Live peyote cacti growing in the gardens of Salvador Johnson. Photo by Kelvin Box

The Decline of American Peyote

The small, bulbous peyote cactus is central to the religious rituals of the Native American Church, but poaching and unsustainable harvesting practices put it at risk of extinction in the United States.

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Dec 14 2018, 2:54pm

Live peyote cacti growing in the gardens of Salvador Johnson. Photo by Kelvin Box

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Peyote has been a part of Dawn Davis’s life for as long as she can remember. The small, mescaline-producing cactus is native to the southwestern United States and northern Mexico, but Davis’s first encounter with the plant was on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation in southeastern Idaho, where her family would store peyote “buttons” in jars tucked away in the kitchen cabinets. The scientific name of the peyote cactus is Lophophora williamsii, but Davis and her family simply call it “medicine.”

Davis is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock tribes, and she was first brought to a “peyote meeting” as an infant. When she was older she learned these meetings were religious ceremonies of the Native American Church (NAC), a syncretic religion that blends elements of Christianity and American Indian ritual, including the use of peyote as a sacrament. Over the years, Davis noticed the peyote used in the ceremonies wasn’t nearly as abundant as when she was a child. When peyote buttons reach maturity, they can be several inches in diameter, but at many of the ceremonies Davis attended, it wasn’t unusual for the buttons to be the size of a penny.

Although she didn’t know it at the time, what Davis observed was the beginning of a deep conservation crisis. Over the last few decades, the peyote supply in the US has rapidly declined because of habitat destruction, illegal poaching, and unsustainable harvesting practices. As she began to look into the issue, Davis realized that she had to take action to preserve this disappearing natural resource that is a core element of the largest indigenous religion in the United States.

After receiving her family’s blessing, Davis applied to study peyote conservation as part of her master’s degree at the University of Arizona. Today, she is continuing this research as a doctoral candidate at the University of Idaho and is one of only a handful of scholars researching the crisis. In October I met Davis at Horizons, an annual conference on psychedelics in New York City, to speak with her about how she has spent the past decade working with Texas landowners, government officials, NAC members, and peyoteros (peyote harvesters) to better understand the issue. What she found is a sacred plant on the verge of extinction and a general lack of knowledge about the extent of the problem—but most importantly, she found a way forward.

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