The Inside Story behind the Mazateca Project II

‘Tracing the Steps of the Ghost Dance’ is a storytelling project about the importance of the ancient relationship between people, plants and their environment. Using the Ghost Dance ritual as our case study; we follow the spores of the Desheto mushroom to the impenetrable and majestic Cloud Forests of the Sierra Mazateca. This project is being led by our Americas project director Michael Stuart Ani, who has been a student of plant wisdom for fifty years with a deep connection to the Lakota, Yamomami and Mazateca.

This is Michael’s personal story on the time he’s spent with the Mazatecan community in his quest to find Desheto during summer 2018. 

Read the first part here

Hope is the salt of life that makes everything taste better

It’s the morning of the Mexican presidential election and I wake up feeling hopeful.  Daniel has gone out early to look for Desheto in the forest and I’m optimistic that he will find some. Unfortunately my old friend returns home empty handed and my hope is soon replaced by a splitting headache. Luckily, the ladies brigade is on the march. Lucia boils water on the wood fire and Heather steams my head with herbs to relieve the pressure. But  although their efforts relieve my head somewhat, I am still troubled. The night before we stayed up late talking with Lucia and Daniel about the reality of progress and how its collateral damage could be the death of Desheto.

After breakfast, Daniel, Lucia, and  the entire village head to the Casa Municipal to vote. Obrador has spent a year campaigning throughout rural Mexico and his efforts have finally paid off. All across the backcountry of the Sierra Mazateca hundreds of illiterate Indigenous people are voting for the first time.

By morning, Lopez Obrador has become the next president of Mexico. Obrador, who started his political career working for indigenous rights, has whopped the ruling party, a party of elites who have spent the last 25 years beating down the poor. I ask Daniel if he knows why so many Mazatecans voted for Lopez Obrador and after thinking for a moment, he replies,

“Politicians say that they are going to help but they just help themselves, at least with Obrador there is a hope. Hope is the salt of life that makes everything taste better.”

Lucia puts the last pinch of salt into her rancho-style fish soup with cilantro and my mouth waters. I love her cooking, especially mountain chicken in red mole, banana leaf tamales, black beans with epazote, hot chili and her handmade tortillas from Daniel’s corn. I even like the grubs, red grasshoppers, caterpillars and other critters the locals eat, but Heather draws the line at snails.

As we settle into the daily life of the village, we wake up before dawn and fall asleep early. Each morning we pray for the rain, because without the rain Desheto will not appear. But our prayers are a catch-22 because without the Little Ones, the sacrament of the rain ceremony, we can’t perform the ritual that brings the rain.

As we continue our vigil for the mushrooms, Heather documents the search for Desheto with video and photographs. We’re hoping that our co-sponsor Tom Wheeler at the Sinchi Foundation in Amsterdam can use the story to raise donations that will help protect Desheto’s home. But as the days go by and Desheto are not found,  troubling questions arise: if Desheto are already gone, what’s the point of protecting their home?

As the days tick by and the date for our scheduled departure nears, my doubts grow even more personal. My inner “Duke of Doom” always likes to question the wisdom of having invested so much of my life into a belief system and a sacrament that now seemed to have vanished before my eyes. And t he Duke does have a point. The Mazateca is the place I use to go to heal and now the fumes of the trucks driving through the village night and day are making me sick. But just as I’m ready to call it quits, I talk to the always optimistic Lucia, who reminds me that I’m starting to sound like Speedy Gonzalez’ cousin: Whiney Gonzalez.

“You have always been very, very lucky when it comes to Desheto. Remember, Miguey, no matter how long Desheto made you wait in the past, Desheto eventually arrived.”

And Daniel chimes in, “Even when he almost died 18 years ago. Remember when that freak hailstorm pummeled the Mazateca and Desheto was not seen for so long? But he did come back and he saved your loco life for the fourth time. Desheto has put you back together so many times who knows where the you ends and the patchwork begins. Now I’m hungry, let’s eat.”

After dinner Lucia develops a rash and her face swells up like a red tomato. As we question her I find out that she had taken some pills and her symptoms could be an allergic reaction. Like many of the ladies on the mountain, Lucia has started taking an arsenal of unprescribed pharmaceutical “wonder drugs” that the ladies’ children and grandchildren send them from Mexico City.

Always ready to whip up a tonic, Heather immediately swings into action and doses Lucia with some liver cleansing herbs she has brought with her. It is amazing to see how well the natural plants work on Lucia and also to see what an astute practitioner Heather has become. By the next day Lucia’s rash and swelling disappear, her health improves and the other ladies take notice. This little bit of hope inspires us to talk about a possible women’s health project with our sponsor Sinchi, using local people to re-educate the ladies about the Mazatecan’s vanishing knowledge of the region’s medicinal plants.

In the two weeks we’ve been here, we’ve celebrated two fiestas of saints and today, the fiesta of the Virgin de Juquila. On Juquila’s day it begins to drizzle lightly and the next morning half the village goes looking for Desheto, but still, without any luck. The problem is, our time has almost run out and we are going to miss our plane flight if we stay any longer. But just when we are about to call it quits, a friend shows up at the door with one sacred mushroom.

Heather looks at the mushroom and then back at me and says,

“Well I guess we’re staying?”

Although I’m excited to see the first sign of Desheto since we arrived, one mushroom isn’t enough for a ceremony. So, we continue our search for Desheto. Two more days pass and on our final day we hike into the beautiful cloud forest of the sacred Divinora sage and collect samples. We search in the cloud forest for most of the day without luck, and  I come to an uneasy peace with myself. I tell myself that it just wasn’t meant to be and I am more than lucky to have known Desheto for as many years as I have.

On our way back through the field, Heather stops abruptly, her keen eye spots an extremely venomous five-foot long Fer-de-lance snake on the bank we are about to cross. This gets my attention for obvious reasons, but also because this type of snake, along with the bushmasters and coral snakes, have always been a sign of Desheto’s arrival. We take a picture of the snake and continue walking. But just as we are about to leave the marsh, Heather almost steps on another snake, and in her most exasperated tone asks me,

“Are these snakes dangerous?”

“Well…”

Heather, the Grizzly Koala gives me the eye and is about to drop her claws so I answer as best I can, “The good news is that these two types of snakes are often around when Desheto comes out.”

“That’s great, but are they dangerous?”

“It looks like a coral snake and  although they’re generally not aggressive , their venom will kill you in less than a half an hour. The first one was a Fer-de-Lance and they’re not as deadly, but they do bite.”

Heather shoots me a look and says, “I’m never coming out here without high boots again.”

After the snake encounters we continue out of the cloud forest, but I stop and look back at the edge, knowing that this is probably the last time I’ll ever see the place that has been so much a part of my life. I guess everything has an expiration date, even the old gods. But in the melancholy of that moment, I see my young friend Pedro come walking out of the cloud forest and a final spark of hope flickers as I realize he is headed right towards us.

Still in his twenties, Pedro is a walking culture clash of fashion, sporting an beat up straw cowboy hat, a hip-hop jersey with Drake’s picture embossed on it, jeans with embroidered pockets, wrap-around sun glasses and a machete. Pedro has spent his entire life living at the edge of Desheto’s forest and is one of the best at finding the mushrooms. As he walks up I give him the Mazatec hand gesture for “Any luck?”

Shyly, Pedro greets Heather, gently touching the tips of his fingers to hers, then he carefully unfolds the elephant ear leaf and we suddenly realize what he is holding in his hands. Looking down,  we see four pairs of Desheto, almost enough for one person, but not quite enough for two..

TO BE CONTINUED…


HELP US CONTINUE THE STORY,

For this first part of this project,  Michael Stuart Ani visited the Sierra Mazateca to trace the origins of the Ghost Dance and the mysterious Desheto mushroom. Next we intend to follow the ceremony northwards to the Lakota of the Sioux Nations in the United States of America.

Want to find out what led to the Wounded Knee Massacre and the outlawing of the Ghost Dance? Then please make a donation and help us continue the project by sending Michael to meet his old friends, the medicine men of the Lakota people.

Read more about our other projects here

  • Coverphoto shows Lucia holding Desheto at her kitchen table