Brant and Nico Secunda

Posted on in People in Your Neighborhood by Rob Sidon

Passing the Tradition
of Huichol Shamanism
from Father to Son


Brant Secunda grew up in New York but left home the day after his 18th birthday. He found himself at death’s doorstep in Mexico’s remote Sierra Madres, where he met don José Matsuwa, a renowned Huichol shaman who adopted him as a grandson. A 12-year apprenticeship ensued that eventually led to Brant, a nonnative, being accepted as an indigenous elder. In 1979 Brant founded the Dance of the Deer Foundation in the Santa Cruz Mountains with the mission of preserving the wisdom of the Huichol traditions. His son Nico (25) is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of UC Santa Cruz who has been making pilgrimages with his father since he was six weeks old. A wise and passionate young man, Nico is tasked with advancing this ancient and venerable lineage in our fast-moving, high-tech world.

Common Ground: Can you describe the tradition of the Huichol Indians?

Brant Secunda: The Huichols are special people living in the Sierra Madre Mountains—one of the last tribes in North America to have an intact pre-Columbian tradition. I’ve lived with them for 12 years and have remained closely connected now for over 35 years. They believe they have a responsibility to care for all the people on the planet, not just themselves—to pray for everyone. Their beautiful lifestyle honors and connects to nature. They practice their own ceremonies of harvesting and planting and visiting various places of power such as caves and rock formations and the mountains where the sun were born in their cosmology. They grow their own corn and gather their own firewood where they cook their own food. That is a little bit of what the Huichol are about. I have dedicated my life to teaching their traditions and showing how to connect with nature and apply those blessings in the modern world.

What is a shaman?

These days, unfortunately, anyone can say they’re a shaman, but for the Huichols it requires a five-year apprenticeship at least. Myself, I did a 12-year apprenticeship learning to be a healer and to perform ceremonies.

How did a nice Jewish boy from New York come to this path?

After graduating high school the day after my 18th birthday, I knew I had to leave home. I loved my parents and I’m still close with them, but I just had to go. I went to Mexico and traveled around a little bit and went to Ixtlán, where I befriended a young schoolteacher who told me I could go to his village even though it was very private Huichol territory, closed to tourism. He wrote me a letter—a passport, you might say—that would help me pass through the Sierras. He warned me that it was a fiveday walk, but I thought that since I had survived New York and its subways that I too could survive a five-day walk.

On the third day I became completely lost and disoriented, dying. In my New York cynicism, I thought, Where are these Indians? Why are they not saving me? There I suffered dehydration, sun exposure, heatstroke, heat exhaustion, and wondered if I should not have gone to college like my other friends. I went unconscious and had incredible visions and dreams, when I was suddenly awakened by Indians standing over me sprinkling water onto my face, telling me the old shaman had had a dream about me and sent them to rescue me. I was introduced to don José, who adopted me as his grandson. We became very close on every level.

Now you’re an elder. Is there any precedent of nonnatives advancing the Huichol tradition as you have?


Did you confront opposition among the native Huichol, for being a paleface?

Don José accepted me right away, but it took a few years for others to call me brother. I am still very connected with the people there today, helping support their cultural and economic survival, and these people know how close I was with don José and the rigorous apprenticeship I went through. Once I was put into a cave for five days and nights without food or water. The people know that. The longest was nine days without food or water. Don José used to joke that if I died, the apprenticeship was over.

Now this tradition is passing to your son.

Yes, and they love Nico. He’s been there about 75 times—a lot of trips to Huichol land. Nico did a transmission of power ceremony with don José’s oldest son, don Juan, and is thus now also authorized to do healings and ceremonies. Nico also plays the Huichol folk music better than almost anyone, as the elders taught him a lot of old, old songs that even the Huichols don’t know. They come from all over the Sierra to hear him play.

Here comes the son! Nico, how do you feel about carrying this mantle?

Nico Secunda: I definitely feel honored and grateful for the life I have and for the very deep responsibility my father and the Huichol people have given me, to be an intermediary between the modern world and their ancient culture. That’s some of the work I do with the Huichol Foundation.

Growing up in the Bay Area, you had many options. When did it become obvious that this was your path?

There was no particular timing around that, as it was rather clear throughout my life. Not that I was ever forced or that I wanted something else. It was a natural process of continual evolution being with my father and going around the world assisting at the different retreats he leads and of course all the trips to Mexico.

This is an atypical life. What did your friends think of your weird dad? Did you go to public school?

[Laughs] It’s a hard thing for people to comprehend, and it always drew attention growing up, but everyone definitely loved my father and was interested by our traveling lifestyle and our connections to this hidden tribe. I went to elementary school in Santa Cruz but was homeschooled through high school. I also took classes at the public high schools, so I got the best of both worlds. Then I went on to college at UC Santa Cruz, where I was able to integrate my education and social life with my Huichol projects. I was on the student advisory council, which was a very good experience where I was able to bridge the worlds.

Do you have any mixed feelings about your goals? Hey, it’s not too late to become a tech entrepreneur or work in Hollywood.

No, it’s clear to me. I am aware of the modern world but feel very blessed to have my work tied to an ancient indigenous world. As you must know that it’s hard, particularly for young people, to find clarity.

With such big shoes to fill, what are the primary challenges?

Part of it is to keep absorbing the ancient wisdom so that I can share it with others and carry it forward. In so many places around the world, these cultures and traditions and practices and ceremonial ways have totally disappeared. On one hand, in this modern world, it’s increasingly challenging to sustain the practice of ancient ways, but I always tell people that the modern world is cycling back to indigenous understanding. If you look at multicrop structures versus monocrops, we’re going back to the wisdom of the indigenous approaches. This is true also in our evolving understanding of the universe. It is interesting to see the parallels of the shamanic understandings of nature along with the scientific descriptions; they come together.

Do you see any signs of younger people gravitating to shamanism?

For sure. It is inherent to all of us that we want that connection to nature and its wisdom, and that’s what all of these indigenous cultures understood. The ancients have a profound understanding of nature’s manifestation at the personal and community level. Despite the variety of technological distractions, a lot of young people are attracted to what we do.

What typically happens on a vision quest?

Brant: I don’t use the term “vision quest.” I just say going out into nature and being alone. When you give up food or water, you’re leaving your humanism behind and becoming like the gods, so you expect to connect with nature in a special way. When you do that, sometimes you can have a beautiful dream and vision.

Nico, can you describe your first such experience?

It was on the island of Crete, where we go every year. I first went when I was six weeks old, but my first vision quest was when I was eight. On one hand it was no big deal, but on the other is was very poignant—going out for a whole day and night, allowing myself to become one with nature. For a lot of people, it is very hard to do, though it is a natural thing at the same time. A very good memorable experience, that first vision quest.

Recreational drug use is endemic among American youth. Did that ever attract you?

Brant: If I can jump in, he’s 25, yet never had a sip of alcohol or smoked dope. At 25, that’s rather amazing. Because it’s all around, especially at the university. I don’t think he’s had an inclination.

Nico: Not yet. No caffeine or antibiotics. Not that we’re totally against it, but I haven’t had to do it. It’s a viable thing for people to want those expanded experiences, but I’ve been able to have those mental and spiritual states through Huichol shamanism and those sacred practices.

Amazonian shamanism is in vogue with many books being published about ayahuasca. What is your experience with trends in shamanism over all these decades?

Brant: Well, they were super popular, and then not. I see it coming back. Like you say, many people now are trying ayahuasca, but I think at times it can be too much of a shortcut. I think people have to develop their own relationship to nature. Sometimes, shortcuts can be helpful, sometimes not.

Nico: The indigenous people studied and understood these plants through thousands of years of evolution and created ceremonial practices. I have seen people shortcut these practices and experience a loss of spirit.

In your views, how is the Amazonian approach different than the Central American approach to shamanism?

Brant: I don’t know really about their traditions, so I can’t really say anything to that.

Nico: From what I have seen of different cultures, there are different landscapes and different processes and energies, but at the root of all this, indigenous spirituality is nature, and that is what people are after.

What is nature trying to tell us? What is its message?

Nico: Nature tells us things in different ways ranging from personal messages to messages at the communal-tribal levels. And then there’s the message of a universal- global scale, of things that we all experience together. It’s important to differentiate those. If we listen we can receive pretty direct feedback. Nature has a way of remaining balanced, and that is something we should be a part of. Indigenous cultures understood that—that we are not separate from nature. Regaining this recognition is sometimes lost in the modern world and will be a struggle for generations to come—to wake up to the things the earth is telling us.

Brant: From my perspective, we need to remember the earth is alive—a living, breathing, conscious organism with thoughts and feelings just as we have. We have to tap into that love of Mother Earth. Love: that is her power. We have to connect and remember that our body is an extension of the body of Mother Earth. When we do that, we feel the earth in a special way—both normal and mystical at the same time.

How do we know we’re getting a message from earth or God, versus a concoction of the mind?

Brant: Don José used to say, “Listen with your heart to the ancient ones. Who is it that it is really making it up anyway?” You don’t really know until you learn to know. Like for a shaman, they know what the ancient ones are saying, what the ancient ones are whispering into their soul, into their hearts. You’re right, though, it is a very tricky thing because look at all of the people that thought they were doing the right thing. Hitler thought God told him to incite genocide. He thought he was doing the right thing. People insist they’re getting a message from God, and it may be coming from themselves.

Nico: The importance of quieting the mind is inherent to all spiritual traditions and is certainly part of Huichol shamanism. You have to quiet your own mind before you can distinguish the nature of the messaging. Then there’s the whole balance of discriminating the value of our own thoughts.

What’s your read on nature here in the Bay Area? It seems a place where shamanism can foster naturally.

Brant: Shamanism spirituality—all types of spirituality—can flourish here because it’s such a beautiful and powerful place naturally. On my way down to the Huichol, I was brought to Santa Cruz, where I live now. I said, “One day when I settle down, I will come here.” I think there’s just no coincidence.

Any final messages to our readers?

Brant: To remind them that the spirit of love can transform us. It is up to us to love Mother Earth and allow Mother Earth to love us. As we walk upon the altar of Mother Earth, feel her love coming into our bodies, to heal our bodies, our hearts, and our spirits.

Rob Sidon is publisher and editor-in-chief of Common Ground.

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