Evolving views on psychedelics could cast Indigenous use of peyote in new light

Peyote is a central element in the spiritual services of the Native American Church.

Peyote contains mescaline, a psychoactive substance. RAISA NASTUKOVA/GETTY IMAGES

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More than six decades ago, a Canadian chapter of the Native American Church organized a peyote ceremony in Saskatchewan.

Peyote, a cactus found in parts of the U.S. and Mexico, is an essential element in the religious services of the NAC.

Eaten or drunk as tea, the plant contains mescaline, a mind-altering substance said to have healing and spiritual purposes.

As examined in a study by historian Erika Dyck, the peyote ritual that took place in October 1956 in Saskatchewan provoked controversy.

“The ceremony near the Red Pheasant reserve embroiled the participants in a complex debate about Native religious and political rights, the state’s authority to interfere in these ceremonies, racialized discourses about health, medicine, and addiction, and wider concerns about hallucinogenic substances as agents of moral decay,” Dyck and co-author Tolly Bradford wrote in the paper published in the Journal of Canadian Studies in 2012.

With some government officials focusing on peyote as a narcotic, the political debates, according to the authors, “missed the deeper implications of peyotism on the Prairies”.

“According to members of the church as their voices were recorded and amplified through the medical observers, peyote played a comparatively minor role in stimulating a healing process that began addressing the wounds caused by colonialism,” Dyck and Bradford wrote in “Peyote on the Prairies: Religion, Scientists, and Native-Newcomer Relations in Western Canada”.

In a phone interview, Dyck, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan, notes shifting attitudes toward psychedelic substances, including peyote.

“The image of psychedelics as inherently dangeous or a kind of drug that causes violence is really changing dramatically,” Dyck observed.

The Canadian academic is eager to witness how this emerging landscape will shape future discussions about the use of plants like peyote among some people in Native communities.

“I think it will be interesting to see whether that will again bring out this conversation about Indigenous use of plant medicine, including peyote and perhaps especially peyote,” Dyck said.

Peyote occupies what Dyck describes as an “awkward” category in Canada’s drug laws.

Under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, it is illegal to possess mescaline, but not peyote.

In the U.S., the NAC is exempted from drug legislation with respect to the use of peyote.

However, the exemption is not granted to all Native American groups.

In January 2020, Santa Cruz in California became the third city in the U.S., after Denver and Oakland, to decriminalize peyote and other psychedelic plants and fungi.

When asked about the current use of peyote among Indigenous people in Canada, Dyck said that she doesn’t know.

If there are peyote ceremonies taking place, the academic assumes that these are not publicized.

“We would probably not hear about them,” she said.

Dyck offers a likely explanation, based on the sense she gets from conversations among Indigenous as well as non-Indigenous groups.

“There’s still quite a lot of stigma around it,” the professor said.

It’s not only changing attitudes toward psychedelics that may shape new discussions around peyote.

Dyck also pointed to the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which laid out in its 2015 report a roadmap to a better relationship between the country’s Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

“There may be a different kind of conversation that takes place in Canada,” she said.

Follow Carlito Pablo on Twitter at @carlitopablo

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