE–1519 CE), the Huichols' ancestors were but one of many indigenous groups that the Aztecs would call Chichimecas. The Huichols likely knew about the Aztecs, their warlike neighbors to the south; indeed, it is almost certain that the Aztecs knew at least something of the Huichols and their curious religious practices.

During the last century and a half before the Spanish arrival, a loose confederation of indigenous communities known as the Chimalhuacán found themselves hemmed by two powerful groups on two fronts: the P'urhépecha to the east-southeast (located in modern-day Michoacán) and the Aztecs to the south. This group of affiliated indigenous villages had existed since the late Classic period and covered a vast geographical area, including parts of modern-day Nayarit, Jalisco, Colima, Aguascalientes, and Zacatecas. The Aztecs did not affect the Huichols to any large degree, in part because the P'urhépecha empire was located between the Sierra and the Valley of Mexico. Also, groups like the Huichols, who lived in the mountains, had learned to make their homeland a bulwark and safe haven against enemy invaders. This region of refuge protected mountainous tribes from the imperial designs of their southern neighbors; there is no evidence that any groups in the Chimalhuacán ever became tributaries of the Aztecs or the P'urhépechas. Huichol oral history confirms their independence throughout the last centuries before contact with the Spanish.

The 1521 conquest of the Aztecs sent reverberations into Greater Mesoamerica and indeed eventually throughout the world. From the new imperial capital of Mexico City, multiple conquistadors sought their own slice of fame and glory and rampaged north and south, looking for El Dorado (the famed City of Gold) and large population centers to conquer and exploit. Except for the P'urhépecha empire, there were few areas of large, settled populations north of the Valley of Mexico. Francisco Cortés, a kinsman of Hernán, launched an exploratory mission up the western part of Mesoamerica into what are now the states of Colima and Nayarit. This expedition reached as far as the Río Grande de Santiago, near the towns of Xalisco and Tepic, on the western edge of the Mesa del Nayar. The Cortés expedition contacted a number of peoples, including Tecuales (possibly a group of Huichols), Naguatatos, and Otomís. Most feared the Spanish, who "had killed many people"; the destroyed houses and farms demonstrated a violent, destructive campaign led by Cortés. This sliver of evidence is the first instance of Huichol contact with Spaniards in this early period. The violence of it provides a possible explanation for Huichol attitudes toward Spaniards thereafter.

Nine years after the victory over the Aztecs, Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán began his own brutal quest for a piece of New Spain. At the end of 1529 Guzmán, originally from Guadalajara, Spain, began his march north with an assortment of Spanish and Tlaxcalan allies and some indigenous slaves. In early 1530 Guzmán headed northwest from the P'urhépecha capital of Tzintzuntzan hoping to defeat the warlike Caxcans and secure a route to the northwestern coast. Guzmán and his army first fell upon the town of Tonalá, defeating the native peoples there and launching a bloody conquest of the west from this indigenous village. As Guzmán moved from Tonalá northwest and into the Sierra, he marched on a small Indian village named Teúl, in search of the powerful Caxcans. The Caxcans, apparently ruled by a female warrior "queen," could count among their occasional allies most of the mountainous tribes of the Sierra; they were a formidable opponent that the Spaniards needed to subjugate. Living near the modern-day Zacatecas towns of Teúl de González Ortega, Nochistlán, and Juchipila, the Caxcans were the lords of the Sierra at the time of the conquest. Guzmán likely miscalculated Caxcan power, because before invading the their lands, he had sent part of his army across the Sierra toward the Pacific coast.

The conquest of the Caxcans and their allies ended in 1530. But what did this mean for power dynamics in the Sierra? Though the Caxcans certainly seemed vanquished, in reality the powerful indigenous group had gone underground while other peoples in the area flooded into mountainous areas, seeking refuge. This had been a common practice of avoidance in times past; it likely created tensions with indigenous groups living in the area, but there are no records to verify this. However, with the area reasonably secure, the Spaniards founded the city of Guadalajara, paying homage to Guzmán's Iberian roots. The security did not last long, as Caxcans and their allies regrouped and rebelled the following year, expelling Spanish settlers and forcing the new town's initial removal in 1531. Guzmán headed northwest toward the coast, leaving behind a legacy of brutality: his practices terrorized "the natives with often unprovoked killing, torture and enslavement ... the army left a path of corpses and destroyed houses and crops, impressing surviving males into service and leaving women and children to starve." In his place, conquistadors who had served under him either remained in the area or, as in the case of Pedro Almíndez Chirinos (or Cherinos), left to survey parts of the countryside before rejoining Guzmán. Chirinos "passed through and nominally subjugated the Sierras of Tepeque, Xora, Cora, Huianamota [sic], and perhaps Huazamota, on the periphery of Huichol-Tecual territory." The Caxcans and other peoples in the area fled the violence by taking refuge among friendly groups in the mountains. From there, they took stock of their losses and waited, seething at their treatment at the hands of Guzmán.

For more than a decade indigenous peoples in the Sierra Madre region of Nueva Galicia plotted their revenge. The Caxcans, Tecuexes, Zacatecos, and Guachichiles, among others, launched raids on Spanish settlements that strayed too close to the mountains. These native peoples did not see themselves as subject to Spanish authority and certainly did not believe they had been "conquered" in any meaningful sense. However, by 1540 the pressure upon Nueva Galicia's indigenous groups gave way to a rebellion known as the Mixtón War. It began with the murder of encomendero Juan de Arce by Guaynamotecos contracted to work for him. (An encomendero is a Spaniard who is given a grant of indigenous labor.) The Guaynamotecos likely did not plan to launch a large-scale rebellion; rather, surviving Caxcans probably contacted allies throughout the Sierra and coordinated the attacks. Land pressures prompted many to join the Caxcans and Guaynamotecos. Centered around the highlands of the Sierra Madre Occidental, thousands of indigenous peoples took up arms against the Spanish. Led by the Caxcans and Zacatecos, other groups joined in the rebellion from Teúl and Nochistlán (in present-day Zacatecas) to Tepic (in present-day Nayarit). Records are unclear as to the participation of the Huichols, but the scope and location of the rebellion suggest they might have taken part, or at least offered some support to those who fought to restore lost lands.

The Mixtón War ended in late 1541 in most areas, while lasting much longer in some farther-flung regions. Defensive forces moved north from Mexico City toward Guadalajara to end the revolts, which continued to rage among the "Chichimecas, the hunting tribes of the Sierras." In the end, thousands of indigenous peoples died as a result of the violence and the virulent epidemics that often followed Spaniards' presence. The Spanish sold scores of surviving women and children into slavery on plantations and haciendas far from home, and untold others fled or were forced out of their homelands. Farther west in the Sierra Madre Occidental, groups like the Huichols remained untamed by the Spanish, though there is evidence that some Huichols joined the Spanish as flechero soldiers, helping to pacify more distant regions of the Sierra. This area served as a refugee zone for those fleeing the repressive measures that the Spanish used to control their indigenous subjects. Thus, though the Huichols may not have physically participated in the uprisings, they most certainly dealt with the survivors and understood that the Spanish activities had serious consequences for their neighbors.

Once the violence subsided in Nueva Galicia, the Spanish began the process of colonization. This was easier in some places than in others, as tensions and conflict existed for decades after the end of the Mixtón War. Yet political leaders planned to pacify even the most hostile areas. Expeditions into the mountains around Zacatecas and further west brought Spaniards into conflict with local indigenous groups, such as in 1550 when Guachichiles fought intruding Spaniards. Spanish administrators assured a steady supply of labor for colonists in the region by requiring indigenous peoples without regular employment to present themselves for work (meaning that nearly every Indian could be forced to labor for Spaniards). For some native populations that had been dominated by the Aztecs, labor tribute would not have been an alien concept. All subjugated towns and villages had paid tribute to the Aztec emperor in Tenochtitlán, through either goods or services (or both). However, the lack of Aztec hegemony or influence in the Sierra Madre Occidental during the precontact era assured that groups like the Caxcans and Zacatecos would resist any sort of coerced labor.

Not only did Nueva Galicia become a tinderbox of Indian resentment as a result of encomienda (grant of indigenous labor to a Spaniard) obligations, but Lebrón de Quiñones's attempts to implement the 1542 New Laws incensed Spanish colonists, who saw nothing to gain by paying indigenous peoples for their toil. In 1549 Quiñones proposed that:

Indians illegally enslaved were to be freed, and encomiendas held without proper title to be nullified ... penalties placed upon encomenderos who demanded illegal service; or overtaxed their Indians. ... Idle Indians were to be set to work — the clergy using their powers of persuasion — and proper wages paid: 12 maravedíses a day to labourers, 24 to native officials. The mountain Indians were to be induced to settle in villages and till the land "like reasonable people;" Spanish stock farms were to be kept away from the cultivated land of the Indians.

The Mixtón War remained firmly implanted in the minds of all Spaniards living in the region, and officials such as Quiñones knew that antagonizing native groups, many of whom had little to lose, would only spur more hostilities.

Throughout the seventeenth century, but especially in the 1620s and again in the 1640s, the Crown made more concerted attempts to reach out to native peoples living in the Sierra. In the wake of the 1617 Tepehuan rebellion, two Franciscan priests, Francisco Barrios and Pedro Gutiérrez, tried to promote peace by Christianizing the "Huisare" Indians of Huainamota (Guaynamota). Barrios and Gutiérrez were partly successful in convincing some Huisares, who lived in the rugged Sierra de Nayarit, to receive baptism and learn catechism. Though the Huisares burned down a newly built chapel, native peoples accepted a limited degree of religious instruction, at least around Guaynamota.

As Spaniards made their way deeper into the Sierra Madre Occidental, they encountered various ethnic groups. Added to the mix of serrano tribes were native peoples from central Mexico, such as the Tlaxcalans, who served as bulwarks against frontier cultures like the Huichols and Tecuexes, who farmed scattered rancherías (small farms) and occasionally raided other indigenous peoples and Spanish settlers. The Huichols lived around Huejuquilla el Alto by 1649 "and had towns nearby in Nostic, Colotlán, Mamatla and Ostoc." Further west, however, the Chapalagana River valley, a treacherous part of the mountains, had not been surveyed or explored by Spaniards in any meaningful way. Explorers began documenting the different languages in the area, providing clues to both the impacts of conquest and colonialism and also definitively locating the Huichols and their neighbors in time and space: languages spoken in the area were "Tepehuan at Chimaltitán, Tepecano in the surrounding villages, Huichol and Caxcan nearby." Where few Spaniards had settled, peace came relatively easily. But in other places, where miners moved in and ranchers grazed cattle, violence erupted occasionally. For a time, while many Huichols had been in contact with Spaniards, particularly in the aforementioned towns, still others remained just outside of the sustainable reach of the Crown.

Over the course of the seventeenth century missionaries filtered into the high Sierra. The Franciscans were the most numerous of the regular orders working in western Mexico, though Jesuits did practice here and there. The earliest of the convents established in Huichol territory was at San Juan Baptista de Mezquitic in 1616, with the function of administering twelve towns in the area. The friars had their work cut out for them, as according to the writings of at least one individual, the indigenous peoples there were "barbaric." Like elsewhere in the Americas, missionaries faced initial difficulties as they struggled to understand the myriad indigenous languages, and natives certainly did not understand Spanish at first. In August 1653 Juan Ruíz de Colmenero, the bishop of Guadalajara, inquired as to the best language with which to instruct the indigenous peoples. Some native peoples could be taught catechism in Spanish, while others, like the Huichols and Coras, needed to receive their lessons in "Mexicano," a reference to Nahuatl. Though some Huichols may have spoken Spanish, as Colmenero noted, most did not, and those who could read Spanish may not have read it well.

A few years later a traveling Franciscan friar named Padre Antonio Arias de Saavedra described the major indigenous areas according to the groups who lived there; he divided the Sierra into four provinces, one of which belonged to the "Xamuca" or "Hueitzolme." Xamuca and Hueitzolme were two other words for Huichols; Arias named the other groups living in the area as "Chora," "Tzaname," "Tepeguanes, "Caponetas," "Xamucas," and "Totorames." It is no surprise that missionaries had trouble understanding various groups in the area, considering the nuances in languages between each different peoples and even towns.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
1. From Native Neighbors to Spanish Conquerors
2. Facing the Young Nation-State
3. Between Tolerance and Rejection of the Church
4. In Defense of Lands
5. Foreign Scholars as Tools of Resistance
6. A Revolution Comes to the Huichols

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