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Peyote Man (copy)

Beatien Yazz's "Peyote Man" (1960) reflects the role peyote plays in Navajo spirituality. Photo courtesy of the Museum of Northern Arizona, Image ID: C1058

 

Lights came on to reveal bodies seated at desks, leaning on walls, crowded cross-legged at the feet of the speaker. Wherever they found a sliver of space, attendees of the 2019 Arizona Psychedelics Conference were piled into the lecture hall.

Having just educated the audience about his clinic’s cannabis-based method of trauma therapy, the presenting psychotherapist went on to advertise clinical training programs, available at the price of $1,433 a month for three months.

A Navajo man raised his hand, its brown color pronounced in a room crowded by mostly middle-class white people.

“You’ve attached your ego to it. The plants do the work, not you, not your training. They don’t need your help to heal,” he said.

The presenter waffled unconvincingly, then moved on to another commenter, a young white woman who offered shallow praise and swept the conversation away from the criticism. Meanwhile, the Navajo man moved to exit.

Later in the hallway, he expanded upon his thoughts.

“It's good for people to start, from a medical standpoint, incorporating natural-based medicines, plant medicines, into treatment,” he said, calm yet frustrated. “But when we get into where professionals begin to claim that [the healing] is because of them, then they’re starting to get into the controlling of the medicine.”

He considered his speech a moment, then continued. “They can take that to a whole different level of trying to analyze and get into the scientific nature of the spirit of the medicine, and the medicine isn’t for that.”

The medicine isn’t for that.

This man’s words reveal a distinct perspective on psychedelics. Distinct from the impartial politics of recreational users, distinct from the medical practitioners whose banners wave for more science, more control. This was a perspective of defense, of protection. Not protection for people, but for the plants themselves—the medicine. “Don’t try to control, don’t try to understand,” this perspective says. “The medicine isn’t for that.”

Peyote: A brief history

The woodlands of Europe grow psilocybin mushrooms. The jungles of the Amazon boast the Banisteriopsis vines of ayahuasca. Here in the deserts of the southwestern United States, we have cacti.

One species, Echinopsis pachanoi, was native to Peru but brought to the U.S. as ornamentation for dry-climate gardens. Commonly known as San Pedro cactus, it was so named for the Christian Saint Peter. Saint Peter the Christian holds the keys to heaven. San Pedro the cactus holds mescaline, a powerfully psychoactive alkaloid.

But there is another, more indigenous source of mescaline in the Southwest. Lophophora williamsii—most commonly known as peyote. Native to the Chihuahuan Desert, peyote grows mostly in Mexico and southwestern Texas, but may be found all along the borderlands of the southwestern U.S.

Because it contains mescaline, peyote induces a powerful hallucinogenic effect when chewed or boiled into a tea. Peyote also contains the alkaloid hordenine, which gives peyote extracts strong antibacterial properties.

Historically, these properties have been used to treat toothache, fever, rheumatism, the pain of childbirth and more. A 2005 study involving the radiocarbon dating of harvested peyote buttons found at the Shulma Caves archaeological site in Texas suggested that native North Americans have been using peyote for its psychoactive and curative properties for close to 6,000 years. Despite this long legacy of use, U.S. law considers peyote a Schedule I narcotic, citing “no known acceptable medical use,” in its classification.

Such willful ignorance (or deceit) on behalf of the law may have something to do with a man named Quanah Parker and the religious movement now known as the Native American Church.

The Native American Church

Parker was a Comanche chief living around the turn of the 19th century. While visiting family in south Texas, Parker was gored to near-death by an errant bull. In the clutches of mortal fever, he was revived by a Mexican curandera, who treated Parker with peyote tea.

In the wake of his salvation, Parker became an ambassador of the peyote religion. A tradition once held singly by the indigenous people of Mexico, such as the Huichol, Parker’s advocacy brought peyote religion north to the U.S., where it thrived among many tribes such as the Comanche, the Kiowa, the Ute and the Navajo.

It was precisely this popularity that made peyote a target for the U.S. government. Seeking to suppress all aspects of native culture, especially those that had cross-tribal appeal, U.S. authorities banned peyote religion alongside ceremonies such as the Ghost Dance, which were deemed dangerous for their ability to unite Native Americans.

The de facto penalty for practicing religion against these bans was death, often by massacre, as was the case at Wounded Knee, where around 300 Lakota, mostly women and children, were slaughtered by the U.S. Army for gathering in association with the Ghost Dance. Peyote’s current classification as a Schedule I narcotic can be understood as a direct continuation of these genocidal policies.

Nonetheless, even in the face of persecution, Parker’s influence, and the popularity of peyote religion could not be undone. Around 1890, the widespread followers of peyote religion organized into the Native American Church (NAC).

Contemporary peyote use among Native Americans is almost entirely under the auspices of the NAC. Formed in the late 19th century as a syncretic mingling of indigenous peyote religions and Christianity, the NAC is now the largest religious organization of Native Americans across the U.S., Canada and Mexico with recent polls numbering membership around 250,000. 

Under the protection of the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act, members of the NAC won the exclusive federal right to possess, transport and use peyote as sacrament for religious purposes. State law in Arizona is a bit trickier on the subject.

According to Arizona Laws 13-3402, it’s a felony to have or sell peyote, but you can defend your possession if you can demonstrate legitimate religious use.

In some respects, this means that peyote is functionally decriminalized in Arizona, as you’re not likely to be pursued by law enforcement for its use. Other areas of the country are catching up, finding their own paths to decriminalization.

Decriminalization

In June, following Denver’s decriminalization of psilocybin a month earlier, Oakland City Council voted unanimously to decriminalize psilocybin and all “entheogenic plants,” that is, psychoactive plants used in pursuit of spiritual or religious experience. Peyote falls easily into this category.

Reasoning in support of these votes includes increased potential for medical research, increased access to the spiritual benefits of plant medicines, and decreased spending on law enforcement of drug policies deemed misguided.

But some peyote users are not celebrating these legislative changes.

Pauline Butler, an NAC member, teaches Navajo language and culture as well as indigenous culinary skills at the Star School near Leupp, and she traces her peyote practice to her grandfather.

“He was one of the first men to introduce peyote to the Navajo,” she says. “He was actually working as a coal miner out in the Four Corners area. He could speak English, so they would send him to these trainings, and he met some people down in the mescalero Apache tribes. They introduced [peyote] to him.”

Since that time, Butler’s family has embraced peyote ceremony as an integral part of their spiritual lives.

“I start imaging the affinity I have with the plants that I gather, my affinity with the animals I interact with,” Butler says. “I start having an appreciative thought process toward my family.”

Despite praising the role peyote has played in her own life, Butler hopes that peyote remains illegal to the masses for fear of its misuse.

Misuse: Irreverent use

To Butler, the recreational use of peyote, likely to increase with decriminalization, threatens the sanctity of the plant.

“This is a sacred plant,” she says. “We call it nihi má azeé, which means our mother’s medicine… it is disrespectful when you’re using it for your own personal high.”

Butler even dissuades casual curiosity, saying that without a commitment to the practice and the spiritual community, such exploration “is something that you’ve got to follow faithfully the rest of your life.”

This preferment to commitment comes in part from the ways her community has been exploited in the past. Sometimes, she says, curiosity even leads people to invade private spaces for their own gain.

“This person invited himself into a teepee and sat there,” Butler recalls of one such invader. “We’re not going to chase him out, but his reason was, ‘Well, I just wanted to experience peyote.’” As the group proceeded with their prayers and songs, their hospitality to curiosity was repaid with unnerving, alienating tension. “He was looking at us like we were monkeys in cages.”

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Peyote’s sacredness comes from its ability to directly engender divine experience, Butler says, believing that a spirituality based in peyote gives one an immediate means of healing oneself.

“It’s a medicine that was given to us by mother nature,” she says. “It allows us to let our thoughts scatter and to come back together to us in meditation process, without having to have someone stand in front of us and read something out of a book made by man. This allows us to come to our own conclusions, or own peace, our own harmony. That’s why it’s considered sacred. It allows us to find our own answers within ourselves instead of being preached to about right and wrong.”

Parker likely would have agreed with Butler’s assessment of personal contact with the divine. Of peyote ceremony, he was famously quoted as saying, “The White Man goes into his church house and talks about Jesus, but the Indian goes into his tipi and talks to Jesus.”

However, Butler believes, somewhat paradoxically, that ceremony and individual meditation is something “you cannot learn without having some kind of guide.”

Juliana Williams, the Tribal Overdose Prevention Coordinator for Sonoran Prevention Works, has also served as a psychedelic harm reduction counselor and agrees with the need for guidance in psychedelic experience. “It’s too hard to go through experiences without any kind of guidance or anybody holding space for you and helping you process it,” Williams suggests. In part, this is because psychedelics can precipitate extremely uncomfortable psychic experiences.

“Any kind of use can be problematic,” Williams says. “Even if you go into it with good intentions, you only have so much control over set and setting… And if you have some stuff that you’ve been repressing, that’s going come out whether you want it to or not.”

To Williams, it is the presence and acceptance of discomfort that distinguishes responsible use from unhealthy “anesthetic” use.

“The difference between anesthetizing yourself and you using something as a medicine,” Williams explains, “is that when you’re anesthetizing yourself, you’re trying to get away from discomfort. When you’re using something as a medicine, you’re moving toward that discomfort.”

Blanket decriminalization of psychedelics, while a seemingly positive first step away from punitive drug policing, does little to address concerns of the cultural need for respectful use and guidance. In the specific case of peyote, it does even less to address sustainable practices.

Misuse: Unsustainable use

In 2007, NPR reported on “drug tourism” depleting peyote, and consequently the local economy, in Real de Catorce, Mexico, noting that “it takes 10 years to 15 years for peyote to regenerate.” In 2010, CBS reported that peyote distribution in south Texas—a legal venture when licensed for sale to the NAC—sold 1.5 million buttons in 2009, down from 2.3 million in the mid-‘90s, also observing that “harvesters once routinely uncovered 100- to 150-year-old plants but now usually settle for cacti that are less than five years old.” In the case of peyote, decriminalization of psychedelics, and the likely uptick in consumption that follows, could put further pressure on an already struggling supply.

Because peyote religion has traditionally been the heritage of indigenous North Americans, there are some who qualify the limited supply as reason to oppose peyote consumption by any non-native persons.

W. Michaels, a recreational psychedelics user interviewed previously in part two of The Mind’s Horizon, says flat out, “If you’re not an indigenous person, don’t take peyote. Don’t seek it out, don’t try to get it, leave it alone…the growth to usage ratio for peyote is completely unsustainable for modern demand.”

However, some believe that the NAC’s unique right to possess peyote is unfairly restricted by race, as native status is a requirement for NAC membership. Immanuel Trujillo, once a member of the NAC, left in 1966 to form the Peyote Way Church of God, a religious organization that did not require native status. In 1980, the Peyote Way Church of God sued for the right to use peyote, citing the same legislation on religious freedom that enabled the NAC.

Though unsuccessful at winning similar federal protections, the Peyote Way Church of God continues to practice in Arizona, taking advantage of the “religious use” caveat in Arizona law.

Though it stands to reason that decriminalization, while increasing demand for peyote may also open the field to cultivation practices that could balance the ratio of supply to demand, Butler believes that such a trade-off would be a disrespect to peyote, saying that the act of commercial farming “would completely destroy the validity and the sanctity of the plant itself, because it’s grown out there in the wild.”

Said another way, commercialism contaminates the sacrament. “It is not something that we’re paying into, we don’t pay an offering,” Butler says. “We don’t put any kind of monetary value on it.”

Ultimately, the broader cultural question here is gatekeeping. Specifically, who gets to keep the gate?

Though the exploration in this installment has been mostly specific to peyote, it’s important to recognize how psychedelics in general intersect medical, recreational and spiritual communities in the same way as peyote. Whether psilocybin, cannabis, ayahuasca or even synthetics like LSD, as psychedelics become more mainstream, they will have to find space within notions of sacredness, ambitions of commercialism and the limits of sustainability.

The coming age of psychedelics is upon us. Within this narrow era we are afforded the opportunity to structure our culture for the effective management of these powerful medicines. Watch your step, and keep an eye to the horizon.

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