Higher Ground

by | Feb 2, 2020 | Feature, Native Plants

In a world of prayer-hands emoji and lite spirituality, it is easy to feel distant from the sacred. It may even be hard to recognize what is sacred. For members of the Native American Church, however, this is not an issue. To its estimated 500,000 followers, peyote (Lophophora williamsii) — a diminutive, spineless cactus that grows exclusively in southern Texas and northern Mexico — is not only sacred, it is essential to their religious experience. In fact, “Peyotism” is another name for the religion itself, the most widespread movement among North American indigenous tribes.

Native American Church gateway

The gateway to Amada Cárdenas’ former residence in Mirando City, Texas. Cárdenas was the first federally licensed peyote dealer, or peyotera. PHOTO Eugenio del Bosque/@mirandopictures

 

Religious ceremonies and worship by members of the Native American Church are literally impossible without peyote. And as native Texas plants are concerned, it is certainly among the most famous. This is largely due to its chemical composition. In “Remarkable Plants of Texas,” author Matt Warnock Turner writes, “Peyote has the distinction of being the source for the first naturally occurring, chemically pure, psychoactive compound ever isolated” (a feat credited to German pharmacologist Arthur Heffter).

That compound is mescaline, an alkaloid responsible for the psychedelic visual imagery that users of peyote experience. A term like “psychedelic” may conjure images of swirling rainbow tie-dye and long-haired hippies, but, linguistically, it is simply an adjective describing a mental state of profound awareness and intense sensory perception. It is this quality that makes peyote special. Many attributes can make a plant useful and valued: medicinal, edible, structurally sound, fragrant. But, as Turner says, the sacred ones “were the ones that created hallucinogenic, out-of-mind experiences. That’s why they’re considered sacred.”

 

For Goodness’ Sake

In the case of peyote, users report altered state that bring peace, self-actualization and clarity. Austin-based filmmaker Eugenio del Bosque, who is currently working on a documentary called “Peyoteros” about peyote harvesting and trade in the Rio Grande Valley, says peyote “gives people a chance to look inside themselves and to understand their relationship to the world, to themselves and to the people who are around them, their loved ones. It changes the way you see these things. It gives you the chance to look at yourself from a different perspective.”

For this reason, peyote — colloquially called “medicine” by Native Americans — is usually spoken of in positive terms, as healthy and beneficial. Turner agrees: “As the Native American Church uses it,” he says, “it’s communal; it’s about coming together, giving thanks, being respectful, living righteously — it’s a very good thing, good mojo.” Unlike other drugs associated with “tripping,” peyote is not typically said to cause visions of things that are not actually there. Nor is it associated with overdosing or getting “high.” Rather, the point is personal reflection, closeness with nature and community.

Says del Bosque, “[Peyote] is a very valid way for people to get in touch with the transcendental. And it’s really amazing to me that that type of knowledge or experience can be unlocked by a cactus that is just found in the wild.” Turner and del Bosque both mention peyote as a potential treatment for substance abuse as well. Many tribes believe its use reduces alcoholism, and peyote is said to diminish withdrawal symptoms, thus aiding in recovery from addiction. (Incidentally, the Heffter Research Institute, named after the aforementioned pharmacologist, is dedicated to advancing scientific research on hallucinogens for treatment of addictions and other mental disorders.)

Case in point: Staff at a substance-abuse clinic in Gallup, New Mexico — whose clientele is almost entirely Native American (the city’s most populous race) — encourage some patients to participate in regular peyote ceremonies once they leave the clinic. Their records indicate that those who do fare better than those who participate in Alcoholics Anonymous.

Sandor Iron Rope, former president of the Native American Church of North America and current president of the NAC of South Dakota, agrees peyote could be beneficial to those suffering from alcoholism — those with a desire to get well: “The medicine [peyote] could help a person who wants healing,” he says. A member of the Oglala Lakota Tribe, Iron Rope has long been involved in Native American health, wellness and cultural preservation. “Everything is about life,” he says, “You realize that in the [peyote] ceremony … you learn about yourself.”

Like MDMA (commonly known as ecstasy), peyote has also been studied as a possible treatment for PTSD. Sadly, trauma is something Iron Rope has recent personal experience with: He and his family were victims of a random shooting while driving through Rapid City, South Dakota, in early 2018. Sandor was hit five times (twice in the back of his head); his wife was shot in the arm; their two children ducked and were uninjured.

“We depend on that medicine for ourselves and our healing.”

Iron Rope says he was “administered medicine [peyote] … and prayed over” once he became conscious. He is understandably emotional when describing the response to his family’s ordeal: “There were various fireplaces and tepees that went up to pray for us as a family,” he says. “Relatives were pausing in their life to offer prayer in the Native American Church format [peyote ceremonies] … even as far away as Arizona.”

Sandor and Nicholas Iron

Sandor Iron Rope, a Lakota spiritual leader, president of the Native American Church of South Dakota, and Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative board member, with his son, Nicholas Iron Rope, at a healing ceremony. PHOTO Kumiko Hayashi

 

When asked if participating in peyote rituals was important to their own recovery, he says, “It was relevant in helping us to deal with PTSD in our family … and it still is relevant. We depend on that medicine for ourselves and our healing with that type of issue.”

Peyote isn’t unique when it comes to plants and psychological healing. A study reported in Psychological Medicine (a peer-reviewed medical journal) found that ayahuasca — a traditional Amazonian drink made from South American native plants Psychotria viridis and Banisteriopsis caapi — has similar potential as an antidepressant.

Hot topics such as microdosing — taking very small, “subperceptual” amounts of psychedelic drugs such as LSD or psilocybin (from mushrooms) to treat mental illnesses and depression — are based on a similar concept of hallucinogens for health. There is still much research to be done to support such claims, but interest in the topic is certainly growing (in part due to Michael Pollan’s new book on the topic, “How to Change Your Mind”).

In the case of peyote, del Bosque says, “Anything that can legitimize the use of the plant and lead to conservation is very good.”
 

Harvest Moon

As part of Native American Church ceremonies, peyote “buttons” may be eaten fresh, or they can be dried and steeped into peyote tea. A peyote button is simply the sheared-off top of the plant. The subterranean stem (often mistakenly called the root) of the cacti are left to grow back, which typically takes five to 10 years. Del Bosque says much of what is harvested and sold in Texas is actually shipped as dried buttons to NAC members (who have to provide paperwork and proof that they have a certain quantum of Native American blood).

As described in “The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture,” peyote ceremonies or “meetings” typically occur in the evening, in a specially constructed tepee around a half moon- or crescent-shaped altar. (The altar design is credited to famed Comanche leader Quanah Parker, widely recognized as the founder of Peyotism.) The ritual includes a fire, drumming and singing, prayer, and the consumption of peyote as a sacrament; for members of the NAC, it is as essential as bread and wine are to a Catholic Eucharist. But peyote is much harder to obtain.

According to Gary Perez, a subject in early footage from del Bosque’s film, the NAC and peyote go hand in hand. Perez is a descendant of the Coahuiltecan peoples and former caretaker of the Peyote Gardens of South Texas, a holy place among the Tamaulipan thornscrub where Amada Cárdenas — the first federally licensed peyote dealer and a revered figure within the NAC — once lived. Says Perez, “We’ve got parishioners that … drive 35 hours straight to be here in the peyote gardens, to collect their peyote, to pray with it where it grows naturally, and turn around and go right back home.” He goes on: “Among tribes, there are more and more folks gravitating toward the Native American Church, to become a part of this Pan-American religion, to simplify their lives and enjoy the benefits of communion with nature.”

FROM LEFT Peyote buttons being harvested in the wild, sorted and sliced by Heron Gómez and family member Dalinda Garcia, and dried for shipment. PHOTOS Eugenio del Bosque/@mirandopictures

 

Iron Rope explains that direct harvesting “encourages spiritual sobriety” and engages users in a dialogue with nature: “It’s about preserving our way of life in its natural habitat, getting back to nature and the core essence of who we are as indigenous people,” he says.

Despite all this support, peyote is a Schedule I drug in the United States, on the same list as heroin, LSD, MDMA, psilocybin, marijuana and others. Attributes that qualify a substance for this list include, per the DEA, “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” The loophole for peyote is that its consumption is included as part of religious freedom for NAC members (per a 1994 amendment to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act that protects the rights of indigenous people to use peyote for religious purposes).

There are currently three or four (depending who you ask) government-licensed peyote distributors in the United States. They are typically Mexican-American, and the job is often passed down through family (with a growing trend toward female relatives inheriting the trade).

“They are the ones with the contacts with Native American tribes and the Native American Church, and they are the ones that know the landowners,” del Bosque explains. His film looks at the complex relationship between “healers and dealers,” as he puts it: “that combination of people who are licensed to trade in a substance that is comparable to hard drugs … and who are fulfilling the needs of a religious group.” With hundreds of thousands of NAC members, that’s a lot riding on just a few people.
 

A Disappearing Land

The freedom to harvest doesn’t guarantee supply, however, and the peyote that grows in the United States grows on private land in Texas — a major component of why peyote is now at risk. Peyote is not a federally listed endangered species (though it is listed as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature), but its threats in South Texas are many. Habitat loss sums them up, with causes such as root plowing, land development, climate change and implementation of wind farms to name a few.

Root plowing is a common method for clearing thorny brush such as mesquite (Prosopis spp.) and huisache (Vachellia farnesiana). It involves cutting shrubs off below ground, which eliminates the undergrowth, including globular cacti such as peyote. “I’m not trying to have a play between good and evil,” says del Bosque of the situation his movie explores. “This is just a reality. The land is private. It’s beautiful, it’s arid, and it’s harsh, but it holds a lot of value.”

Landowners have many more lucrative options for their properties than peyote harvesting. Leasing land to hunters, petroleum companies or renewable energy facilities is another threat. “Once a wind farm goes up,” explains del Bosque, “that land is spoken for. The liability increases; the owners are already making their money. It doesn’t make any sense for them to allow pickers to come in.”

It’s worth noting that wind tends to blow the hardest (i.e., is ideal for generating wind energy) near escarpments, which is where peyote usually grows; it prefers caliche-rich bluffs along the Bordas Escarpment. You’re probably thinking, But isn’t renewable energy good? This is why conservation topics are rarely simple. Wind power could help assuage the effects of climate change, which would help plants. But, in this case, land taken up by wind turbines and their facilities is habitat taken away … at least temporarily.

“You can never do anything over again,” says Iron Rope. He sees all that nature provides as proof of “the unconditional love the creator has for us.” But, he adds, “Some of us didn’t take care of it. Some of us abused it. That’s where we are with Mother Earth today.”

Even if the hillsides recover and peyote returns, which would be a silver lining for the plant itself, it will no longer be harvestable where wind turbines exist. Reduced access to the land where peyote grows is a threat to tradition — the tradition of peyote harvesting, the livelihoods of peyoteros, and the ceremonies and spirituality of the Native American Church.

“Nobody’s going to stop this,” says del Bosque matter-of-factly, but he sees the challenge as being “a matter of learning to deal with all aspects involved so we can sustain what’s important.”
 

Cacti Collaboration

Enter Dr. Martin Terry, a professor emeritus of biology at Sul Ross State University and well-known peyote advocate. (Mention peyote in Texas and his name invariably comes up.) Terry and a few concerned friends founded the Cactus Conservation Institute in 2004 with the mission of “preserving and restoring a selected portion of Tamaulipan thornscrub habitat of threatened and endangered cacti,” namely peyote and star cactus (Astrophytum asterias).

Peyote grows wild primarily in Webb, Zapata, Jim Hogg and Starr Counties. It also once grew in Big Bend (where Quanah Parker is said to have sought this “gift of god” himself). But, according to the CCI, the last peyote known to have been deliberately planted in Big Bend National Park by Native Americans was recently poached into local extinction.

In South Texas, poaching also does deep damage. Terry says poachers take the most valuable plants, known as “grandfather peyotes.” The number of ribs on a peyote plant follows the Fibonacci series; the prized and highly valued grandfathers may have up to 13 ribs, which is the max for the species.

When asked if harvesting for religious use also takes a toll, Terry replies, “That’s a very delicate question. The NAC harvests for legitimate ceremonial purposes … it is a quantity, but it makes a significantly smaller dent than the poachers do.”

Terry is also on the board of directors for the Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative, a collaborative effort between NAC members (including Iron Rope, who is also on the board), private investors, lawyers, nonprofits such as the Native American Rights Fund, and other concerned parties. Terry recently helped a member with “deep pockets” do a bit of “real estate window shopping”; as such, a 605-acre piece of property rich with “absolutely fabulous” peyote plants was purchased by IPCI for conservation, tending and legal harvesting.

IPCI and the CCI would ultimately like to see more habitat purchased by a conservation organization (as has been the case for the endangered star cactus). But, as Terry says, “You can’t buy up all of South Texas.” The idea is to get nonprofits, the scientific community, conservation-minded landowners and power players (read: people with money) together. Unfortunately, as Terry puts it, “We’re much better at botany than we are at fundraising.”

Del Bosque agrees it has to be a cooperative effort. “[Peyote] has been traded for centuries. It has survived all kinds of things, but the forces affecting it now are unprecedented.” Though he doesn’t identify as an activist, he says this of “Peyoteros”: “If the film causes anyone to participate in preserving [peyote] or understanding what the plant means for people who use it seriously, all the better.”
 

Peyote harvester

Peyote harvester Heron Gómez (grandson of licensed dealer Mauro Morales) sings while walking through peyote habitat in search of the sacred plant. PHOTO Eugenio del Bosque/@mirandopictures

 

Survival Tactics

Encouragingly, peyote has been successfully propagated in greenhouses, but this is not necessarily a solution for the religious community. For peyote to be sacred, it has to be tied to the land — its own land. Consider it something like a deeply meaningful, spiritual terroir.

Iron Rope elaborates on this, explaining that direct harvesting is especially ideal because it cuts out the middleman: “These plants can talk, can hear … [can] receive whatever we’re saying in molecular form,” he says. In other words, his people believe peyote is perceptive to those who interact with it. Of anyone between plant and worshipper, Iron Rope says, “We don’t know what their thoughts were.” A harvested-and-sold plant or greenhouse-grown plant is simply less pure than a wild plant.

That said, the grafted greenhouse specimens have been specifically cultivated to produce “unusually large numbers of flowers and seeds,” according to Terry — “the latter being perfectly viable for planting.” A problem arises from the fact that these peyote plants contain very little mescaline, as all their energy is devoted to growth and seed production. Terry says the result is “an object that does not look like peyote, does not taste like peyote, and does not ‘feel’ like peyote when ingested by experienced practitioners of peyote medicine.”

It’s no wonder then that greenhouse-grown peyote is not considered for ceremonial use. But they are a reliable source of seeds, and, if planted in situ, Terry says, “Those seeds will grow up into perfect peyote plants, identical in every way to their cousins in habitat.”

He is encouraged that this peyote could meet NAC needs: “Let the plants speak for themselves by the way they develop, once they are back … with the right soil (including the nitrogen contributed by the Tamaulipan thornscrub), the right shade and sunlight, the right amount of rain and drought, and perhaps the right words spoken by the right people at the right time.”

Iron Rope feels similarly “positive and optimistic for the future,” despite the risks facing peyote. “You have to change in order to survive,” he says, citing IPCI’s collaborative efforts as a move in the right direction. “We have to continue to respect Mother Earth and what she’s given us. To respectfully harvest this medicine is part of the healing process.”

While preservation may be possible, whether peyote will be accessible in numbers that meet the demand of the Native American Church is questionable. Del Bosque says members of the church, not surprisingly, have faith. “They believe in this plant,” he explains. “They’ll say, ‘The plant has the power to survive.’”

He has footage of a peyote harvester singing to the plants, which comes from a related belief that peyote can deliberately show itself, that you can get its attention so it will appear. “There is a little bit of this same perception when you talk to them about the risks that the plant faces,” says del Bosque. “They believe it can just hide [from poachers] and then come back.”

“I find that very beautiful,” he says with humility, adding, “Unfortunately it takes more than poetry for things to survive.”