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 second part here.
The ritual begins long before the actual ceremony is performed. For Heather and I, the ritual began the moment Desheto reached out to us and the ritual was realized when Pedro found the Little Ones. But by day eight of our trip we still don’t have enough pairs of the Little Ones to complete the ceremony, so we decide to continue our search for the elusive mushrooms the next morning.
All day we search the deep cloud forest, but we once again come up empty handed. Then towards evening, our luck begins to change. A friend of mine named Jorge, who lives on the other side of the mountain, sends word via the Mazatec grapevine that he has just found the Little Ones. I’m ready to go immediately, as I don’t want them to die before we can eat them, but for some reason that old goat Daniel wants us to wait until 2:30 in the morning to leave.
Daniel and I wake up in the dark and walk until we get a lift on the back of a pick-up truck. On the way down the long, bumpy road a fellow passenger tells us that Maria, a beloved 104-year-old tribal healer, has justdied and so we need to stop on the way back and pick up a coffin. Two hours later, we reach the embankment that leads up to Jorge’s shack. When we arrive at the shack it’s still dark out and his wife greets us with a kerosene lantern and cups of coffee. As we’re drinking our coffee, Jorge mysteriously appears from the back room and without saying a word, he hands me a folded leaf. My heart beats faster as I gently expose the contents of the leaf. When I see the fresh, alive Little Ones inside, I grin like a happy “tepesquintle”.
On the way over the mountain as we head home to the village, we pick up the coffin for Maria. As I’m leaning up against the coffin in the back of the truck, my mind wanders down a road that leads me in a meandering direction towards Desheto’s hidden storyline. As this story rises to the surface, I realize that my role in acquiring the coffin is a fitting task for someone who is about to dance with ghosts and sing for the rain.
Heather and I will perform the ceremony tonight and Maria will be buried the next morning as an offering to Sequah the Lord of the Rain. It is a local belief that the Mother always calls upon Sequah to cry when one of her beloved Clean Sisters dies. I realize that the death of Maria, a Clean Sister, can carry enough power to end the deadly drought.
At twilight, we place wild flowers on the altar. Then I light the copal incense and a beeswax candle, respectfully asking Grandfather Fire to open his realm in the crest of the flame. It is through his crest that both totem spirits and the ghosts of past dancers can cross over to dance again with the living.
In pairs, I clean the Little Ones in the copal smoke so their journey to the land of the dead will not be lonely. Then I blow out the candle and Heather and I lay down on our mats. The effects of the Little Ones come on quickly, with waves of colored warmth passing through me that churn up a whirlwind of thoughts. Thoughts that I begin to sort through as my rational mind fades away. As always, the question arises: is Desheto a momentary possession of my ego, or a self-created distortion of my own imagination?
This cycle of self-obsessed thoughts is broken by a slight movement in the bed next to me. I become aware of Heather and realize that I have no idea what she is going through. I gently touch her hand and she lightly squeezes mine, letting me know that she is OK. The next day, Heather tells me that the initial effect of the Little Ones gave her the sensation that she was a plant planted in the cold wet earth. Heather sensed the beauty of this plant experience and the feeling that she was a part of nature, but she still felt uncomfortably cold and had the unnatural feeling of a human planted in soil. Heather also felt vulnerable because plants are not mobile, but instead are porous. This led her to believe that she needed strong mental boundaries so neither I nor Desheto would dominate the balance of her vision.
Returning to the present, Heather struggles to maintain those boundaries, while coping with an escalating bodily invasion of the Little Ones percolating inside of her. She feels nauseous and uneasy, but surprisingly I’m the one who actually vomits, heaving up the black mucus of infection that was possessing my body. As I heave and the dark gunk emerges, I feel that my sinus infection is cured and Heather later tells me that her nausea abruptly stopped at the exact moment I had vomited. After this purging we are now linked together in the same vision and I begin to chant, calling out to Desheto.
Very softly, I hear Desheto’s song begin in my mind, bubbling like an underwater marimba, as it always does before he arrives. Cloaked in darkness, like a thief in the night, Desheto hides in the shadows until he is invited in. He enters my body with a startling chill and consumes the blood of the dying Little Ones in my belly. By completing their journey to the land of the dead he silences their chatter so he can speak. The bridge of communication between this voice from the world of plants and me is built by the Little Ones as Desheto speaks.
“I have finished talking and as I told you the last time we met, this time I am going to hook you up and tie your knot.”
I hear these words inside my head, and at first I don’t feel anything, but then a quick tug in my midsection gets my attention. My body trembles, possessed by a voice that is neither the Little Ones nor my own. Rising up like a twisting serpent, Desheto’s chant spills out of me with a moan, calling lightning’s serpent tongue down from the sky above to lick the ground below. Outside, as if cued, I hear a thunderbolt hits the ground and I feel a surge of electricity running through the earth. Heather feels sparks of electricity shooting from my body as if I am an electric coil.
In this instant, I finally understand what Desheto meant by hooking me up. Desheto is hardwiring me to the mycelia, the plant kingdom’s internet, the botanical highway through which flora communicates. As I tap in, my senses grow keener, and I find myself eavesdropping on the cut flowers on the altar.
These flowers sense that the lightning has stirred something hidden deep below the soil of the cloud forest. And although the animals of the cloud forest usually warn of the appearance of an invader, they remain silent now, as if in a state of reverence. Whatever has been stirred up in the underground realm is no invader, it is as ancient as the soil Mexico is built upon.
But soon I hear a spirit in the wind rustling the leaves on the trees in the cloud forest above us. Then, Desheto’s guttural chant rises up out of me and the leaves on the trees shake harder. Whatever it is that has laid dormant for so long, now begins to move down from the cloud forest of Chicon Nindo.
The experience is overwhelmingly visceral, as my heart pounds in tandem with this unknown entity. On first glance the mysterious creature appears as a giant undulating muscle of ectoplasm coming right towards us. Through the darkness, as the ectoplasm takes form, I can just barely see the face of an iridescent serpent with a plumed crown and feathered beard. I recognize it as the nagual, or the totem spirit of the Plumed Serpent.
I finally understand at that moment that Desheto has purposely misled me to believe that the totem had left this cloud forest a half a century ago. The truth is that the totem spirit has remained dormant until the circumstances of tonight’s ritual. But now this powerful spirit has been released.
Before I can question Desheto about why he has lied to me, he speaks for what appears to be the last time.
“My old friend, you who have kept your word for so long, what I do and have done is to protect you, and what you need to know and not know is also for your own protection. The mark of protection is yours, but the burden is mine. What has been awoken tonight is the plumed serpent: the wild and free spirit of the Americas.”
I now understand that Mother Nature’s secret weapon has been unleashed by the ritual and it comes racing toward us twisting and turning like a giant rollercoaster still not able to spread its wings and take flight. Passing through, the plumed, ectoplasmic beast lifts me up upon its back as if I am a rodeo rider holding on for dear life. I check in on Heather and she has also been swept away by what she cannot see and is holding on for dear life.
Then the plumed “Beast” finally spreads its wings and carries Heather and I toward a vision that manifests from its open mouth. Looking inside the serpent’s mouth, I see a microscopic invader among a swarm of many invaders, who have come to consume the life force of the Earth Mother. This microbe terrorist from afar possesses people with an addiction that destroys the survival instinct, so they turn on the very thing that gives them life.
Flying towards the Southern Cross, the beast stalks the swarm of this same terrorist microbe. The totem of the Americas then comes to rest just below the Parima Mountains on the jungle border of Venezuela and Brazil where the ancients had carved its image on a flat faced ridge called Cero Pintada.
Within the swarm of terrorist microbes is the face of a man and that man I later identify as the current President of Brazil: Jair Bolsonaro.That startling image sends my heart racing and shocks my system, sending me twisting out of the vision and back to this reality.
Still in the darkness and just before the spirit time of night runs out, I remember that I have forgotten what I came here to do. First, I relight the candle on the altar and then, like a drunken sailor, I rise to my feet and begin the slow shuffling chant to end this Ghost Dance. Lighting cracks across the sky and ignites the crucible of the summer storm. It begins to rain as Maria, the Clean Sister and tribal healer is buried back into the Mother Earth from which she came. God’s eye opens with the rising sun and we are grateful for a new morning. 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 Mazateca project.
- The featured photo concerns another velada taking place in the Sierra Mazateca than the one described in this article. Credits go to: Ivan Kuxan Suum from our network partner Voices of Amerikua.