Mario Bautista was digging relentlessly on the floor. Deep within the huge and unforgiving Chihuahuan Desert, in northeastern Mexico, he had spent almost eight hours wading by way of a seemingly infinite patch of thorny brush. Surrounding him have been 25 members of his group, together with his spouse and youngsters.
Everybody within the group was trying to find one factor: the psychedelic plant referred to as peyote, or hikuri — a small, squishy cactus camouflaged beneath the shrubbery.
Mario and people alongside him are members of the Mexican Huichol, or Wixárika, folks, and hikuri is their lifeline. No matter they discovered can be introduced again to their village to be used of their every day non secular rituals.
Unfold throughout the rugged Sierra Madre Occidental vary, the Wixárika are an Indigenous folks with an estimated inhabitants of 45,000. Inside their tradition, peyote is excess of only a hallucinogenic cactus. The Wixárika imagine that the plant permits them to attach with their ancestors and regenerates their souls.
Yearly, Wixárika communities make a several-hundred-mile pilgrimage to a sacred place referred to as Wirikuta, close to the northeastern metropolis of Matehuala. Teams journey — lately by automobile, vehicles and buses — below the path of a number one shaman, or maraka’ame.
Below Mexican regulation, solely Indigenous teams are licensed to reap and ingest peyote. However partially due to its increasing popularity as a recreational drug, the plant has develop into tougher to seek out. If their holy lands proceed to be threatened — by drug tourists, mining companies and farming encroachment — then a core facet of the Wixárika’s identification might be in peril.
This previous March, the photographer Matt Reichel and I have been invited to affix Mario and his household on their pilgrimage.
Pilgrims are divided into teams based mostly on their ancestral household lands, and every group can solely entry a selected space inside Wirikuta. They need to additionally obtain an preliminary blessing of their homeland earlier than setting out on the journey; for Mario’s household, the blessing passed off in Rancho La Tristeza, close to the village of La Cebolleta, within the Mexican state of Nayarit.
The subsequent day, the group launched into the pilgrimage adorned of their conventional gown. The ladies wore vibrant coloured, hand-sewn clothes. Scarves protected their hair from the solar.
The boys wore white shirts and pants, with embroidered depictions of deer, peyote and different symbols. In addition they wore wide-brimmed hats with plumed feathers. One explicit man, Okay’kame, the guardian of the group’s ancestral pavilion, was a visible splendor: His hat held extra plumed feathers than these of different pilgrims, and he was chaotically energetic throughout all of the rituals.
On the primary evening, the group settled right into a sacred web site off the aspect of a freeway. The night’s first ritual was a name-changing ceremony: The desert grew to become the ocean; peyote grew to become chayote squash. Identify altering helps the pilgrims envision coming into a brand new world.
The pilgrims additionally underwent a public confession round midnight, throughout which every individual listed all their previous and current sexual relationships. The names have been then publicly learn across the bonfire; the intention was to let go of the previous.
Every of the relationships was tied as a knot on particular person palm branches. The branches have been then burned within the fireplace.
All through the trek, pilgrims made choices at sacred websites — areas the place their ancestors had discovered water throughout earlier pilgrimages. Water was key to the choices; pilgrims used feathers and candles to sprinkle water over the choices, which included corn tortillas and cash.
Households congregated by the watering gap, the place they chanted, sang and blessed each other. A fiddler performed a joyful tune within the background.
After touring overland for every week, we lastly reached our space, referred to as Bernalejos.
“It’s the largest church on this planet,” Mario proclaimed as we stepped into the desert.
The households rested for some time, however there was no time to sleep. As a substitute, the pilgrims stayed as much as sing and dance for harvest.
The morning of the harvest, households painted their faces with single yellow dots on each cheeks. Mariana, Mario’s spouse, defined that the work symbolized the solar.
In a fantastic formation, the group marched into the morning daylight with machetes and baskets. Everybody stayed collectively at first, however regularly the households unfold aside.
The harvest took hours and have become more and more tough because the solar grew much less forgiving. The most important peyote patches sat beneath shrubs coated in thorns; reaching them was treacherous, significantly within the warmth of the day, when the colours appeared to mix collectively.
Nonetheless, the hunt continued. Mario defined that they have been gathering peyote not just for themselves, but in addition for relations who couldn’t make the journey. Throughout the forage, every household had gathered as much as 150 crowns, after which the crops have been dried and blessed.
Round sundown, we walked up a hill to make one ultimate providing. Mario requested us to carry out our arms. He tapped our faces, and we ingested small items of the peyote. The plant was extremely bitter. The households solely ate a bit of, concerning the quantity for a microdose, which was meant to facilitate calm reflection. That evening, the group collapsed right into a peaceable sleep, as if a spell had been forged over our camp.
Nicely rested from the evening earlier than, all of us collectively packed-up camp to depart the following day. As he took a take a look at the pile of his household’s crowns on the bottom subsequent to the smoldering embers of the campfire, Mario smiled at us. “We’ve been given a sacred reward from Mom Earth,” he stated, “and now we’ve to return it dwelling.”