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Peyote: History, Tradition, Politics, and Conservation


Peyote: History, Tradition, Politics, and Conservation by Beatriz Caiuby Labate and Clancy Cavnar, eds. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger; 2016. Hardcover, 280 pages. ISBN: 978-1-4408-3400-4. $60.00.

This book is a welcome addition to scholarly publications regarding the spineless psychoactive cactus peyote (Lophophora williamsii, Cactaceae). The editors, Beatriz Caiuby Labate, PhD, and Clancy Cavnar, PsyD, have assembled a dozen essays by scholars, legal specialists, and a Native American Church leader on a range of topics. Readers with an interest in botanical entheogens (i.e., compounds that alter consciousness), indigenous North American spiritual practice, and native peoples’ religious rights will find a close reading of these essays rewarding.

Unlike previous publications in this field, these authors hail from several disciplines and illuminate distinct aspects of the human/cactus relationship. However, it must be mentioned that the book’s subtitle, “History, Tradition, Politics, and Conservation,” does not spell out the essayists’ primary concerns. A more accurate subtitle might be “History, Law, and Tourism.” The reader can easily find a wealth of information on peyote tradition from the classic studies on peyote use by Native Americans described in People of the Peyote: Huichol Indian History, Religion, and Survival by Stacy Schaefer, PhD, and Peter Furst, PhD (University of New Mexico Press, 1997). However, in the present book only one chapter, “From Solid to Frothy: Use of Peyote in the Cora and Huichol Easter in Western Mexico,” is concerned with “tradition.”

While several chapters explore the intricate and prolonged struggle for legal religious use by native peoples in the United States and Mexico, these processes are discussed from the perspective of court rulings, and the politics of supporting and opposing constituencies are discussed only in passing. In their instructive introduction, James Bauml, PhD, and Schaefer draw attention to the issue of conservation and raise an alarm regarding declining peyote populations in the Texas borderlands, apparently resulting from “improper harvesting techniques,” as well as habitat degradation resulting from “mining, agriculture, raising cattle, oil developments, and construction of wind farms.”

Kevin Feeney, JD, in his chapter “Peyote, Conservation, and Indian Rights in the United States,” addresses legal aspects of potential cultivation to reduce pressure on remaining peyote populations in this country. Bob Prue, PhD, offers insight into Native American Church members’ attitudes toward cultivation as a response to diminishing supply in his chapter, “Protecting the Peyote for Future Generations.” These authors are understandably preoccupied with the approach of a drastic shortfall in the supply of a sacramental substance crucial to spiritual practice, healing, and community for thousands of Native American Church members in the western United States and Canada. Reading between the lines, it seems clear that interested parties, many of whom are familiar with the myriad factors at play, have yet to generate a plan for the recovery of peyote populations in the United States and the protection of endangered Mexican populations.

The three chapters by Mexican specialists indicate that the cactus has been overharvested in that portion of its extensive range in the central deserts of northern Mexico known as Wirikuta, a complex landscape sacred to the Huichol people who reside far from peyote habitat in the Sierra Madre Occidental of western Mexico. This overharvesting is the result of sustained enthusiasm for an authentic experience by non-indigenous seekers, both Mexican and international, and from entrepreneurs’ extraction of “organic mescaline” for the recreational drug trade. A chapter on conservation from the biological perspective would have been illuminating and would justify, for plant-oriented readers, the use of the term “conservation” in the subtitle.

Readers not familiar with the existing literature will find brief but useful introductions to peyote biology, history, and Native American Church and Huichol peyote practices. Those versed in the basics will find new tales of the cactus’s adventures in humanland. For example, a chapter by Erika Dyck, PhD, “Peyote and Psychedelics on the Canadian Prairies,” not only documents the little-studied arrival of peyote ceremonialism in Canada but also brings to light the strategic and serendipitous confluence of Canada’s early psychedelic research scientists and the nascent Canadian Native American Church, then facing stiff government repression.

Also outstanding are three chapters on legal history and legal status of Native American peyote use in the United States: “Peyote, Christianity, and Constitutional Law” by Varun Soni, PhD, JD; “State and Federal Legal Protections for Peyote Use in the United States” by John P. Forren, PhD; and Feeney’s “Peyote, Conservation, and Indian Rights in the United States.” The Native American Church’s legal travails and victories have been detailed in previous publications, but these chapters, which are mostly accessible to non-specialist readers, uncover broader implications for Native American rights and the practice of minority religion in general.

This focus on legal aspects of peyote continues with Labate and Feeney’s chapter, “Paradoxes of Peyote Regulation in Mexico,” an exhaustive and groundbreaking account of international treaties, national legislation, and regulations pertaining to the protection and use of peyote. The authors highlight the “lack of recognition of mestizo folk uses, as well as of contemporary hybrid ceremonies.” They find this lack especially deplorable because of Mexico’s history of exchange and fusion between local and European cultural traditions. In their introduction, Bauml and Schaefer point to a corresponding discrepancy north of the border, questioning “whether or not it makes sense to have our governments continue to police racial boundaries as they did in the past.” Non-native use, either medical or spiritual, outside of recognized religious context is the elephant in the courtroom.

Perhaps the most notable contribution to peyote literature is made by Vincent Basset, PhD, and Mauricio Genet Guzman Chavez, PhD. Their chapters address issues arising from burgeoning international guided spiritual and cultural tourism in Wirikuta (the focus of Huichol pilgrimage) and from the embrace of practices derived from Huichol pilgrimage, and based in Huichol sacred landscape by Mexicans seeking connection with ancestral roots. The authors refrain from disparaging the aspirations and ceremonies of guides, tourists, and culture seekers, but make it clear that neither cactus nor Huichol pilgrims can sustain this attention.

—Bret Blosser, PhD
Moab, Utah