Luminous: Can psychedelics be decolonized?

"An eclipsed sun that looks like an eyeball casts shadows on a sprawling desert landscape, drenched in psychedelic color, filled with rocks, cacti and other signs of the natural world."

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Original Air Date: 
October 21, 2023

It’s easy to get caught up in the hype about how psychedelics might revolutionize the treatment of mental illness. But there are also lots of ethical concerns. And probably none are so troubling as the charges of exploitation and cultural appropriation. The fact is, the knowledge about many psychedelics — like magic mushrooms and ayahuasca — comes from the sacred ceremonies of Indigenous cultures. But over the past century, Western scientists and pharmaceutical companies have been going into these cultures, collecting plants and synthesizing their chemical compounds.

Even if science is all about building on the knowledge of earlier discoveries, what is the psychedelic industry's ethical responsibility? Can psychedelics be decolonized?

Maria Sabina

The story of Mazotec healer Maria Sabina is a notorious example of how psychedelic enthusiasts have exploited the knowledge of Indigenous cultures they don’t really understand.

Rachel Fernandez

Sutton King wants to change the culture around psychedelic medicines by confronting historical wrongs and getting Indigenous people into key decision-making roles in the psychedelic industry. 

A mushroom

Pharmaceutical companies have a long history of hunting for medicinal drugs, often in Indigenous cultures. Historian Lucas Richert tells the story of how one company went bioprospecting for peyote.

Yuria Celidwen

Yuria Celidwen has a wide-ranging critique of how the modern psychedelic movement is taking shape. She was the lead author of a recent article in Lancet arguing for new ethical guidelines for using psychedelics — what she calls “spirit medicine.”


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- [Anne] It is "To The Best Of Our Knowledge." I'm Anne Strainchamps.

- [Steve] And I'm Steve Paulson.

- [Anne] And this is "Luminous," our series on the science and history of psychedelics.

- [Steve] In June of 2023, 12,000 people converged on Denver for the biggest psychedelic conference in history. It was kind of a coming out party, five days with scientists, mystics and psychonauts, even celebrities like Aaron Rogers and Melissa Etheridge talking up the therapeutic potential of the new psychedelic revolution.

- [Speaker] One other aspect of the arc of the...

- [Anne] But then, during the closing ceremony...

- [Attendee] No, no, no, no.

- [Speaker] I think it's important to hear all the voices.

- [Anne] Protestors took over the stage, demanding justice for Indigenous people.

- [Attendee] You don't know what a revolution is. Rick-

- Neither do you!

- [Attendee] I have asked you many times, where are the Indigenous people of these lands? The elder-

- [Anne] Talking about the history of exploitation and cultural appropriation.

- [Attendee] Nobody owns healing, but you know what? You don't own our culture. You can't take it from us.

- [Anne] And the thing is, many of the most widely used psychedelics have long histories within Indigenous cultures.

- [Attendee] We need to let the Indigenous believe.

- [Anne] Psilocybin, ayahuasca and peyote have been used for centuries for physical and spiritual healing and for gaining insight into other dimensions of reality.

- [Attendee] 20, 30 decades from now, you're gonna see the medicine harming you because they're living beings and they don't like to be abused. They're gonna come back from you and harm you.

- [Anne] These were sacred medicines, until white people discovered them.

- [Steve] This was the 1960s when anthropologists and spiritual seekers started trekking down to Mexico in the Amazon, looking for shamans and traditional healers and they came home with stories of mind-melting plant ceremonies and pharmaceutical companies followed. They collected plant samples and synthesized their chemical compounds, looking for molecules they could patent so they could cash in. Today, psychedelics made in laboratories are a multi-billion dollar industry, and lots of people think they will revolutionize the treatment of mental health care.

- [Anne] But this all kind of sounds like a familiar story of exploitation and colonization, doesn't it?

- [Steve] You know, some people would call it taking, or even stealing, the knowledge of Indigenous people.

- [Anne] So our question in this episode, "Can psychedelics be decolonized?" I mean, where and how would you even start?

- [Steve] Let's begin with some history. Indigenous cultures have been trying to protect plant medicines and the sacred ceremonies around them for centuries, and as Michael Pollan, the author of "How to Change Your Mind" says, "People have known about the power of magic mushrooms a long, long time."

- [Michael] Probably millennia. I mean, the first reports we have, this isn't a written culture, but when the conquistadors get to Central America, they find people using mushrooms in their religious ceremonies as a sacrament and they called it teonanácatl, which is meant "flesh of the gods." And that's of course what the Christians called their sacrament too, right? It was the flesh of God that you're eating in the Communion. So this was very threatening to the Catholic church because here was a sacrament that actually really worked. I mean, you didn't need faith to see God, you met God.

- [Steve] Or as the Ethnobotanist Dennis McKenna puts it...

- [Dennis] Carries a much bigger kick than the Catholic Eucharist. So Catholicism and Christianity brutally suppressed all of these shamanic practices. They were particularly brutal with the mushrooms.

- [Michael] And they crushed it. They absolutely banned it. They destroyed mushroom stones. They tortured people who practiced it.

- [Steve] Mushroom stones, so they're actually like little statues in the shape of mushrooms?

- [Michael] Little statues and some of them pretty big, but they are stones carved in the shape of mushrooms. There've been many theories about what they're for. They're found all over Guatemala and Southern Mexico.

- [Dennis] Some of these miniature mushroom stones in Guatemala, they go back to 3000 BC, which is pretty far back.

- [Michael] And now they turn up in farmer's fields occasionally 'cause people buried them. They were afraid to be caught with them. So the mushroom cults, as they were called, and of course, we call religion a cult when we don't like it, went underground and was thought to have disappeared until the middle of the 20th century.

- [Steve] Rumors started swirling around that the mushroom was still used in sacred ceremonies in Mexico and that's when magic mushrooms came roaring back, thanks to one man.

- [Gordon] There we found that rotten bagasse covered with mushrooms. They were the sacred mushrooms.

- [Steve] Gordon Wasson.

- [Michael] That's right.

- [Steve] Who would seem to be the most unlikely person to turn psychedelic mushrooms into a mainstream phenomenon. I mean, he was a vice president.

- He was a banker, yeah.

- At JP Morgan.

- [Michael] He was very plugged in in New York. He marries a Russian woman, a pediatrician.

- [Steve] Valentina Wasson, who was obsessed with mushrooms.

- [Michael] Anyway, the the story goes that on their honeymoon, they went up to the Catskills and they're walking in the woods and she starts finding all these mushrooms and she starts collecting them in her skirt and makes this big pile of mushrooms and she proposes to cook them for dinner. He absolutely refuses to eat them, she eats them. He thinks he's gonna wake up a widower the next morning, but lo and behold, she knew what she was doing and this got him very interested in mushrooms.

- [Steve] So in his spare time, Wasson developed a lifelong obsession with mushrooms, especially the psychedelic ones. He studied how they influenced human cultures around the world and came up with a theory that the origin of religion was actually rooted in people's transcendent experiences on magic mushrooms.

- [Michael] And if you think about it, where do these interesting, bizarre ideas at the heart of many religions come from? That there is a beyond, that there's an unseen world, that there is a realm of the dead that you could visit, that there is a heaven and hell. I mean, these are interesting ideas and you could see why having a psychedelic journey would convince you of their truth. And he heard about these mushroom cults in Central America, and he went looking in Mexico.

- [Steve] For years, didn't he? Multiple trips down there.

- [Michael] I think he had like 11 trips down there before.

- [Steve] Looking for someone who would take him in so he could participate in a mushroom ceremony.

- [Michael] Yeah, and given how the secrecy that surrounded it, earning someone's trust so they would actually say, "Yes, we do use mushrooms this way, and yes, I will administer some to you." But he finds a woman, a curandero, or healer, named Maria Sabina in the town of Huautla de Jiménez, which is a couple days by mule outside of Oaxaca in the very remote mountains, and she gives him the mushrooms, which she calls "the little children," and he has this experience in the basement of this house and he brings a photographer and he recounts this experience in the pages of "Life Magazine" in a like 17 page article. The reason he gets it into "Life Magazine" is that he's friendly with Henry Luce.

- [Steve] The publisher.

- [Michael] And Henry Luce, as it turns out, is a giant fan of psychedelics. He's had psychedelic therapy. I know, it's the weirdest history.

- [Steve] Oh yeah, it's it absolutely fascinating.

- [Michael] But you have to remember, all this is legal, right? This is 1955, he has his experience in '56 or '57 he publishes the article. And this article really introduces much of the West to psychedelic mushrooms and psychedelic experience in general, so Gordon Wasson is really a pivotal figure in this history.

- [Steve] But what about the other pivotal figure? Maria Sabina. Wasson gets the credit for jump starting the psychedelic revolution, but it never would've happened without the Mazatec curandero who took him on this journey. The consequences for her were pretty awful and a notorious example of how so much can go so wrong when white people go into Indigenous cultures they don't really understand.

- [Erika] I think there's even a risk of sort of romanticizing this Indigenous set of practices. We can't just isolate this ceremony or this set of experiences and say, you know, how sacred and wonderful this is and we're just gonna ignore all of these other features. In some ways, that's the story that exists around Maria Sabina, this woman who freely shared wisdom about psilocybin and died penniless and rather ostracized from her community.

- [Steve] Erika Dyck is a historian at the University of Saskatchewan, who has written widely on the history of psychedelics.

- [Erika] She introduced Wasson and Valentina, his wife, to these practices and it brought about this sort of stunning revelation of the power of these plant teachers, or these plant medicines. But the story is kind of tragic. Gordon Wasson goes on and publishes a number of things, many very nuanced, thoughtful ways that he reflected upon this encounter and the many he had since then. Maria Sabina lived into her 90s and the stories locally are that she was ostracized from her community, that the "Life Magazine" and subsequent publications drew a lot of attention to this rather impoverished Indigenous community.

- [Steve] Because suddenly it became a place where all of these Americans and Europeans wanted to go to have their own psychedelic experiences and they went to her to cap those substances.

- [Erika] Absolutely, these pilgrimages to Oaxaca to meet Maria Sabina or be in the presence of where she grew up.

- [Steve] The story of Gordon Wasson's visit to Maria Sabina is even more tangled and ethically problematic. For one thing, he wasn't alone. Apparently, the CIA knew about the trip and followed the Wassons down to Sabina's Village, hoping to discover drugs that could be used as weapons for mind control. And the Wassons themselves lied to Sabina, who had said from the beginning that she did not want any publicity, let alone fame.

- [Katherine] They had promised to keep her anonymous. They published her name as Ava Mendez originally, but they also published her face in one of the biggest magazines at the time that every American would see.

- [Steve] This is "Life Magazine."

- [Katherine] "Life magazine." And then shortly thereafter, revealed her real name and where she could be found.

- [Steve] Katherine MacLean is a psychologist and former psychedelic god who has been digging into the history about Maria Sabina. After Sabina was outed in "Life Magazine," psychedelic tourists began flooding into her village and the results were disastrous. Her neighbors grew resentful. Her house was burned down. She was accused of selling drugs, and even briefly jailed.

- [Katherine] I knew about that part, but I didn't know that they had lied to her to get the mushrooms in the first place. So they went down there and they spoke to an official in the town, and they said, "Who's the best mushroom healer here? We're searching for this mushroom. You know, we're just curious." And the government official was the one who went to seek out Maria Sabina because she was the best. And it was a special holy day where you're not supposed to turn anyone away if they seek your healing. Think about it, the mayor of your town, you're a poor woman, you're a single woman, you're taking care of all your kids and your mother, your aging mother, so she says, "Okay, I guess I'll do this this one time." So there was a whole kind of ruse going on around what would it take a true expert to agree to do this if the knowledge is hidden and they don't wanna share it? So there was kind of a lot of strategy that was used to convince a true, she was an expert, to reveal her secrets.

- [Steve] Katherine MacLean worked on some of the early psychedelic research at Johns Hopkins, and for her, Maria Sabina is a personal touchstone, a woman who has been largely left out of psychedelic history.

- [Katherine] If you look back in history, there aren't many women who stand out as historical figures, especially in science, and especially not many Indigenous women, women with brown skin, women who might have been anonymous to the scientific world, other than happened to be maybe at the wrong place or the right place at the right time. It wasn't until after I left my job at Johns Hopkins that I realized that Maria Sabina was a bit of a patron saint of mushrooms, and potentially part of my own lineage. Yeah, I think if I could pick anybody in psilocybin, she would be it. You know, she had the direct ticket to whatever this mystery is that we still don't understand.

- [Steve] So she talked about the mushrooms speaking through her.

- [Katherine] She did.

- [Steve] What do you think she meant?

- [Katherine] Well, so, if you go back and look at how she described it, she described receiving a visionary holy book. She called it the "Book of Knowledge," or the "Book of Wisdom," and she believed that these divine beings, saints, had given it to her. She memorized the whole thing in one night, she says, and that that was what allowed her to sing and determine what could heal someone. And so interestingly, I think some people experience mushroom visions visually, and other people experience these words or sounds. I've experienced both, but strikingly, there was an experience I had once where I heard actual words like prayers, poetry coming from the mushroom, and then when I looked it up later, it was actual scripture. So I kind of wonder, like maybe she wasn't being metaphorical. Maybe she experienced scripture coming from a divine source that she just interpreted as she needed to. The interesting thing about Maria Sabina is that she grew up very poor. She describes being hungry almost her entire childhood and she and her sister started eating the magic mushrooms out of hunger and she knew they were safe because she had seen her relatives eating them and using them to heal people, so the healing gift skipped over her father, but her great-grandfather, her grandfather, she had a great-aunt, she had many family members who had the gift.

- [Steve] The gift being what?

- [Katherine] My understanding is that the gift was the ability to receive the mushroom wisdom and speak, communicate, connect with the mushrooms in a way that this divine source would tell her what was wrong with someone. And what she described is that before Gordon came, we would use the mushrooms for true healing. You know, if someone was really desperate and there was something that even the doctors couldn't figure out, the kind of the lower tier healers couldn't figure out, you go to a wise person, which was Maria Sabina and others. And she said, after all the white people came down, she said they were just seeking God. They just wanted this fast track experience and it was no longer about kind of humbling yourself, asking for help and really submitting to the process. You know, it was kind of this ego trip.

- [Steve] And didn't she say that once these white hippies came down, that that portal to God had closed?

- [Katherine] So she said a couple things. One is she said that that portal closed, it would no longer work the same way it had worked. And I also know that healers like Maria Sabina, have said, "We only tell you white people 10% of what's actually happening 'cause we don't want you to know the 90%." So who knows why she said those things. You know, maybe she realized the cat's out of the bag, they don't even know what they're doing yet, so we better just, "Oh, it doesn't work anymore, go away. Let us kind of go back to our practice."

- [Steve] And it's striking that she had become the object of all these pilgrimages. People wanted to have these experiences with her, but she remained poor to the end of her life. She did not get rich out of this.

- [Katherine] No, absolutely not, and if you ask even practicing healers now, they can't accept money. They might accept like a token gift or a barter, an exchange, but no, she didn't get paid for these experiences that people were getting. I've heard some folks on social media say that they figured out how much she was paid by Gordon Wasson based on today's standards, and it was 10 or $11. So for $10 we got psilocybin, which represents hundreds, if not thousands of years of trial and error and practice and people being born with the talent and passing it along and so I think we have to remember that Maria Sabina was the end of a lineage that went back beyond the Spanish arriving in the New World, who knows how long, and so what she was teaching us, even if it was 10%, represents real wisdom that we're just still figuring this out.

- [Steve] When you think back on the story of Maria Sabina, is this a tragic story to you?

- [Katherine] I think it is a tragic story. My best sense of it is that Maria Sabina understood that it was partly fate or destiny that kind of brought her into this world, and at the same time, her life was kind of ruined. It's difficult for me because on the one hand, I feel connected to this woman and I wouldn't even know she had existed if not for all of these levels of deception and theft. You know, these are kind of extreme words, but if not for all of the things that contributed to her giving the mushrooms to this one person, I wouldn't have benefited. I wouldn't have been able to study psilocybin. I wouldn't have benefited from mushrooms. I mean, maybe I would've found them another way, and so I kind of hold it in both hands. Most of what I have received as a white American is a result of lots of criminal and violent activity before I was born, so I think it's more a matter of just accepting that we can't go back and change the past, but we can say her name, we can honor her, and you know, maybe the companies now can give back to the people who are still practicing.

- [Steve] For both Katherine MacLean and Erika Dyck, that's the real point of this story. It's not just the history of one woman and how she suffered. It's about the unintended or unthinking exploitation of one culture by another. The hippies who made the trek to Maria Sabina's village didn't mean to do any damage, they just wanted a mind-blowing experience and were willing to ignore the socioeconomic inequities to get it.

- [Erika] And there's this kind of superficial vow of poverty, even, as the hippies took on this bohemian lifestyle and they were gonna really slum it and go to Mexico and pretend to be poor for a little while, but it sort of undermines and even perhaps mocks the state of poverty amongst Indigenous people that was perpetuated by those pilgrimages, if you will.

- [Steve] Why would that be perpetuated? You would think that if these wealthy white people came to Oaxaca, that they would spend money in the local communities. Why was that Impoverishing?

- [Erika] I think, you know, some anthropologists have drawn attention to the way that people sort of left the worldly possessions behind and went to Oaxaca in search of spiritual enlightenment and didn't come there and give money or stay at a hotel or contribute to the local economy in any meaningful way, and so there was, again, a kind of succession of taking and a degradation to the existing fragile economy. And I think we need to be really, really mindful of stories like this that are potentially cautionary tales for, you know, perpetuating those colonial ideas, even when the intention is not there.

- [Steve] That's historian Erika Dyck, and Katherine MacLean, author of the memoir "Midnight Water." We also heard from Michael Pollan and Dennis McKenna. I'm Steve Paulson.

- [Anne] And I'm Anne Strainchamps. So since we can't go back and change the past, how do we go forward? Psychedelic drugs will be developed. Is it possible to do that without perpetuating colonialist attitudes? We'll talk about that next on "To The Best Of Our Knowledge" from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. You're listening to "Luminous," our series about the science and culture of psychedelics. By the way, we have a deep archive on the subject, so if you wanna hear more, check out Steve's other interviews on our website, that's at

- [Steve] We're talking this hour about what it would take to decolonize psychedelics. The people to ask are the descendants of those who used them first.

- [Sutton] So that's my language, the Oneida language and I said, "Hello, my English name is Sutton King, and my Menominee name is Nāēqtaw-Pianakiw." That means "comes first woman." And I said that I'm Turtle Clan of the United Nation, which are the people of the Standing Stone, but I'm also a people of the Wild Rice, which are the Menominee people.

- [Steve] Sutton King is a young Indigenous Rights activist. She's the Co-Founder and President of the Urban Indigenous Collective, a public health group serving Native Americans in the tri-state area of New York. Her goal is to change the culture around psychedelic medicines by confronting historical wrongs and by getting Indigenous people into science labs and onto the boards of pharmaceutical companies. So, when did you become interested in plant medicines as the way to heal trauma and addiction and other problems?

- [Sutton] That story begins very early in my life. My mother has always shown me and taught me the importance of my culture as a way as medicine and as a way of healing. She made sure that I had my early education and daycare on the Oneida Reservation where I learned my language and our different ways of life. From my mom who's born in the '70s, it's really important for her to reclaim her indigeneity and what it means, whereas my grandmother, she was really brought up in a Catholic religious household and that was due to her great-grandfather going to Carlisle Indian Boarding School where they were very much so assimilated. The mantra there was "kill the Indian, save the man." So ceremony and our ways of life have always been important.

- [Steve] And were plant medicines part of that whole tradition for you and your family?

- [Sutton] Not psychedelics, but we have many different plant medicines that are central to our healing, whether that be tobacco, sweetgrass, cedar, and sage. But it wasn't until college that I was really introduced to psychedelics, what the Western society has named them. And for me, I'm a survivor of gender-based violence. I'm a survivor of sex trafficking. I'm a survivor of childhood abuse as sexual abuse as well, and to really be able to heal that, psychedelics played a pivotal role.

- [Steve] When you say a survivor, you're talking personally or you're talking about kind of the culture that you grew up in?

- [Sutton] Personally, personally. Really the motivation to leave my community in Wisconsin and move to New York City to pursue a degree in psychology was to understand how historical trauma and intergenerational trauma has impacted my family and my lineage and understanding that that trauma didn't begin with me, but it can end with me.

- [Steve] So coming back to psychedelics then, why was that so important to you personally?

- [Sutton] Plant medicines, which Indigenous peoples refer to instead of psychedelics as the Western world does, this has always been a way of our life that was taken from us because of boarding school and assimilations. Psychedelics didn't begin with Huxley and Hofmann in the '60s and '70s. Indigenous peoples have been protecting them from time immemorial.

- [Steve] So you're saying, I mean, part of this is we need a different history, not the usual history of, you know, it starts with Albert Hofmann and Gordon Wasson and Aldous Huxley. There's an entirely different history of psychedelics or plant medicines.

- [Sutton] Absolutely, we can't tell the true history of psychedelics without acknowledging the plight of Indigenous peoples, right? It was through the American Indian Religious Freedom Act that we even got our right to practice in ceremony and sit with peyote, and so I think for me, reading this research, understanding the traditional and cultural ways of life, it made sense for me to sit with my friends on the great lawn at my university and try psychedelics for the first time, and in that experience, I could feel this historical trauma running through my veins. I could feel my ancestors' pain. I understood it. It was like a veil was lifted from in front of my face, and I released so much shame that I felt for that, just being Indigenous and being an Afro Indigenous, being both Black and Native American. There's a lot of historical and intergenerational trauma that my lineages have faced.

- [Steve] There's obviously a long history of Western scientists, researchers, anthropologists, going into Indigenous cultures and finding these plant medicines, being told about them, and then extracting them and then taking them back to the United States and other places in ways that have been really awful in some cases, so what do you do with that? I mean, how you can create this sense of trust, this healing, bridging cultures, both from the Indigenous perspective, and also from sort of the modern Western medical perspective.

- [Sutton] Yeah, let's all sit down and have a conversation.

- [Steve] What do you wanna talk about in that conversation?

- [Sutton] Absolutely, I think that we come together, we bring Western experts and Indigenous experts, and we sit down together and we talk about the harm that has happened, and then we can talk about what a future looks like together and I think that we can't talk about a solution without repairing the harm that has happened historically and so I think it's really a co-creation of the minds that has to happen and I don't know what that looks like. You can't come in with your own assumptions and your own biases, but with decolonizing, my hope is that Indigenous peoples will continue to be invited into these conversations, that we are a part of these boards, that we are researchers, clinicians, that we are having a seat at the table as well.

- [Steve] Are there certain Indigenous practices that non-Indigenous people should just not be part of? Sort of like, "That's what we do, that's not what you do." How would you talk about that?

- [Sutton] Yeah, and I think, again, there's a lot of different perspectives, but my own perspective is that non-Indigenous peoples should leave peyote ceremony to Indigenous peoples and I think that has been shown and highlighted by the Native American Church with a lot of their advocacy and what they have shared that they want and I think that there are so many different other medicines that non-Indigenous peoples can use to sit with San Pedro, or perhaps synthetic mescaline or so many other, again, psychedelics that exist that aren't facing ecological threat, but I think we have to recognize when people get upset and say, "Well, peyote is a plant, everyone should have access to this plant." Well, Indigenous peoples have died for the right to access their ceremonies and we have to really respect the plight historically Indigenous peoples have gone through, again, referencing the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. Our aunties and our grandmas and grandpas were incarcerated for this and so if their wish right now is that non-Indigenous peoples refrain from using peyote, I think the way in which we can decolonize is by centering Indigenous values and thoughts and perspectives and if that is one, then we should center it and move on.

- [Steve] Sutton King is a Native Rights activist and President of the Urban Indigenous Collective. And you know, it's not just the younger generation that's speaking up about wanting to rebuild that historic connection to plant medicines. This moment has been coming for a long time. Sutton mentioned the aunties and elders. This is one of hers.

- [Rachel] When I was young, my great-grandfather would come to my grandfather's home right when the sun was rising and my grandfather would cook him breakfast and they would speak the language to each other. What I learned later on as I got older was that my grandfathers were part of the boarding school era. They were in boarding schools and they were part of Native American Church so they used peyote in sacred ways in their ceremonies. I was never introduced to that part of myself, part of who I am. I'm Rachel Fernandez, Menominee Indian tribal member, Menominee Tribal Legislator. You know, being assimilated and being taught a different religion. Growing up, I was to be Catholic. And I was not supposed to take part in Native American Church. I was not supposed to use the language. I was not supposed to use the medicines. My grandparents were afraid that I would be taken away just like the other kids were, like they were. So that was the disconnect. So now learning about myself, learning how to heal myself with other medicines that we use, I'm feeling that connection and the need to fill that part of me that has been missing all of these years. So learning about Native American Church, learning about peyote, it's really a part of me that I need. You know, I'm a grandmother and I want my children, my grandchildren, to know this is a part of you too. Even my mother, she wouldn't talk about it much. I would ask her questions, she wouldn't talk about it. Growing up in our Native communities, you don't talk about things like that. You don't talk about what happened to us. And then I found my great-grandfather in a book for Native American Church and he was like the head person. So then I went back to my mom and I'm like, "So tell me about this." The bundle gets passed down, so my grandfather was supposed to have it. He didn't take it, was supposed to go to my mom. You know, we have that medicine, we have that, and it really saddened me that I missed out on it, my mom missed out on it, my grandfather knew about it. I wonder how he felt that he couldn't share that with us. You know, I was not the perfect mom because of all that trauma that I carried with me, not only my own, but my ancestors that I carried with me, so I'm trying to teach my kids, my grandkids, that you don't have to be stuck in there. You don't have to have this colonial mindset. You are Indigenous, you're Menominee, you're Potawatomi also. You are more than and we need to learn who that is.

- [Steve] Rachel Fernandez is a Menominee Indian Tribal Legislator in Wisconsin.

- [Anne] Coming up, while tribal members were having their culture ripped away from them, the first American pharmaceutical companies were already capitalizing on their knowledge.

- [Lucas] In the 1800s, mid 1800s, these new pharmaceutical companies are looking for plant-based substances, raw materials on which they can create new medicines for the marketplace. So you're gonna go to Mexico, you're gonna go, if you can afford to send individuals to Africa, then you're gonna take these plants and you're gonna get 'em into a lab setting, try and identify the alkaloids and then try and create a medicine.

- [Steve] The story of how one pharmaceutical company went bioprospecting for peyote buttons. You're listening to "Luminous," our series about the science and history of psychedelics. I'm Steve Paulson.

- [Anne] And I'm Anne Strainchamps. It's "To The Best Of Our Knowledge" from Wisconsin Public Radio, and PRX. The story of how pharmaceutical companies began mining Indigenous cultures for plant medicines goes back a long way.

- [Steve] 100 years before Timothy Leary turned the counterculture onto psychedelics, early pharmaceutical companies were bioprospecting, contacting Indigenous people in search of wonder drugs. Here's University of Wisconsin-Madison historian Lucas Richert.

- [Lucas] A good example, I think, has to do with peyote or mescalin, as we know it. Peyote is part of the cactus family in Northern Mexico and it's been used by Indigenous groups for millennia. We have cave paintings that testify to its use in sacramental and in ritual settings. Now, if you're a company like Parke-Davis, which is based in Detroit, which is a pharmaceutical concern, you've got sort of free agents around the globe, scouts, if you will. In the mid 1880s, with agents in Texas and across the border in Mexico, they've heard that individuals are using this cacti, mashing it up, putting into alcohol, putting into water, and it sort of gives them a little bit of a buzz. And so executives at Parke-Davis are stroking their chins. They're thinking this is potentially a moneymaker for us. We have a series of letters actually talking through how Parke-Davis is gonna buy bushels of these cacti and get them to their labs in Detroit. How much these bushels are gonna cost, how much is it gonna be for a specific button? How is it gonna be used? And you've got these individuals in Texas who are negotiating price.

- [Anne] Who are they negotiating with?

- [Lucas] Locals.

- [Steve] Basically local Indigenous people?

- [Lucas] Local Indigenous people or local moneymen, local prospectors, prospectors who aren't looking for gold, who aren't looking for silver, but what happens ultimately is that these buttons are given and are sold to Parke-Davis and they create a mixture, kind of like laudanum, which is a mixture of alcohol and an opium, but they call it amilomium, and amilomium is this mixture of belladonna, Digitalis, and they start selling, first in 1889, but then afterwards, in their catalogs, in the stores they were working with, what is a longstanding traditional substance that is built into the culture of Indigenous people in Northern Mexico.

- [Steve] And of course they are stripping all of that out, medicalizing it, and making a huge profit because of it.

- [Lucas] So this process of pharmaceuticalization and medicalization, as you rightly call it, doesn't build Indigenous communities into the profit. It doesn't include them in decision-making. It's, "We are taking this material, this plant-based material, and we are using it for our purposes. We're not gonna compensate you in any way and that's just the price of doing business." That's the way the pharmaceutical industry worked then.

- [Steve] Well, and just to follow up on this, I mean, Parke-Davis is now Pfizer, correct?

- [Lucas] That's correct, yep.

- [Steve] Pfizer, which we are all celebrating because of the vaccine against covid.

- [Lucas] It's an interesting moment certainly in the history of psychedelics and the pharmaceutical industry and I think it speaks to the ways in which bioprospecting and biocolonialism resonates into the present because these are still issues that are vaccine advocates of psychedelics.

- [Steve] And it's really complicated. This is so fraught because on the one hand, as you say, these pharmaceutical companies are basically going and finding these medicines, these plant medicines that have been the preserve of local rituals, Indigenous knowledge, and yet on the other hand, they can do a huge amount of good for all of us, potentially, if used well. How do you navigate that line?

- [Lucas] Yeah, used well, used ethically. There's definitely ongoing discussions that I'm aware of around how pharmaceutical, psychoactive pharmaceutical companies and psychedelic companies are working with Indigenous groups in the present moment. Whether or not there's gonna be reciprocity in any way, shape, or form, sort of x amount of shares and stocks are gonna go back to a local group, whether or not there's gonna be some sort of contract signed in perpetuity that enables sharing of profits, but I'm not sure necessarily that this is something that's gonna get worked out right away.

- [Steve] Lucas Richert is a historian in the School of Pharmacy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

- [Anne] Decolonizing psychedelics, if that's even possible, was always going to be about more than profit sharing and intellectual property.

- [Steve] Because at heart, we're talking about profound philosophical differences between cultures.

- [Yuria] Is my Indigenous Maya Tsotsil language.

- [Steve] Yuria Celidwen was born and raised in the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico, and went on to study contemplative practices around the world. In fact, when we talked in her office, a block from the UN building in New York, she had just returned from weeks of field work in the Himalayas in Nepal, studying Indigenous forms of contemplation. Yuria has a wide-ranging critique of how the modern psychedelic movement is taking shape. She was the lead author of a recent article in "Lancet," arguing for new ethical guidelines for using psychedelics, although that's not what she calls them.

- [Yuria] You may have noticed that when I referred to my ancestors' medicine was a spirit medicine. I love to define spirit as the animating principle of life. This is what the West very recently started calling psychedelics.

- [Steve] You don't really like that word, do you, psychedelics?

- I do not. I do not.

- Explain why.

- [Yuria] The etymology of psychedelics, at least how it is used in the modern way, is the manifestation of the mind, the human mind, but these medicines are nothing about the human experience alone, so I think one of the deep problems, going back to the field of contemplative studies, which I mainly work, it is taken over Eastern traditions, mostly Buddhist practices, translated into Western ways of being, which means that the ethical aspects of the source traditions that were about community, about wellbeing, about compassion, about caring for others, then suddenly become about personal wellbeing and individual concentration or better sleep.

- [Steve] Right, so for instance, meditation or mindfulness, the way that has been translated in the West, it's about personal development and this larger sense of it seems to have disappeared.

- [Yuria] Yeah, it's all about human performance, right, or peak performance, is nothing about really communal. And then within Indigenous traditions, compassion is not only for other humans suffering, but the suffering is also perceived towards our Mother Earth and all of our relatives, two-legged, winged, rooted, et cetera.

- [Steve] So coming back to your critique of the modern use in the West of plant medicines, what the West calls psychedelics, it's so individualistic, it's so about exploring one person's mind. Is that the core of it? I know there's some other pieces of your critique as well.

- [Yuria] But another much more shadow aspect of it is the financial benefit. There are companies already that are patenting these medicines that are heritage property of these different communities, so I mean, how problematic is that? There are international legal frameworks that may help with these issues. Unfortunately, the most important of those that speaks of benefit sharing of tangible and intangible heritage, all the way to genetic materials is the convention of biological diversity and its protocol of Nagoya. These are frameworks, the UN to respect the rights of Indigenous peoples to their heritage. Conveniently, the United States is not signatory of these conventions, which then of course, is like there is no responsibility for any of these things. The greatest problem of this individual thinking or tribal way of thinking is that it keeps people away, really, of taking responsibility for the larger society of beings and I have heard tons and tons of stories of people that have done spiritual tourism, or I call it as well, spiritual consumerism and just going to one country or another to just-

- [Steve] Do your ayahuasca retreat there, yeah.

- [Yuria] Yeah, in Costa Rica or whatever it is. But not only there, like also people going within Indigenous communities themselves, transforming their own traditions to cater to Western consumption.

- [Steve] And the question is, what do you do with that? There's this demand, and there are people from the West who are willing to pay a lot of money to have those experiences.

- [Yuria] Yes, in genuine Indigenous communities, spirit medicine person may be earning as low as $5 per healing ceremony, while you go to some places in like Costa Rica, you mentioned earlier, or in the United States where tons and tons of new religious centers are being created and earning $10,000 or more for a ceremony. Then another thing, there's very little integration. So when people come back to a society that continues to be alienating and isolating, then of course, they're gonna find very little meaning and purpose and what may result is just not only the possible psychotic effects of that, but the rebounding of states of disturbance, rather than a healing and true understanding of how to be in the world, the deep spiritual respect gets lost.

- [Steve] Yuria Celidwen is a scholar of Indigenous contemplative practices, working with both the United Nations and UC Berkeley. She's the lead author of the "Lancet" article, "Ethical Principles of Traditional Indigenous Medicine to Guide Western Psychedelic Research and Practice." You'll find a link to it on our website.

- [Anne] This is "Luminous," our series on the science and philosophy of psychedelics. You'll find more interviews at, plus new episodes on the "Luminous" podcast feed.

- [Steve] Our series is produced by the staff of "To The Best Of Our Knowledge" in Madison, Wisconsin.

- [Anne] Our technical director and sound designer is Joe Harkey with help from Sarah Hopeful. Additional music this week comes from Chris Sabuski, Blue Dot Sessions, Shaolin Dub, Katza, Lobo Loco, Los Negretes, and Nubis en Mi Casa. Archival footage this week courtesy of Brianna Bendixen Lion, the Mexican Institute of Cinematography, and Nikolas Echevarria.

- [Steve] And that's our show today. I'm Steve Paulson.

- [Anne] And I'm Anne Strainchamps. Thanks for listening.

- [Narrator] PRX.

Last modified: 
December 29, 2023