In Northwest Mexico, the Western Sierra Madre Mountains rise like giants from the coastal wetlands of the Gulf of California to the Central Mexican Plateau. Indigenous communities have long found shelter in these isolated lands, and the space to maintain their culture and way of life.
The region’s last free-flowing river cuts smoothly through the mountains, carving out fertile valleys, carrying fresh water and life downstream to the wetlands of Marismas Nacionales. The Nayeri and Wixárika people venerate the San Pedro Mezquital River. It brings life to their lands, and many of their sacred sites are dotted along its winding path.
Despite its importance, the river—and with it the rights of more than 15,000 indigenous peoples—are at risk from the proposed Las Cruces hydroelectric dam. The dam’s reservoir would flood 14 sacred ceremonial sites, and threaten their culture and way of life.
I was honored to walk alongside the Nayeri and Wixárika people last May, and participate in a joint ceremony intended to show their commitment to defending their rights in the face of this government-sponsored megaproject. It’s a commitment that was recently and formally manifested again, when representatives presented their case before the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples.
The images I captured of that pilgrimage are a testament to the beauty and strength of the living indigenous cultures of the Western Sierra Madre.
We left from the town of Rosamorada in Nayarit State on a pilgrimage to Keiyatsita, a ceremonial site along the San Pedro Mezquital River. We walked single file, winding up into the mountains and then down, again, to the river’s edge. When we arrived to the river, we performed a ritual, and were marked with ashes and creole corn flour to protect us on the journey. Walking beside so many indigenous people, of all ages—mothers and fathers, children and elders—was an enriching and inspiring experience.
This particular pilgrimage was historic, as it brought together two different indigenous communities—the Náyeri and the Wixárika—to honor the sacred spaces they share. In a joint declaration, they wrote that, beyond the spiritual reasons for the ceremony, they came together: "to unite against the hydroelectric project Las Cruces and thus show the Mexican government that we are not alone and we are not isolated… After this historic ceremony, both indigenous groups will further strengthen our cultural, spiritual, political and legal struggle and defense against the aforementioned dam, as well as strengthen our ties with other indigenous peoples of Mexico and the world.”
They walked to honor the river, to nurture the earth, and to demonstrate their commitment to protecting their sacred spaces. Both indigenous groups see themselves as the guardians of these sites—places like Keiyatsita that provide them with the knowledge and wisdom of how to care for their mother earth. These sites are vital not just to their historical memory, but to their culture and identity.
The ceremony at Keiyatsita began in the afternoon. Through prayer, song and dance they expressed their devotion to their native corn gods, Tatei Niwetsika, or mother Maíz, in her five colors—yellow, blue, pink, white and red. In the middle of the night, the animals that walked beside us through the mountains were offered up to the gods amidst the river’s running water. The prayers, songs and ceremony lasted all through the night.
These sacred sites along the San Pedro Mezquital river are living spaces, and part of what makes Mexico so rich. They are a reflection of the indigenous cultures and traditions that remain very much alive in the Western Sierra Madre Mountains. They are places that, because of their cultural and spiritual importance, must be honored and protected as part of our international heritage.
Indigenous peoples are the best guardians of our planet. And now, they are called on again to protect this unique and precious place—the last free-flowing river in Northwest Mexico and the lands it travels through, from the peaks of Durango to the mangroves of Nayarit along the Gulf of California.
Representatives of the indigenous communities of Nayarit stood this week before Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the United Nationals Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, and voiced their opposition to the dam that threatens their territory and way of life. They explained that they have not given, and will not give, their consent for the advancement of a project that would destroy their sacred sites and the river that provides them with life.