In the last year, author Paul M. Liffman has provided comments about the Wixarika (Huichol) people’s fight for cultural rights and a ban on large-scale silver mining near their principal sacred sites to the southwest of the historic town of Real de Catorce in the state of San Luis Potosí, Mexico. He provides a timely update on the situation, which has precipitated a march in Mexico City, a massive gathering of ceremonial protest on their sacred mountain, and widespread media coverage.

By Paul Liffman

Press conference on Cerro Quemado, February 7, 2012. Journalists, filmmakers and activists listen to Huichol (Wixarika) ceremonial and political leaders announce the accords forged during the previous night’s divination by shamans from numerous ceremonial centers.

One year ago, just as Huichol Territory and the Mexican Nation was going to press, I added a few bits of late-breaking information on silver mining as a new dimension of the struggle over sacred territoriality. That issue has now become front-page news. This is because Mexico’s Mining Directorate (Dirección de Minas, a division of the Secretaría de Economía or Secretary of the Economy) has provisionally granted 22 contiguous sub-surface concessions covering over 6,000 hectares (15,000 acres) that the Huichols consider sacred land in the state of San Luis Potosí to Vancouver-based First Majestic Silver Corporation via its Mexican subsidiary, Real Bonanza, S.A. Many of these concessions lie inside state ecological and cultural reserves and all of them are directly adjacent to Cerro Quemado (Reu’unaxi), the mountain of solar emergence, and the 1,400 square kilometer (540 square mile) ancestral pilgrimage territory called Wirikuta that lies below it. Wirikuta is an array of sacred springs, outcroppings, and footpaths set in an ancient Chihuahuan desert ecosystem that is home to some of the last major concentrations of peyote, a Huichol sacrament. It is where sacrificial exchanges that renew the sun and the rains must be carried out without disruptive mining activities threatening the health of the mountain and the underground “veins” of water from which the rain emerges each summer and which connect the entire Huichol cosmos, or kiekari.

Sunset from the slopes of Cerro Quemado, looking down over Wirikuta and back toward the Huichols’ home communities 400 kilometers to the southwest.

The First Majestic project and desert clearcutting by commercial tomato growers—both businesses reliant on fragile desert aquifers—and the even more apocalyptic prospect of an open pit gold mine in the heart of Wirikuta (now being surveyed by another Canadian company, Revolution Resources, Inc.) have generated widespread disgust, alarm, and the beginnings of a nationalist backlash in the Mexican public. An unprecedented alliance of ceremonial and political authorities, activists, lawyers, reporters, anthropologists, neo-indigenous religious groups, and elements of the cultural wing of the government itself—the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH) and the Consejo Nacional de Cultura y las Artes (CONACULTA), among others—have formed a highly publicized protest movement against the final approval of mineral extraction by the Secretaría de Economía and the Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (Secretary of the Environment and Natural Resources).

Political leaders on the morning of February 7, following the reading of the Declaración de Wirikuta, as ritual authorities, the press and public look on.

Following an October 27 mass march down Mexico City’s La Reforma boulevard, the movement again showed its wide appeal on the night of February 6 in a united demonstration of normally reclusive, highly autonomous Huichol ceremonial groups that converged at Cerro Quemado. Breaking with their pattern of separate treks, representatives of over 20 pilgrimage groups (each one based in one of the imposing native temples called tukipa or smaller ranchería or extended family shrines known as xirikite) held a joint all-night ceremony at the rock spiral found at the very emergence point of the sun, a place normally only visited briefly at midday for leaving offerings on the windswept (and on that night, freezing) 3,000 meter peak. Hundreds more Huichols remained camped in the cloud-shrouded desert thousands of feet below, but the dramatically moonlit scene of shamans chanting and sacrificing a bull to propitiate the ancestors and receive counsel from them was also witnessed by dozens of the aforementioned members of the press, academia, and the public invited by the Huichols and their non-governmental legal and political allies in the Frente en Defensa de Wirikuta. Their declarations and footage of the Cerro Quemado event are online here and here.

You can survey how this surge of concern and outrage has been represented in the mainstream national press (one good article of the last few days came out in El Universal), the Facebook sites Venado Mestizo en la Sierra de Catorce, Huichol Cultural Survival, Frente en Defensa de Wirikuta Tamatsima Wahaa, and associated links, the website of the Red Mexicana de Afectados por la Minería and international venues as diverse as the Washington Post, Canadian Broadcasting Company, and Al-Jazeera.

For now the project has only been stalled, in anticipation perhaps of the outcome of the July presidential elections, but the legal process has been ongoing. One of the steps now being pursued by the Frente is to seek an injunction (amparo) in the San Luis Potosí courts, based on the project’s environmental impact and in part on my testimony regarding the centrality of Wirikuta to the integrated system of place and space described in Huichol Territory and the Mexican Nation.

Of course, this is only one case. With the spike in commodities prices—particularly of gold and silver—that has accompanied the global financial crisis, 56 million hectares—a quarter of Mexico’s entire territory—has now been concessioned for mineral extraction. Many of these concessions affect Indigenous and other peasant populations—oftentimes dividing factions, ethnicities or social classes over the doubled-edged sword of employment and environmental destruction. Still, the Wirikuta case represents an acid test for mining companies’ mantra of “sustainability” and respect to justify extraction but also for Native peoples who invoke the “sacred” to resist what after centuries of technological progress remains a risk-filled transformative activity for landscapes across the world. Will the Mexican government carve out an honorable exception to the mining boom for one of its most emblematic Indigenous peoples? By doing so, could it regain enough trust to calm growing public unease over the concession of control over dozens of other territories across the country to foreign corporations?


Paul Liffman is a professor at the Center for Anthropological Studies at the Colegio de Michoacán and a member of the National Research System of Mexico. He has worked as a consultant and translator for the Wixarika exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., and is currently a Research Associate attached to the Department of Anthropology at Rice University working on a new book about indigenous people and mining. His bookHuichol Territory and the Mexican Nation: Indigenous Ritual, Land Conflict, and Sovereignty Claims is available from the University of Arizona Press.