On the primary day of autumn, night temperatures close to Window Rock, Arizona, had been brisk. Beneath the late September sky, a standard spherical hogan on this distant nook of the Navajo Nation was enveloped in darkness. Ten tribal members gathered inside.
After a dinner of mutton and fry bread, the group settled in a circle round a wooden range radiating with burning juniper, making ready to ingest what the Diné (Navajo) name azeé – the medication.
Most individuals know azeé as peyote: a small, button-like cactus famed for its highly effective psychoactive and therapeutic properties. The cactus is extraordinarily uncommon in the US – it grows wild in just one a part of Texas – and has been integral to conventional Indigenous American practices for 1000’s of years.
The aim of this ceremony was to information Diné school college students on their religious path. One younger man scuffling with alcohol abuse was particularly in want of the medication.
“When that is over, you’ll really feel like a washrag with all of the gunk wrung out of it,” the person’s grandmother informed him.
Tonight, the ritual could be no completely different from what it was a century in the past. There could be peyote songs and drumming. Margie Whitney-Silva, a licensed religious chief generally known as a roadman, would provide the peyote within the type of a tea brewed from the cactus, carried in a big pickle jar. Eagle-feather followers and gourd rattles could be used because the jar was handed round.
Through the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries, Indigenous Individuals risked being thrown in jail for taking part in such ceremonies as a result of peyote was unlawful beneath US legislation. In the present day, it’s simply the other. Peyote and mescaline – the hallucinogenic substance discovered contained in the cactus – have turn into a darling of the psychedelic renaissance.
Peyote, mescaline and different hallucinogenics reminiscent of LSD, MDMA, ayahuasca and magic mushrooms are being touted for his or her capability to revolutionise the therapy of PTSD, dependancy and different well being issues. Lately, progressive politicians, docs, group teams and Silicon Valley traders alike have thrown their weight behind decriminalization payments in dozens of US states and cities.
Their aim to unfold the advantages of psychedelics could also be well-intentioned, however for Indigenous Individuals, the growth has a darkish aspect that not often comes up in enterprise capital pitches. Many Diné tribal members are describing this second as a “peyote disaster” that threatens to acceptable and commodify their sacred lifestyle.
Their issues are multifold. Decriminalizing peyote may gas poaching and a black marketplace for the slow-growing cactus, whose restricted habitat is already threatened by local weather change and improvement. A sudden surge in demand may fully wipe out peyote from its pure atmosphere, conventional practitioners say.
Then there are the deeper issues about turning peyote and mescaline into an on-demand drug. Members of the Native American church of North America, an inter-tribal faith that revolves across the historical observe of peyotism, are alarmed by pharmaceutical ventures looking for to create mescaline in a lab, in a lot the identical manner opium from the poppy flower was synthesized to create fentanyl.
Non-Indigenous leaders within the psychedelic house insist they’re respecting Native American spirituality by utilizing artificial mescaline as a substitute of the true factor. Dozens of Indigenous Individuals interviewed for this story see it in any other case.
“How would Christians really feel if Jesus Christ was cloned?” requested Justin Jones, a Diné peyote practitioner and authorized counsel for the Native American church of North America, a non-profit group that advocates for greater than 300,000 members. “And whereas the true Jesus is protected, individuals may do no matter they wished to the clone.”
At its core, the push to medicalize and mass-produce peyote and mescaline goes in opposition to the Indigenous American worldview of interconnectedness. There aren’t any English phrases that describe how the religious character of peyote is inextricably intertwined with its hallucinogenic properties, the land the place it grows and the Indigenous Individuals who eat it, says Jones. Within the Navajo language, Jones describes this harmonic oneness as azee’ hinááh biníłch’idiyin, be’adínídíín.
Creating artificial mescaline in a lab or rising peyote in a greenhouse is a violation of pure legislation, and interrupts the distinctive symbiotic relationship with the plant. “What western scientists name mescaline is for us the essence of the medication,” mentioned Jones. “It’s the soul of it and what makes it holy.”
Conventional peyote practitioners emphasise that they aren’t in opposition to the usage of all psychedelics to innovate new remedies for dependancy and PTSD. In spite of everything, their experiences show simply how highly effective a therapeutic software these substances might be.
However they query why peyote and mescaline have to be used when a wide range of different instruments – particularly psilocybin and MDMA – have confirmed efficient. In dashing to medicalize peyote, which has a singular historical past and a sacred function for tribes, the decriminalisation motion dangers perpetuating extra hurt within the identify of doing good, they are saying.
“I’m all for therapeutic,” mentioned Cora Maxx-Phillips, a social employee, member of the Navajo Nation human rights fee and board member of the Council of Peyote Method of Life Coalition, a grassroots group within the Navajo Nation.
“However don’t do it on the expense of our individuals, who’re making an attempt to outlive the multigenerational trauma inflicted upon us. Please, go away us alone.”
A struggle for custom
The ceremony close to Window Rock was a non-public, emotionally grueling ritual that lasted all evening.
Earlier than the ceremony, Boyd Tsosie, one other roadman who led the ritual, mentioned the experiences of ancestors from three or 4 generations prior may floor. There could be little dialogue; the aim was for every individual to embark on their very own inside journey in a sort of religious imaginative and prescient quest the place the plant itself was the information.
Tsosie emphasised that the observe of peyotism is as a lot in regards to the ceremony as it’s in regards to the psychological results. “We don’t view peyote as a substance the best way non-Natives take into consideration medicine,” mentioned Tsosie. “There isn’t a hallucination, no journey. The medication shouldn’t be used to numb the physique like with different medicine, however to show us.”
The gathering was sponsored by a neighborhood Diné chapter of the Native American church. Diné peyote practitioners and church members throughout the west describe peyote as one may a beloved member of the family. For them, peyote is a sentient being, a smart elder, a savior. They are saying the medication is a present from the creator that has made it attainable to outlive the traumas of colonization.
Worry and anger about what outdoors forces may do had been palpable contained in the hogan. Synthesizing, commodifying and enriching oneself at peyote’s expense is not any strategy to deal with a relative.
“We simply have a sliver left of what we maintain expensive,” mentioned Tsosie. “And we’re praying and combating to hold on to it.”
The best way fashionable tribal members inform it, their ancestors had been drowning in sorrow on account of federal insurance policies to grab their homeland and sacred websites, power their youngsters into boarding faculties and forbid the observe of conventional ceremonies. Peyote was despatched by the creator as a sort of life raft that traveled from tribe to tribe, and those that jumped on, survived.
Radiocarbon research of peyote buttons have dated the ritual use of Lophophora williamsii by Indigenous peoples again greater than 5,000 years, however peyotism didn’t attain the Diné and different Plains tribes till the mid- to late 1800s.
Then in 1883, Congress handed the Non secular Crimes Code, outlawing Indigenous American spirituality on the grounds that it hindered the federal coverage of compelled assimilation. Along with peyote ceremonies, the solar dance and ghost dance had been solely practiced in secret, with violators subjected to jail time and the withholding of meals rations.
Frank Dayish, 65, grew up on the north-western nook of the Navajo reservation and is descended from generations of peyote practitioners. He remembers how, when he was a younger boy, tribal legislation enforcement would present up at his house and seize his group’s provide of peyote.
“The Navajo Nation police put all of the peyote in a pile and poured gasoline on it and burned it,” mentioned Dayish. “After they left, my father and his brothers would attempt to salvage what was too inexperienced to burn.”
The spiritual crimes legislation wouldn’t be repealed till 1978, when Congress handed the American Indian Non secular Freedom Act (Airfa). However Airfa didn’t particularly deal with the usage of peyote, which the federal authorities nonetheless categorised as a extremely addictive, schedule 1 drug. To differentiate themselves from the experimental hippies within the Nineteen Seventies, Indigenous American peyote practitioners banded collectively to type a faith referred to as the Native American church, demanding the identical protections for his or her spiritual beliefs as anybody else within the US.
After many years of lobbying by Native American church teams, a 1994 modification to Airfa lastly gave protections to Indigenous American peyote customers by stipulating that peyote can solely be consumed by a “federally acknowledged tribal member” and “in reference to a standard Indian faith”. The modification additionally approved tribal members to legally transport peyote throughout state strains.
“That was an enormous victory for us,” mentioned Dayish, who was president of the Native American church of North America on the time and closely concerned in lobbying for the modification.
Nonetheless, the hard-won exemption quickly had unintended results. Non-Indigenous New Age teams, reminiscent of James Mooney’s Oklevueha church and the Peyote Method Church of God, started providing entry to the sacred cactus by claiming to comply with the Native American church faith or their very own model of peyote faith.
In a precedent-setting 2004 case, the Utah supreme courtroom dominated that Mooney was allowed to distribute peyote to his church members beneath the Non secular Freedom Restoration Act. The consequence was to embolden psychedelic activists, who established plant-medicine church buildings on the grounds of non secular freedom and to invigorate the decriminalization motion.
In the present day, one of many largest teams behind this motion is named Decriminalize Nature. The group has 50 chapters throughout the US, every comprising grassroots plant-medicine activists who advocate for laws at state and native ranges. Their emblem includes a peyote button, with a web site that urges humanity to “draw upon the traditional knowledge of all our ancestors who lived from the Indigenous Worldview upon this Earth”.
Aikutzi Valadez, a member of Decriminalize Nature’s board, believes anyone should be allowed to grow peyote in private greenhouses for their personal use in order to increase supply and protect the cactus from being depleted in its native habitat. Valadez resides in California but is a member of the Huichol tribe in Mexico, which practices peyotism. She said that because she is not enrolled in a federally recognized tribe in the US, current drug laws prevent her from being able to engage in traditional peyote rituals where she lives.
“Native American church members need to look at the big picture,” she said. “If they are concerned about peyote becoming commodified, the solution is to make it widely available so it’s not just the pharmaceutical companies that have access. We are trying to liberate peyote because it is Mother Nature’s plant and should not be criminalized.”
This anti-corporate, nature-based ideology is appealing to many liberal-minded activists. But the philosophy of Decriminalize Nature, and groups like it, illuminates a tension at the heart of the peyote debate. Native American church leaders say groups describing themselves as culturally progressive are not only ignoring the requests of tribal governments but have done little to consult them on how peyote should be used by non-Indigenous people – if at all.
Valadez confirmed that Native American church leaders were not involved in developing Decriminalize Nature’s policy on peyote.
While the group’s policy is positioned as a “working plan” to help Native American church members and other Indigenous peyote practitioners protect their sacred medicine, Kevin Feeney, a cultural anthropologist at Central Washington University, sees echoes of the US’s colonial past in such efforts.
“There is the sentiment within the movement that decriminalizing these plants will result in this rosy, kumbaya situation where we all get to take peyote,” said Feeney, who has written extensively on peyote issues. “They are saying, let bygones be bygones … But, really, they are only asking Native people to be OK with this history.”
An $11bn industry
The psychedelics drug market is expected to be worth more than $11bn by the end of the decade. And while the use of psilocybin and MDMA in a clinical setting are farthest along, mescaline is the dark horse that some of Silicon Valley’s biggest investors are betting on.
One company riding the wave is Journey Colab, a pharmaceutical startup that’s developing psychedelic drugs and therapies. Since its founding in 2020, the company has raised more than $12m from high-level investors including Sam Altman, the founder of ChatGPT and an avid psychedelic proponent.
Journey Colab’s founder, Jeeshan Chowdhury, is a self-described “Silicon Valley tech bro” as well as a physician and the son of Indian immigrants. He says he was intrigued by mescaline when he started the company.
“The elders and respected leaders in the psychedelic space all told me mescaline was their favorite,” he said. “And they didn’t want people to know about it because they wanted to keep it to themselves.”
Peyote has long had a certain cachet in the psychedelics world. The English writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley first coined the term “psychedelic” in his 1954 essay The Doors of Perception to describe a mescaline trip. The perpetually intoxicated gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson further popularised the drug in works like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
While mescaline was studied for its therapeutic benefits in the 1950s and 1960s, it became overshadowed by LSD, which was cheaper and more accessible. Today, multiple companies, including several in Canada – where there are fewer restrictions on mescaline – are developing mescaline-based products and growing peyote in greenhouses.
The Canadian company Lophos Pharma, for instance, describes itself as “North America’s largest cultivation and research facility for peyote cactus” and is working on genetically modifying peyote to “decrease the peyote growth timeline from 13 years to as low as 3 years”.
Chowdhury says he set out to do things differently, and was influenced by Altman’s OpenAI model, which strives to share technological benefits with society at large. Alongside its drug development, Journey Colab set aside 10% of its founding equity for Indigenous groups, such as the peyote practitioners in the Native American church, as part of what it calls the Reciprocity Trust. Journey Colab has also signed a “patent pledge” that promises to use only synthetic mescaline in its products, and to not directly utilize any Indigenous resources.
Chowdhury says the fund is about respecting Indigenous American use of peyote and sharing financial benefits with Indigenous populations. “I believe if you have used any psychedelic personally or they are in any part of your professional career, we all owe our relationship to these medicines to the Indigenous communities who have stewarded this knowledge for generations,” Chowdhury said.
However, he admits he did not consult with US Indigenous American peyote practitioners or leaders of the Native American church before establishing the Reciprocity Trust. Nor did he get their opinion about creating a company that revolves around synthetic mescaline. He says he wants to give back because he believes it is the right thing to do, but he also believes that because Journey Colab’s synthetic mescaline product is not directly derived from peyote, it is not appropriating Indigenous Americans’ sacred medicine.
“There is absolutely no use of peyote or any botanical material in the construction of our synthetic mescaline,” he explained.
This is of little comfort to peyote practitioners. Aside from the spiritual implications, there is no guarantee other companies won’t try to obtain patents for mescaline that may contain some degree of organic material, or attempt to patent aspects of Indigenous American ceremonies as part of clinical treatments.
According to Chowdhury, establishing how and when the Reciprocity Trust will distribute company profits is currently on hold. Leaders of both the Peyote Way of Life Coalition and the Native American church of North America have been reluctant to engage with Journey Colab regarding the Reciprocity Trust, which is featured prominently in the company’s marketing material.
“Our unwritten spiritual laws don’t allow us to receive benefit from the extraction of our holy medicine or from our sacred heritage molecule that the pharmaceutical companies are trying to appropriate,” said Ryan Wilson, a peyote practitioner with the Oglala Lakota tribe and chair of the Native American church of North America’s legislative committee. “We don’t sell our way of life.”
While psychedelics have created a new gold rush, cultural anthropologist Feeney says the drive is about more than money.
“If someone’s goal is to have a psychedelic trip, then why do they need to use peyote or mescaline when there are so many other equally effective options like LSD or psilocybin?” he said. “I think it comes down to what non-Natives in the United States associate with the American Indian. They want a psychedelic trip and they want something that feels traditional, authentic and Earth-based.”
The proliferation of non-Indigenous ayahuasca ceremonies and plant-medicine retreats show just how mainstreamed Indigenous spirituality has become. Ayahuasca used to be largely off-limits to tourists and required an arduous trip into the South American jungle with the permission of a tribal community. Today it’s possible to attend luxury ayahuasca retreats in places like New York, New Mexico and Florida that cost thousands of dollars and promise access to Indigenous wisdom and sacred ceremonies alongside yoga, massage and other perks.
As a white person who is disconnected from his own European ancestry and Catholic religion, Feeney says he understands the desire to find meaning through Indigenous spirituality.
“There is a common emptiness among the European diaspora in this country,” Feeney added. “But, we can’t continue to perpetuate the harms of colonization by trying to fill that hole with Indigenous people’s culture.”
Back on the reservation, the peyote ceremony was drawing to a close. Diné participants greeted the rising sun with drumming and singing as shafts of white light pierced the hogan’s east-facing door.
Coals from the woodstove that had burned all night were used to form a giant heart on a square of dirt inside the structure. It was a testimony to the 12-hour spiritual marathon the participants had completed.
Hostess cupcakes and coffee were passed around. A rooster crowed. Eventually people made their way outside, where Native American church volunteers were cooking breakfast. Navajo was spoken more than English.
The student struggling to overcome alcohol abuse reported that he felt “energized and happy” as he held his girlfriend’s hand. They said the power of the experience was not just about ingesting peyote but also receiving support from their community and connecting to a tradition passed down by their ancestors.
Margie Whitney-Silva stood outside the hogan hugging the pickle jar to her chest. About half of the peyote tea had been consumed.
Having inherited the role of Native American church roadman from her father, Whitney-Silva takes the responsibility of “protecting the medicine” very seriously. She has been facilitating peyote ceremonies on the Navajo Nation for nearly two decades, ever since she first heard the sacred cactus singing to her from inside her deceased father’s medicine box.
When Whitney-Silva had arrived at the ceremony the night before, she said, she had been filled with grief. Her husband had died suddenly just a few weeks prior.
“I thought I was going to collapse, but then I heard the singing,” she said. “Our medicine is like a beating heart. As long as you have it, you will be OK.”