Earlier this fall, leaders of the Native American Church of North America (Nacna) made a historic trip to Washington DC to meet with lawmakers about the need to protect peyote – and, with it, the faith of hundreds of thousands of Native people.
Over the course of three days, they sat down with more than 20 lawmakers, federal officials and representatives from the Biden administration. In each meeting, they distributed photos to better illustrate the grim situation: huge swaths of land, in an area of southern Texas known as the Peyote Gardens, brutally cleared by root plowing.
These gardens, straddling both sides of the Texas-Mexico border near the Rio Grande, are pockmarked by the spineless peyote cactus, which contains mescaline, an active hallucinogenic ingredient. On the US side, licensed peyoteros harvest the crowns of the plant, known as buttons, before selling them, to Native people. Root plowing, however, a widespread practice that not only removes the cactus but destroys its chance of regrowth, is now endangering a sacred Indigenous practice dating back at least 6,000 years.
“We’re in dire straits here,” said Justin Jones, who is Navajo and general counsel to Nacna, a religious body with more than 300,000 members built around the sacramental use of peyote. “I’m probably the fourth generation, and I’m already thinking about my children and my grandchildren, my great grandchildren. How are we going to be able to sustain this and keep it going?”
What has Nacna so concerned about the peyote habitat is the role the cactus plays as a holy medicine. It is consumed during all-night healing prayer ceremonies inside a hogan, a traditional Navajo building, or a tipi. The ceremony may be called in response to a member of the community being sick, and involve singing and drumming.
Jones, who grew up within the practice of the peyote ceremony, described the cactus as a medicine for physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health, and “the heart and soul” of the all-night peyote ceremony.
“It really does give you that sense of identity, sense of belonging, sense of security,” he said. “It’s your culture, it’s your identity, it’s your language, it’s your song. It’s everything about you as an Indigenous person.”
Although a schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act and thus prohibited broadly in the US, under the 1994 amendment to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, Native people are permitted to use peyote for religious purposes.
Over the past 50 years, however, accessible peyote harvesting areas have diminished due in part to development in southern Texas. Today, the round, blue-green cactus can be found growing wild in dense, thorny scrub and across limestone hills primarily in only four US counties, all of them in southern Texas.
According to Steven Van Heiden, president of the Cactus Conservation Institute, the remaining plants are threatened by urban development, grazing and energy infrastructure developments, such as wind turbines and oil and gas projects.
Legal and illegal harvesting have also put pressure on the plant’s population – and a growing movement to legalize peyote and other plant-based psychedelics for the general public could further exacerbate the situation.
Peyote has increasingly made its way into the mainstream, with actors like Matthew McConaughey and the director Oliver Stone publicly describing their experiences with it. Peyote gel is sold online in a wide array of products marketed for pain relief . The cities of Oakland and San Francisco have taken steps toward decriminalizing the cactus, along with other plant-based psychedelics.
Native peyote practitioners say they are concerned about the toll legalization would take on an already small selection of harvestable cactuses in the US.
It really does give you that sense of identity, sense of belonging, sense of security
“A lot of people want to tap into it because they see the potential, the almighty dollar,” said the Nacna president, Jon Brady. “They’ve done that to a lot of our medicines already … This is kind of the last of our medicines of our Native American people, so we’re trying every avenue to have its protection.”
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list of threatened species categorized the cactus as vulnerable beginning in 2013, and in 2017 it warned that at least 30% of the population will likely be lost. “This reduction is very likely to be irreversible given that whole individuals are harvested and population regeneration is thus unlikely,” it stated.
Van Heiden said the concern is not necessarily that peyote will become extinct, but that it will no longer be accessible to Native people.
“There’s always going to be some place where nobody can harvest or some remote place where peyote is growing that nobody knows about,” he said. “So the actual species itself is not presently facing extinction. But there is a serious threat with access.”
Already, the peyoteros and their laborers who harvest and sell peyote, sometimes by gaining access through lease agreements, have a limited area from which to draw, as lands with harvestable population sizes in the US cover less than 7,000 sq miles.
The cactuses are also extremely slow growing – taking upward of 16 years to mature from seed in the wild. It’s best practice is to wait at least eight years between harvests, so they have time to photosynthesize and rebuild the stores in their underground stems, explained Van Heiden.
Jones said in the last 20 years the size of the buttons (the crowns of the plant, which are sold for consumption) has shrunk: what were once at least five inches across now barely reach an inch. “What it’s telling me, I think, is that the amount of consumption is higher than the rate of regrowth,” he said. At times, the market has been completely dry.
Although data on harvests is limited, in 2015 there were about 1.3m buttons sold, according to Texas department of public safety data provided by the Cactus Conservation Institute. That was about 275,000 fewer buttons than in 2005 and nearly 1m fewer than in 1995.
Nacna has been fighting back, said Brady, advocating that the federal government respond to root plowing and voicing concern about the growing decriminalization movement.
“The peyote is already government protected, but it’s not protected in the natural habitat,” Brady said. “What I would like to see is the peyote habitat conservation [and] preservation.”
Last month Nacna, in collaboration with the National Indian Education Association, hosted the US House natural resources committee in Oklahoma City for a two-hour listening session about the importance of the medicine and what losing it could mean. At the beginning of the new year, Nacna leaders are expected to meet with the secretary of the interior , Deb Haaland, the first Native person to serve as a cabinet secretary.
There are several potential paths toward protection for peyote and its habitat, as outlined by Nacna. One involves the federal government allocating $10m for a pilot peyote habitat preservation program, in which lands are enrolled in conservation easements and landowners are compensated based on their acreage.
Another suggestion is to protect peyote through the Farm Bill, which is up for reauthorization, opening an opportunity to add a provision to incentivize natural habitat preservation to protect peyote.
Nacna is not the only group working to protect peyote. The Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative (IPCI) opened a nursery last year in southern Texas to cultivate peyote. The baby cactuses grow in a large space surrounded by native soil, trees and shrubs; after several years, they will be replanted on local ranches, said Miriam Volat, executive director of the IPCI.
“Our goals are to have 2m babies a year for replanting,” she said. “That’s the scale that the nursery is set up.”
The IPCI also has a distribution house for Native people to come and gain access to the medicine.
“If there’s going to be anything happening for us, it’s going to have to be us to make that happen,” said Steven S Benally, who is an IPCI peyote conservationist and a Diné tribal member. “Relying on some outsiders to take care of what our needs are – I think history has taught us that’s never going to happen.”
In that light, Nacna has also been in talks with local landowners, hoping that by opening up communication the landowners will help to protect the habitat or at least reach out to them before root plowing so Nacna members can harvest the peyote first.
“A lot of them don’t even know,” said Brady. “It’s just like a plain old plant to them.”