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Clay Coppedge

Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Peyote Gardens

by Clay Coppedge
In an environment full of cacti, somebody adapted one particular and not very prolific cactus into an intoxicant, a hallucinogen and a sacrificial rite that has spanned several centuries and diverse theologies. Peyote, a small spineless cactus native to the deserts of southwest Texas and Mexico, has been used by native peoples for thousands of years; studies done on some peyote buttons found in a cave on the Rio Grande River suggested that indigenous people have used it for at least 5,000 years.

Peyote Cactus
Peyote Cactus
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Other than parts of Mexico, peyote grows wild in four Texas counties, mostly in the Chihuahuan Desert. Before it took its place in the drug culture in the late 1960s, peyote was fairly plentiful and, for some people, perfectly legal. It was also fairly obscure; few people had heard of it.

At last report, three people in the United States are legally allowed to gather and sell peyote but they must sell it to card-carrying members of the Native American Church, which includes peyote as a sacrament. All three legal peyoteros live in southwest Texas near the Rio Grande. Members of the church, who also have to be at least one-quarter Indian, are the only people who are also allowed to ingest peyote, either by eating the buttons or brewing them into a tea, as part of the church’s rites.

The Huichol Indians of the Sierra Madre in Mexico were among the first people to incorporate peyote into their religious ceremonies. The Huichol make a 250-mile pilgrimage each year from their home to a sacred mountain where they take peyote, hunt deer and train shamans. Indians in South Texas used it as early as 1716. The Kiowa Apaches say they got it from Lipan Apaches in the 1880s and shared it with the Kiowa and Comanche.

Part of that ready acceptance was tradition and part of it was timing. The Comanches and other tribes had been recently subdued and moved to reservations and were quickly lost to the government and public’s attention in a mad rush to settle the last vestiges of the West that the tribes had so recently departed. Comanche chief Quanah Parker revived its use on the reservation as part of religious/healing ceremony and the drug’s use soon spread to other tribes.

Its use as part of the tribes’ religious ceremonies made it exempt from federal drug laws after the Native American Church, the sole legally recognized practitioner of peyotism, was formally incorporated in 1918. The church’s membership now is listed at about 250,000 and growing. Texas passed an anti-peyote law in the 1960s but the law exempted members of the Native American Church who were at least 25 percent Indian.

In the late 1960s, peyote went from being an obscure cactus and rare hallucinogenic to the forefront of popular culture after Carlos Castaneda wrote a series of best-selling books that focused on a shaman named Don Juan Matus and peyotism. The books turned out to be mostly fiction but that did not stop interest in peyote. Poachers arrived in South Texas communities like Mirando City and Roma en masse and soon put a serious dent in the peyote supply.

Much of the land where it once grew wild was fenced by ranchers, and trespassing laws were rigorously enforced, sometimes with extreme prejudice. That can be considered a mixed blessing for the cactus itself because peyote still grows wild on some of that land, but the peyoteros access to it is illegal and risky.

Comanche chief Quanah Parker is generally considered to be the founder of the Native American Church, and he was one of its most forceful and effective advocates as he lobbied the government for its acceptance as a sacrament for native people. Friendships with influential cattlemen like Burk Burnett and Charles Goodnight and the admiration of President Theodore Roosevelt no doubt helped those efforts.

Coming as it did on the cusp of defeat, peyotism as practiced by many members of the Native American Church incorporates a Christian element and is considered by some to be a Christian cult. In defense of the religion, Quanah once said, “The white man goes into a church and talks about Jesus. The Indian goes into a tipi and talks to Jesus.”

Early peyote trade was scorned by U.S. authorities. A U.S. special agent, William “Pussyfoot” Johnson once bought all the peyote in south Texas and burned it. He soon ran out of money but peyote still grew wild. After that, peyote was mostly out of sight and out of mind for several years, except in a few communities close to the “peyote gardens.”

While membership in the Native American Church is growing, some believe that there will come a time when all the Texas supply of peyote is gone. If that happens, members of the Native American Church will probably have to get their peyote from Mexico, just as most of the people who first used it on this side of the Rio Grande did.

© Clay Coppedge July 7, 2013 Column
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