Little is known about the origins of the Huichol. Some scholars propose that in pre-Columbian times the Huichol were originally Guachichil from the desert around Zacatecas and San Luis Potosí and were part of the Chichimec culture. According to this theory, ancestors of contemporary Huichol sought refuge in the sierra shortly before or after the arrival of the Spaniards. Others believe that the Huichol had been longtime residents in the sierra, with a strong orientation to the Pacific coast. Regardless of their origins, it is likely that the Huichol culture consisted of four or five tribes, each with distinct regional traditions.
Because of the rugged terrain of the sierra and physical resistence on the part of the Indians, the Huichol held out against direct Spanish domination until the 1720s. By this time their territory and population had been drastically reduced. The Franciscans established centers that served as missions and frontier posts in the area. Some of the first Franciscan missionaries established communities in Tenzompa, Soledad, and San Nicolas, all of which eventually assimilated with the mestizo population. San Andres, Santa Catarina, and San Sebastián were the most remote of these Franciscan centers, and the Huichol there maintained more of their native beliefs and practices. Since the Huichol area was located along the fringe of Spanish-controlled lands within the frontier of San Luis Colotlán, the centers became outposts to protect the region from Indian attacks. The Huichol received a more privileged status in which they were allowed to have their own tribal government and were exempt from paying tribute.
Intensive missionary influences in the sierra declined after Mexican independence, and by 1860 virtually all clergy left the sierra because of increasing tension among the Indians over land rights. Independence from Spain also meant the end of Spanish-chartered Indian communities in the sierra, which consequently opened Huichol communal lands to mestizo cattlemen and colonists. A ten-year revolution ensued in which Huichol and Cora joined forces under the Indian leader Lozada to protect the sierra from further foreign encroachment. Until the arrival of several ethnographers at the end of the nineteenth century and at the beginning of the twentieth, little was actually known about the Huichol and their cultural traditions. The best known of these ethnographers was the Norwegian Carl Lumholtz, who, under the sponsorship of the Museum of Natural History in New York, documented much of Huichol culture through journals and photographs and assembled an extensive collection of Huichol material culture for the museum.
Shortly thereafter, the Mexican Revolution began, and by 1913 had reached the sierra. The neighboring mestizos, who had been trying to invade Huichol land, sided with Pancho Villa. In response, the Huichol fought under their chief, General Mezquite, who allied himself with Carranza. Mezquite received help from Guadalajara, and he and his Huichol troops were successful in driving the mestizos from their territory. The tranquility in the sierra was to be short-lived. Christian rebels known as Cristeros were campaigning against the recently imposed government policy separating the Catholic church from the state. Those who escaped government troops fled to the protection of the sierra. The Huichol were experiencing strife between their own communities. Members of the community of San Sebastián joined the Cristeros under the leadership of a Huichol named Juan Bautista, taking this opportunity to invade and ransack the ranches and ceremonial centers of Santa Catarina. Juan Bautista was eventually ambushed and killed by Huichol from Tuxpan de Bolaños. During this period, many Huichol fled the sierra to regional towns, cities, and the coast or went to live among the Cora. Some never returned to the sierra. Most Huichol remained neutral or progovernment, depending upon the security of each one's communal lands. Land-reform issues originating with the Mexican Revolution had still not been resolved, and, with the disruption caused by the Cristero rebels, mestizos seized this opportunity to move onto Huichol lands.
In the 1950s the Catholic church again began to make inroads into Huichol communities, constructing airstrips and several missions nearby. Even greater changes occurred in the 1960s when, under then President Luis Echeverría, the National Indian Institute (INI) sponsored a regional development program known as Plan HUICOT (for Huichol-Cora-Tepehuan). This government agency developed projects designed to integrate Huichol into the mainstream of Mexican national culture. Airstrips and roads were built linking the isolated communities to the outside world. Agricultural projects were begun that introduced tractors, fertilizers, and different strains of crops.
Additional projects focused on improving cattle and livestock in the communities. Medical clinics and schools were also created, the latter run by bilingual Huichol teachers.
The Huichol are now tied into the national economy and seek ways of generating cash income, usually as artisans or migrant wage laborers in the cities or on mestizo-owned lands. They are in contact with an increasing number of outsiders, both Mexican nationals and foreigners from such diverse places as the United States, Canada, Europe, Central and South America, and Japan. Huichol lands are still being invaded by mestizos seeking land on which to build homes and graze cattle and forests to exploit for timber. The Huichol, represented by INI officials and other nonprofit development organizations, are still trying to gain legal title to their lands.