By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
As a botanist, Terry thinks he's found a solution — buying up land to protect the plant. But the price of land has skyrocketed.
"The only obstacle is the cost of buying a minimum of 2,000 acres of South Texas real estate," he says. "That means we're talking about something on the order of $2 million. For a relatively new 501(c)3 like the Cactus Conservation Institute, that's a fund-raising project of enormous magnitude."
It's also a challenge raising money to save a plant that the federal government considers a dangerous, addictive drug. But the biggest obstacle for conservation might be the Indians themselves. Many Indians are opposed to cultivating peyote in greenhouses. Their opposition stems from a mystical belief in the cactus as divinely planted.
Alden Naranjo, a Ute who's been traveling to the peyote gardens from Colorado since the 1960s, isn't too worked up about the disappearance of his sacred sacrament.
"Peyote predates Christianity by thousands of years," he says. "Native Americans have their spirituality based in this sacrament. It came north to us from Mexico. I don't think it will disappear. We've used it for thousands of years and it's still here."
Naranjo, like Salvador Johnson, doesn't want to see peyote grown in greenhouses. He would rather see it imported from Mexico, where 90 percent of the continent's supply grows. For Native Americans like Naranjo, the current crisis in the peyote supply is just the latest story in a history of injustices.
"It's just the white man's greed," he says. "The white man wants more land and that discourages peyoteros. It's getting harder for us, with stricter trespass laws."
It wasn't always like that in Texas, he says. "A lot of that land was open. Before the oil speculators, land was cheap. Then the white man with his European concept of ownership came in. There's just too many white men."
There are, in fact, white members of the Native American Church. Frank Collum is one, and he's been welcomed into meetings by Indians. It took him a while to be accepted, but now that he's married to an Indian and a veteran of peyote meetings, he feels like he's just as much a part of the Church as anyone. In the eyes of the law, however, it is illegal for Collum — or any non-Indian — to buy or consume peyote.
According to James Botsford, an attorney who has been defending peyote use by Indians for decades, there's a clear distinction between Indian and non-Indian peyote users. The law, he says, protects Native American Church members who can prove they have one grandparent from a federally recognized tribe.
There have been recent challenges to the law on First Amendment grounds. One case made it to the Utah Supreme Court, but the ban on peyote use by non-Indians remains.
"I'm comfortable with the law as it stands," says Botsford. "There's not enough peyote around to allow a broader interpretation of the law. Indian people understand peyote to be the flesh of God, something that the creator put here to help them pray."
A year ago, Mauro Morales started losing weight. He always looked forward to February, when busloads of Indians descended on South Texas for meetings in the peyote gardens. Suddenly, though, he didn't have the energy to go hunting for medicine with his sons. Morales is a small man who has always weighed about 125 pounds.
"I was all skin and bones," he says. "I was down to about 97 pounds."
The doctors couldn't give Morales a clear diagnosis. They told him he needed to rest, so he spent most of his time on the couch. When the Indians arrived in February, they were shocked to learn that he could barely walk.
"The Indians kept saying, 'We need you, we need you,'" Morales says.
One Indian from South Dakota called Morales and told him he would be down to his place the next day. The man had been visiting Morales for decades, and like many Indians, he had formed a friendship with the peyotero. The Indian brought 20 people to pray for Morales in his little peyote garden behind his house. In the garden, Morales has clumps of old peyote — chiefs — as well as ultrarare specimens of the star cactus, a super-potent, highly endangered plant in the same family as peyote.
Morales's Indian friends often set up their teepees on his ranch about half an hour outside town to conduct their ceremonies. This time, though, the 20 Indians put the teepee behind Morales's house. It's not the most tranquil spot for a campout. The neighborhood is abuzz with ranchera music, crowing roosters and belching pickups. But the Indians wanted Morales to participate in the meeting, which goes from dusk to dawn with constant drumming, singing, praying and — of course — peyote eating.
"I was so sick," Morales says, "I didn't think I could make it in the teepee — you've got to be in there all night long. I got up at 5 a.m. to go out. I didn't want to go back in. It's so hot in there and I'm sweating."