Indigenous Voices in Peyote Conservation: Preserving Medicine for Future Generations

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By Jasmine Virdi

Peyote (Lophophora williamsii) is a small, spineless cactus endemic to North America, growing in the vast desert thorn scrub that runs from the southwestern United States into north-central Mexico. For centuries, the mescaline-containing cactus has been used by Indigenous groups in Northern America as a ceremonial medicine and a religious sacrament considered integral to their way of life. The rapidly growing psychedelic movement has generated a new wave of interest in plant medicines, including peyote, requiring us to tread with awareness for the impact this has on the Indigenous cultures and communities who have long stewarded these medicines.

At present, the peyote cactus is in the midst of a deep conservation crisis. Over the past few decades, wild peyote populations have been rapidly declining due to a convergence of factors including oil and gas development, illegal poaching, agricultural development, and unsustainable harvesting practices. Amongst Indigenous communities, there is a growing need to conserve this quickly disappearing natural resource that is a core element of the Native American Church (NAC), the largest pan-Indigenous religion in the United States. 

Due to growing evidence of the decline of peyote and mounting concern about obtaining their sacred medicine, the NAC commissioned the Peyote Research Project (PRP) in 2013. The first phase of the project (PRP 1) concerned itself with documenting the decline of peyote as well as assessing threats to its natural habitat, while the second phase (PRP 2) focused on identifying conservation strategies, including “securing sovereign land” to protect the Peyote Gardens and building relationships with landowners to lease space for replanting and harvesting.

Sandor Iron Rope, former President of the Native American Church of North America, current president of the Native American Church of South Dakota, member of the Oglala Lakota Oyate (Oglala Sioux Tribe), and Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative (IPCI) board member, reflects that “supply and demand have always been an issue, and when we started looking at it through the lens of the PRP, we found out many issues were in the forefront of the longevity of supply.”

The research activities of the PRP showed that peyote was under threat, both in regards to its populations and quality of the plant. As the need to conserve peyote became more pressing, the National Council of Native American Churches (NCNAC) called for the establishment of the IPCI. “The coalition of the NCNAC were involved in PRP 2, and the collective decided that conservation itself needed to be addressed. Hence, IPCI was born in 2017,” says Iron Rope. “The Church is a religious, spiritual organization, however, peyote is a cactus that needs its own attention as far as its conservation status.” IPCI is not a religious organization, but a conservation center focused entirely on supporting the broader NAC community in North America. It is led by a Board of Directors controlled by NAC leaders from across the United States.

In late 2017, the NCNAC secured 605 acres of peyote habitat in southern Texas, often referred to as “the 605” on behalf of IPCI, with the help of the RiverStyx Foundation. Later that year, IPCI was formally established with the aim of empowering Indigenous communities across the U.S., Mexico, and Canada to conserve and regenerate peyote for generations to come. IPCI operates as a non-profit, officially becoming a 501c(3) organization in 2018. In early 2019, IPCI held its first peyote harvest on the 605, educating children alongside their families on how to harvest in an ecologically and spiritually respectful way. 

Unlike other conservation initiatives, IPCI is a cooperative Indigenous-led initiative, and is employing a range of biocultural strategies in order to conserve, as well as facilitate spiritual reconnection with peyote. Beyond purchasing land allotted for peyote conservation, they are also building alliances with local landowners, and developing a system of harvest and distribution that is in line with their values. 

IPCI considers the rancher community in south Texas an important ally in its efforts, and its members have established an ongoing relationship with landowners from whom they lease land for biocultural harvesting and replanting. “Sharing our perspective as practitioners with the ranchers, we were encouraged to seek our own land and regain sovereignty over our medicine,” shared Iron Rope. “Most ranchers that we spoke to had a lot of issues concerning poaching, and lack of respect for their land making them fully supportive of our cause.” 

 Lophophora williamsii  - Peyote
Lophophora williamsii – Peyote

How and When Did Peyote Become Endangered? 

For decades, Indigenous cultural practices and peyote ceremonies were suppressed across the U.S., with peyote ceremonies being illegal in many states where peyotists practiced. It wasn’t until the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) was passed in 1978 (and further amended in 1994 to expressly include peyote) that the NAC was finally granted exemption on a religious basis, allowing federally recognized tribes to use peyote as a ceremonial sacrament. The possession, transportation, and use of peyote by persons who are not members of federally recognized tribes remain illegal under federal law. 

The endangered status of peyote is by no means a new problem. According to Dawn Davis, a Shoshone Ph.D. candidate at the University of Idaho and an Indigenous researcher studying the peyote habitat, researchers and scholars have been talking about peyote’s endangerment since the 1960s, when so-called “hippies” became aware of its “psychedelic” properties. 

In the heat of the 1960s countercultural revolution, peyote was brought to public attention, gaining worldwide popularity through the works of Aldous Huxley and Carlos Castaneda. Their writings generated a newly sparked interest in the psychoactive properties of the plant and resulted in an influx of eager psychedelic tourists traveling to Texas and Mexico to seek out the famed cactus in its natural habitat.

To some extent, this trend continues today as we find ourselves in the midst of a psychedelic renaissance, and interest in the therapeutic potentials of visionary plants continues to grow. Such “psychedelic tourism” has inevitably impacted the availability of peyote for Indigenous groups. In fact, it was the countercultural movement of the 1960s and the corresponding interest in psychoactive substances that resulted in the U.S. government enacting The Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which classified peyote as a Schedule I substance. 

Due to improper harvesting techniques and overharvesting, peyote populations were left decimated, and it was declared an endangered species in Mexico as early as 1991. Currently, peyote is listed as “vulnerable” as populations in the wild continue to decline. “The International Union for the Conservation of Nature placed peyote on their red list as a vulnerable species in 2009 and the next level after re-evaluation of the population, it could move to endangered status,” says Davis. “It is also important to acknowledge that within the United States, in Texas, peyote is considered an endangered species at the local level.”

Other threats to peyote populations are largely a result of exploitative land management practices, including mining, oil and gas development, the construction of wind turbines, rancher root plowing, cattle grazing, and poaching. “Over the last ten years, wind turbine development within peyote gardens has had a huge impact on peyote populations, completely extirpating large populations of cacti from the natural range,” says Davis.

 Lophophora williamsii  - Peyote
Lophophora williamsii – Peyote

Another less obvious threat to peyote lies in the ongoing debate between Indigenous groups and the decriminalization community. Earlier this year, IPCI and NCNAC leaders produced an official statement in response to Decriminalize Nature Oakland’s resolution to decriminalize all plant medicines, including peyote. Although those working with Decriminalize Nature (DN) might have been well-intentioned, NCNAC leaders felt disappointed in Decrim’s failure to consult with Indigenous peoples, as well as their oversight of the cultural and religious history of peyote and the plant’s endangered status. The NCNAC’s statement requested that Decriminalization initiatives should not include peyote in their efforts to decriminalize all plant medicines, with the concern that it would provide citizens with a false sense of legality. Indigenous leaders fear that the decriminalization of peyote could unintentionally cause damage to populations by serving 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.” 

Very recently, Decriminalize Nature Santa Cruz issued a formal apology to the NAC for not consulting with them prior to proceeding with the resolution to decriminalize all entheogenic plants and fungi. DN Santa Cruz’s apology was accepted, and both the NCNAC and IPCI have stated that they “look forward to building a continued relationship based on unity, solidarity, and allyship.” DN Santa Cruz hopes other Decrim efforts will follow their lead, building a respectful relationship with Indigenous peyote practitioners. 

A licensed distribution system was established in Texas as a regulatory companion to the federal exemption for Native religious use of peyote. This system employs licensed dealers, also known as peyoteros, to legally harvest and distribute peyote to NAC members, however, not all peyoteros necessarily consider Indigenous values of spiritual and ecological sustainability.

There have been issues with over-harvesting and improper harvesting by the current licensed dealers. When harvesting is done sustainably, the top of the root hardens and is able to produce more peyote pups in the future. Peyoteros (and black-market poachers) sometimes sever the root, causing the entire plant to die. 

Iron Rope expressed IPCI’s intentions of being inclusive of and working with existing peyoteros, wanting to build relationships with them and start a dialogue about sustainable harvesting techniques. “The IPCI are a new family in the neighborhood,” he says. “We come as friends, as neighbors, as partners, and we don’t want to engage in any type of conflict.” However, IPCI also wants to take a step towards sovereignty, training Indigenous distributors so as not to rely solely on current suppliers. 

“As Indigenous practitioners, it is important for us to reconnect in order to gain the full spiritual benefit of our medicine,” Iron Rope shared. “We are learning how to sustain our peyote for generations because a lot of our tribes have never harvested medicine and we have become lazy in a sense, relying on the non-practitioner distributors to send it to us in the mail.”

At the beginning of this year, there were four licensed peyoteros. According to Davis, the process of becoming a licensed peyotero is both time-consuming and costly, involving submitting an application to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Up until last year, peyoteros were licensed through the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS). However, the law has changed and the DPS regulatory program was dissolved, making it only possible to acquire a license through the DEA.

“The stringent process of becoming a licensed peyotero involves annual application fees and thorough background investigation, but as far as harvesting protocols and regulations, there are now none,” adds Davis. “This has contributed to a lot of the issues that peyote is having in regard to propagation, because distributors aren’t necessarily harvesting ecologically. “If you look at pictures taken from peyote harvests, you can see that a shockingly high percentage of peyote are harvested unsustainably.”

Even if harvesting protocols and regulations were implemented through the DEA, Davis is doubtful that they would be effective, in that peyoteros operate in sparsely populated areas and such regulations would be hard to monitor. She also fears that increasing regulation would push distributors out of the business, making it more difficult for tribes who don’t have a connection to landowners in Texas to access their medicine.

“I feel that there is a more organic way of resolving this than relying on western law,” says Davis. “Rather, NAC practitioners could prevent these issues by educating fellow peyote practitioners about what a properly harvested peyote button looks like, encouraging them to buy sustainably harvested peyote.” Demanding properly and spiritually harvested peyote is the first step to bringing about lasting change.

 Lophophora williamsii  - Peyote
Lophophora williamsii – Peyote

How Can The Psychedelic Community Respect Indigenous Traditions?

As the psychedelic renaissance continues to unfold, it is increasingly important that we learn from the mistakes of the past, and make efforts to avoid another wave of colonial entitlement when it comes to peyote as a plant medicine. 

Despite being given such reverence by Indigenous tribes and the NAC, peyote traditions have been extremely misunderstood by outsiders for centuries. From the persecution of peyote traditions beginning in the early 1600s by Spanish colonists in Mexico to the 19th and 20th-century legal suppression of peyote practices in the U.S., Indigenous people have had to undergo countless struggles to ensure the continued use of their sacred medicine. 

Rather than feel entitled to peyote, the psychedelic community can serve as an ally to Indigenous communities by listening and choosing to support them in the ways that they wish to be supported. “It starts off with respect. Those that want to help can do something as simple as supporting Indigenous initiatives such as IPCI,” offered Iron Rope. “Indigenous people know what is best for them for the most part, and allowing them to take lead on certain matters is important.” 

Beyond this, Davis expressed that one of her biggest concerns as a practitioner and a researcher is that non-Indigenous people should try to understand the history of peyote and what Indigenous people have endured in order to access and use their medicine. “Peyote went back underground until the passing of the AIRFA amendments in 1994, and now we have this movement pushing for peyote to be a sort of ‘free for all,’ and completely negating the historical struggle of Indigenous people’s use of peyote.”

Further, Davis also urges people to stay clear of harvesting wild peyote populations anywhere throughout its range, suggesting that one of the most important things that allies can do for peyote is to take the position that they will refuse to harvest wild populations while encouraging others to do the same. “Whether it be in Texas or Mexico, people who are truly respectful of this medicine- this plant, this way of life, will not harvest any wild populations because of peyote’s status as a vulnerable species with potential for future extinction.”

As we traverse the developments of this renaissance, it is crucial for our community to be aware of the impact we have, not only on mainstream culture, but also on Indigenous communities who have so frequently been left unheard. There are several steps that we can take to support peyote conservation, including sharing information about peyote conservation issues and educating oneself on the ethical considerations to be made when choosing to buy or use peyote outside of a bona fide NAC context, which must include awareness for the socio-historical baggage specific to this plant medicine.

About the Author

Jasmine Virdi is a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader. Since 2018, she has been working as a writer, editor, and social media coordinator for the fiercely independent publishing company Synergetic Press, where her passions for ecology, ethnobotany and psychoactive substances converge. Jasmine’s goal as an advocate for psychoactive substances is to raise awareness of the socio-historical context in which these substances emerged in order to help integrate them into our modern-day lives in a safe, grounded and meaningful way.