The Peyote Effect

From the Inquisition to the War on Drugs

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Alexander S. Dawson
  • Oakland, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , September
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Peyote (Lophophora williamsii), a spineless taproot cactus with hallucinogenic properties, grows naturally near Laredo, Texas and in adjacent parts of northern Mexico. Indigenous peoples like the Wixárikas (Huichols) of western Mexico have used peyote since time immemorial, whereas the Kiowas, Comanches, and Plains Apaches of southwestern Oklahoma obtained peyote in the mid-19th century, and developed their own distinctive Half Moon rite. Native peyotists perceive peyote as a sacrament, a medicine, and a teacher. In the introduction to his book, The Peyote Effect: From the Inquisition to the War on Drugs, Alexander S. Dawson states that for the last 200 years, non-Indians on both sides of the border have viewed indigenous peyotism with disgust, enchantment, or curiosity. Initially discovered in Mexico, Spanish authorities and missionaries associated indigenous peyote use with the wild, uncivilized nature of Native peoples, while scholars pondered whether peyote is a “useful medicine” or a “dangerous drug” (7). By the time peyotism diffused to Oklahoma, Western scientists were experimenting with peyote, hoping to discover marketable treatments for cholera, alcoholism, neuroses, psychoses, and even homosexuality! During the early 1960s, bohemians and other avant-garde groups, followed by hippies and new agers became enchanted with hallucinogens, especially peyote, mescaline—one of four alkaloids in peyote—and LSD. 

Westerners have misunderstood peyote from the very beginning: it erroneously has been classified as a dangerous narcotic, mislabeled as “mescal,” and since 1970, identified in the US Controlled Substances Act as a Schedule I drug with “no legitimate therapeutic use and a high potential for abuse” (111). Many opponents of peyote have associated its use with sexual promiscuity, intoxication worse than alcohol, brain damage, and even death. In 1620, peyote was banned in Mexico, though its use was largely restricted to Wixárika communities in the remote, rugged Sierra Madre Occidental region of western Mexico. When peyote diffused north of the border 250 years later, federal Indian agents discovered its use among the tribes of southwestern Oklahoma. For the next century, state laws and proposed anti-peyote legislation at the federal level threatened Native American sacramental use of peyote. By 1971, peyote was illegal in both countries, though shortly thereafter, indigenous peyotists on both sides of the border gained legal exemptions. Dawson initially assumed that different histories created dissimilar categories of “Indian” that fashioned the exemptions. However, his excellent cross-border narrative demonstrates that despite differences, “similar legal regimes” developed in which indigenous peyotism is “normal,” but nonindigenous peyotism is a “problem to be addressed” (176). Church, legal, scientific, and scholarly communities helped shape and monitor these boundaries.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) began its anti-peyote crusade in 1909 when special investigator William “Pussyfoot” Johnson was dispatched to Laredo, Texas, where he began intercepting peyote buttons shipped across the border to distributers who mailed packages to peyotists. By this time, the nascent peyote religion had spread from Oklahoma to the tribes in Nebraska and Iowa. Perceived as a new threat detrimental to the missionization and civilizing policies of the BIA, certain “friends of the Indian” lobbied Congress to pass legislation prohibiting the interstate transportation of peyote. Two anti-peyote bills failed to pass through Congress due to the pro-peyote lobby, prompting members of the Half Moon and Big Moon chapters to gather in El Reno in October 1918 to organize a legal charter as the Native American Church of Oklahoma (NAC). During his term as Indian Commissioner (1933-45), John Collier advocated for the NAC despite resistance from Christian Indians and the Navajo and Taos Pueblo tribal councils who saw peyote as a “new” religion contrary to tribal traditions. By the early 1960s, peyote was illegal in over a dozen states, though courts in Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona set the precedence for recognizing the first amendment rights of peyotists. In February 1971, the United Nations agreed to the Vienna Convention on Psychotropic Drugs treaty designed to thwart the international drug trade, but accepted exemptions for indigenous peyote use due to the urgings of US. Following the debacle of the 1990 US Supreme Court’s Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith Decision, passage of the American Indian Religious Act Amendments four years later ultimately guaranteed protection to peyotists who are members of federally recognized tribes.

In Mexico, researchers from the Instituto Médico Nacional (IMI) disrupted Wixárika isolation towards the end of the 19th century. By disregarding peyote’s hallucinatory attributes and focusing on its physical nature, these researchers hoped to discover potential medicinal uses. Wixárika practices, mere “delusions and superstitions,” were seen as contributing to their moral depravity and backwardness (28, 33). In 1958, the Instituto Nacional Indigenista (INI) began dispatching ethnologists to Wixárika country to investigate indigenous mysticism and peyote rites. Ultimately, both the Wixárikas and peyote use were seen as disgusting (101). In December 1972, the Mexican Senate ratified the Vienna Convention treaty, but did not provide an Indian exemption, leading to the arrests of Wixárikas. Pressures from the US finally convinced the Mexican government to mitigate its stance on indigenous peyotism. Through the assertion of Wixárika self-determination and sovereignty, the Mexican government now protects their religious rights.

Dawson’s book departs from traditional peyote literature through outstanding coverage of the non-Indian organizations that fail to qualify for peyote exemptions including Salvador Roquet and his psychotropic clinic in Mexico City, Immanuel Trujillo and the Peyote Way, Tom Pinkson, Carlos Castaneda, and other appropriators of Native rites. He observes that if shamans operate at the margins of indigenous societies, white shamans redefine the boundaries between Indians and non-Indians (164). Although appropriating Wixárika and NAC rituals might be a disdainful practice, Dawson queries: “Is it possible to introduce the idea of cultural exchange here, to recognize that beliefs, values, and practices move across cultural boundaries even as those exchanges sometimes reinscribe those boundaries?” Regardless of the answer, the racial exclusiveness of peyote ensures that space is reserved “for the specificity of indigeneity” (165, 174). This book nicely complements Omer C. Stewart’s Peyote Religion: A History (University of Oklahoma Press, 1987) and Thomas C. Maroukis’s The Peyote Road (University of Oklahoma Press, 2010).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Benjamin R. Kracht is Professor of Anthropology and Chair of the Department of Cherokee and Indigenous Studies at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.  He is also the author of Kiowa Belief and Ritual (University of Nebraska Press, 2017) and Religious Revitalization among the Kiowas: The Ghost Dance, Peyote, and Christianity (University of Nebraska Press, 2018).

Date of Review: 
March 11, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Alexander S. Dawson is Associate Professor of History at SUNY Albany. He is the author of Indian and Nation in Revolutionary Mexico, First World Dreams: Mexico Since 1989, and Latin America since Independence.


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