Turtle Island’s Largest Intertribal Religious Organization Wants to Protect Peyote. Here’s Why That’s So Important.

By Darren Thompson

Date: 04/19/2024

On Friday, April 12, the Native American Church of North America (NACNA) hosted a summit in Farmington, New Mexico focused on protecting peyote, a cactus medicine sacred to Native Peoples across Turtle Island. The one-day summit brought leaders from Arizona, New Mexico, and Oklahoma together with church delegates to discuss next steps for the largest American Indian religious organization in the country.

30 years ago, the U.S. passed into law a critical amendment to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA). The amendment protected the traditional use of peyote for spiritual practice by tribal citizens — but now the plant’s future is vulnerable for several reasons, say some tribal leaders.

Leaders say development near peyote's natural habitat, which in the U.S. only grows naturally on private lands in four counties in southern Texas, has decreased the supply of the plant. A growing community comprised mainly of non-Natives wants to bring psychedelic drugs into mainstream society and tout research that psychedelics aid in improving mental health.

Under the 1994 Amendment, only enrolled members of federally recognized tribes are permitted under federal law to possess, transport and ingest peyote in bonafide traditional ceremonies. However, the plant, and ceremonies that are centered around its traditional use are threatened by non-Native interests, including Big Pharma.

Official efforts to decriminalize mescaline, the active ingredient in peyote, have succeeded in places like Oakland and San Francisco, and others want to follow their lead. In February, California State Senator Scott Wiener introduced California Senate Bill 1012 — The Regulated Psychedelic-assisted Therapy Act and the Regulated Psychedelic Substances Control Act — which aims to decriminalize mescaline and other psychedelics.

If passed, the bill would authorize the establishment of a regulatory system that would control regulated psychedelic substances for use with regulated psychedelic-assisted therapy. While the bill mentions the respect for Indigenous cultures and their use of “psychedelic substances,” it would also legalize mescaline, which the federal government classifies as the active hallucinogenic ingredient in peyote.

“Mescaline is mescaline, whether it is peyote or other cacti,” says Justin Jones, Diné and General Counsel for the Native American Church of North America. “California cannot decriminalize mescaline in other cacti and say that peyote is exempt, because mescaline is mescaline, no matter what cactus you have.”

Protecting peyote use and habitat, church leaders point out, is an issue of tribal sovereignty. Only enrolled members of federally recognized tribes have rights protected under AIRFA, and in this way, the federal government has acknowledged the inherent sovereignty that tribes possess. Leaders of the Native American Church have traveled across Indian Country and even to Capitol Hill with the message that opening an avenue for legalized mescaline threatens one of the legal cornerstones of tribal sovereignty. They’re asking for strengthened enforcement of AIRFA, which was drafted to protect intrusions on traditional American Indian cultures and religions.

Over the past several years, non-Native individuals promoting the benefits of peyote have encouraged direct violations of the law. Mainstream interests want to extract the core of one of the last protected plants for American Indian people and profit off it. Over the next several months, the Lakota People’s Law Project will document and support leaders advocating for enforcement of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act’s 1994 amendment. While the possession, transportation, and use of peyote is protected, its natural environment is not. If Big Pharma achieves its goal of decriminalizing mescaline, peyote and its natural environment will surely be put at risk.

It’s also notable that efforts to incorporate psychedelics into organized religions are gaining steam, also challenging the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. While it is not our responsibility to challenge people and their prayers, it is our duty to fight for tribal sovereignty and protect sacred spaces of American Indian culture for our next generations.

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