Santa Cruz shaman Brant Secunda travels the world spreading the ways of the Huichol
Before the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century, more than 10,000 people lived on California’s coast between Big Sur and San Francisco. Dating back some 15,000 years, the Ohlone, as we call them today, wove baskets and traded abalone shells, hides, fish, and the brilliant red pigment made from cinnabar, which they quarried in Santa Clara County.
Sadly, our knowledge of these early Santa Cruzans doesn’t extend very deeply beyond the physical artifacts they left behind. As we surf their former fishing waters and careen down the roads paved over their burial grounds, the legacy of Ohlone cosmology remains largely a mystery.
But for shaman and healer Brant Secunda, the spiritual bond our ancestors had with Earth is crucial—not only to the future of our planet, but to our own physical health. And if anyone can make this claim, it’s him. At the age of 18, Secunda forged a relationship with the Huichol Indians, the last tribe in North America to have maintained their pre-Columbian traditions, thanks in part to their location deep in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico.
“I thought I was going there to learn how to make pottery,” says Secunda, who nearly died of dehydration on his solo five-day trek to find the Huichols. The now 61-year-old Secunda believes he would have perished if the shaman Don José Matsuwa had not dreamt of his distress and sent villagers to find him.
“When I got there,” he says, “the Huichols said ‘well, you’re about 50 years too late”—to make pottery, that is. Though their clay craft had faded with the times, the ancient healing traditions the Huichol people are known for had not, and the self-proclaimed “wild New Yorker” began to soak them up. He embarked on a 12-year shamanic apprenticeship under Matsuwa, which began with a five-day fast from food and water. It was a radical rite of passage that would turn into a lifelong devotion, and when Matsuwa died at the age of 110, it was Secunda, his adopted grandson, that he named as his replacement.
“The goal of Huichol shamanism is to complete yourself as a human being; to become a whole person, not a fragmented person,” says Secunda, his blue eyes sparking. Secunda teaches the daily rituals that encourage positive dreams, and how to connect to the spirit of nature through sacred dances, watching the sun rise and set, and going on pilgrimages to healing places: the rivers, caves and mountain peaks that seem to throb with the life force, which the Huichols call “kupuri.”
“There is a special energy here,” Secunda says of Santa Cruz, his home base when he’s not traveling to teach shamanic workshops.
Like in Chinese medicine, the Huichol shaman works with the source of the illness, and tries to bring a person into balance and harmony. But Secunda, who performs healing ceremonies on cancer patients, doesn’t claim direct responsibility: “We say that no human being can really heal,” says Secunda. “We work with the energy of the person. But only the spirit can really heal. So in our case, we send the deer into the body, visualize the deer going into the body of the patient, and the deer does the healing, on behalf of the shaman.”
The deer is the most sacred of animals for the Huichols, the symbol for the heart, intuition, and higher self, says Secunda, He founded the Dance of the Deer Foundation to help preserve the cultural traditions of the Huichol Indians in Mexico.
For more information on the foundation, or Secunda’s workshops on shamanism, visit shamanism.com.