“Extinct” Mexican Tribe Fights for Access to Sacred Mountain

The Caxcan tribe of central Mexico is barred from carrying out traditional ceremonies on a mountain that the Mexican government now promotes as a tourist site. How tribal members are working to gain recognition and access to its ancestral land is explored in a new book.

By Melanie Lenart

Where We Belong author Daisy Ocampo at the Tucson Festival of Books. Photo: Melanie Lenart

When the Caxcan tribal council in Zacatecas, Mexico,  asked Daisy Ocampo to research and write a book documenting her tribe’s cultural ties to their sacred mountain near the Mexican town of Juchipila, she agreed to do it.

“It’s a big thing to write a book but I didn’t know that at the time because I was young and ambitious and I thought I could do everything,” Ocampo told a group of people at the 2024 Tucson Festival of Books. She finished the Ph.D. research that informed the University of Arizona Press book before its release in 2023.

“Community need drove this book. It wasn’t just historical curiosity,” Ocampo said of Where We Belong: Chemehuevi and Caxcan Preservation of Sacred Mountains. Where We Belong centers on two sacred mountains to contextualize the case histories of two Indigenous tribes on opposite sides of the US-Mexican border: Mamapukaib, also known as Old Woman Mountain. a mountain in modern-day California considered sacred to the Chemehuevi people; and Tlachialoyantepec near Juchipila in Zacatecas, Mexico, viewed as sacred and their source of creation by the Caxcan people.

On the US side of the border, Old Woman Mountain now has protected status. The Chemehuevi helped form the non-profit Native American Land Conservancy to purchase the land back.  The 20-year process involved private individuals, the Church of Latter-day Saints and the Boy Scouts of America as part of the Land Back movement to return significant cultural sites to Indigenous control.

In contrast, the Caxcan people have been barred from carrying out their traditional dances and coming-of-age ceremonies on Tlachialoyantepec, the mountain revered for their people’s creation. That’s because Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History purchased much of the mountain in 2002.

While the Caxcan revere the mountain they call Tlachialoyantepec as a birthplace for their people and a site of power and regeneration, the Mexican institute views it as a money-making tourism site they dub El Cerro de las Ventanas, referring to the windows the Caxcan carved into a natural formation converted to the mountaintop fortress.

Using that label puts the viewers’ minds on the slice of time when the Caxcan defended themselves from the Spanish in what is known as the Mixtón War of 1565, said Ocampo, a member of the Caxcan tribe. The Caxcan used the fortress along with the steep slopes, deep canyons and traditional trails they knew so well to defend themselves for 16 years before the death toll led them to disperse or capture meant they were enslaved to work in silver mines.

However, the Mexican institute promotes the Spanish claim that the Caxcan were driven to extinction by the war. In fact, Ocampo’s talk at the book festival, under the heading of Restoring Indigenous Heritage, indicates that, like her, many of them have carried the tribe’s traditions forward into modern times, often within view of the mountain. One family surreptitiously continues to harvest traditional foods along the mountain trails.

“Even though we’re not physically engaging our landscape in the way that we like, we really don’t forget that we come from this place,” Ocampo said.

Even the launching of the tourism project brought pain to Caxcan observers, she said, because the Mexican government bulldozed 200 cactuses to land a helicopter for the official tourism launch. Tlachialoyantepec is seen as the site where Caxcan ancestors who died in an ancient flood stand tall in the form of saguaro and other cactuses.

“Well, who are our relatives? It’s the saguaros and the cactus,” Ocampo said. “We were so hurt. People cried. How do you communicate that to people? Do you see how impossible that is?”

The moderator of the talk at the book festival, Jacelle Ramon-Sauberan, noted that her own tribe, the Tohono O’odham, also view saguaro cactus as ancestors. She lauded Ocampo for including such detailed cultural descriptions for both the Chemehuevi and the Caxcan, something she said could help non-Indigenous people understand distinctions between different tribal nations. Ocampo’s book highlights traditional Chemehuevi Salt Songs and the Caxcan’s ceremonial Xúchitl Dance as well as their creation stories and other culturally relevant factors that help demonstrate the ongoing presence of both tribes in their respective places of belonging despite brutal colonization practices to extinguish them.

Map depicting the geographic expanse of Chichimeca nations, ca. 1550, including the Caxcan. Photo: Grin20, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Working song and dance into her research posed a challenge in the academic setting, Ocampo acknowledged. Some professors thought the topic belonged within the discipline of anthropology, while others suggested religious studies.  For that matter, details about plants and water sources could fit into the natural sciences.

“They have 182 songs that talk about their land,” she said of the Chemhuevi. “(Songs) that talk about how to travel through the land—where you can pick certain foods, where you’re going to find springs. So these songs were essential to surviving on the landscape. It instructed you on how to be.”

Ocampo stayed firm about including these practices as part of her research on the history of the two sacred mountains and the tribes that revere them. She took a dance class to provide additional context for her tribe’s Xúchitl Dance, a tradition so embedded in the culture it even has an elected steward, Moctezuma Meza Solano.

Caxcan dancers no longer face a death penalty for their weaving movements using scarves symbolizing flowers, as they did under Spain in the late 16th century. But currently they are denied the right to hold their sacred dance on their sacred mountain. While rejecting permits to conduct the dance on Tlachialoyantepec, the Mexican government does permit it in the town plaza of Juchipila. Ocampo said this turns the ceremonial dance into a tourist attraction rather than the private ceremony the Caxcan would prefer.

“We haven’t done our ceremonies for 20 years. That matters,” Ocampo said. “So we have been completely dispossessed from the mountain.”

Still, the institute did start a committee to consult with the Caxcan about changing some of the text labels describing the mountain and its features, she said. There’s also an effort to develop lesson plans about the Caxcan for local children in kindergarten through middle school.

Ocampo takes heart that the Land Back movement currently returning sacred lands to Native Americans could take root in her homeland of Mexico. Currently an assistant professor of history at California State University in San Bernadino, Ocampo’s research on the Chemehuevi tribe’s efforts to recover their own sacred mountain near her workplace gives her hope.

“I can see the future because I already saw it out here in the U.S.”

Melanie Lenart is the News and Opinions Editor for Native Science Report. Contact her at mlenart@nativesciencereport.org. Daisy Ocampo’s book, Where We Belong: Chemehuevi and Caxcan Preservation of Sacred Mountains, is available for purchase through the University of Arizona Press, Amazon books and other book sellers. https://uapress.arizona.edu/book/where-we-belong

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