White Sands Missile Range opened its gates to invite tribe members from Los Indigenes de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, an indigenous tribe of Tortugas, New Mexico, to harvest sotol stalks Dec. 7.
The tribe uses the yucca-like plant during their annual sacred pilgrimage. Sotol has been scarce within the Tortugas area for quite some time.
Miguel Parra, a tribe member who helped harvest the stalks, said they have been traveling as far as El Paso, Texas, to obtain the sotol stalks. For the past two years now, members of the indigenous tribe have been able to harvest sotol stalks from the WSMR range.
WSMR Archaeologist Jim Bowman said they were happy to be able to accommodate the tribe and assist in their harvest.
“There are federal laws that urge us to allow Native Americans to harvest and this was a great opportunity to do so,” Bowman said.
The partnership came about through a friendship with former chief of Department of Public Works and tribe member, David Fierro. Fierro learned of their need for sotol stalk, which WSMR is rich in, and brought up the issue to the Environmental Directorate at WSMR to see if an annual harvesting would be possible. ED was able to work out a plan.
The walking sticks are used during the tribe’s annual three-day celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Each year Dec. 11 the tribe makes a pilgrimage to the top of the Tortugas Mountain. The pilgrimage is made as an homage to the Virgin of Guadalupe. The walking sticks are picked up by participants the night before the pilgrimage at the front steps of their local church, the starting point of the pilgrimage. Each participant must ensure that their walking stick touches the floor of the church because it is important that the stick accompany the participant throughout the entire journey.
After the journey, participants are asked to either burn their sticks or throw their sticks in the river. Parra said it is important to give back to the land when something has been taken from it, whenever possible. However, many have brought the sotol stalks into their homes or use them to adorn the outside of their homes.
“It’s sturdy and it’s traditional. The sticks are proof they were on the mountain,” Fierro said.
He said the walking stick serves as a symbol of Juan Diego’s story of the cloak filled with roses.
According to the catholic.org website, Diego was able to prove to the Spanish bishop that the Virgin of Guadalupe was truly prophesizing to him because she led him to a field of Castilian roses, which were not in season at the time.
Diego picked the roses, carried them in his cloak and presented them to the bishop. When he opened his cloak the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared on it. The cloak is still on display in the Basilica that was built for the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City.
A documentary was made about the cloak called, “El Secreto de Sus Hojos,” translated to the secret in her eyes, where two doctors claim to see a vivid image inside of the virgin’s eyes when amplified 2,500 times.
“This is our cloak. We bring it as proof that we endured the entire pilgrimage,” Fierro said of the sotol stalks.
Each member adorns their walking stick however they see fit. Parra said the stick should be adorned with only items you can find in the land but as times have progressed members have adorned their stick with masking tape and wire to hold everything together. The decorations usually entail the branches of the sotol plant known to many as the “desert spoon,” because of its resemblance to a ladle when cut from the base. Many participants carve out images on the “spoon” part of the plant and use it to adorn their sticks.
The tribe is hoping to collect a couple of bases of the sotol plant to be used for their Palm Sunday festivities in April.
Each branch from the base of the plant is separated from the base and is distributed to at least 600 church attendees.
After harvesting their sotol stalks, the tribe members who helped harvest came together to adorn a sotol stalk and erected it with rocks to bless the surrounding WSMR land.
“We believe in leaving something from what we take,” Fierro said.
For more information about the annual pilgrimage visit the tribe’s Facebook page at Tortugas Pueblo- Los Indigenes de la Senora de Guadalupe.