If Brant Secunda, founder of Shaman Organic Chocolates, has anything to do with it, our closest contact with the Huichol Indians will be through their artwork. In his favor, the tribe of roughly 35,000 makes its remote home along the stark and rugged Sierra Madre Occidental range in western central Mexico. Though there’s talk of building a road, today the only way to reach the village is by foot.
The Huichols’ seclusion has preserved their lifestyle and sacred traditions, making them one of, if not the only, indigenous North American tribes to have maintained their pre-Columbian customs—a fact that scholars find remarkable.
“Their very survival and their efforts to maintain their cultural and traditional integrity amid the overwhelming forces of globalization is a testimony to the tenacity of the human spirit,” says social-cultural anthropologist Triloki Pandey, who studies native peoples in the American Southwest and teaches at the University of California in Santa Cruz.
Secunda, an American who was embraced by the Huichols and lived with them for 12 years, eventually becoming a tribal shaman and healer, donates 100 percent of the profits from his chocolate business to helping the tribe survive economically and keeping its ancient traditions and language intact. Over time, he’s seen outside influences slowly begin creeping in, as tribe members now occasionally speak Spanish, dress in Western clothes and sometimes eat nonindigenous foods. Increasingly, tribe members leave the village to work in tobacco fields for weeks at a time. The high levels of pesticides in these fields have resulted in severe respiratory issues, rashes and allergic reactions, Secunda says.
In addition to proposed language and shaman schools to preserve the Huichols’ culture, Secunda is helping the tribe become self-reliant by creating a broader market for members’ artwork—currently the Huichols’ primary source of income. “Their art is so incredible, so beautiful, so spectacular that if it can take off, they can support themselves,” Secunda says.
Designs in the Huichols’ elaborate “yarn paintings” and colorful beadwork are derived from shamanic dreams and visions. In his own shamanic vision, Secunda saw chocolate—long regarded as a sacred food by the tribe—as the means for exposing Huichol artwork to the world. He launched Shaman Organic Chocolates in 2004, sourcing fair-trade and organic beans from Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic and Peru. His “chocolates with a cause” feature a Huichol tribe member and authentic artwork on each bar, but sales haven’t taken off as expected.
“Chocolate is so competitive. Why couldn’t the Huichols have had a sacred energy drink?” Secunda jokes.
Still, with his help the tribe has shown its artwork in galleries and sold to vendors all over the world. With the $10,000 Secunda’s chocolate business has made thus far, he’s sent one tribe member to college and bought countless art supplies for the Huichols.
“Chocolate has been shown to release the same chemicals in our bodies as falling in love does,” Secunda says. “My hope is that Shaman Chocolates will be a way to create more love in the world.”