Saturday, February 2, 2013
Imperial Woodpecker Memories
Nicolesa and Salvador are Tepehuanes who live in the high country of the Sierra Madre Occidental in the Mexican state of Durango, as their ancestors have done for countless centuries. The Imperial Woodpecker (or uagam, as it is called in their language) plays a major part in Tepehuan myths and legends. "In the winter time they sing of the giant woodpecker," wrote Norwegian explorer and ethnologist Carl Lumholtz, who spent years living with the indigenous people of the Sierra Madre in the 1890s. "The giant woodpecker during the wet season rises high up toward the sun; that is why he gets his tail burned."
For many, and perhaps most, of the Tepehuanes living in the Sierra Madre, life has not changed much in the past century or two. They still live hardscrabble lives with few modern conveniences, dwelling in adobe huts built of handmade bricks or in log cabins hewn from the surrounding pine forest, with no electricity, no telephones, and no plumbing. Most of them get around on foot or on mules and donkeys.
Both Nicolesa and Salvador remembered the Imperial Woodpecker well. "They were beautiful," Nicolesa told us. "I would see them one, two, three at time, mostly in the high country." But she had not seen one since around the time she first learned how to make tortillas, she said, about the age of ten, which would have been in the 1950s.
The Tepehuanes were kind enough to let me stay in an empty adobe hut in their village—after first chasing the chickens and goats outside.