By Andrew Stuart
It’s an unassuming cactus – with an outsized cultural impact. From its home range in the Texas-Mexico borderlands, it’s been incorporated into the religious lives of Native peoples across North America.
Peyote has mind-altering effects. It’s been an illegal narcotic under U.S. law since 1965. But there’s legal protection for Native use. Hundreds of thousands of indigenous people participate in peyote rituals. For those practitioners, the cactus is a sacrament, and a living bond with the ancestral past.
Alpine’s Megan Wilde explores this tradition – and the existential threats it faces – in a new film, “Peyote at a Crossroads.”
Peyote has a deep history in the Texas borderlands. In caves on the Pecos River, peyote is portrayed in ancient rock art. In the same canyonlands, archeologists recovered man-made peyote “effigies” –- dated to 6,000 years. In the 19th century, the Apache of West Texas introduced their Comanche neighbors to the cactus – and the ritual spread to tribes across the plains.
Peyote grows today on limestone hills in the Trans-Pecos. But the cactus is most abundant in the harsh thornscrub country of South Texas.
As part of her master’s work at Sul Ross State University, Wilde traveled to these “peyote gardens,” where she met “peyoteras,” peyote harvesters, like S.J. Garcia.
“We picked peyote all our lives, since I was 5 years old, ever since I can remember,” Garcia told Wilde. “Every single day after school, as soon as we arrived in the bus, there was no TV, no studying – it was peyote time. Since the 1850s, the whole family has been picking it for Native Americans.”
But the availability of peyote is declining rapidly. There’s been over-harvesting. In a region where drug trafficking is prevalent, landowners are hesitant to be associated with peyote.
Oil-and-gas and wind power have expanded in South Texas. And property owners are removing thornscrub vegetation to plant grass for livestock. Those changes are wiping out stands of peyote, Wilde says.
“And both of those uses require root plowing,” Wilde said, “and basically scraping the land and either growing grass or putting a gas rig or some wind turbines on it.”
The peyote gardens are a place of pilgrimage. The former home of Amada Cardenas in, in Webb County, is at the center of that holy ground. Cardenas was a peyotera who fought for legal status for the ritual.
There, Wilde visited with Gary Perez, Cardenas’ grandson. The visit gave Wilde a sense of the importance of peyote in indigenous identity.
“Peyote, this peyote way, this Native American Church, it has very endearing qualities,” Perez told Wilde. “It builds traditions. It builds communities. It builds families.”
Wilde interviewed Ted Herrera, a spiritual leader of the Rio Grande Native American Church. Herrera described a peyote ritual in which he sensed the living presence of his ancestors.
“My ancestors are alive, and they’re around me,” Herrera said. “Peyote does connect us. I really don’t know if my life would be worth living if I could not be in touch with them. And that’s what the medicine is to me, that connectivity.”
The conversation with Herrera was a turning point for Wilde.
“I can’t say that in my life I’ve really met many people that I thought were holy, but Ted was holy,” Wilde said. “I was so moved talking to him. And the perspective he gave me on why peyote matters, why peyote should be conserved and why this is really a grim and tragic situation, is that river of experience that peyote connects Native American Church members to.”
Wild populations of peyote continue to thrive behind locked gates. But access to peyote for Native Americans could end soon – unless the federal government acts, Wilde said.
As an outsider to the ritual, Wilde said she was hesitant to take up the cause. But she says church members encouraged her to do so.
Church members could be authorized to grow their own peyote. Landowners could be offered incentives to allow sustainable harvesting on their land. Peyote could be salvaged before root-plowing.
“So those will all require some political will,” Wilde said, “and that’s where I think the more people that are aware this is a problem, and the more people that care about it, the more likely that is to happen.”
“Peyote at a Crossroads” will be available for nonprofit groups to screen in January 2017. Wilde hopes others will be moved to defend this ancient relationship between plant and people. For more, visit http://peyotedoc.com.