Latest posts by Stacy B. Schaefer, Ph.D. (see all)

Deep in the heart of South Texas, where peyote (Lophohora williamsii), the mind-expanding cactus sacrament grows, is a place known by many as the “Peyote Gardens.” Here stands the modest white house of the late Mrs. Amada Cardenas, the first federally-licensed peyote dealer in the United States. This article is to honor Mrs. Cardenas; the telling of her story is intended to provide readers with a sense of inspiration, and encourage living with heartfelt compassion, as Amada did throughout her life, following the peyote way.

Amada was born in the hot, brushy terrain of the Peyote Gardens in 1904. She was brought up in a community where folk Catholicism was a way of life. She also learned the peyote trade from her father at an early age. When Amada married, she and her husband, Claudio Cardenas Sr., took on the livelihood of peyote dealers, peyoteros. For decades, they devoted their work day to harvesting peyote and making it available for sale to members of the Native American Church (NAC) from across the United States and Canada.

A number of these Church members made the pilgrimage to South Texas to pray with the peyote, visit with the Cardenases, and purchase a supply of this plant sacrament to take home to their Church and family. Those that could not make the journey bought dried peyote from Amada and Claudio Cardenas, who shipped it in the mail.

In 1918, the United States government recognized the NAC as a bona fide religion

The NAC is a syncretic religion that combines Christianity with pan-Native American beliefs. Peyote and its consumption is a vital part of this spiritual tradition. In 1918, the United States government recognized the NAC as a bona fide religion. Despite this legal status, members of American Indian tribes who worshipped in the NAC way endured numerous injustices and persecution regarding the use of peyote. In more recent years, federal legislation guarantees the right for registered members of the Church to use peyote in their religious practices.

Around the same time that the NAC was established, Mexican-Americans from Texas, “Tejanos,” who worked primarily as cowboys or vaqueros on land that had formerly been part of the Spanish land grants, began to provide peyote to Native Americans who traveled to South Texas. The Cardenases became sought out by people from Indian Country for their role as peyoteros. Their kindness and generosity extended beyond their relationship as peyote dealers; Amada and Claudio Cardenas genuinely cared about their visitors and participated in the prayer meetings that began to take place on their property.  They were also highly respected and admired by many Native Americans who came to their home.

One Navajo NAC member, Geri Arviso, recounted her experience as a little girl visiting the Cardenas’ at their home in Mirando City:

And I remember there was a lot of peyote in the backyard; they were really big… My mother really took it to heart that this was a sacred place, a really holy place, on the premises, and she was touched by the fact that there were people that lived way out here that respected the peyote just as we do… Everyone knew that Mr. and Mrs. Cardenas are the people who took care of the medicine out there and they would pray for them. (Schaefer 2015, p. 90)

Mrs. Amada Cardenas with Peyote. Credit: Stacy B. Schaefer.

On several occasions, the Cardenases risked prosecution and incarceration for providing peyote to NAC members

The Cardenases also experienced legal challenges with state and federal government officials over the interpretation, as well as implementation, of laws regarding the regulation of peyote. Nevertheless, Mr. and Mrs. Cardenas always stood strong in their support of Native Americans’ rights to acquire and use peyote in their religious ceremonies. On several occasions, the Cardenases risked prosecution and incarceration for providing peyote to NAC members. Leaders of the NAC recognized the Cardenas’ dedication to the Church and as caretakers of the peyote. In 1957, Claudio and Amada were appointed to be Texas Delegates-At-Large for the Native American Church of North America. Later on, in 1987, Amada was appointed as an officer of the Native American Church of the United States.

After Claudio’s untimely death in 1967, Amada was determined to continue on in the peyote trade, which she did for more than a decade. In the 1970s, the Texas Department of Safety (DPS) became the regulating agency of peyote for the federal government; Amada was one of the first peyote dealers to obtain the official peyote dealer permit. Over the years she realized how difficult it was to carry on the business alone, and eventually retired. For the rest of her life, she continued to open her door to generations of NAC members, many whom had become dear friends. She also extended her hospitality to others that were newcomers who wanted to meet her, as she had become legendary near and far. Anyone who came to her house, Native American or not, she welcomed warmly, offering her visitors food, a place to stay, a place to pray, and she allowed tipis to be put up on her property for specific meetings.

Through her example, Amada demonstrated the beauty that humanity is capable of expressing. In her elder years, she prayed the moment she woke up every morning, throughout the day, and at night in bed before she slept. Amada prayed for family and dear friends who were facing difficult challenges in their lives. She prayed for her neighbors, for Native Americans and non-Indians from afar who confided in her about their problems. She prayed for politicians, religious leaders, even people suffering in countries she had only heard about in the news.  Everyone was significant in her eyes and worthy of love. And first, and foremost, she prayed over the peyote.

Amada making a Chief Peyote. Credit: Stacy B. Schaefer.

At an early age, Amada learned from the Indians who came down to South Texas, and from her father and her husband, how to make “Peyote Chiefs.” The Peyote Chief is a large peyote top chosen for its size and numerous sections. After her husband Claudio passed away, she began to make Chiefs for people who requested them or for whom she wanted to gift such a powerful talisman or central ritual object. Amada selected these peyotes and spent days, even weeks, working with her fingers to form each one so that it dried with a flat bottom and fuzzy areoles on top that looked like a crown. Over the course of preparing a Chief, Amada put her good thoughts and healing prayers into each Chief for its future owner, blowing sacred tobacco smoke over each one in the process. Few people are deemed worthy to have such powers to make Chiefs, and Amada usually had a long list of Road Men who had requested her to make them.

She attributed her good health and long life to eating a little peyote every day; she passed away one month shy of 101 years old

Amada earned the reputation of being a healer. She attributed her good health and long life to eating a little peyote every day; she passed away one month shy of 101 years old. But she was also known to have healed others. One powerful example of her healing powers was shared by Loreta Afraid of Bear Cook, Lakota from Pine Ridge Reservation. She had come with her husband and others to Amada to acquire peyote, and for Amada to heal her husband, who was deathly ill with a festering boil about the size of a fist. Loreta recounts: 

she reached in the back of his leg and touched it, and knew where it (the boil) was. She blessed him and prayed for him… and she gave him peyote, she told him, eat this and you will get well from it, you’ll get home and you’ll be okay. And so we wanted to believe.

And so early the next morning, as the sun was coming up, she took the medicine and she showed it to the sun, and let the sun’s rays hit it, and we had to lift him out of the bed … she was saying in her own language prayers with this peyote and she gave it to him… so he forgot his pains for those moments and for me it was like she had performed a miracle because that thing (puss) that came out of his wound, it exploded, its just like it perforated the skin, just right as she is saying these prayers… so she told us to believe in the medicine and to believe in that prayer the power of prayer. And we did…. he survived it… (Schaefer 2015, pp.134–135)

Amada showered all of her visitors with blessings and sprinkled holy water upon them and their vehicles as they would take their leave. She explained about her actions that, “My prayers are ancient… I say prayers… for all the world, for everyone who is alive…that God lends them a hand, that He watch over them on the road… for their families, all of my friends, for all the world.” (Schaefer 2015, p. 233)

Indeed, the world would be such a kinder, more humane place if more people followed Amada’s example. Amada wanted to keep her property open as a refuge, a sacred place, for future visitors, regardless of their cultural heritage, religious traditions, or nationality. She saw that what united them all was that they respected and worshipped in the peyote way of hope, faith, love and charity.

After her passing in 2005, Amada’s only son, Claudio Jr., has tried to honor his parents’ tradition in accommodating visitors who have come to pray with the peyote. It has been a challenge for him, since he has lived in Minnesota with his family for many years. Several Tejanos have helped as caretakers, and some NAC members have helped with repairs and upkeep, but it remains a challenge to manage the property from afar.

Chief Peyotes on Miniature Navajo Rugs. Credit: Stacy B. Schaefer.

Peyote is also being overharvested, and the number and health of the peyote populations are dwindling precariously

The Peyote Gardens encompass less and less land as the terrain is altered with root plows for turning the brush into grazing lands for cattle, and the oil drilling rigs, and now the wind turbines also disrupt peyote habitat. Peyote is also being overharvested, and the number and health of the peyote populations are dwindling precariously. On the U.S. side of the border, The Cactus Conservation Institute is working to address this crisis. Additionally, the joining of several organizations has created the Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative, which is intended for indigenous communities that practice peyote traditions on both sides of the U.S.-Texas border.

These developments for conserving and protecting peyote in South Texas are promising. Amada’s place still remains a unique sanctuary that honors her wishes to keep the doors open. One can feel her presence as she watches over everyone who come to the Peyote Gardens to heal, learn, pray, and honor others, as they commune with this sacred, awe-inspiring plant. 

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