Inti: [Greeting in Mazatec and thanking the wise men and women and Chikones]. Thank you very much for the invitation. What we will present here is drawn from discussions we have been having in the region with other Mazatec colleagues. We do not represent the entire Mazatec people, but we do represent those who are concerned about what is happening in the Sierra Mazateca.
Rosi: Huautla de Jiménez is geographically located in southern Mexico, in the State of Oaxaca, which is divided into eight regions. Huautla belongs to the Cañada region and to the Mazatec ethnic group. Huautla is the most important municipality of the region in terms of economics, politics, and religion. The chjon chjine (“wise woman”) María Sabina lived in this place for most of her life.
Inti: I will now give an overview of the relationship that exists between the Mazatec people and this very sacred medicine. I am referring to the ndi xijtho (“little ones that sprout”). We Mazatecs have always maintained a very close relationship and interaction with our natural environment; she is Nanangui (“Mother Earth”). In places that belong to Mother Earth, there are very sacred spaces, such as hills, rivers, and caves, where supernatural and superhuman beings that we call chikones live.
When we disturb or enter their sacred territory, we must ask permission or pay them, and do so with great respect. We should not sully or damage the sacred spaces of these beings; otherwise, we have to face consequences for our person or our family as a whole. For example, for more than 50 years, cave explorers from the Texas-based Huautla System Speleological Project (PESH), have arrived in our territory. In our view, as Mazatecs, they have not respected sacred caves where they have pierced rocks that, for us, are the bones of Nanangui. They have also thrown dye into an underground river that, for us, is the blood of Nanangui. They have carried out these activities from an attitude of superiority and colonization, wanting to teach us about caves from the logic of Western science. For us, the caves are where Nanangui breathes. They have a life of their own, and they are sacred places because that’s where the chandiyoo were born and that’s where we return when we die. What would these sacred spaces say about the way they have been profaned? Do you think they would allow it?
For us, the mushroom is a very sacred being.
For us, the mushroom is a very sacred being. It is a deity because it has a spirit, it has a voice, and it is a sentient being. The mushrooms are a gift sent to us by chikon naii chaon. From his domain, he makes them arrive with thunder so that we can heal the ills that afflict us or recover our shadow that is lost. The mushroom has its season to arrive here on Earth. According to the agricultural calendar and Mazatec ritual, they arrive on the twentieth day of the month Chan-sinda, in contrast to Westerners, who produce mushrooms all year round.
The ritual begins from the moment one decides to commune with the mushrooms, when there is a need to do so. The chjine (wise man) is the one who collects them from the earth in the sacred spaces where they sprout and that only they know. With a ritual of solicitude, they proceed to gather them. The actual picking is done by a child, while the chijne continues to make their prayers and songs of solicitude. This is carried out on a full moon and, from there, they are moved very carefully to the place where the ceremony will take place, and deposited on the altar or the cleansing table. There, one negotiates with superhuman beings to gain healing abilities. But a ceremony is not enough to settle the matter. The healer knows which specific hill to ask so that the person can recover the shadow that was lost or caught by a chikon.
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The ceremonies are not group ceremonies; only the person to be cured or the person’s family participates, and no outsiders are allowed.
The ceremony is intense and always begins at nightfall. It is carried out indoors and not in the open. There are specific days when the mushrooms ceremony is done. No one is told about it. It is a secret, and if this secret is not kept, the ceremony is useless. No one can see or touch the mushrooms; they are shown only at the moment of the ritual. The ceremonies are not group ceremonies; only the person to be cured or the person’s family participates, and no outsiders are allowed. The chijne work differently with the mushrooms depending on their rank or the altar they use. To be a chjine is a whole ritual process that takes years and implies responsibility and commitment. The one who becomes a chijne has to renounce all sexual desire, since they are always in contact and communication with the sacred. They must always be ready to serve, and it is difficult for them to receive and attend to people outside the community. Outsiders are received only by local “neoshamans,” a category applied by Western anthropologists to people who, in the community, are considered charlatans. However, I do not mean to discredit their work, as long as they do it properly and do not abuse the tourists.
But, if people come to the Sierra Mazateca, they should do so with respect, and not think that by paying money they can demand that the ceremony be adapted to their expectations.
It seems to me that, whether taken in the context of a ritual or not, ingestion of the mushroom will work on each person according to their context. But, if people come to the Sierra Mazateca, they should do so with respect, and not think that by paying money they can demand that the ceremony be adapted to their expectations. For us, the ceremony is priceless because it is something sacred. Finally, I would like us to reflect on what the mushroom would think of everything that is said and done with it?
Rosalía: I am not from Sierra Mazateca, but I have lived in Huautla for almost 20 years. I have had the opportunity to participate in ritual ceremonies, either consuming the ndi xijtho (as they call the mushrooms) or as a witness to the ceremony. I once heard a woman of knowledge who called the ndi xijtho as “the doctor-children,” or “the psychologist-children.” So, as a psychologist, I began to analyze that a ritual ceremony is similar to a session or consultation with a doctor or a psychologist. The mushroom, together with the man or woman of knowledge, carry out this work, perhaps unconsciously, but based on years of learning.
The man or woman of knowledge, already under the effect of the mushroom, sings, prays, and allows the patient to release what they need to in that moment, whether it be through singing, laughing, or crying.
To begin a ritual ceremony, you must have at least three days of sexual abstinence, with precautions and social withdrawal; what might be considered a time of introspection to understand what is sought with the consumption of the mushroom. At the time of the ceremony—it may be that the chijne is unknown to the patient—so, when starting a session, the man or woman of knowledge burns copal resin incense to break the ice, passing aromatic herbs or an egg over the patient’s body, and breaking the egg into a glass of water to diagnose the illness. This is done at night in the dark in a special space free from noise and interruptions. When the man or woman of knowledge consumes the mushrooms with their patient, they eat the mushrooms in pairs, so that the mushrooms can “walk.” The chjine empathizes with the patient (transference) and manages to see and feel what the patient sees and feels. The man or woman of knowledge, already under the effect of the mushroom, sings, prays, and allows the patient to release what they need to in that moment, whether it be through singing, laughing, or crying. They know when to intervene, to pause and focus their care at a time when the patient is reliving a traumatic moment or perhaps feels physical pain. The chijne will ask God or the chikones to relieve them.
The ceremony is a form of resistance, despite the attacks of modernity, Christian religion, and globalization.
When the effect of the mushroom ends, the chijne is grateful for God’s assistance and the chikones give a series of recommendations to their patient, such as drinking a medicinal tea, going to a certain hill or church or even to the cemetery to light a votive candle. In some cases, they may recommend that another ritual ceremony should be carried out to complete the cure. Other recommendations to the patient include that they do not talk about the ceremony, and that they continue for another three or five days with a restricted diet and sexual abstinence. The ceremony ends when they turn on the light again and they hug each other, thanking each other for the work done, and they both feel liberated. It is impressive how this practice of ancient knowledge has been preserved and continues to be a resource to regain health and seek guidance. The ceremony is a form of resistance, despite the attacks of modernity, Christian religion, and globalization.
It almost seems that science is carrying out epistemicide by erasing the narratives and expertise of Indigenous peoples unless they adhere to scientific methods, or else exist for merely folkloric purposes or as a part of neoliberal multiculturalism.
Sarai: Something that should be noted is that this knowledge is now being validated from the scientific point of view. Now, science, under the discourse of “objectivity” and “truth,” is validating the uses and potential therapeutic results of psilocybin-containing mushrooms, which for hundreds of years the Native peoples have carefully guarded for the treatment of illness. However, it is not the case that Indigenous peoples do not want to share their knowledge, but rather, they have doubts as to why and how it will be used. In the Western psychedelic era, traditional knowledge was not acknowledged; as if the story began in the 1960s, without taking into account its origins in the knowledge of Indigenous or Native peoples about various psychedelic substances. It almost seems that science is carrying out epistemicide by erasing the narratives and expertise of Indigenous peoples unless they adhere to scientific methods, or else exist for merely folkloric purposes or as a part of neoliberal multiculturalism. One must ask: How will Indigenous narratives and experiences be made visible without falling into negative forms of cultural or biocultural appropriation?
This question has been asked in recent years by some Mazatecs from the highlands, in the context of commodification of cultural practices such as ndi xijtho and mushroom veladas. Since the arrival of the “güeros,” as gringo tourists in Huautla are called, psychedelic and neo-shamanic tourism has emerged. Since the 1960s, people from different countries, social classes, and academic backgrounds have visited the area in order to spend an evening with the “little ones that sprout” and interact with a “true shaman.” Many arrive in the region with idealized concepts about the Mazatecs and their evening rituals. Some of their expectations are plagued by a certain racialization that seeks to find the “noble savage” in the inhospitable land of María Sabina. Instead, they find that shamanic practices are being sold because evening ceremonies and the “little ones that sprout” have entered the logic of the market since the 1970s. Moreover, various social dynamics have developed within the community in the context of an integration to “modernity” imposed by the State.
What effects has tourism had in Huautla? Given the arrival of foreigners and the entry of monetary logic into the area, the ndi xijtho began to have an exchange value. At first, they were exchanged for objects and, later, moved into the monetary realm. In the same way, the ceremonies began to be offered by what we call Indigenous neoshamans: men and women, some with a certain degree of traditional knowledge and others more improvised, who exclusively cater to tourists. They combine Mazatec techniques and elements with some New Age practices. In addition to the neoshamans, a commercial market for mushrooms has emerged since the 1970s, due to both tourist and Mazatec demand. I also call attention to a constant shortage of mushrooms over the last nine years, caused by changes in land use and foreign demand. It is important to clarify that these effects have potentiated disputes between different actors, since tourists are not aware of the power relations they exercise and those that already exist in the community.
Various types of tourists come to Huautla with different needs. The typology that follows is based on the work of Vincent Basset (2011) in Wirikuta, as some similarities were found with the tourism in Huautla. On the one hand, there are the psychonauts who seek to experiment with mushrooms in natural settings in the mountains. They tend to develop local friendships before and during mushroom ingestion. Artisans include national and international people who make handicrafts and travel according to commercial demand. They tend to visit in the months of July to August (rainy season), during the Maria Sabina festival organized by the municipality to sell their products and, during their stay, they consume mushrooms. Pilgrims are those who come every year in the rainy season and interact with independent neoshamans; often, people who seek to become shamans in their own right, developing “godparent” relationships with the neoshamans. Researchers from different disciplines come to the area for different academic interests, taking advantage of their stay to consume the mushrooms and also developing godparent relationships with their collaborators. The “facilitator” is a new profile that has arrived in the area in the last five years: people who come to learn neoshamanic techniques to offer them outside the region. Others are establishing themselves in Huautla offering other healing practices in addition to mushroom ceremonies, thus generating a possible displacement of local knowledge.
However, several Mazatecs have pointed out that exploitative relations have been observed in the area in recent years with some tourists. These relationships are exercised by some “facilitators” who, under the discourse of “spreading Mazatec shamanism,” learn Mazatec neoshamanic techniques and offer them outside the region.
The commercialization of veladas and mushrooms is constantly negotiated between tourists and some Mazatecs. However, several Mazatecs have pointed out that exploitative relations have been observed in the area in recent years with some tourists. These relationships are exercised by some “facilitators” who, under the discourse of “spreading Mazatec shamanism,” learn Mazatec neoshamanic techniques and offer them outside the region. In addition to this type of exploitation, academic and scientific tourists often exercise asymmetric power relationships with the Mazatecs in the name of science. For a few years, some communities have reported that American mycologists have come to the area to do studies of various fungi, which range from tracking species to mapping their DNA. This has been done without permission from the communities, without presenting research protocols, and without including the members of the communities in those studies. There is also a complex context in the area involving drug trafficking, since Huautla is a place where drug traffickers, and even human traffickers, pass through. This situation has generated concern on the part of Mazatecs, who occasionally sell mushrooms and veladas to tourists, since some tourists do not respect the ritual prohibitions and mix different substances. This has led to some people being singled out within and outside the community, compromising their integrity.
In conclusion, we would like to leave the following questions on the table: How can Westerners access the mushroom ceremonies without falling into negative cultural and biological appropriation, and without developing oppressive relationships? How could Mazatec knowledge be made more visible in the Western psychedelic arena without succumbing to neoliberal multiculturalism and colonialism?
Art by Mariom Luna.
Basset, V. (2011). Relations à l’altérité amérindiennne lors de mobilités touristiques: L’exemple de la réserve naturelle sacrée de Wirikuta au Mexique [Relations with Amerindian otherness during tourist mobilities: The example of the sacred nature reserve of Wirikuta in Mexico] (Doctoral dissertation). Université de Perpignan.
Esteva, G. (2019, June 3). La corrupción del lenguaje [The corruption of language]. La Jornada. https://www.jornada.com.mx/2019/06/03/opinion/016a2pol.
Miranda, F. (2019, October 29). Nueva ruta de tráfico de personas y droga dispara criminalidad en Oaxaca: fiscal [New route of human and drug trafficking triggers crime in Oaxaca: Prosecutor]. El Universal. https://oaxaca.eluniversal.com.mx/seguridad/29-10-2019/nueva-ruta-de-trafico-de-personas-y-droga-dispara-criminalidad-en-oaxaca-fiscal
Piña, S. & Valdés F. (2019, June 14).Exploradores estadounidenses mapean cuevas de la sierra de Oaxaca [American explorers map caves in the Sierra de Oaxaca]. Piedepagina. https://piedepagina.mx/exploradores-estadounidenses-mapean-cuevas-de-la-sierra-de-oaxaca/
Piña, S. & Valdés F. (2019, May 30).Espeleología y neocolonialismo en la sierra mazateca [Speleology and neocolonialism in the Sierra Mazateca]. Avispa Midia. https://avispa.org/espeleologia-y-neo-colonialismo-en-la-sierra-mazateca/
This presentation was given at Tam Integration’s 2020 Psilocybin Summit panel on September 20, 2020. https://summit.psilocybinsummit.com/talks/mazatec-perspectives/
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