Tarahumara Shamanic Initiation


By David Chethlahe Paladin

            Sometime in the early 1950's I had a wonderful meeting with Earle Stanley Gardner, the mystery story writer.  Earle, knowing that I was a half-breed Navajo, got to talking to me about cave paintings and pictographs.  He asked me if I had ever been down to Mexico.  He had been there on a trip and had visited the canyons and the Tarahumara Indians.  Earle had discovered in the Copper Canyon among the Tarahumaras some caves with fantastic paintings in them. 

            I decided that it would be fun to see those caves.  With a pack on my back I headed for Mexico and wandered off into the canyons.  It was there that I was introduced to the shamanic tradition in the truest sense.  The Navajo people are not shaman­ic.  We have a traditional fear of ghosts and the dead.  From some of my other Indian friends on the Pueblos and from my kiva training with them when I was a child I had learned a little about the shamanic concepts and had a deep interest in them.

            I ended up on a little rancho in Mexico with one of the Tarahumara Indians.  I got into a wild drinking binge with them and then they took me into a canyon.  They gave me some rather vile concoction and I lost my mind for a period of seven days.

            I awoke in a cold sweat to find the drunken face of Manuel only inches away from mine.  Lifting my head, he placed a badly chipped enamel cup to my lips, wetting my mouth with a vile-tast­ing fluid.

            I vaguely remembered that I had wandered into the Barrancas of the fabled Tarahumara country seeking hidden caves that report­edly were filled with huge mysterious paintings of ancient gods.  Somehow I had found my way into the confines of a small ranch where a full-fledged tesguinada, the native version of an unbri­dled orgy of drinking and lewd behavior, was taking place.

            It was there that I had met Manuel, a brujo or medicine man of some obvious stature.  He had taken me under his wing, intro­duced me to a few others in the group and had later insisted that I join with a group of raramuri, or runners as they called them­selves, on a quest for a "spirit vision."

            My body began to shake uncontrollably as I attempted to remember how I had arrived at this moment.  Drugged, fighting for some sort of anchor to reality, I felt myself slipping into a sea of searing flames, plunging down through the bowels of the earth to finally be thrown clear of the planet into another sea, this one filled with the sound of my own heart beating, faster and faster until it exploded into a billion particles of spinning, dancing light.

            My eyes had been open and staring since the beginning of creation.  They had watched intently as the golden sound of eter­nity formed into slight wisps of dancing, darting color.  Unblink­ing, I saw the colors fold in upon themselves forming the fabric of the universe.  I watched as that newly-formed universe streamed toward my eyes and passed through my mind where exploding stars and suns threw off particle-like planets that passed from my mind back into my vision. 

            Once more, dancing figures with strange shadows reflected upon cold stone walls.  They lunged toward me, into me, through me.  I could not hear the sound of their rattles and drums but my staring eyes could see the sound as it formed into minute chips of light that were caught up in a sea of boil­ing, blood-red water and were thrown against rocks of molten lava that rose up from the surface of an earth, tortured and twisted by the labor pains of its own birth.

            I watched as those flecks of light flowed back into a vortex of foaming water, drawn into the depths of the primal ocean where they merged to form darting specks of intelligent matter, each exploring its unique relationship to a newly formed reality.

            Eyes open and staring since the beginning of creation, I flowed with them through eons of change.  Change that evolved without the passage of time.  I flowed with them until the ocean spilled me out upon a golden beach.  Serpent like, eyes still staring, I slid through swamp-like sounds and smells, leapt into the air to be caught by the wind, tumbled across barren land­scapes, a wild weed blown by the wind.  I exploded, mountainlike, pouring my blood over the land.  I flowed back into the canyon cave where I found myself once more on the cold stone floor where the dancing figures, now with shadows of light that shook their silent rattles and beat wildly at silent drums.

            I knew that I had been born out of the mists of the universe, that I had been carried by the tides of change through uncharted seas, passed through the souls of life's beginning, into the earth and finally arriving deep within a shell-like body that now protected me from the flames of instant change.

            I witnessed a world slowed down and almost still, each liquid moment measured out by the beating of my heart.  Slowed even more by the rising and setting of the sun.

            The sound of rattles, drums and soft chanting washed against my ears and tears fell from my eyes as I reached out, trying to once more touch those slight wisps of color that were the first sounds of creation.

            Manuel stood over me.  Placing his rattle on the floor, he raised his fingers, indicating the number seven.  Seven days I had floated free of my body to know the reality of a billion years of creation.  To know that time does not exist without the shell-like structure we call a body.  I had touched eternity and knew that I was eternal.

            I had been introduced to my first shamanic vision through drugs.  In that state of altered consciousness I discovered that there were no barriers to reality.  This was the same kind of vision that my relatives on the Reservation had discussed.  During the vision I had become one with everything.  That was the most important thing I learned from the experience.