Can Indigenous and Decrim Perspectives Align on Peyote?
For Dawn Davis, a Shoshone PhD candidate at the University of Idaho and Indigenous researcher, peyote (Lophophora williamsii), the mescaline-containing cactus used for centuries by Indigenous North Americans as ceremonial medicine, is more than a subject of study – it’s a way of life. And the fight to protect the plant’s shrinking numbers is a fight to protect practices that date back thousands of years in her culture.
“I’m a peyote researcher and also a peyotist,” she says, referring to the intertribal Native American religious practice in which congregants use peyote as a sacrament. “I have two primary medicines: water is first and peyote is second. It’s not just a medicine to me, but is also my relative, my ancestor. When I was a young girl taking medicine, the plants I was ingesting were plants much older than myself. That relationship is very important.”
Now, she says, peyote is on the brink of extinction, and numbers of poachers are on the rise. “We are trying to deter people from poaching by helping them to understand the impacts that this kind of activity will have on the plant populations and the Indigenous cultures that have had direct relationships for thousands of years,” she explains.
Davis is one of several members of the National Council of Native American Churches (NCNAC) and the Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative (IPCI) engaged in a debate that has emerged between Indigenous groups and the decriminalization community about the use and conservation of psychedelic plant medicines, specifically peyote.
A veritable psychedelic renaissance has brought substances that were long taboo (and still federally illegal), back into the limelight in non-indigenous circles, as their medical and therapeutic benefits have been increasingly documented. Meanwhile, Indigenous communities and their allies are trying to protect both the dwindling populations of plants they hold sacred and Indigenous cultural practices that have been oppressed for centuries.
In response to the growing effort to decriminalize plant medicines and its potential impacts on Indigenous plants and cultural practices, the NCNAC and IPCI published an official statement on March 12 asking that “decriminalization efforts not mention peyote explicitly in any list of plants and fungi.”
The statement cites the critically endangered status of the peyote cactus plant, caused by black market poaching, environmental, and ecological reasons, and notes the long span of years when peyote ceremonies were illegal in several states where peyotism was practiced. Until the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978, which was amended in 1994, native peoples’ ancient ceremonies were suppressed across the U.S.
Currently, members of federally recognized tribes are the only people in the U.S. for whom peyote is legal. It currently remains illegal to acquire, possess, use or transport for everyone else in the country.
The authors express concern that the decriminalization of peyote could lead to a “false sense of legality” for non-Indigenous people. They write:
“To the extent the ‘Decrim’ movement sends a message to local citizens that peyote is ‘legal,’ the collateral and unintended effort could be to increase interest in non-native persons either going to Texas to purchase peyote or to buy it from a local dealer who has acquired it illegally and unsustainably in Texas … compromis[ing] the decades long work on the part of Native American peyote spiritual leaders and allies.”
And, they write, decriminalization could cause further depletion of the peyote population that remains in the U.S., which only grows in a small area of southern Texas.
The statement came in response to a growing decriminalization movement that has ignited debate over peyote and other naturally-occurring psychedelics. Spearheaded in part by Decriminalize Nature (DN), a collection of organizations and individuals in support of decriminalization have worked in cities around the country and world to change official policies around plant medicines.
The Oakland, California-based board of DN issued a statement on peyote in April, “Peyotl’s Call for Unity.” (The authors of the statement spell used the Aztec name for peyote, “peyotl.”)
DN’s board suggests in their statement that widening access to peyote would increase conservation and protection across what they term “the Pan-American peyotl universe” by allowing legal cultivation of peyote outside of traditional sites, thereby fueling more research into peyote propagation to help ensure its survival. DN also argues that legal growth will deter black market sales and enable Indigenous people from outside the U.S. – including 40 Indigenous groups in Mexico – to use peyote legally inside of the U.S.
As global communities become increasingly interested in Indigenous traditions and medicines, Sandor Iron Rope, former President of the Native American Church, current president of the Native American Council of South Dakota, and member of the Oglala Lakota Oyate (Oglala Sioux Tribe), says the conversation has largely excluded Indigenous leadership.
Iron Rope points out that, though their intentions might have been good, DN did no outreach to Indigenous communities before they began to advance their decriminalization agenda across the U.S.
“We were not included in the initial stages of the Decrim movement,” he says. “As Indigenous practitioners and leaders of these various spiritual bodies deemed the NAC, when we found out this was going on we were blown away, and realized that this could affect our supply and demand and our whole connection to peyote. They didn’t even think about initially contacting Indigenous leaders.”
Iron Rope says that the fast pace of decriminalization and the overwhelming interest in peyote could interrupt a slower, but vital, process of healing now taking place within Indigenous communities as they develop new conservation strategies and conserve their way of life. The first peyote harvests on IPCI and partner land took place just last year, as children reconnected with the practice of harvesting medicine behind eight locked gates.
The conservation timeline
Research into peyote conservation began in 2013, when the NCNAC commissioned the multi-part Peyote Research Project. Its first phase documented the decline of peyote populations, and the second phase (which remains ongoing) identified conservation strategies, including “securing sovereign land” for peyote habitats and working with private landowners to negotiate space for growing, conserving and harvesting peyote. Peyote policy was mostly created and enforced by state regulatory bodies, including the Texas Department of Public Safety, which employed peyoteros (licensed peyote distributors), many of whom were Hispanic or Texan landowners, to harvest and deliver peyote from mostly privately-owned land to NAC members.
In 2017, the NCNAC purchased 605 acres of peyote gardens in south Texas, known as the 605, with help from the Riverstyx Foundation. In November of that year, the IPCI was launched. It obtained 501c(3) status in 2018. In 2019, families of NCNAC members and the Azee Bee Nahgha Dine Nation performed the first peyote harvest on the 605.
According to representatives from the NCNAC, the first talks with DN began last year, after DN launched in February, 2019. The initial meeting with leadership was productive, according to Miriam Volat, director of the IPCI and co-director of the RiverStyx Foundation. And then, she says, things shifted.
“They agreed to support the removal of the word ‘peyote’ from their language, and also agreed to support us in framing some of the information we shared about conservation, but that agreement wasn’t followed through on,” she said, in reference to the images of peyote on DN’s promotional materials and logo.
“The spirit of the discussion we had wasn’t taken in by them. They decided to go ahead with their own education, which had a different agenda than listening to the conservation message that might have come from peyote people.”
Carlos Plazola, Chairman of DN’s board, says he agrees with the NAC’s wish to ensure peyote is protected for Indigenous people.
“We are encouraging all DN members and psychedelic practitioners to leave the peyote in the U.S. for the Native American Church and its practitioners and their individual communities, because it’s threatened,” he says. “The numbers of peyote cacti are small, and there are other means of getting mescaline. There is no need to go in and get peyote from the Peyote Gardens.”
In its current iteration, the DN statement does not explicitly say this, but does say that DN advocates for the protection of “peyotl traditions … specific to each tribe or church, practices that must not be appropriated, copied, encroached upon or undermined by uninvited outsiders.”
Plazola says decriminalization is “a local effort to reduce the priority of enforcement against plant medicine use in cities.”
“That just means that the police department and prosecutors in any given city will make it their lowest priority and defund enforcement, creating a local bubble of protection” he explains. However, he adds that “on an ethical level, people just shouldn’t pillage peyote,” although, he says, people have done so “before anyone was talking about decriminalization.”
Plazola also recalls the meetings last year with members of the NAC.
“In August and September of 2019, two months after we passed our local Oakland resolution, we were in contact with leadership of the NAC,” he says.
“Since then we’ve continued to advocate that all of our local groups and anyone passing any state or local legislation remove the words from their resolutions and legislations. We also pledged to work together on education and conservation efforts with the NAC. We’ve not heard much from them until recently, when they expressed concern. We stand ready and willing to support them in their efforts to conserve and preserve peyote, and to keep illegal harvesting of peyote down and keep people from seeing DN as an opportunity to use peyote. We see the NAC as our allies.”
Plazola says he traces two threads in conversations with Indigenous groups about peyote. One is in favor of education around the plant, which he says he hears more from the Huichol community in central Mexico, where agribusiness is threatening peyote’s habitat. Another, he says, “diminishes awareness about the existence of peyote.” He says he sees the latter argument more often in the U.S.
“Those are the two primary camps: to get information out, and to keep it under the radar. I think for us, in all cases related to nature and natural plants, our preference is to talk about it and motivate the masses towards conservation and reverence.”
He says DN will continue to advise their local chapters keep the word “peyote” out of their resolutions and to encourage conservation, which he says he believes honors the NCNAC’s wishes in their conversation (note: the organization used the Aztec name of the plant, “peyotl,” in their statement, which Plazola says was “not an attempt to be snarky,” but to honor “the Aztec empire and its subjugation.”) DN’s website and logo do feature a peyote button, which Plazola has said they will not remove until conversations with NAC leadership. While peyote is not mentioned on the site, “cacti” are listed among the entheogens the group seeks to decriminalize, accompanied by an illustration of peyote and links to external research on peyote.
“We’d love to work with the NAC to support their efforts to have greater amounts of peyote for their communities in their own garden reserves,” he says. “We’d love to work with them on conservation and preservation measures, in the world of conservation biology education and through a concerted effort to preserve and conserve specific endangered species. We await their information to share with our group.”
A cooperative Indigenous initiative
The authors of the NAC statement, as representatives of their communities, have expressed that their ultimate goal is not to partner with DN, but rather to lead their own education and initiatives.
“Currently, we’re not looking to DN in any national or formal way as a partner in sharing conservation information,” says Volat. “Rather, we have to step up more and share some of that information to help people understand what biocultural conservation could mean in the context of this point in history for ecologies and societies.
“We’re not in a back and forth with the leadership of DN. We believe people are interested in and excited about access to conservation, and if they hear more about conservation methods they will deeply care and respect the plant and these cultures – that’s our hope.”
For Steve Moore, senior attorney with the nonprofit Native American Rights Fund, the fact that Indigenous communities in the U.S. have organized and partnered with private landowners on peyote habitats is key to the success of biocultural conservation. “By working cooperatively and educating ranchers, and with them educating us, we’re developing a very powerful alliance, and that’s the way it has to be,” he says.
Iron Rope agrees. “This is an Indigenous-led international organization and movement,” he says. “The President of the Wixáritari Regional Council, the leader of the Huichol people, is in partnership with the IPCI and formally unified with the peyote people of Canada and the US. He’ll be joining our board at the next formal meeting, and it’s been approved by every single village.” He adds that it’s rare for them to partner with anyone.
DN also worked with someone aligned with the Huichol tribe on their statement – Susana Valadez, Founder and Director of the Huichol Center for Cultural Survival and Traditional Arts. Valadez, who is not herself Inidigeous but married into the tribe, accepted a Nobel Peace Prize nomination on behalf of the tribe in 2019.
“If we’re going to keep peyote from extinction, the only option in my opinion is to legalize it or it will disappear,” she says. “The NAC and others who venerate the medicine and use it ceremonially have to link our ceremonies. We recognize that the NAC and groups in Indigenous people in the U.S. have fought such hard and long struggles, but this is a realm of knowledge for all humanity to drink from.” She adds that non-Indigenous people coming into ceremony must “correctly ask for permission,” with reverence and respect.
Plazola says he sees “various perspectives here that are all valid, and as we [DN] have this conversation we want to do it as a community.” He points to the many threats peyote and the communities who use it ceremonially face, including agribusiness and mining in Mexico. In his view, decriminalization could unite people in their defense of Indigenous culture.
“In terms of members of the community, we’re not drawing lines between borders,” he notes. “Borders exist and were thrust upon us, and they have different dynamics based on governments’ actions toward individual people. We want to get to a place that doesn’t give power to those borders, that allows us to rise above historic oppression and subjugation. The dialogue DN wants to have in an inclusive one.”
DN’s statement mentions these borders, specifically raising questions about the legality of peyote in the U.S. and Mexico.
“Would that position [of the NAC] place visiting shamans from the Wixárika tribe in Mexico in legal jeopardy if they were to come to the U.S. to participate in educational and spiritual north-south inter-tribal exchanges, where they may lead or attend non-church ceremonies?” it asks. “And would non-Indigenous attendees of these observances be subject to arrest by the DEA? Decriminalization of peyotl would resolve these incongruities.” Lucid News reached out to the NAC for comment on whether this had happened to Indigenous peyotists who were not U.S. citizens, and Davis pointed us back to DN for further clarification. DN leadership did not provide any additional details or specifics.
The IPCI’s “big prayer”
For the authors of the NCNAC statement, peyote isn’t ready for the attention of all humanity yet. Davis notes “the IPCI has already experienced and witnessed an increase in poachers.” Bia Labate, founder of Chacruna Institute for Psychedelic Plant Medicines, agrees that decriminalization can’t happen “without a seat at the table for Native Americans, and without having a plan about conservation and dialogue with conservationists. Pure decriminalization would be dangerous for peyote as a species, and problematic in terms of public policy.”
Davis’s research centers on how much land is available for peyote cultivation and habitat. “At this point, because peyote is in such a decline, peyotists like myself need to be educated on what is happening in South Texas in regards to peyote,” she says. “There are many threats that impact peyote populations – wind turbine development, overharvesting, oil development, exurban development, and issues with poaching. Peyote is in severe decline, particularly within the United States, and I want that message to be taken home and understood. It’s on the brink of extinction.”
“We don’t want to get to that place where Indigenous people are given 100 buttons of peyote this year and if they’re lucky 150 the next year,” adds Moore. “We don’t want to be rationing medicine. These people’s lives are completely integrated into and with peyote, and it’s unimaginable to think it would get to that point.”
The discussion also raises larger questions surrounding Indigenous plant medicines and their use by non-native peoples.
“People have been sympathetic,” says Davis, “We’ve received comments and feedback from people wanting to support, and we have yet to see what that is going to look like. We are definitely open to any support. But it should come with action.”
The group sees parallels with the Black Lives Matter movement. “Black people are no longer willing to just hear they have allies,” says Davis. “They want to see action and see people continue to support Black businesses, Black scholarships, and issues important to Black people.” Davis, who is co-editor for the Journal of Native Sciences, adds a sobering statistic: Native Americans are likelier to be killed by police than Black people, and 18 times as likely to be killed as white people. “Native American people also receive less support in regards to healthcare than people who are incarcerated,” she explains. “As Native American people, we want to see action too.” The community is looking for tangible evidence behind verbal assurances, including in the form of funding for initiatives like the IPCI.
Iron Rope notes that they have found allies along the way. “There are a lot of good folks in Decrim,” he says. “This is a prayer and a connection to Mother Earth. The IPCI has started empowering us to formalize what conservation means for us – to regenerate and reconnect. The IPCI has developed from that, and it’s a big prayer that is continuing to evolve in light of peyote conservation.”
Moore says he has found some positives through the debate with DN as it has received more attention. “I’m happy this issue exploded on us,” says Moore. “We’ve been hunkered down with the IPCI project in Texas. I know it’s been overwhelming, but we’re a small fledgling organization trying to stand itself up. It was overwhelming to take on the Decrim movement and try to shape and direct this conversation, but it’s having a powerful impact.”
For Volat, the final outcome remains to be seen. “I don’t know what the psychedelic movement is really supposed to do on a societal level, but I think this issue is key to that,” she says. “If this movement bypasses the opportunity not to use tried and true, destructive, colonial, extractive ways of conducting itself, it’ll just be the same old thing, wreaking havoc on people and the earth.”
Iron Rope agrees. “I heard someone from the Decrim movement say ‘God created the earth and all mankind, and all medicines for everybody,’” he says. “It has some amount of truth to it, but in every geographic area of Mother Earth, there are Indigenous people that are the caretakers of these plants. You can’t jump over that, go over it, or go around it and say you’re doing it out of respect and love.”
“We – the voices you’re hearing today – are the tip of the spear” adds Moore. “There are tens of thousands of Native Americans we’re trying to bring voice to through this project. Many don’t have access to the internet or even running water and prefer life that way, but they don’t even understand what the full impact of the Decrim movement could be if it were completely unleashed in their world. So we are trying to act as a buffer, or a breaking mechanism.”
Volat says DN’s insertion of itself into the conversation around peyote can be disruptive to Indgenous communities, which already have internal education plans and initiatives in place surrounding peyote’s future.
“It causes fear and division,” Volat says. “It’s ok to be sensitive to that, and say, ‘Ok, I’ll back off here.’”
For Iron Rope, Indigenous peyote conservation has “its own flow. And society is so fast, and Decrim is so fast, saying ‘We gotta do this and that.’ But this prayer is flowing in itself. Nature has a rhythm and tone, and we have to resonate with that vibration, that rhythm and tone, when we spiritually harvest medicine. There is a prayer, a song, a vibration. When you back up and slow down, you resonate with it.”
Images courtesy of The RiverStyx Foundation and IPCI