Roger K. Green
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The politics of recognition in the United States remains part of a colonizing apparatus designed for the erasure Indigenous Peoples.  Advocating for the use of psychedelics based on Indigenous practices demands consideration of what is ethically involved in seeking legal permissions for substances enhancing “religious experience,” frequently for an individual, rights-bearing subject.  Meanwhile, compromise after compromise has been offered to Indigenous Peoples for over 500 years, and religion is frequently at the heart of it.

Drug-schedules are part of a “civilizing” agenda, intimately tied to colonizing notions that have been traditionally housed within religious institutions.  The desire to abolish such regulations is laudable, but I think the psychedelic community could, in general, be much more informed about the historical erasure of Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island when it comes to religion.

One way to begin decolonizing requires attention to incommensurable and distinct worldviews between Indigenous Peoples and “eurochristians.”  The fifteenth-century papal bulls of discovery, which still operate in U.S. law, repeatedly encouraged Christians

Sacred Plants in the Americas II: Global Psychedelic Summit; April 23-25, 2021

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to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit.

Terra Nullius was the term for such territory.Such ideology founds governing structures across the “Americas,” as well as Australia and New Zealand. It also expresses a deeper worldview,which has not disappeared with the emergence of secular society or even avowals of atheism.  Mark Freeland (Sault St. Marie Anishinabek) defines worldview “as an interrelated set of cultural logics that fundamentally orient us to space (land), time, the rest of life and provides a prescriptive methodology for how to relate to that life.”

Law is one glimpse into the ideological articulation of worldview. In 1823, the Supreme Court decision Johnson v. M’Intosh religiously fused all of U.S. law with the Doctrine of Discovery.  Then, with the Monroe Doctrine, the U.S. declared to the world that South and Central “America” was its backyard.  These internal and external decisions display a worldview.

As Tink Tinker (wazhazhe, Osage Nation) has argued, “eurochristian” designates a worldview, a social movement, and not a “religion,” “identity,” or “ideology”—especially since “religion” is something Christians have historically used to distinguish themselves from others.

As Tink Tinker (wazhazhe, Osage Nation) has argued, “eurochristian” designates a worldview, a social movement, and not a “religion,” “identity,” or “ideology”—especially since “religion” is something Christians have historically used to distinguish themselves from others. Tinker notes an up-down image schema in addition to a (monotheistic) desert “skygod” as indicative of the eurochristian worldview. 

Ignoring colonial history is costly because of ongoing U.S. hegemony; yet, many ayahuasca enthusiasts accept a globalized worldview that is at once transnational and entirely economically privileged.

Ignoring colonial history is costly because of ongoing U.S. hegemony; yet, many ayahuasca enthusiasts accept a globalized worldview that is at once transnational and entirely economically privileged. Rhetoric of “healing” and “spiritual” progress surrounding psychedelic discourse can conveniently complement a cultural amnesia persistent in a nation that claims to value “religious freedom,” while all Native American “religion” was suppressed and outlawed from the 1790s until 1934. 

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The grossly inadequate Indian Reorganization Act nominally “restored rights” to practices, including peyote use. Toothlessly, the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) granted First Amendment Freedoms to American Indians, but the dream of liberal progress forgets that U.S. citizenship was imposed on American Indians in 1924 and the Indian Civil Rights Act (1968), subjecting them to the jurisdiction of the United States and U.S. civil law.

Advocating for religious use of psychedelics while alluding to American Indian practices too easily tightens the coffin of cultural assimilation while granting well-intentioned “psychonauts” a dissolution of implication in over 500 years of genocidal policies masked as “discovery.”  Do we really want to be Columbuses to the “undiscovered country” of the mind?

Advocating for religious use of psychedelics while alluding to American Indian practices too easily tightens the coffin of cultural assimilation while granting well-intentioned “psychonauts” a dissolution of implication in over 500 years of genocidal policies masked as “discovery.”  Do we really want to be Columbuses to the “undiscovered country” of the mind?

Efforts to use ayahuasca to help “drug addicts” buy into a civilizing initiative, but what makes ayahuasca or peyote more “sacred” than dandelions or rubber?  Ought we not see the extractive drama of the rubber and silver booms as entwined with the emergence of ayahuasca religions and ayahuasca tourism? 

The compelling interest is too-often framed in terms of individualized “experience.”  How do I get to ethically engage with “sacred medicines?”  What’s the “right” comportment?” “How does my individuated self properly merge through an expanded “ego state?” How do I find or create authentic community?”Aren’t we all “becoming Indigenous”?  These desires so often reflect a savior-drama deeply embedded in a eurochristian worldview, even when “religion” is not overt to the discourse.

In the United States, Protestant notions frame much public discourse, affecting both set and setting of how we conceive of “religion.” Assumptions about notions of “the sacred” and “belief” in such arguments remain embedded within eurochristian worldviews.

While the situation with respect to American Indians was somewhat improved in the frequently-referenced Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) (1993), from a decolonial perspective, all of these so-called “achievementsremain further compromises to the status of separate Indian Nations.  Current appeals to religious freedom for psychedelic sacraments—and especially ayahuasca—rely on RFRA without sufficient critical attention to history.

Interfaith efforts also constantly attempt to “translate” traditional words and beings such as Wakan Tanka into a monotheistic “Great Spirit,” implicitly superimposing an up-down hierarchy onto people who, according to Tinker, widely share a collateral-egalitarian one.

“Religion” has been devastating to American Indians.  On Indian reservations, missionary conquest remains a colonizing factor dominating social life.  There’s nothing “postcolonial.”  Interfaith efforts also constantly attempt to “translate” traditional words and beings such as Wakan Tanka into a monotheistic “Great Spirit,” implicitly superimposing an up-down hierarchy onto people who, according to Tinker, widely share a collateral-egalitarian one.

Erasure of American Indians has been the policy of eurochristian governing forces since well before the establishment of the US.  The same racism that would not abolish African slavery was predicated on Indian erasure.  Johnson v. M’Intosh, and the two major cases following it (Cherokee Nation v. Georgia 1831and Worcester v. Georgia 1832), initiated both Federal Indian Law, and Indian removal policies.  Alexander Weheliye and James Whitman note this legally founded the creation of concentration camps.

“Termination” policies toward American Indians in the 1950s were an ironically genocidal response to theU.N. Genocide Convention (1948).  The U.S. felt that by dissolving its   “reservations” (reducciones / encomiendas down south), it could sidestep the accusations of genocide increasingly being made by foreign powers such as the USSR during the emergent Cold War.

When advocates for “religious” use of psychedelics as sacrament refer to Native American use of peyote, for example, they implicitly include American Indians as “fellow citizens” to whom they ought to have “equal rights,” they have already (even if unintentionally) relegated Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island to a colonialist, liberal, and implicitly eurochristian abstraction.

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When advocates for “religious” use of psychedelics as sacrament refer to Native American use of peyote, for example, they implicitly include American Indians as “fellow citizens” to whom they ought to have “equal rights,” they have already (even if unintentionally) relegated Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island to a colonialist, liberal, and implicitly eurochristian abstraction. Alexander Dawson has usefully pointed out the hypocrisy surrounding the relegation of peyote to Native use and blood quantum laws. Blood quantum measures are pseudo-scientific and continue to be invoked by eurochristians wanting to claim Indian “heritage.”  The situation invites eurochristians to esteem “Native status” (DNA, blood, etc.) while bending to the legal apparatuses designed to erase Native existence.  Among eurochristians, there is a time-honored drama in the U.S. of “playing Indian,” as Philip Deloria has detailed.

Elizabeth Povinelli has shown how American Indians are caught in a crossfire of legal forms of recognition with respect to the politics of recognition surrounding ayahuasca use. Regarding Gonzales v. O Centro Espírita Beneficente União do Vegetal (2006), she says:

[At] at the moment that the Supreme Court upheld the Circuit Court of Appeals’ exemption [for an ayahuasca religion], the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) was removing all references to the “Native American Church” in its regulatory guidelines and replacing it with reference to members of federally recognized tribes. This change aligns the enforcement regulations of the DEA with the actual language of the AIRFRA [sic]which does not recognize members of the Native American Church, but recognizes Native Americans. So we have a decision that exempts members of the UDV on the basis of an analogy with members of the NAC, even as the DEA is refusing to recognize the equality of rights among all members of the NAC. (126)

Povinelli’s point is well-taken, but it’s also important for advocates of any religious use of controlled substances to remember that the UDV “success” is not technically an “exemption.”  At other times, groups promoting use of ayahuasca or peyote sell “Indigenous status” to increase membership.

Santo Daime, UDV, and the Native American Church as recognized entities are avowedly theologically Christian,despite the active avowal of Indigenous aspects.  While “hybridity” is more useful than a universalizing term like “synchronist,” up-down imagery and notions of sovereignty reveal the asymmetry of eurochristian influence, even when creative reversals evidence what Eduardo Viveiros de Castro characterizes as “Amazonian Perspectivism.”

Lawyers advocating for ayahuasca-oriented “religious recognition” sometimes note the supportamong conservative religious groups for “religious freedom”; yet, these are the same groups who actively fund the missionary-led genocide of Native Peoples throughout the Amazon, efforts historically complicit with U.S. foreign policy under the Monroe Doctrine.  Missionaries have long-fused “healing” rhetoric with civilizing agendas. 

Broader approaches might consider divesting in the demonization of “drugs.”  Those who advocate for the deregulation of “ayahuasca” (which is not one substance) or any other psychedelics on the basis that they are “sacred” or may help individuals with “substance abuse” addictions to other “drugs” participate in what Carl Hart calls “drug hierarchies,” and those drug hierarchies have always been more about xenophobia, racism, and sexism than about the “substances” themselves.

Much subtlety is lost by appealing to eurochristian concepts of “religion,” “interfaith,” and “comparative religions.”  While I do not begrudge the legal successes of groups who are able to use psychedelics for purposes they deem “religious,” the colonizing apparatus persists through liberal politics of recognition, as Glen Sean Coulthard (Yellowknives Dene) has detailed in Red Skin, White Masks.  Therefore, attempts to decriminalize and abolish drug schedules remain a higher priority than rhetoric employed to deem some substances more “sacred” than others.

Privileging eurochristian efforts to deem psychedelics sacred does little toward decolonizing, but the public excitement around ayahuasca’s diaspora gives us at least a chance to elucidate how the drama of ayahuasca diaspora emerges through colonialism.

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As Dawn Paley notes, the War on Drugs is really a war on people. Privileging eurochristian efforts to deem psychedelics sacred does little toward decolonizing, but the public excitement around ayahuasca’s diaspora gives us at least a chance to elucidate how the drama of ayahuasca diaspora emerges through colonialism.

Should we just “give up” on religious arguments?  Don’t they dismantle the master’s house one brick at a time?  Here’s my answer: In the US, racist policies following Plessy v. Ferguson.more broadly known as Jim Crow laws, were in place from the 1890s to the 1950s.  It perhaps seemed impossible in the 1930s to overturn Jim Crow laws.  Like Plessy v. Ferguson, we could overturn Johnson v. M’Intosh, rather than participating in its extension.  That would be a decolonizing effort that disrupts the politics of recognition. 

Art by Trey Brasher.


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