In my childhood home, the word “medicine” is how we referred to peyote (Lophophora williamsii). This medicine was stored in various forms, but mainly it was kept in jars and tucked away in our kitchen cabinets, used sparingly in dire times. At a very young age, I understood the sacredness of this medicine and was taught how to care for it when in my possession, use frugally, but most importantly, I was taught to respect it.
I have participated in ceremonial meetings, or what my family referred to as “peyote meetings,” since I was a young girl. I did not know this ceremony was the Native American Church until I was much older. My maternal grandmother told me I was brought into a meeting when I was an infant, and my mother told me I was a part of the ceremony while I was in the womb. I grew up in these meetings, sitting next to and observing my maternal grandmother, who I call Granny.
My first memory of the Church was lying behind my Granny in a teepee, listening to prayer songs, the water drum, the gourd rattle and my Grandma’s voice. I remember hearing her talk in Shoshoni, and though I will never recall her words, I knew that what she was saying was distressing and desperate. I remember sitting up, looking at her staring at the center fire, talking and praying in a way that I had never seen before. She was on her knees holding a hand-rolled cigarette, very collected, with a blanket wrapped tightly around her legs. She touched my leg with reassurance while still deep in prayer. I remember thinking I had better pay attention.
Over the years, I became more perceptive to the ceremony, and realized that I was a part of something very ancient and spiritual. I asked a lot of questions, which never seemed to tire my Granny; then, one evening in ceremony, I realized there wasn’t the abundance of medicine that I was used to seeing. Then, at ceremony a few months later with a teepee full of members, I not only recognized how little of the medicine was available, but that the peyote buttons were the size of pennies, if not smaller. This is when I asked myself, what is going on with the medicine? Why are the buttons significantly smaller in diameter than I remember, and why did it take me so long to recognize that peyote may be endangered?
I asked my Granny these questions and her answer was, “If the Creator wants us to have this medicine, it will always be here for us.” I didn’t challenge her response, but I continued to question what the reasoning was behind the size and the availability.
When I first began to question peyote depletion from a research perspective, I shared my lingering questions, and the idea of working on research regarding peyote, with my Grandma, and she encouraged me, saying that “somebody needs to do it.” I shared with her my thoughts and ideas for preservation; I also shared with her my worries and concerns about what other peyotists might think. Approaching preservation efforts by suggesting new laws and regulations is a very Western mentality, however, considering that very minimal regulation efforts are mandated through the Texas Department of Public Safety, it seems appropriate to start with peyotists, peyote dealers, and their harvesters.
Since 80 percent of the peyote habitat exists in Mexico 1, and only a small portion in the United States, the peyote habitat along the Rio Grande in Texas is considered a sacred and revered landscape; hence the name, “Peyote Gardens.” However, interviews that I conducted as part of my master’s thesis among Native American Church members reflect a disconnection between members and the Peyote Gardens. There appears to be a lack of awareness, focused particularly on the various threats of depletion of peyote within the habitat. In my research I also engaged in discussions with peyotists on what the Native American approach to preservation should be. What traditional ecological practices could be implemented to rebuild the connection between peyotists and the sacred peyote habitat?
Because I have a deep personal interest in the preservation of this medicinal cactus, and have witnessed and experienced the miracles this medicine has performed, I can no longer be passive regarding its depletion. As a Tribal member, a member of the Native American Church, and as an individual concerned with its endangerment, it is my obligation and responsibility to preserve this revered natural resource.
- Terry, M, Trout, K, Williams, B. & Fowler, M. (2011). Limitations to natural production of lophophora williamsii (cactaceae) i. regrowth and survivorship two years post harvest in a South Texas population. Journal of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas 5(2), 661–675. ↩