Texas' Peyote Hunters Struggle to Find a Vanishing, Holy Crop

Harvesting peyote is legal for only three people, and all of them live in Texas

Mauro Morales picks his way through mesquite trees and prickly pear cacti. The 65-year-old cautiously steps around a thicket of tasajillo, or rattail cactus, just down the road from his small ranch near Rio Grande City. Tasajillo thorns stick you like a fish hook, he says. Then there's the cola seca—the rattlesnake—another job hazard.

"We're far enough from a hospital that you probably wouldn't make it if you got bit," he says in a quiet voice, as though a snake might take his words as an invitation to strike.

Cactus spines and the occasional rattle snake are all in a day's work for Mauro Morales, one of three legal peyote hunters in Texas.
Daniel Kramer
Cactus spines and the occasional rattle snake are all in a day's work for Mauro Morales, one of three legal peyote hunters in Texas.

Morales has been wandering through the chaparral for half an hour, staring at the ground. He combs over small rocks with a stick. Finally, he spots a greenish knob, sprouting out of the ground under the tasajillo thicket.

"There's some medicine, right there," he says. It's a lone peyote button, about an inch in diameter, way too small to harvest. It'll be another five years before this peyote is mature. As he navigates the hostile flora, he points to three more small peyote plants, all of them too young to cut.

"I used to collect as much in a week as I now do in a month," he says. "I don't know what's going to happen to the medicine."

Morales almost never utters the word "peyote." For him, the small green-gray cactus is a sacrament with miraculous healing powers, hence his word for it: medicine.

What makes peyote different from just about any other cactus in the world is that it naturally produces mescaline, a psychedelic alkaloid that can induce hallucinations lasting for days. It was mescaline that opened what Aldous Huxley called "the doors of perception" to "the divine source of all existence."

Before LSD, before Ecstasy, there was peyote.

Peyote and mescaline are both classified by the federal government as Schedule I Controlled Substances. This puts them in the same legal category as crack and heroin, drugs that, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, have "a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision."

Much recent scientific research contradicts the DEA's verdict on peyote. There is little evidence of any adverse long-term effects on physical health and virtually no evidence that it is addictive.

Still, harvesting and selling peyote is illegal for all but three people in the entire country. And those three people happen to be located in Texas, operating in a swath of South Texas between Rio Grande City and Laredo.

These people—Morales is one of them—are called peyoteros, people who make their living selling peyote buttons to the approximately 250,000 Indian members of the Native American Church. Only 20 years ago, there were dozens of peyoteros in small towns along the border. Now, two of the three still working are in their 60s. Meanwhile, membership in the Native American Church is growing, and demand for peyote is outstripping the limited supply.

For Native American Church members, this 70-mile stretch of land used to be known as the "peyote gardens"—the only place on U.S. soil where the cactus grows in its natural habitat.

"I talk to the medicine every day," Morales says. "I pray to it. I know it works, and I want to help the Natives in any way I can."

In his 1976 doctoral dissertation, "Man, Plant and Religion: Peyote Trade on the Mustang Plains of Texas," the geographer George Morgan speculated that Hispanic traders first bought peyote from a Mexican tribe called the Huichol. To this day, the Huichol harvest the cactus during their annual 250-mile pilgrimage from their homeland in the Sierra Madre to a sacred mountain in central Mexico. The pilgrimage takes them four weeks by foot and along the way, in the desolate Chihuahuan desert, they eat peyote, hunt deer and train a new generation to become shamans.

The Huichol, unlike most tribes, were never quite conquered by the Spaniards. They resisted Christianity and continue to practice an animist religion based on mystical beliefs about peyote, deer and corn. Morgan discovered that Mexicans brought peyote across the border and started trading it with marauding Indian tribes from Oklahoma in the late 19th century. These tribes then passed on the cactus to other Indians to the north and west. Soon, Indians from California were arriving in South Texas in search of the fabled peyote gardens.

Anglo authorities didn't look kindly upon the Hispanic-dominated peyote trade. In 1909, a U.S. special officer named William "Pussyfoot" Johnson bought up all the peyote in South Texas and burned it. According to Morgan, the operation worked for almost a year, until Johnson ran out of money. The Bureau of Indian Affairs convinced the post office to ban peyote sent by mail in 1917, but the ban had little effect since most Indians preferred to travel to the peyote gardens themselves. The post office lifted the ban a few years later.

After these early conflicts, Anglos mostly shrugged their shoulders and left peyoteros to their business, which was starting to flourish. Indians from Oklahoma started arriving on the Texas-Mexican railway with empty burlap sacks, which they would fill with thousands of buttons of dried peyote. In some places—such as the now-deserted town of Los Ojuelos—the peyote trade was the basis of the entire economy.

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19 comments
Dyaln571
Dyaln571

God's flesh is for those who feast in humility of their own lack of knowledge. The quest for the truth is what makes us alive. Yatahe.

PCP Addiction
PCP Addiction

The Term “PCP” refers to Phencyclidine which is a synthetic drug sold in form of tablets, capsules or white colored powder. It is one of the hard drugs that could be smoked, snorted or swallowed. The drug came into being in the 1950’s as anesthetic drug but it was never approved for human use because of the many negative effect that comes with it.PCP has some streets names such as ‘angel dust’, ‘ozone’, ‘wack’, ‘rocket fuel’ and other funny names which is usually given by its users especially the addicts among them.The medical system of treating PCP addiction is also known as pharmacological treatment. This involves the use of certain drugs. The process actually begins with hospitalization whereby the addict is admitted and properly diagnosed.

Gary Terry
Gary Terry

No one has the right to decide what's best for another. That's the gift of choice from the Great Spirit. Anyone who stands between you and that inalienable right are not doing it for anyone's benefit but their own. Don't be fooled. Nature is the greatest teacher of all. Blessed be! Aho!

Akichita
Akichita

Peyote is powerful, and good medicine. It hurts my heart to hear bad words spoken of him. People say "they see the harm peyote brings on people" well i have seen the good. peyote is medicine. you must respect it or you will not go far. peyote is like a jet engine, you can fly to the clouds and touch the face of Creator, or, you can improperly angle it and fly right in to a tree. it is not something outside of you. the power is in your hands.I pray that everyone who needs the medicine can get to it, from now to forever. I wish the Peyoteros and the Wonderful People in the NAC prosperity and good and long lives my brothers and sisters.AHO!

mike
mike

I think that the law that allows ONLY Native Americans to consume/possess Peyote is absolute garbage. I thought that the gov't did not see the exsistance of a god or religion? Why should they have the right to consume something that I can't? I understand fully that they use it in a "Bonafied religious ceremony", so who's to say thats not my intent. I believe that there is no recreational usage of drugs, because all mind-altering drugs are taken exactly for that. You don't just take them to be "cool" you take them because you wish to gain some insite, spiritually or mentally from them.

M Gopher
M Gopher

In response to White Eyes: Being a life time traditionalist, I reject Christianity as superior to my culture. Christianity is what brought the scourge of peyote---as you can ask any peyote user, they believe in Jesus, just like you. Your racism is evident in your assumption that the inferior culture lost....Bear in mind the Vatican and organized Christian institutions have been and continue to be supported by military institutions and this has been the church-state modus operandi for centuries--it is the foundation of manifest destiny and the pillage and plunder of indigenous societies, wealth and culture. Native people are not vanquished people BUT FOR a constitutional government that barred African Americans the right to vote for almost 100 years after its founding, for women even longer, and citizenship to native people until 1924. One can hardly call that a true democracy. The doors to democracy were only opened after the plunder had been had.

As for the Peyote followers: The Native American Church should be held to liability as to the long term effects of peyote. What scientific evidence exists that this is a safe drug to use? I only agree with White Eyes in that peyote will destroy a person's mental health. I have seen this happen first hand, it is as destructive and even more pervasively harmful to native people than the introduction of alcohol. Peyote is not aboriginal to most if not all northern tribes and its use should be banned.

Doug White Eye
Doug White Eye

As the great French explorer and writer De Tocqueville said after his trips to the United States in the 1830s with respect to the American Indian: Two cultures collided, the inferior culture lost. Enough with this stupid romanticization of the natural state of the American Indian. Peyote will make you crazy. Worshipping nature is hip now, but asinine. Nature is cruel, it kills the young, weak, and infirm, civilized human beings do not. We as human beings stand outside nature in a sense. It is a huge farce that the Indians were "at one" with the environment. They were a tough and formidable foe, and we respect them for that, but they lost. Let's quit playing the "noble savage" victim game and while we're at it, ditch La Raza and their delusions as well.

Doug White Eye
Doug White Eye

As the great French explorer and writer said after his trips to the United States in the 1830s with respect to the American Indian: Two cultures collided, the inferior culture lost. Enough with this stupid romanticization of the natural state of the American Indian. Worshipping nature a la Darwin is asinine. Nature is cruel, it kills the young, weak, and infirm. We as human beings stand outside nature in a sense. It is a huge farce that the Indians were "at one" with the environment. They were a tough and formidable foe, we respect them for that, but they lost. Let's quit playing the "noble savage" victim game and while we're at it, ditch La Raza and their delusions as well.

Cheyenne
Cheyenne

TO Ojibewa, How can you claim to be a tradtional Native American, when you advocate for and approve of the eradication of peyote? One the beliefs, I as a proud Chippewa-Cree,Sioux-Assinoboine woman was taught, was to protect and respect the Mother Earth. That the Creator placed us on this earth to care and protect her, which also include all the plants and animals. For you to support and advocate that Peyote be eradicated is Wrong. I fully support your right to your beliefs. However, you DO NOT have the right to force your beliefs on myself or others. Whether or not you choose to believe that Peyote is a medicine and a blessing, is your choice and right. I, however, also have the same right and choice to believe otherwise. I have seen the blessing of Peyote. I have seen the wonderful blessings that come from using this medicine. Another thing, for you to "claim" that the Cree's from Montana are not members of a federally fecognized tribe. YOU ARE WRONG! before you try and tell people how they should believe, find out what being a traditional native means. To the ranchers. For you to fence and distroy Peyote is also wrong. I hope and pray, that you will never have anyone, bar you from your path, to the creator. That you will, never be persecuted, for you beliefs. How sad that we as a country will send our Men and Woman to die, in other countries,so that they can have the rights and freedoms that we supposedly do. That we will go to war so they get the right to choose however they want. when we won't stand up or speak out and protect the rights of the Native Americans who believe in using Peyote as a medicine. I thought that one of the founding principles of this country was the right to choose and believe the way you want and not be barred or persecuted for those beliefs. Wasn't that the reason given for the extrimination of millions of Native American people? How can we teach our young childern that each and every day? Yet, not protect members or followers of the Native American Church right to worship and believe in using Peyote? I hope and pray that the creator will open your eyes and your hearts, so that you would see the blessings he gives us in the plants he created for us to use. That the Creator will allow you to see that even though we may follow diffent paths to reach him. None of those ways are wrong, if we all end up in the same place in the end, its just we chose to take a different road, and he loves us regardless. Thank you for allowing me to express my thought and views on this matter, I hope it gives you a glimpse into seeing why protecting Peyote and the rights of others to believe the way they choose is important.

Emarthle
Emarthle

I disagree "Ojibway", I am of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma & believe that peyote should continue to be used. It's been here for thounsands of years, & yes not all tribes used it so why don't you leave it alone & let the rest of the nations take part in it. You don't speak for all the Natives!

M GOPHER
M GOPHER

I would like to express my support for the ranchers to continue to fence their land and destroy the peyote plant. The main threat to true native American culture is this evil thing. The only people that should be eating peyote are the people that live by it and can access it in the locality. For all other tribes, access, use and possession of peyote should be permanently banned. Not all tribes embrace peyote and as an Ojibwe Indian, it is forbidden in our tribe. Anyone that says otherwise is a liar. The Crees of Montana are ardent followers of the Native American Church. They are not legally descendants of a federally recognized tribe, so therefore, their use of this product is ILLEGAL!!! Any peyotero that is caught supplying these people can face prosecution. Please ranchers, help save the authentic cultures of Native America and destroy the peyote plant when you see it, deny access to peyoteros, its your Constitutional right of liberty and privacy over your property and eradicate this menace from American society. I am a traditional, drug free Native American. PLEASE STOP THE PEYOTE DRUG TRADE TO NORTHERN TRIBES, THIS IS NOT OUR ORIGINAL CULTURE.

captainfootlong
captainfootlong

@mike  Atleast let us keep our sacred plant!   It takes many years for peyote to mature and if it was accessible to everyone, it would be extinct.

James R Collins
James R Collins

you live in their back yard because the government saw it as their right from god. let them have at least this

Gary Terry
Gary Terry

I couldn't agree more... the distinction of native/non-native is just another bullshit law to keep you from what you need, (They don't want the sheeple to wake up.) and believe me "white man" are the one's who need this Great Plant Teacher's Medicine more than anyone else at this point in time. (I should know. I'm one too) The scourge of western society has placed us and our world at the brink of extinction due to the excessive greed and self righteousness of it's Abrahamic religious perpetrators. The delusion some people live under is staggering. If GOD is an omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient being... How can something GOD created be wrong? All herb bearing seed you shall use as meat. So says the bible... and yet "shite man" can't even abide by that. Pahana will be with us soon my brothers and sisters... soon we shall be free of "the west's" delusions. Don't be discouraged! The time is at hand! Celebrate and praise the Goddess! Aho!

doitoroko
doitoroko

You poor fool! peyote has been used  for thousands of years and there is no indication whatsoever  that it destroys  people's mental health I don't know what you saw "first hand" but I've seen also " first hand "that it doesn't. Let me tell you this if you think people can't be trusted to decide what  they put in their bodies then move to North Korea where they  keep people under control to prevent them from making  any "wrong" choices

al.s
al.s

I challenge you Doug, four years later as of 6/17/12, years later regarding your above post, I hope you are one of the few who followed the nuclear power plant in Fukushima post the earthquake/sunami on i 3/11/11. The potential devestation to life in the northern hemisphere due to the nuclear accident at Fukushima in Japan is not reported here in the United States. Do you still believe the inferior culture lost? I know what the De Toqueville believed, and he had affect on future progress, but do you believe he was correct in his observation? Unbridled nature is a brute and agony, but at least we know the variables for the most part. Wind, Cold, Heat, Cracking Earth, Sky Boulders, Poisonous Plants, Poisonous reptiles and most animals with large teeth, land or sea. De Tocqueville was prejudiced by perfume. Perfume and that is what it is, icing, gravey, a sweetness that shortcuts the smell of labor and death. Has your ipad given you as sense of grandness?

al.s
al.s

Inferior because they did not have the means to master the elements of the "black swan" of their nightmares. There was no powerful Captain Kirk to lead to "best global practices" with trusty Mr. Spock to illuminate the glorious path to empathy and love.

al.s
al.s

truth comes from women and men who are tolerant, who do not hate or demand but who have witnessed and lived a life, of miracles and tragedies and gently nudge people along a path of wisdom and freedom of choice, liberty really. The woman who wrote this post is a gal I wish was my friend, I would be honored to have her as a friend. I am of a different "group" where so few think as I do or care for much more than the comforts money brings. My kingdom for a smiling faces around a campfire, and a wise one guiding me to healing, or just alone among then with a little peyote helping this misplaced 55 yo white woman who craves nature and rest from worry.

 
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