Huichol - Orientation

Identification. The Huichol are a Mexican Indian group located in the states of Jalisco, Nayarit, Zacatecas, and Durango. The name "Huichol" is the term Spaniards used when referring to this group and is possibly a corruption of the name for either the Guachichil or the Wizarika. Some scholars believe the Huichol were originally the desert-dwelling culture known as the "Guachichil," who, in turn were one of the many people collectively called "Chichimec." "Wizarika" is the term the Huichol use to identify themselves. Its meaning is unclear, but scholars have proposed various interpretations: "the healers," "the sandal wearers," and "the ones." The Huichol use the term "Tevi," meaning one of "the people" when making distinctions between Huichol and non-Huichol individuals.

Location. The majority of the Huichol live in the Sierra Madre Occidental in the states of Jalisco, Nayarit, Zacatecas, and Durango. This area covers the span of 21°30′ to 22°35′ N and 104°00′ to 104°30′ W. The rugged sierra was formed in the Tertiary period with the lava flows from active volcanoes. The Huichol occupy some of the most rugged terrain in the mountain chain, characterized by high mesas, sheer cliffs, and deep river valleys ranging in elevation from approximately 600 meters to over 1,800 meters. The geography of the sierra consists of extremes, creating natural barriers that have served to insulate the Huichol from the outside world. The tops of the mesa are covered with oak and pine forest. In the lower elevations are subtropical scrub vegetation and thorn forests, which include such genera as Acacia, Ficus, Lysiloma, Ceiba, Bombax, Bursera, Opuntia, and Agave. The herbaceous vegetation is predominantly grasses and geophytes.

The major river running through the Huichol territory, the Chapalagana, divides the land into two sections. The Huichol who inhabit the land west of the river have experienced more acculturative pressures. They live in small groups in or around Cora Indian or mestizo settlements, or in urban centers. Those who live to the east have maintained more of their traditions. In this sierra environment, there are two major seasons—rainy and dry. The driest months are December through May. Eighty percent of the annual precipitation of 80 centimeters falls in the rainy season, from June to October. During the rainy season, the canyons at lower elevations are hotter and more humid than the mesas. In the dry seasons, the mesas are subject to colder weather, sometimes with frost and strong winds.

Demography. The number of Huichol at the time of Spanish contact is unknown. Rampant epidemics of measles and smallpox greatly reduced the population. Franciscan missionary documents from the 1780s report a population of 2,000 in the more assimilated communities of Tenzompa, San Nicolás, Soledad, and Huajuquilla. In the three most traditional Huichol communities (San Andres, Santa Catarina, and San Sebastián), the population totaled 1,000 inhabitants. In 1894 a Mexican government census placed the Huichol population at 4,000. From 1910 to 1940 numerous Huichol fled the sierra because of the turmoil created by the Mexican Revolution and the Cristero revolt (see "History and Cultural Relations") and settled in several areas of Nayarit. Larger numbers of Huichol began to migrate to the Nayarit coast as seasonal laborers, and, beginning in the 1960s, some Huichol began to live in urban centers such as Tepic, Guadalajara, Zacatecas, and Mexico City. In 1981 the total number of Huichol was estimated to be around 10,000, with the greatest concentration, 6,000, living in rural Jalisco, and approximately 2,000 residing in urban centers. The 1990 Mexican census placed the Huichol population over the age of 5 at 20,000.

Linguistic Affiliation. Huichol, the native language, is classified with languages of the Aztecoiden Branch of the Uto-Aztecan Family. It is most closely related to the Cora language. Some Nahuatl terms have been borrowed from Tlaxcalan Indians and incorporated into Huichol.

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