Native Americans are hoping to enlist Congress to help protect peyote, a psychedelic cactus used in religious ceremonies and coming under threat as a result of climate change and unsustainable agriculture practices.
Leaders of the Native American Church of North America (NACNA) held multiple meetings with congressional officers this week to advocate for peyote habitat preservation.
Peyote In America
In the desert near the U.S.-Mexico border, you can find a small cactus with white flowers. It’s called peyote, and a unique part of Native American culture. The plant is illegal in the United States, but it’s still protected under an amendment to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.
People use peyote to cause hallucinations in religious ceremonies. Some Native American tribes employ it for ailments such as toothache, pain, fever reduction, skin diseases, rheumatism, diabetes, colds, and blindness. Despite being a Class 1 drug, peyote and its use is protected under that 1994 amendment to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act—and now some lawmakers are calling for Congress to help protect it from climate change threats.
How Climate Change Is Affecting Peyote
Peyote is a cactus used as a medicine and sacrament by Native Americans for centuries. It’s also one of the most important natural resources in the American Southwest, and its population is in steep decline.
While there are no official estimates of how many people use peyote as a sacrament or medicine, it’s believed between 250K and 500K members of the Native American Church (NAC) do so regularly.
All natural resources are embedded in complex, social-ecological systems that are incredibly hard to manage sustainably. This means that even if you manage to harvest peyote without damaging other parts of the ecosystem (which is pretty difficult), it’s just not enough to keep up with the damage being done by other human activities like agriculture and development.
The population of peyote has been declining steadily since the 1980s, and we’ve seen an increase in extreme weather events like cold fronts that have been causing more damage than ever before. It’s possible this is due to climate change or simply increased drought conditions—we don’t know yet—but what we do know is that these conditions are having an effect on all species, including humans.
How Congress Can Help
The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and the Native American Church (NAC) are asking for Congress to step up and allocate funds for the protection of peyote.
Specifically, they are asking for a small sum of $5 million towards the protection of peyote. Compared to what the President’s Budget is asking for in discretionary funding for federal law enforcement ($35.3 billion ) or military spending ($778.3 billion), the $5 million request should come quite easily.
The NCAI hopes that the $5 million in funding will compensate landowners who agree to convert their property to protected peyote habitats.
The church is also asking for an advisory committee comprised of tribal, state and federal representatives, alongside private landowners, to support the long-term conservation of peyote in the U.S.
The need for balance is clear. The first and foremost goal should be to protect the indigenous population’s rights, traditions, and lands. This means ensuring enough supply to meet demand, but not so much that it becomes a problem in its own right.
A focus on preserving indigenous cultures is key because it allows us to keep these cultures alive, which we need to do if we want to continue seeing the benefits of peyote ceremonies, as well as other ceremonies that involve the use of substances such as ayahuasca or ibogaine.
Investing in better preservation of indigenous cultures will help ensure that people can continue accessing these types of ceremonies for years to come.
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