check this out. This is close to my home town.
The Peyote Road
September 06, 2006
By David Robledo
Hallucinogenic cactus dwindles in Starr County; Mirando City peyotero picks up the slack harvesting a million buttons a year
God can be seen on the lawns of the new homes that are killing the peyote, says Salvador Johnson, a 59-year-old shaman of sorts who legally harvests the cactus — Lophophora williamsii — in nearby Webb County. Salvador’s family, as far as he can trace it back, has harvested the button-like plant whose medicinal and spiritual properties are said to cure most any illness of the body, mind or soul.
Most every morning, Salvador and a small team of harvesters — nephews, children and other immediate family — head out in search of the peyote, cutting thousands of buttons daily from the rugged plant’s roots. When a cut is made properly with the spade of a shovel, as many as 13 new buttons will sprout within a year. But if cut poorly or ripped out root and all, the peyote is gone — never to return.
ANOTHER NAME FOR SAVIOR
Salvador — whose name too-fittingly translates Savior — once harvested peyote from the Starr County area. Though peyote was formerly abundant in that border county, today it’s rapidly vanishing. A couple of local harvesters still make a go at picking peyote in Starr County, but thriving development, root-plowing intended to promote the growth of grass on desert ranches, and rampant poaching are hurting the hallucinogenic cactus’ numbers.
As early as a decade ago, conservationists began to notice a decline of peyote in the Starr County area.
But though populations are declining, the peyote is still populous in neighboring counties, according to scientists from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and other experts. Peyote is not an endangered species, and numerous ranches of hundreds of thousands of acres forbid peyote harvesting. The result is that ranches that do allow harvesting are feeling the pinch, unable to keep up with legal demands for the substance.
Salvador says that the experts are correct. Peyote isn’t in danger. What is in danger is the amount of peyote that’s available for Native Americans to use in religious ceremony.
“How would you like it if you were Catholic and someone told you that you could not take the Eucharist,” Salvador said in a signature delivery of information that intertwines meaning with irony.
Salvador’s words are an oblique comment on the land that Indians are allowed access to for peyote harvesting. Out of the four-county region where peyote grows in South Texas, some 300,000 acres in Starr, Zapata, Jim Hogg and Webb counties, local peyoteros have access to about 60,000 acres.
With Starr County’s peyote population dwindling, the Native American Church — some 250,000 members — are depending more and more on Salvador’s solitary 30,000 acre operation to provide the nation’s legal peyote supply.
Out of the approximate 5 million buttons sold legally each year in the U.S. and Canada, deep South Texas provides about 2 million, with Salvador and his team of peyoteros providing at least 1 million themselves.
Salvador said that he’s sure he can keep his own terrain thriving with peyote by using conservationist techniques for harvesting. But with ranchers unwilling to open their gates to harvesting — citing issues ranging from legal liability if a harvester gets shot by a hunter to disagreement with the use of hallucinogens — plus Starr County’s rapid peyote decline, the Native American Church is now faced with a precarious shortage of peyote for their religious needs.
DOORS OF PERCEPTION
The Native American Church is composed of varied North American Indians who use peyote in ceremonial prayer — with motives that range from achieving vision quests to finding physical healing.
The church was incorporated first in 1918 in Oklahoma to protect the religious use of peyote by Native Americans, and soon drifted to other states. In 1978, Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which allowed Native Americans affiliated with the church to use peyote in religious ceremonies.
When the Native American Church uses peyote, it’s in a tea or thick, gravy-like form. Sometimes worshippers eat the buttons whole —dried or fresh — in vigils that can last more than 24 hours.
South of San Antonio, there’s only about 50 of these church members, and only about a dozen in the Rio Grande Valley.
Those numbers, Salvador says, are unfortunate.
“You hear people in this area call themselves Mexicans, but Mexico has hardly existed. Before Mexico, we were Indians who used peyote for worship and healing for more than 6,000 years,” he said.
Jesse Hernandes is a 33-year-old choreographer who lives in New York. His jaw line is sharp, like you might expect in a warrior tribe’s lineage.
His black hair is long, and his eyes are wild and hazel-colored, like the American Southwest terrain he traces himself to. His Indian name is Cuauhtonal, which in Aztec means Eagle of the Sun.
Last week Hernandes visited Johnson’s home in Mirando City, a town of about 600 residents at the southern border of Webb County — planning to buy a thousand peyote buttons for upcoming church rituals in San Antonio and New York.
“You have to have an extreme amount of respect for the peyote,” Hernandes said.
Of all U.S. distributors of peyote — which number only a few — Salvador has the highest reputation, Hernandes said, because he respects the holy aspect of the tiny plant.
ONLY GOD IS ON THE LINE
On any given day, Salvador has more than 30,000 peyote buttons locked up inside a chain-link corral in his back yard.
There’s no clear solution to the shortage of peyote for the church, Salvador said.
With care and conservation, he’s barely able to keep his own reserves from diminishing.
Some researchers have suggested that the Native American Church should try to access Mexico’s peyote, but so far the church has been unable to strike any such deal.
Nonetheless, peyote will be here forever, Salvador is sure. And whether his church will have enough to supply its needs is a question that only peyote itself can answer.
“Peyote is difficult to find. And you won’t find it unless it wants you to,” Salvador says.
“Be careful, because if you know one-quarter of the truth, don’t think you know one-quarter of the truth. You only know the truth when you know the truth, and anything else is an illusion”.
Maybe it’s the peyote that has forged Salvador’s thought, which seems to gravitate around ways of conceiving God as cold-blooded animals revolve their lives around the sun.
But this aging peyotero whose goal seems little more than to contemplate the myriad forms of his maker is single-handedly providing a quarter of a million Native American Church members with a lion’s share of its peyote.
There’s nothing material on the line here, and there’s no shareholders who have anything at stake.
It’s just one man and his peyotero family — shoveling their church and themselves toward heaven one tiny hallucinogenic button at a time.
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