The mass co-opting of Native medicines and traditions


Proposition 122, now SB23-290 Natural Medicine Regulation And Legalization, became law on May 9. The law legalizes regulated therapeutic use and decriminalizes personal use of  psilocybin, psilocin, dimethyltryptamine (DMT), ibogaine and mescaline. Along with a team of other concerned Native folks, I’ve been involved for over a year in efforts to protect the medicines of our Indigenous traditions from regulation, appropriation, co-opting, violation and exploitation by Western capitalistic systems and people. I respond here to Will Brendza’s article “The Psychedelic Succulent,” published April 27, to discuss some crucial pieces he misses about Peyote, a mescaline-containing cactus and ancestral medicine. 

My lineage is of various Indigenous Mexican tribes including Wixarika, stewards of Hikuri (Peyote) since time immemorial, Spanish and West African. I am connected to Mexican, Chicano and Native American communities across the Front Range, New Mexico and Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) and I am a traditional Aztec Dancer. 

The following are my views and experiences in the legislative process and are not representative of all Native and Indigenous peoples.

The history of Peyote in Indigenous traditions began in what is now Northeast Mexico and spans more than 5,500 years, preceding European colonization by at least 4,000 years. Around the 1880s, U.S. states began criminalizing Peyote and in 1967 it was federally criminalized as a Schedule 1 drug. In 1978, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act granted federal protection for Native Americans, Inuit, Aleuts and Native Hawaiians to practice their religions, customs, ceremonies and dances. 

In 1994, an amendment legally permitted the bona fide and traditional ceremonial use of Peyote by Native American Indians. Let’s be clear: the burden to reverse these racist and discriminatory policies based on white supremacy was a result of Native people’s legal battles for their inherent rights, not the goodwill of the U.S. government. SB23- 290 continues this familiar and historical pattern of systemic racism, disregard and invalidation of Native peoples, cultures and traditions. 

Native people share general values and beliefs that we do not truly own anything: not land, not water, not plants, not ecosystems. We belong to Nature and have a responsibility to care for all life on our Mother Earth. In contrast, colonial and capitalistic systems privatize, exploit and endlessly extract from ecosystems with little reciprocity, if any. Look no further than the global climate crisis and the Colorado River, named the country’s most endangered river in 2022. SB23-290 has opened the door for predatory pharmaceutical companies to “patent medical treatments or other inventions based on and/or utilizing Peyote, its derivatives, and/or synthetic variants” as addressed in a joint organizational statement released April 26 by the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), Native American Church of North America (NACNA) and Native American Church of Oklahoma (NACO). This is not a hypothetical situation; it is currently underway. 

The Native American Coalition Against Natural Medicine Health Act based in Denver released a statement on April 27 that they “stand in solidarity with the NCAI, NACNA and NACO … to protect Peyote from legislation that further endangers and erodes our constitutionally protected rights” and that “Passing legislation without tribal consultation ignores the legal standing of federally recognized tribes, which is a matter of constitutional treaty law.” Additionally, our joint efforts in our testimony at the Capitol to remove mescaline from the bill was met with, “Voters voted for it” and that it would be unconstitutional to ignore that. 

Senate President Steve Fenberg, the main sponsor of the bill, has been the most supportive in the legislative process, amending a Federally Recognized American Tribes and Indigenous Community Working Group to advise on the misappropriation of Native medicines, communities, cultures and religions. Legislators nearly failed to pass the amendment, highlighting problematic issues and the lack of awareness on the crucial importance of having Native people guide a massive piece of legislation that profoundly impacts us. This is especially concerning considering that SB23-290 creates a new branch within the Western healthcare system almost exclusively based on the co-opting of Native medicines and religious traditions. Thus, over half of voters in a state of mostly non-Native people (Natives are only 2% of Colorado’s population due to forced displacement) with minimal or no ancestral connections to these medicines or cultures voted for open and regulated access to medicines central to many Native tribes without consent or consultation. SB23-290 is unfortunately another prime example of systemic racism, Western extractivism and exploitation upon Native communities. Sadly, the law’s lobbyists reflect pride in their bill and hope it will inform the legislation of other states that may soon follow Colorado’s lead.

Gabriela Galindo is the assistant program coordinator for CU Boulder’s Foundations for Leaders Organizing for Water and Sustainability program, as well as a 2023 Colorado Water Fellow through the National Young Farmers Coalition.

This opinion does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.


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