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Mauro Morales picks his way through mesquite trees and prickly pear cacti. The 65-year-old cautiously steps around a thicket of tasajillo, or rat-tail cactus, just down the road from his small ranch near Rio Grande City. Tasajillo thorns stick you like a fish hook, he says. Then there's the cola seca — the rattlesnake — another job hazard.
"We're far enough from a hospital that you probably wouldn't make it if you got bit," he says in a quiet voice, as though a snake might take his words as an invitation to strike.
Morales has been wandering through the chaparral for half an hour, staring at the ground. He combs over small rocks with a stick. Finally, he spots a greenish knob, sprouting out of the ground under the tasajillo thicket.
"There's some medicine, right there," he says. It's a lone peyote button, about an inch in diameter, way too small to harvest. It'll be another five years before this peyote is mature. As he navigates the hostile flora, he points to three more small peyote plants, all of them too young to cut.
"I used to collect as much in a week as I now do in a month," he says. "I don't know what's going to happen to the medicine."
Morales almost never utters the word "peyote." For him, the small green-gray cactus is a sacrament with miraculous healing powers, hence his word for it: medicine.
What makes peyote different from just about any other cactus in the world is that it naturally produces mescaline, a psychedelic alkaloid that can induce hallucinations lasting for days. It was mescaline that opened what Aldous Huxley called "the doors of perception" to "the divine source of all existence."
Before LSD, before Ecstasy, there was peyote.
Peyote and mescaline are both classified by the federal government as Schedule I Controlled Substances. This puts them in the same legal category as crack and heroin, drugs that, according to the DEA, have "a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision."
Much recent scientific research contradicts the DEA's verdict on peyote. There is little evidence for any adverse long-term effects on physical health and virtually no evidence that it is addictive.
Still, harvesting and selling peyote is illegal for all but three people in the entire country. And those three people happen to be located in Texas, operating in a swatch of South Texas between Rio Grande City and Laredo.
These people — Morales is one of them — are called peyoteros, people who make their living selling peyote buttons to the approximately 250,000 Indian members of the Native American Church. Only 20 years ago, there were dozens of peyoteros in small towns along the border. Now, two of the three still working are in their sixties. Meanwhile, membership in the Native American Church is growing and demand for peyote is outstripping the limited supply.
For Native American Church members, this 70-mile stretch of land used to be known as the "peyote gardens" — the only place on U.S. soil where the cactus grows in its natural habitat.
"I talk to the medicine every day," Morales says. "I pray to it. I know it works and I want to help the Natives in any way I can."
In his 1976 doctoral dissertation, "Man, Plant and Religion: Peyote Trade on the Mustang Plains of Texas," the geographer George Morgan speculated that Hispanic traders first bought peyote from a Mexican tribe called the Huichol. To this day, the Huichol harvest the cactus during their annual 250-mile pilgrimage from their homeland in the Sierra Madre to a sacred mountain in central Mexico. The pilgrimage takes them four weeks by foot and along the way, in the desolate Chihuahuan desert, they eat peyote, hunt deer and train a new generation to become shamans.
The Huichol, unlike most tribes, were never quite conquered by the Spaniards. They resisted Christianity and continue to practice an animist religion based on mystical beliefs about peyote, deer and corn. Morgan discovered that Mexicans brought peyote across the border and started trading it with marauding Indian tribes from Oklahoma in the late 19th century. These tribes then passed on the cactus to other Indians to the north and west. Soon, Indians from California were arriving in South Texas in search of the fabled peyote gardens.
Anglo authorities didn't look kindly upon the Hispanic-dominated peyote trade. In 1909, a U.S. Special Officer named William "Pussyfoot" Johnson bought up all the peyote in South Texas and burned it. According to Morgan, the operation worked for almost a year, until Johnson ran out of money. The Bureau of Indian Affairs convinced the Post Office to ban peyote sent by mail in 1917, but the ban had little effect since most Indians preferred to travel to the peyote gardens themselves. The Post Office lifted the ban a few years later.
After these early conflicts, Anglos mostly shrugged their shoulders and left peyoteros to their business, which was starting to flourish. Indians from Oklahoma started arriving on the Texas-Mexican railway with empty burlap sacks, which they would fill with thousands of buttons of dried peyote. In some places — such as the now-deserted town of Los Ojuelos — the peyote trade was the basis of the entire economy.