Peyote Hunt by Barbara G. Myerhoff

Peyote HuntIn 1966, American anthropologists Barbara G. Myerhoff (1935-1985) and Peter T. Furst, set out on a peyote pilgrimage together with a small group of Huichol Indians, led by a shaman named Ramón Medina Silva. Their destination was Wirikuta in the mountains of central Mexico, which the Huichols believe to be their original homeland. Eight years later Myerhoff’s experiences of the pilgrimage were presented in her book ‘Peyote Hunt – The Sacred Journey of the Huichol Indians’ (1974). This review has been written by Henrik Dahl.

The year prior to their journey Myerhoff, at the time a graduate student in anthropology at UCLA, was travelling in Mexico and decided to pay a visit to Peter T. Furst and his wife Dee, who were living in Guadalajara. While staying in the city, Myerhoff and the Fursts were introduced to Ramón by a Franciscan Father who had helped the Huichols for many years. They were discussing Ramón’s yarn paintings, which the shaman was willing to explain further, and soon they were having daily sessions with a tape recorder.

The following summer Myerhoff returned to Guadalajara. She and Furst took up where they had left off, holding lengthy interviews with Ramón, who had become their key informant, listening while he explained the Huichol culture and religion to them. At the end of one of these sessions, Myerhoff was asked if she wanted to try peyote, or híkuri as it is called among the Huichols. She accepted the invitation and ate it the following day in a small hut. During her experience, which is described in detail in her book, the anthropologist was taken to a “Steppenwolf-like magical theater” (Myerhoff 41).

According to the deeply religious Huichols, peyote is a sacred plant that has to be gathered in Wirikuta, the land of its origins. For this reason the Huichols don’t buy their peyote in markets. The cactus is used ritually during dry season ceremonies, but may also be used throughout the year. In order to make sure there is a supply that lasts, the pilgrims plant some of the peyote that they bring back from their journey. Together with the deer and the maize, peyote form a sacred unity that Myerhoff calls the deer-maize-peyote complex.

Despite the daily taping sessions, Ramón felt Myerhoff would never fully understand the Huichols until she had participated in a peyote pilgrimage. So, together with Furst, she decided to join Ramón on a journey he would lead that coming winter. According to Myerhoff, she and Furst were the first anthropologists to have witnessed a peyote hunt. For Myerhoff the experience proved to be crucial in her understanding of the Huichols: “Ramón did not exaggerate the importance of participating in the journey, for without it I am certain that I would not have been able to penetrate beyond the surface of the Huichol religion. The peyote hunt is at the very heart of Huichol beliefs” (Myerhoff 50).

Sadly, Ramón died in 1971, only five years after Myerhoff took part in the pilgrimage, and three years before the book was published. He was shot to death in his home during a celebration. Ramón was clearly missed by Myerhoff, who wrote, “The man was an artist, an ambassador for his people, a metaphysician, and a splendid human being” (Myerhoff 24).

Included in Peyote Hunt is a series of photographs, some of which have become classics in psychedelic literature. For example, four of the images were included in Richard Evans Schultes’ and Albert Hofmann’s seminal work Plants of the Gods. Surprisingly, the only photograph in Peyote Hunt that has a photo credit is an image showing a basket of peyote, which is taken by Myerhoff. In a footnote in the book she refers to “my texts and pictures”, making it likely she was the photographer during the journey. Although Furst might very well have taken some of the photos.

The Huichols are still carrying out pilgrimages to Wirikuta. Today, however, the site is threatened by a Canadian mining company, which has obtained permission from the Mexican government for the extraction of silver in the area. Protest campaigns have tried to put a stop to the mining project. In May 2012 it looked as if the Huichols had won their battle against the company, when the Mexican Federal Government declared Wirikuta a National Mining Reserve, assuring that the site will be a mining-free zone. However, the government announcement was called a fraud by the Wirikuta Defense Front organisation, saying the site is still threatened.

Seeing that Peyote Hunt was published nearly forty years ago, much of the ethnographic data presented in the book is out of date. But the story of how two young anthropologists followed a Huichol shaman and his pilgrims to their sacred land, is as exciting today as it was when the book was first published. This, together with the fact that it’s thoroughly researched and very well-written, should make Peyote Hunt a great addition to any psychedelic library.

Henrik Dahl

Henrik Dahl is an arts journalist, critic and editor specialising in psychedelic culture and art.

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