It was 1971 in Mexico, and Brant Secunda, an 18-year-old kid from New Jersey, lay unconscious on a patch of dusty, clay-like ground. A wanderer who ventured below the border to learn how to make pottery, he wound up stumbling upon an ancient civilization. That may not seem so surprising—Mexico has an abundance of ancient ruins. But this ancient civilization was alive and well.
Secunda was rescued from his near-death state by members of the Huichol tribe, a culture of about 30,000 indigenous Mexicans who live in the Sierra Madre mountains and are the only known tribe in North America to have maintained their pre-Columbian cultural traditions. They are the only living group recognized by the Mexican government as a National Treasure.
Enamored with the Huichols’ propensity for laughter and their joyful, balanced lifestyle, Secunda felt compelled to stick around. He was adopted as a grandson of one of the Huichol’s leading spiritual leaders, and entered a 12-year apprenticeship that led to his being initiated as a Huichol shaman.
Almost a decade later, he returned to the U.S., settling in Capitola and undertaking his life’s work: Preserving the Huichol culture in Mexico while simultaneously sharing its many gifts with the Western world through spiritual retreats and teachings.
Along with his son Nico, 23, Secunda, now 60, has created the Huichol Foundation, a new organization dedicated to economically supporting and preserving the Huichol culture. A launch party for the new organization will take place this Sunday, Nov. 18 at the Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz.
The Secundas believe Huichols possesses a way of life that can be a valuable teaching tool for the rest of the world, especially the developed West as it cycles back to placing more value on local agriculture, respect for the Earth and achieving balance in life—the foundations of Huichol culture. The organization aims to do this through selling traditional Huichol artwork as well as applying for grants to economically support the culture, so that Huichols won’t have to go work jobs in the tobacco or coffee fields, which Nico says is a fast track to cultural assimilation.
“The culture is still very traditional—no electricity, no running water, very remote. Being so remote is part of what has protected their culture and language for so long,” explains Nico, the Huichol Foundation’s CEO and also a recognized Huichol shaman.
The Huichol Foundation has already put together some DVDs and lesson plans so teachers in the Santa Cruz area can educate their students about a traditional way of life that is still alive and thriving a few hundred miles south.
Secunda and his son believe that their perspective living in the modern world, coupled with their intimate understanding of traditional Huichol culture, enables them to predict what could happen to Huichol culture if it were to assimilate. They believe it is their responsibility to make sure the transition happens smoothly.
“We realize that modern assimilation is going to occur. Who knows? In five years, 10 years, 20 years, Huichols will be walking around with iPhones and iPads, maybe. We want to make sure that in that process they don’t lose the appreciation and balance with the environment,” says Nico. “We don’t want to be, you know, the white saviors from the north coming to build a wall around the Huichol territory to keep them in the dark ages.”
On some level, though, the Secundas admit that is just what they’re doing.
“They say, ‘You have a car, why don’t you want us to have one?’” says Brant. “It’s tricky to answer that.”
The official launch of the Huichol Foundation will take place Sunday, Nov. 18 at the Museum of Art and History.