María Cristina Moroles lights her rollup and takes slow, thoughtful drags.
“Tobacco is a sacred herb, you know,” she says. “Smoked by Native Americans for thousands of years.”
Her long white hair is swept back into a practical ponytail. A red cotton rebozo circles her forehead, a centuries-old symbol of her role as a women’s caregiver.
Like most curanderas (healers), Moroles roots her work in Indigenous knowledge from across Mexico and the Southwestern United States, although the term curandera is used elsewhere across Latin America as well.
Traditionally, curanderas inherit and share healing knowledge specific to the land where they live and work. Moroles, however, has dedicated her life to creating healing space for Indigenous women who have been displaced from their lands across the Americas. She also welcomes non-Indigenous women of color and queer people. Because of this, she explains, she feels called to travel to gather healing knowledge.
“I try to preserve that knowledge and use that for my community.”
Moroles is Mexican and Coahuilteca, an Indigenous group whose lands span modern-day Texas and the Mexican states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo León, and Coahuila. Her mother, María Bautista Moroles, was born in the borderlands. Her father, José Elizondo Moroles, was born in Nuevo León. At an early age, Moroles and her family moved from Corpus Christi, Texas, to Dallas, where she spent most of her childhood. At home, Moroles’s parents continued to honor their cultural practices.
“We ate very traditional foods. Handmade corn tortillas, beans and rice, and squash were basic to our diet, and we also ate lots of fruit, foraged pecans, hunted meats, and caught fish.”
These foodways constituted Moroles’s most foundational lessons in healing: “When you are taught from the beginning the original ways of eating off the land, eating traditional foods, making the best out of everything you have, and taking care of everything you have, you are actually taught respect for yourself, others, and Mother Earth in all her abundance.”
However, outside her home, Moroles struggled through school days marked by the racism and physical abuse of white teachers who forbade her to speak Spanish. Her mother once told her that she “sent an angel to school and got back a little devil.” Moroles explains, “I was angered by the injustices I faced every day in school: don’t talk, sit still, piss in your pants if you need to because you can’t ask to go to the bathroom in English.”
She watched her parents being poisoned by the negligent agricultural companies they worked for. Her mother picked cotton all through her first three pregnancies and was exposed to toxic pesticides that would affect her health and the health of her children (including Moroles) for the rest of their lives.
These early experiences wounded and angered Moroles profoundly. By contrast, she found that the Indigenous lifeways taught by her parents and grandparents provided not only solace but spiritual, mental, and physical healing.
At eighteen, Moroles gave birth to her first child—a daughter, Jenny—in Dallas. Soon after, she began having visions of a mountain, visions that she pinpoints as her calling to leave Dallas and become a healer.
“It was born of a vision and a dream that kept coming to me over and over: of standing on a mountain and looking down toward the city that was in war… I knew that I was supposed to go to that mountain.”
To Moroles, the war in her vision clearly represented real forms of violence she had experienced in Dallas. Calmly, but with an edge to her voice, she says, “I had my little girl… and I was determined to protect her and myself from further atrocities.” Armed with little more than a mother’s ferocity, she left to find the mountain sanctuary of her dreams. The journey would not be easy.
Sacred Land and Santuario Arco Iris
Moroles had only heard stories about the Ozark Mountains that lay six hours northeast of her home in Dallas. Today she speaks of the great diversity of plants, both medicinal and edible, that have flourished in these mountains for millennia. Her intuition and recurring vision pulled her toward the ancient range. In 1976, she set out north knowing her mountain was among them.
On an Ozark bluff overlooking the Buffalo River, outside of Ponca, Arkansas, her vision took physical form. “When I got here, I knew that this was the mountain, and I was led to it.”
That mountain range is part of the ancestral lands stewarded and held sacred by the Osage, Caddo, Quapaw, and some Očhéthi Šakówiŋ peoples. In the nineteenth century, as intensifying forced migrations and government-sanctioned genocide pushed Indigenous people out of their lands on the East Coast, the Ozarks became home to communities of Cherokee, Delaware, and Shawnee people too.
“The Trail of Tears passed through Northern Arkansas,” Moroles says. “Thousands of Indigenous people walked in a death march to the twice-stolen land of Oklahoma through the hills that we live in here.”
She explains that although access to some lands today is limited, the incredible biodiversity of the forests allows many Indigenous peoples to gather sacred and medicinal plants. Just last year, the Cherokee Nation successfully petitioned the National Park Service for rights to gather specific culturally significant plants along the Buffalo River in the Ozarks. Moroles sees this as a small step toward reparations, though she believes it is woefully insufficient.
At the time of Moroles’s arrival, the mountain was inhabited by Sassafras, a predominantly white lesbian land collective. In 1976, she began squatting on the other side of the creek from the Sassafras community and worked to persuade other members of the need for land for Indigenous people. Two years later, Sassafras deeded her an acreage of undeveloped wilderness—completely off grid and inaccessible by road—to begin a community for women and children of color.
Though it would later be known as Santuario Arco Iris (Rainbow Sanctuary), this nascent community was originally called the Rainbow Women of Color Survival Camp. Mothers and children and other inhabitants lived in tents and makeshift structures. Moroles explains, “This land has always been a refuge, a sanctuary. We were women who had no place—no place to grow, no place that was safe. We needed space to reclaim our Indigenous identities and learn to love ourselves again in a safe space away from interference—a place of our own, where we could grow as we saw fit. We were trying to find ourselves again, because everything else had been stripped away.”
For Moroles, “Indigenous” includes many people who identify as Latine (or Latino/Latina/Latinx)—a term she acknowledges is complicated because it “obscures our heritage as the original peoples of these lands. Many Latinos are displaced Indigenous people or descendants of Indigenous people.”
Moroles also identifies as Two Spirit, a non-binary gender identification or sexual orientation recognized and respected in many Indigenous cultures. Making the sanctuary a place for other Two Spirit and queer people was as much a priority for Moroles as making it for Indigenous people and women of color.
From the very beginning, it was clear to Moroles: the sanctuary must be a place of healing, of the mind, the spirit, the body, and the earth.
Despite her hope for safety , the early residents were ostracized by the surrounding predominantly white community. “We were in danger for a long, long time of being run off from here, or disposed of in one way or another. It’s been a long, long journey.” The tension lasted for years.
Moroles says things have dramatically improved since the birth of her son Mario in 1988 and the opening of her curandera clinic in the 1990s. Today, she cares for all people seeking healing, including white families, some of whom she has accepted to participate in healing and conservation programs.
The community of Indigenous and Latine people in Northwest Arkansas has grown significantly since Moroles first arrived. Many fled violence and economic insecurity resulting from U.S. imperialism and were forced to seek precarious employment in Arkansas’s many new factory industries. Moroles believes that many of these people stayed in the Ozarks in part because they too sensed the healing power of the land.
In 1993, she was approached by a Latina community organizer who told her, “People are really asking for a curandera, and there is none.” The unspoken question was clear: will you do it?
Moroles had already studied psychic healing with Tejano entrepreneur José Silva and massage therapy with Indian massage healer, spiritualist, and yogi Ranjana Pallana. More importantly, she explains that she had “gathered teachings from my great-grandmother, a spiritual healer; my mother, who was a vidente [a seer]; and my father, who passed on traditional indigenous practices regarding sustainable healing.” So began her journey to become a curandera for her growing community, gathering ancestral healing knowledge from other Indigenous communities—and required licensing along the way.
Healing Arts: Plants and Animals
There are many streams of knowledge within curanderismo. Moroles is now considered a curandera total, “a master in many arts of healing.” She explains that some curanderas are primarily sobadoras, massage healers. Others are hueseras who perform chiropractic alignments. And some dedicate their lives to the sacred role of partera, midwife. Still other curanderas serve as chamanes, shamans, and practice ceremonial healing. These are just a few of the practices she has studied with teachers across Indigenous and First Nations communities in North America.
Gathering plants for medicines is as fundamental to curanderismo practice as praying. She says prayers in thanks to the land and the plants every time she gathers medicine. “You have to be mindful, conscious, awake. I teach that all life is sacred, even a plant.” She has dedicated the past fifty years to learning from the land she stewards. But she also strives to learn about native plants and their medicinal uses in other places. When she travels to another Indigenous Nation’s land, she first brings ofrendas (offerings) to the stewards of those lands and then approaches their leaders and healers to request permission to study and gather plants.
In the mid-1980s, Moroles traveled to stand in solidarity against the Big Mountain forced relocation, where she met Diné elders Effie and Louise Yazzie. During the six months she protested alongside the Yazzies, they taught her peyote ceremony and adopted Moroles and her daughter Jenny as granddaughters and members of the Naakai Clan. Their teachings would fuel Moroles’s work on both a practical and an ideological level. “They taught me as matriarchs leading a resistance against relocation of their community,” she explains. This form of resistance and reclamation of self and land, grounded in a belief in the divine power of women, provides a critical foundation for the healing Moroles strives for in her Ozark community.
Curandera Julieta Perieda taught Moroles the Mexican hongo (mushroom) ceremony. Bolivian shaman Froilan taught her the mesa (table) ceremony. Last year she spent a month with the Comca’ac community in Sonora, Mexico, who have long practiced a ceremony using sapo (toad) medicine. The sapo medicine is used in ceremony to heal “not only you but your future generations and the generations that were behind us.”
Curandera and nurse Elena Avila, Oaxacan curandera Enriqueta Contreras, and curandera and shaman Velia Herrera Arredondo are among the many other teachers who have shared their healing practices and plant knowledge with Moroles.
Healing Arts: Lodges
At Santuario Arco Iris, Moroles and her community practice the healing temazcal ceremony. Temazcales provide a sacred space to cleanse the body and spirit using heat, sometimes with humidity and herbs. Participants typically sit in a circle around fire-heated lava rocks. “We use lava rocks to heat the lodge, and we consider them our ancestors,” Moroles explains. “[They originate] from fire and earth, two important elements.”
Temazcales originated in Mexico prior to colonization. Similar lodges using heat to heal are practiced by Indigenous peoples across the Americas. The term “sweat lodges” was coined by white people to describe these practices. They vary greatly in shape and material, and the temazcal at Santuario Arco Iris is made of wood and lava rock, covered with a layer of concrete for preservation purposes.
Water, sometimes infused with medicinal flowers and herbs, is then poured over the lava rocks to create steam and encourage sweating. A temazcalero, or temazcal firekeeper and ceremonial guide, may lead participants through a series of movements or prayers.
“Originally I learned the Muscogee Creek inípi from Phillip and Hokte Deere in Oklahoma back in the 1970s,” Moroles acknowledges. Inípi is a sacred Lakota lodge ceremony, but the term has been borrowed by other Native nations like the Muscogee Creek to describe their own lodges. Moroles then learned the temazcal tradition in Oaxaca, Mexico. “Our ceremony consists of opening prayers prior to entering, four rounds of prayers or ceremonial songs inside the lodge that are done by all participants, and a special herbal tea is prepared for the lodge to pour over the ancestors and for drinking.” Like all aspects of her healing, prayer is a central component of the temazcal ceremony.
Moroles serves as the temazcalera of the women’s temazcal at the sanctuary, and her son, Mario, serves as temazcalero of the men’s. In the past, they performed ceremonies once per season, but now they perform them as needed for the community. Moroles has traveled to California, Wyoming, and across the Southwest to share her knowledge of temazcales.
Healing Arts: Baños espirituales
At the 2023 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, Moroles was invited to share another of her healing practices: baños espirituales, spiritual baths or cleanses, often referred to simply as baños. Moroles explains that the baños are used to help heal people struggling with trauma. They can also be performed in times of transition or grief. On several occasions, she has traveled to someone’s home to perform a baño after the loss of a child or other loved one. In these cases, she will also perform a limpia, a spiritual cleanse, which includes smudging family members and the home of the deceased with sage, cedar, or copal.
The baño ceremony draws power from multiple elements, including water, sunlight, moonlight, and starlight. Water used for the ceremony is often infused with flowers and herbs according to the participant’s healing needs. Plants like rose, sage, and rue are common. Moroles infuses her baño water in a crystal medicine wheel at the sanctuary, where it soaks in the light of the sun and the moon.
In private sessions at the Festival, baño participants shed their clothing and wrapped themselves in crisp white sheets. They gathered in a semi circle around Moroles as she handed them each a cempasúchil (cempohualxochitl in Nahuatl, marigold in English).
She infused the water for these participants with cempasúchiles, along with roses and lavender. The marigolds soothe the heart and reunite the spirit and body. The roses soothe the skin and bring love and comfort to heal trauma. The lavender calms nerves and encourages sleep and healing dreams.
In each of the sessions, Moroles and her assistants, Artemis Diaz and Elise Ashworth, first demonstrated a baño on a participant. Then participants soaked their hands in the healing floral water and read a prayer Moroles provided together. Each participant performed a baño on their partner, as Moroles offered guidance. When finished, they changed back into fresh clothes to honor their new cleansed selves.
Teaching and Learning in Community
As part of her learning, Moroles has gathered a community of spiritual advisors and friends who have nurtured her work. Among her teachers are the late Chief Lewis Farmer (Onondaga), the late Chief Leon Shenandoah (Onondaga, leader of the Iroquois Confederacy), the late George Kingfisher (Cherokee Nation), the late Janet McCloud (Tulalip Tribes of Washington), and Señora Arco Iris Cobb (Azteca).
She, in turn, actively seeks to teach others, to preserve practices for future generations. Every year she welcomes a handful of short-term trainees to the sanctuary to learn about plant gathering and herbalism, for example, which they can then take back to their own communities. She has also accepted a smaller number of apprentices, who sometimes stay to train with her for longer periods of time.
“I was told by a medicine person a long time ago that it can take seven lifetimes to be proficient in all the medicines in your area.”
She continues to nurture her own curiosity and learn from other practitioners and places. “We will continue to learn until we are dead. We learn from our challenges and accomplishments. One of my biggest teachers is the Earth in all of her manifestations.”
A Healing Future
Back home at Santuario Arco Iris, there is still much work ahead. Moroles feels that “there is a spiritual destiny of Indigenous people to return to the Ozarks.” She believes returning the land to its ancestral stewards is important.
“Many of the tribes that called the Ozarks their home were subjected to forced removal and genocide hundreds of years before I got here,” Moroles grieves. She says, “I am part of the movement to bring Indigenous people and Indigenous ancestral knowledge back to the Ozarks,” and she hopes her community can play a part in the process of rematriation going forward.
Fortunately, she won’t be doing that work alone. Moroles’s children carry on their mother’s work as spiritual leaders and stewards. “Practicing curanderismo started for myself and my child, to protect us,” she says, but the vision has become so much more than that.
Jenny, who came to the land at age five and grew up at Santuario Arco Iris, has been a long-term volunteer and board member of Arco Iris Earth Care Project, the nonprofit organization that Moroles co-founded in 1986. The project stewards the 400-acre Wild Magnolia Land Trust according to traditional ecological knowledge and seeks to help the community connect with Mother Earth.
Mario, who was born on the mountain, now works for the nonprofit to protect and educate people about the Wild Magnolia Land Trust as a wilderness ranger. He is also a ceremonial leader and firekeeper.
The sanctuary also opens its doors to students who are eager to learn and have the right heart and mindset. “I feel like they are the bridge. Our young people are our future, so we do need those bridges, so that we can move forward,” Moroles says.
A global community is reviving curanderismo, as they hunger for Indigenous healing practices in the face of isolation, violence, and climate crisis. Every year, healers publish new books on curanderismo practices, and Instagram is overflowing with healers eager to share their knowledge. In communities and households across Mexico and the Mexican diaspora, women and medicine people hand down ancestral healing knowledge in everyday moments. Moroles is part of this vast network of knowledge, and she is protecting one ancient haven of healing for future generations.
At age seventy, Moroles has dreams of retiring and taking off her rebozo. But, she says, “you never retire until you actually, I think, die, in these positions, or are unable to fulfill your responsibilities.” To the people of the surrounding Ozark communities, Moroles will always be doctora.
Brianna Melgar is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a youth librarian. She believes in the power of stories, to teach, connect, and heal. She would like to thank Sasha Daucus for contributing interview content used in this article.
María Cristina Moroles’s memoir, Águila: The Vision, Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Two-Spirit Shaman in the Ozark Mountains, is scheduled to be released in February 2024.