In Search of Shamans: Rituals Performed in the Sierra of Sonora

Find out how shamans modernize cures and broaden their spectrum of deities and incorporate Santa Muerte or Buddha, and other "illnesses".

In Search of Shamans: Rituals Performed in the Sierra of Sonora
Photo by Wonderlane / Unsplash

In northwestern Mexico, specifically in Sonora, the search for rituals performed by shamans of the Yaqui, Seri, Papago, Pima, and Guarijío ethnic groups is still alive among the population and even among the authorities, even though these practices are often associated in the collective imagination with diabolical or satanic expressions.

This conception, far from reality, has its origin to some extent in the novels of writer Carlos Castaneda, such as The Teachings of Don Juan and A Reality Apart, among others, published in the 1960s and early 1970s, in which the author gave a halo of mystery to shamanism.

At some point, after the dissemination of this polemic work, many adventurous people took on the task of searching for the traces of Don Juan -the indigenous protagonist of the story- along the paths of the Yaqui villages, only to find that there are literally hundreds of Juan Matus among these communities, but the people were looking for only one of them. The shadow of don Juan (a character who supposedly introduced Castaneda to shamanic practices) is present in the interest of many people in their process of approaching the indigenous reality.

Part of the image of the Yaqui culture that remains today has to do with that mysterious separate reality that sometimes prevents one from seeing the real world of the Yaqui, which nevertheless keeps and shows its enigmas to this day. The following is an overview of these aspects among the desert and highland groups of Sonora: Comca'ac (Seri), O'odham (Pápagos), O'oba (Pimas), Macurawe (Guarijíos), and Yaqui.

This "separate reality" mentioned by Castaneda still has different faces and surnames within the indigenous peoples of the northwest of the country, despite the changes and transformations that their culture and existence have undergone. To this, added to the above, is the prolonged need to hide from the light of the western world the traits and forms of expression of this type of thought that since the arrival of the Spaniards and in particular of the Jesuit missions, began to be outlawed, being pointed out as a diabolical expression or satanism.

The most determining characteristics of the "shamans" of the ethnic groups of Sonora are precisely the halo of mystery and the discretionality with which they operate, avoiding as much as possible to expose themselves or exhibit themselves publicly.

An exemplary anecdote

This happened a few years ago when the municipal authorities of Hermosillo, due to a prolonged drought, hired two Seri elders to perform a special ceremony in the Abelardo L. Rodriguez dam.

The ritual was carried out among songs, dances, sage burning, and speeches in the Seri language, in front of the nervousness, belief, or skepticism of the attendees and the media; when the rain did not come, the mockery was present, both towards the indigenous people, as well as towards those who had hired them. Days later, when the rain did fall, they (the elders) only pointed out that they had said that the water would come, but not at that precise moment.

In the Comca'ac community, there is still a set of beliefs related to the spirits that live in the caves or at the bottom of the sea.

Among the Papagos, there are ritual specialists who carry a great deal of weight: the makai, although it is worth mentioning that these are found mainly among members of the O'odham group who live in the state of Arizona, United States. During the celebration of the feast of San Francisco, in the community of San Francisquito, within the territory of the Papago in Mexico, a makai participated, who went to the community with the objective of performing a 'limpia' (cleansing).

This ritual was performed by tracing a circle on the ground, for which, in addition to the smoke of creosote branches, the smoke of a cigar was used, dedicated to the cardinal points, in front of the mute expectation or indifference of some attendees. This is explained by the influence of members of the Native American church, belonging to different tribes.

The interesting thing is to rescue the persistence of a type of thought that gives rise to the existence of certain specialists and forms of action (derived and proper of the indigenous world), which in a certain way have survived the assimilation and domestication of the spirit of these peoples.

How Shamans modernize healing

With the entry of "modernity" into their communities, shamanic practices in the Huasteca region have been modified; thus, some healers broaden their spectrum of deities and incorporate Santa Muerte or Buddha, and other types of illnesses to be healed: "lovesickness", diabetes, hypertension, and even Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).

At the same time, the introduction of allopathic medicine has complemented and sometimes replaced traditional procedures. In the case of the loss of tonalli or "vital force", besides being fought with "sweepings", sometimes it is done with antidepressants. However, people still perceive the illness as a result of 'bad airs', spirits, or envy.

Shamans are specialists who are linked, by a pact, with the spirits that cause illnesses and with those who help to heal them. They possess a "gift" that allows them to be intermediaries between the forces that govern the universe and the order on earth and humanity.

The shamans of the Huasteca are subject to the processes of change that affect communities in all aspects of their lives, among the most significant of which are migration, contact with the media and other "cultural worlds", and access to goods of constant "renewal".

However, what gives continuity to shamanic practice is the maintenance of a particular cosmovision and its expressions in the conception of the world, the theory of the body, and the etiology of illness. Therefore, the incorporation of new elements, far from undermining the system and its efficacy, is an expression of its capacity for re-signification and historical adaptation.

The most representative traditional healing procedure among the Teenek (Huastecans) and Nahua is the consultation or diagnosis, through which the type of ailment and its causes are known.

Among the Teenek of Veracruz, to 'reestablish the shadow' (spirit, soul) of the sick person or to remove the scares or 'bad airs', the shamans give their sick some tea or a barrida (cleansing with the use of corn grains, eggs, herbs, tobacco, waxes, alum or live chickens). Although today some prescribe ointments, infusions, or potions of modern manufacture.

For example, to 'lift the shadow' fallen because of envy, it is recommended the use of a lotion packaged expressly for the case. For better results, the shamans recommend buying the compound perfume against envy and 'calla gossip', and for the fright, it is enough to put on a few drops of the spray 'El Dominador' or 'Vencedor'.

Meanwhile, the Nahua people of Ixhuatlán de Madero, Veracruz, in ceremonies such as the Holy Cross and the rain petition, have also incorporated novel elements such as soaps, perfumes, and the lotion called Seven Powers.

At present, many indigenous and non-indigenous people arrive with their 'recipe' to the places where they sell different types of fragrances for love, envy, 'gossip', to improve sexual potency, money, health, good luck...; candles of different colors are stamped with images of some deity with their respective prayer.

Other elements that have been incorporated into the ritual paraphernalia are the figures of supposed oriental origin: Buddha amulets, dragons, Egyptian pyramids, cats, horseshoes, and, above all, Santa Muerte.

Even when this occurs, the shamans of the Huasteca usually mention that no person instructed them to be healers and that their teachers are the Virgin of Guadalupe, some saints, or the Trinity of God (Father, Son, Holy Spirit). On other occasions, they allude to entities related to the mountain or directly to nature, as in the case of the community of Barbecho II, in Huautla, Hidalgo, where a midwife "dreams" of dwarfs who tell her how to do her work.

Source: National Institute of Anthropology and History