Alexander Dawson, Ph.D

Alexander Dawson, Ph.D

Alec Dawson has a PhD in History from SUNY-Stony Brook, and teaches at Simon Fraser University. He is the author of three books and numerous articles.
Alexander Dawson, Ph.D

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Human beings have sought out the sensory experiences associated with psychedelic drugs for millennia. On every continent and in every setting, they have sought out locally available substances that could produce some sort of altered state, sometimes doing so in a mystical search for meaning, and at others for pleasure, physical and mental healing, or to satisfy other desires. Peyote, for instance, has long been used by those seeking bravery, strength, and insight. It is used to quench thirst and to calm hunger. Indigenous and non-indigenous peoples alike have been drawn to peyote since Europeans first arrived in the America—their stories available to us through the accounts of early Spaniards in the Americas, wondrous accounts of the marvels of the New World, and through the sordid tales told in the records of the Spanish Inquisition.

Yes, the Inquisition. Peyote was the first drug ever outlawed in the Americas, banned by the Spanish Inquisition in 1620.  But it was not banned because indigenous peoples were drawn to its power. The Inquisition had no power over indigenous peoples. It was banned because Europeans and castas (people of mixed race) were drawn to it. In the Inquisition, we see stories of slaves grown preternaturally brave and strong under its influence, of mestizos turning to peyote in the hopes it would work as a love potion, of prospectors using it to find mines, even of priests being administered peyote to cure their troubled minds. Faced with the threat of the Inquisition, many feigned ignorance about the ban, or insisted that they had made a terrible mistake in taking peyote. Some were punished severely, lashed to the point of death. Others were imprisoned for long periods, even exiled on the Manila Galleon. What we do not see in these records is one of the most powerful institutions of social conformity in colonial Mexico taking an interest in indigenous uses of the cactus, except inasmuch as those individuals remained the shadowy purveyors of the drug, and of the knowledge of how it could be used.

Thus began peyote’s long association with race; an association that the cactus has been unable to shake to this day. Colonial Mexico was ruled as a racial hierarchy, and it should not be surprising that rules about dress, comportment, even about what one could legally consume would have been articulated along racial lines. These rules were the social glue of colonial society. Our problem is that four centuries later, we seem to have implemented a remarkably similar set of rules around contemporary peyote use.

Today in Mexico and the United States (where peyote use is more recent, and most traditions date to the twentieth century), the right to consume peyote is once again articulated along racial lines. In the US, one must be a member of the Native American Church (NAC), and have one quarter Indian blood, in order to have a legal right to consume what is otherwise a banned Schedule One drug. In Mexico, only people who can demonstrate a long tradition of indigenous peyote use can legally possess or consume peyote (this is the result of the 1971 Vienna Convention on Psychotropic Drugs). Reams of scientific evidence long ago demonstrated that peyote is not dangerous. Some researchers even believe that peyote has an untapped value as a therapeutic drug. Still, the ban, and its racialized quality, persists.

In essence, the ban must rely on one of two logics. If peyote is so dangerous that it must be classified as a Schedule One drug, and yet the state has determined that indigenous peoples can be allowed to use the drug, either it means that the modern state is acknowledging that it does not care about the physical health of indigenous bodies, while it does care about non-Native bodies, or it means that when an indigenous person consumes peyote, what happens is so profoundly different than what happens when a non-Native person consumes it that the effects cannot be said to be commensurate. As for these explanations, I think we should stipulate that modern states have long histories of not caring about indigenous bodies, but that at present, it would not be acceptable for any state to make this lack of concern so explicit.

This leaves us with the second possibility, which forces its own discomfiting conclusions. It may be that it is the value system of those who consume the peyote that makes the experience different, but this is a claim that assumes that the value system is so deeply embedded in the physical body that, when an indigenous person consumes peyote, the effect on the body is in fact somehow different that it would be on non-Native body. It does not allow for the possibility that a non-indigenous person might consume peyote in a traditional indigenous setting (in an NAC ceremony, or among Wixárika pilgrims in Wirikuta), and not be somehow endangered by the experience (that is, that the setting can be controlled enough to eliminate the danger). It assumes that because of culture, tradition, and custom, indigenous and non-Native bodies experience the peyote effect in profoundly different ways, and that what is safe for the former is dangerous for the latter.

Moreover, US law specially labels peyote as safe for any indigenous body, regardless of the traditions from which that person came. Any person who is one-quarter American by blood, and who joins a branch of the Native American Church of North America, is exempt from the ban. This arrangement aligns comfortably with the environmentalist claim that, because peyote habitats are endangered, access to these areas should be restricted to indigenous peyotists, because the loss of peyote would endanger their cultures. Non-Native peyotists, in this reasoning, are inauthentic interlopers whose desire for peyote is endangering an ancient Native tradition.

These arguments make me deeply uneasy. We are the products of a long history of racism, a long history in which the idea of racial difference—of profound essential difference— acted as the intellectual underpinning of systems that actively reproduced highly unequal social orders. It was the idea that the European, with his rationality, universal values, and progressive outlook on the world, naturally ruled over his mystical, static, and backward darker skinned compatriots that justified both colonial and post-colonial social orders. When I consider the legal status of peyote, I feel we come uncomfortably close to reproducing that worldview. I feel that especially strongly because these arguments are based both on a series of false historical claims and a substantial project of forgetting. They make indigenous peyotism, as a whole, ancient, which is simply not the case. Some indigenous groups adopted peyotism millennia ago, but others adopted it as recently as the 1930s, and did so in a way that was deeply linked to a series of modern concerns centered around alcoholism, settler racism, and a desire to celebrate a Native Identity that could not be subsumed into Anglo-American imperialism in the West. More than this, it erases a long history in which non-indigenous peoples have been drawn to peyote, often in ways that drew from or sought to replicate certain aspects of Native American traditions.

In keeping with our current social and legal moment, this last practice is lately described as an act of appropriation, literally as yet another act of theft from Native Americans. This claim in part rests on the assumption that, as subjects of the West, the non-Natives who are drawn to peyote destroy something sacred in the process of consuming the cactus, transforming a deity into a drug. It is rooted in the assumption that these moderns could not possibly understand the forms of mysticism present in Native American communities because they are a product of the rational West.

I have many problems with this claim, in part because it is rooted in a binary that forever locks Native Americans into their mystical “otherness,” and in part because it also locks non-Natives into a single category of meaning. They must take peyote as a drug, and not a deity, because they are incapable of understanding peyote as deity. More specifically, they must treat the “trip” they experience under the influence of peyote as metaphorical (understanding that it is a trick the drug plays on their minds) as opposed to literal (the belief that the peyote allows them to transcend the limits of their bodies). The former makes you a subject of the West, and the latter indigenous.

My problem is that I have met too many people, both indigenous and non-indigenous, who refuse to occupy the categories that modern states have carved out for them. I have met indigenous peyotists who described peyote both as deity and as drug, as antibiotic ointment for wounds, as excellent treatment for muscle and joint pain, and as an excellent hunger suppressant. And I have met numerous non-Natives who have insisted to me that, yes, they did in fact leave their bodies while under the influence—that their minds and spirits connected to the world and to other beings in ways that would have been otherwise impossible. In all of this, I have seen again and again how the subject of the West and its “other” do not easily fit into the stable categories we have created to make sense of the world.

All of this brings me around to race. The most obvious and profound way the idea that an indigenous peyotist and a non-indigenous peyotist differ in their experience with peyote remains through the lens of race, both in the law and in social norms (sure, we now often speak of “culture,” but given the way that these cultures are said to be bounded, static, and not open to newcomers, we cannot help but recognize that culture here is often used as a euphemism for race). And while that racial distinction has helped indigenous peyotists carve out a space for their practices, my larger concern is that it has reinscribed a long standing series of racial beliefs in ways that seem destined to reproduce the marginalization of indigenous peoples in the US and Mexico. Peyotists are mystical others, entitled to their religion, but not really suitable for modernity. We can see these assumptions in many practices in Mexico and the US.

Moreover, this racial exclusion continues to deny a long history of non-indigenous peyote use; and in this, the deeply meaningful role that peyote has played in the lives of many non-Natives over many centuries. These peyotists serve to remind us that various forms of cultural exchange have a long history in the Americas. Non-Natives have long seen in the indigenous practice of peyotism an opportunity to connect to magical worlds, to find truths otherwise unavailable to them, and to carve out forms of consciousness that were often at odds with society’s expectations. They remind us that the modern world and modern subjectivity has never been as coherent, or as universal, as it sometimes seems.

Given that we can be fairly confident that peyote poses no threat, these prohibitions should also be questioned for what it is that they seem to deny. One wonders not only if it makes sense that the curing power of peyote should be restricted to indigenous peyotists, but if to the contrary, it could be extended to contexts where other therapies have long proven inadequate. Could peyote—or even, simply, synthetic mescaline—be a tool in our ongoing and largely failed efforts to battle the scourges of drug addiction and depression? Psychiatrists and other researchers have long wondered, and even experimented, with great success at various moments. It may be that the needs associated with these afflictions will give us the impetus we need to reconsider peyote’s place in our imagination.

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