Video: The Native American Church and the Sacrament of Peyote

October 14, 2021
Native American Church
A conversation with Steven Benally and Sandor Iron Rope took place Sept. 30.

A conversation with Native American Church leaders Steven Benally and Sandor Iron Rope, who discussed the centuries-old sacramental use of plant medicines such as peyote. They explored the history of the persecution of this plant medicine and the Indigenous peoples and cultures for whom it is sacred, and how Indigenous perspectives might complicate or challenge the contemporary “psychedelic renaissance.”

Steven S. Benally is a member of the Dine Nation (aka Navajo Nation), a lifelong member of the Azee Bee Nahagha, Peyote Ceremonial way of life, a practitioner. He served as the President of Azee Bee Nahagha of Dine Nation for nine years and as a member of the National Council of Native American Churches/Azee Bee Nahagha of Dine Nation. He is a founding member of the Board of Directors for the Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative and is currently working as a Regional Conservationist.

Sandor Iron Rope represents the Lakota Oyate, an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe from Pine Ridge, South Dakota. He is a lifelong member and practitioner of the Native American Church of South Dakota (NACSD). He has nine years experience leading the National NAC and is the current President of the NACSD. Mr. Iron Rope received his Bachelors of Science in Human Services and American Indian Studies from the Black Hills State University. He is the executive director of a family healing center called Tiognaka Tawowakan Otokahe (the beginning of a Sacred Home). He is a current board member of the Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative (IPCI). He is committed to Indigenous Cultural Preservation and Peyote Conservation.




SPEAKER1: Harvard Divinity School.

SPEAKER2: The Native American Church, and the Sacrament of Peyote, September 30 2021.


CHARLES STANG: Good evening. My name is Charles Stang, and I'm the director of the Center for the Study of World Religions here at Harvard Divinity School. And welcome to the first event in this year's series on Psychedelics and the Future of Religion. A series which is now in its second year. And part of the center's new initiative on transcendence and transformation.

As always, the best way to keep abreast of this series, the new initiative and everything else we do at the center, is to sign up for our weekly newsletter. It is my pleasure to welcome Mr. Steven Benally, and Mr. Sandor Iron Rope this evening, who will be speaking on the Native American church and the Sacrament of Peyote.

Before I introduce our guests, I'd like to acknowledge the place from where I speak, namely Harvard University. An old institution by the standards of what we now call America. And an institution with a long, and all too often lamentable history with the native peoples of this land, the peoples who lived on this land before the arrival of white colonists, the traditional and ancestral land of the Massachusett, the original inhabitants of what is now Boston and Cambridge. I hope this event pays due respect to the people of the Massachusett tribe, and that it honors the land itself, which remains sacred to that people.

I issued Mr. Benally and Mr. Iron Rope a fairly open invitation. Which is to say that I asked each of them to speak about the sacramental use of peyote in the Native American church, but also I invited each of them to craft whatever specific message they thought this academic audience might urgently need to hear as part of a series on Psychedelics in The Future of Religion, perhaps especially hard things we might need to hear. So I hope you've come ready to be challenged, and to remain open throughout whatever challenges may come, however difficult. I recognize that the very title of this series could well be critiqued since many people justifiably feel that the label, Psychedelics, Is not at all adequate to describe the gift of peyote, and other plant medicines.

Among other things, I expect our guests will explore the history of the persecution of this plant medicine, and the peoples and cultures for whom it is sacred. And how indigenous perspectives might complicate or challenge the contemporary so-called, psychedelic renaissance.

Before we begin, I wish to thank our many supporters, and especially this evening, Cody Swift of the Riverstyx Foundation, who was kind enough to put me in touch with these two gentlemen. I'm enormously grateful. So we have an hour and a half together this evening, or this afternoon, depending on where you're joining us from. I will soon disappear from the screen, and Steven and Sandor will appear and speak one after the other in that order. I'll reappear to host the Q&A session with both of them.

If you'd like to pose a question or a comment, you can do so with that Q&A function at the bottom of your Zoom screen. It's likely that we'll only get to a handful of those questions, but rest assured that we will pass your questions and comments on to our two guests so they can see what their remarks provoked in you.

Now, allow me to introduce our guests. Steven S. Benally is a member of the Dineh, otherwise known as the Navajo Nation. A lifelong member of the Azzee' Bee Nahaga peyote ceremonial way of life, and a practitioner. He served as the president of Azzee' Bee Nahaga of Dineh Nation for nine years, and as a member of the National Council of Native American churches. He's a founding member of the board of directors for the Indigenous Peyote Conservation initiative, and is currently working as a regional conservationist.

Mr. Sandor Iron Rope represents the Lakota Oyáte, on enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe from Pine Ridge, South Dakota. He's a lifelong member and practitioner of the Native American church of South Dakota, or NACSD. He has nine years experience leading the National NAC, and is the current president of the NACSD.

Sandor received his bachelor's of science in Human Services and American Indian studies from the Black Hills State University. He's the executive director of a Family Healing Center called Tiognaka Tawowaka Otokahe. Which translates as, "The beginning of a sacred home." He's a current member of the Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative, and he is committed to indigenous cultural preservation, and peyote conservation.

Gentlemen, it is an honor to have you with us. Steven, the floor is yours.

STEVEN BENALLY: [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] to all those that are listening in today. As was mentioned, my name is Steven Benally of the Navajo Nation, known as the [INAUDIBLE] Nation. I'm coming to you from my home in a little community called Sweetwater in the Four Corners area. And I am glad and happy to be a part of this presentation today, talking about a way of life that I hold dear. As was mentioned I've been president for the Azzee' Bee Nahaga of the [INAUDIBLE] Nation. Also known as Native American church of Navajo land for a lot of years. And now for the past nine years I've served as its president, and I'm also a lifelong member of this peyote ceremonial way of life. Pretty much about fourth generation. My parents, grandpas, they were already members, and they were already practitioners of this as far back as I could recall.

Recently through by virtue of my presidency with the Azzee' Bee Nahaga of the [INAUDIBLE] Nation, through the National Council of Native American churches comprised of four Native American church organizations, we were able to form what we call Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative. And a current board member, and also a member of this peyote ceremonial ways, as I had indicated earlier, a lifelong member.

So today I wanted to share some information about maybe some history about where we're coming from as particularly as the [INAUDIBLE] Nation. And it seems like all of our history is about survival, trying to cope with changes that are forced upon us as indigenous people, without approval, without consent. And so it seems to me that every turn that we go, there's always a challenge that we have to deal with. And there's always changes that are put upon us that we have not been given any table to sit down to talk about, or to be forewarned about some of these changes. And this all goes all the way back with our way of life. It goes back all the way with our ceremonial way of life as well.

And this psychedelic renaissance-- it's been here for a long time. I guess during the hippie era in the '60s. We are aware of what that has caused with our medicine and our ceremonial ways at the time. And there was a real concern, a real issue. And so this renaissance coming back to the forefront psychedelic movement, and that decriminalization movement that's happening. It's kind of like history repeating itself in a lot of ways. And due to this thought, I brought up this issue about this historically, the doctrine of discovery, what was used at the time to conquer a lot of indigenous people and my people as well, and how this has really impeded on our way of life not only with our land bases, but with our culture with our language with their spirituality. It has impacted every aspect of our being. And we had to in a type of a survival mode for most of our history.

And just to give you an idea of what this discovery did, it has taken our land and for my people, we went on what we call this long walk to Fort Sumner, where our people spent four years incarcerated. And through the Treaty of 1864, they were finally able to go back to our land, but a majority of our land base was taken away. And so there was a part that was given back to us through this treaty. And in this treaty we were also given certain rights or agreements regarding education, regarding medical care. And in doing so, this whole idea of the discovery was really to change and to integrate us into the melting pot, this Western way of thought, Western way of life, Western way of belief.

In my case, I recall being taken from my family into a boarding school at the age of five years old, and not knowing a word of English-- being taken from my parents and to a school. No idea about what a school was, what it was about. And in that residential setting I was forced to attend school. Forced to talk English, punished if I was caught talk in my own language. And I was forced to attend a church that was selected for me every Sunday, and not having gone to church before that, this was all new, the English language was new. And being forced away from home at this young age, the change that we had to endure and the-- All of this was forced without regard to, I guess my parents didn't have no choice but to do this because if they didn't comply with these federal rules and regs about school, they would get in trouble.

And so as I had indicated most all of our history is about trying to survive. And now today, we're able to a certain extent, have a voice in what we think, the way we think through this Western education that we got. We're able to read about these laws, the legislations, and find means and ways to help ourselves so that we are able to protect and to preserve, and conserve what we hold so sacred. What we have left after all of what history has done to us. What we have left, we want to protect and we want to conserve for those generations coming. And one of the reactionary things that we're doing right now is in regard to the psychedelic renaissance, it is happening, this decriminalization movement is happening, and we're really relying on this American-Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1994, where this particular law allows us to utilize our peyote as indigenous people, federally recognized people, for ceremonial use.

This peyote that we use is down South in Texas. And it allows us to transport and to consume this peyote for-- or this medicine for our ceremonial use. And through Drug Enforcement Agency, Food Drug Administration, all of those they recognize this. But at the same time, we have this movement that is happening that is decriminalizing these laws within the states. And we know that down South there's only three counties that have this peyote and we have been trying to give voice to our issues with this and our concerns with that.

I particularly have a concern with this because I think that traditionally we were all given a land base. This creator, the Almighty, they referred to as God, we were all given a place to live, a language, a way of life. Whatever we need to sustain ourselves, to heal ourselves, to helper cells, our ceremonial ways was given to us and that's what we identify ourselves with today. And the whole purpose of life on this Earth is to instill and to give what is needed to our children, and our grandchildren. We have a responsibility to prepare them to live in this world, and learn how to survive and learn how to live with nature.

We know and we realized and we recognize that nature is the one that is in charge. Nature has the patent, the copyright, the trademark to be responsible for all life forms on this Earth. Every living thing here was given a purpose, and a reason, and a place to exist. And none of it was given the right to impede on others and to force itself on others. So this humanity, human beings, our way of life, and what we take and what we believe in makes a difference in how we act and how we react, and how we move about on this Earth. And one of the most devastating thing that has happened in all of this, I think is that this greed, greed and power, that has really taken a negative impact change is related to that. The way people are reacting, the pandemic, all of that is related to that.

And so when we talk about our way of life-- our way of life, we have a responsibility to protect what we have. And what we are given through nature we have a responsibility to protect that, to preserve that, to conserve that, and to ready our children to live with it. And in order to do this, we have to be in balance we have to be in harmony with nature because that is who is in charge. This almighty that we pray to is imminent in all that is sacred. And so when we destroy, and if we don't use it in the right way, then we're going against the rules of the Almighty.

And so when it comes back around then we see all this climate change, the fires that are going on, this pandemic, all of these we take as warnings that we have to back up, and we have to look at things in a different perspective. And so when we're talking about psychedelics, this renaissance. What's happening again, we look at our medicine and we think, this medicine is already powerful, and is healing as its natural state. There's nothing that needs to be done with it. We don't need to alter it, we don't need to do anything with it to work. It is all in our mind, and what we do, and how we work with it, that's the indigenous way.

And so when we talk about this doctrine of discovery, and this psychedelic renaissance, it kind of brings back history of where, are they going to take any way? Whether we like it or not? Whether we approve of it or not, are they going to take it, and they're going to do with it as they please as they have always done? Meaning those that are after these medicine plants. I'm sure all indigenous people that use these different medicine plants, they have a responsibility to take care of it, and to save it, and to give, and to preserve for the next generation coming.

And so this peyote way of life is a wonderful way of life that we have, where we use this peyote to help ourselves. And we do all that we can to help and to make sure that it would be there for our children. During this pandemic we had to rely on what we have, and this medicine, we had to rely on prayer, and spirituality to make it through. And so we have to get back in tune, in balance, and in harmony with nature if we want our children to live and to enjoy this life on this Earth for a long time. We have to do what we have to do today. And one of those very important virtues in all of this is that we have to learn to listen to one another. If somebody has an issue, a problem with what we say, or what is going on, or what we're doing, we have to pay attention and listen, and to understand why it is that particular voice is there.

Our voice, we tried to give out to say, please, let us live the way the creator has intended for us to live, in sync with nature. If there's anything that we have that is there that you would like to have or to know about, all it takes is to go and talk to those people and ask about it, and see if there would be approval and consent. Taken without approval and consent is something that has really hurt us, and all we're asking is please listen, because we really, really want this peyote ceremonial way of life to last us for a long time, just like people believe in their ways in this biblical way. However way that you pray that you lead your life, one has to respect others that are different. And we have only had ours for this long, and we want to have it for a long time.

And so just talking about some of the challenges that we've had all these years, I think that it's really impacting our peyote ceremonial way of life today. And I'm just wanting to kind of give no out to whoever is out there and hoping those that have a need to know and want to know, would have the time to sit down with us and others, and talk about how it is that we can proceed from here on out, because I think a lot of these researches that are going on is also for the purpose of healing. And how do we get to sit down and understand, and come to some type of collaboration, communication, that would come to the same end? Because yes, there are people out there that need healing, that need help, and our medicine is all about healing, it's all about helping, but it is also about giving time and listening. That's how I want to end this, that this is all about time, it's all about listening, and giving time to sit down.

This much I want to share with you here today. And I just want to thank you all for listening to me, and if there's questions maybe later on we can address those. So thank you very much.

SANDOR IRON ROPE: Hello. Good afternoon students, fellow faculty. And I would like to say I hope that this message here to find you in a good place. I I'm a little bit distracted here. But anyway, forgive me for that.

Today here I wanted to share a little bit about who I am. My name is Sandor Iron Rope. I'm a [INAUDIBLE], and according to the IRA government, the Oglala Sioux Tribe. I have a Caucasian name that's Sandor. Full blood Lakota carrying a Hungarian name. But in there I am the current president for the Native American church of South Dakota. I did spend a number of years, eight years with the National Native American church, Native American church of North America. And I'm still the current president for South Dakota. Also a founding board member of the Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative. And also here to share our perspective as indigenous people.

As most may know, or may not know-- more so, indigenous people-- And I grew up, let me just add. I grew up [INAUDIBLE]. I grew up being called a chief, in a derogatory term, or Indian and in a derogatory way off the reservation. So having a little bit of experience in that has also carved me to be who I am today and those challenges. Today here I'm 51 winters, and I'd like to say that every generation has a responsibility. Every generation has a responsibility. You all are going to have a responsibility to carve out what your path will be, to listen to your inner spirit, your inner voice, to hear what your path is. Hear the direction of your path. And also to make your community a better place to live. And there is a lot to in that understanding of that, making your community a better place to live.

You have a generational responsibility to learn, to learn and apply what you learn. Knowledge is key but also could be abused and in many ways. And as you have seen throughout the history of indigenous people, knowledge has been abused by the colonizer, suppression. And I say that because today we are honoring, remembering those children from residential schools, boarding schools, every child matters. And if you can take your mind back to-- I'm 51, and I can remember when I'm five years old, I can remember when I'm six years old. And you are at the hands of an adult who is supposed to know better, right? But doesn't. And hinders, you and violates you emotionally and many other ways. And some of those children never came back.

And that's what we're talking about, the hidden the hidden things that-- atrocities of indigenous people. Nobody wants to acknowledge it, but how does that healing happen? You first have to acknowledge that. Don't sweep it under the rug. Are you going to be the next generation that sweeps it under the rug, or fully acknowledges it?

As human beings we lived once in a time with the harmony of nature of Mother Earth. And a season to season movement. As hunter-gatherers, myself, my lineage dates back to Wounded Knee. Wounded Knee on my mom's side, [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] High Hawk, chief High Hawk didn't make it. [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] planters by the stream.

And so December 29, 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre occurred with the 7th Cavalry. My bloodline is extended to Chief American Horse, chief Lombard, chief Iron Nation, I know where I come from. And the responsibility that I have I share a little bit with you about our concerns, our perspective around entheogens, plant based medicines, primarily peyote. Because if you know America's history, you know there is a lot of broken treaties. Almost 93% years of treaty making with the United States government and Indian tribes.

The Marshall trilogies of 1830 to set precedents how the US government would view indigenous tribes. And the outcome of that was government-to-government relationships. In the Commerce Clause indigenous tribes are recognized as a nation-to-nation relationship. And so today we are still recognized to some capacity. The previous administration, the United States federal administration didn't want to recognize that. And so the challenges of us, of sharing our perspective wanted to set the stage about describing what is my inner spirit, my responsibility as a Lakota person, as a peyote practitioner, as a father, as a grandfather today. Our responsibilities are to protect and provide a pathway for the next generation. The next generation, why am I doing what I'm doing? I'm doing this because my mom and my dad had showed me a way. My grandma and grandpa had shown them the way.

And so here today here, I am showing my grandchildren the way. Because what was prayed seven generations ago is why I'm here. And so the philosophy of indigenous people, most of them have been seasonal to seasonal. The creation stories are here. It's an oral history. And so when you go to a different tribe you will hear their creation stories, and their knowledge, and the ancestral lineage of the stories that we're told. Certain times of the season that you would tell stories and share stories about the stars, and about different things that value systems, and different things that you learn about in being that indigenous tribal member.

Today here, today the concerns about who we are, we're always going to be here. I appreciate your attentiveness to listen, to understand, and to try to help each other as a community, as a family. And in our indigenous perspective, [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] is a Lakota philosophy that says everything is connected, we are all related. Down to the life force and everything. The life force-- so our indigenous perspective, I share a little bit because I want you to understand a little bit about where we're coming from. We're coming from broken treaties. We're coming from reservations. A land base given to us by the federal government to strive and live on. But most of the time, that land was not very good land.

And these treaties-- for us it's the 1868 Treaty, 1851 Horse Creek treaty, Fort Laramie Treaty, the Lakota, the Sioux, the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Shahila, [INAUDIBLE], Lakota, our treaties. And so when you have an understanding a little bit about 1800s and 1887, and the Dawes Act that start to minimize 1868 Treaty, 1887, the Dawes Act minimize our land base. And then it starts to put us together, to assimilate us. And so and in the era of general Pratt, the Carlisle Industrial boarding school, in that era. We're talking about those times when the process was to civilize us. Civilize us and take everything that was unknown to the colonizers, and strip us, strip us of it. You're [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH], your hair, your language, your spirit. Strip us of it because our way was never good enough You couldn't understand us so you had to try to annihilate us, but we're still here. I'm still here.

And so that resonates deep within us because today we are the voices of our generations, our children here today. And so you understand that there were indigenous people in your home territory, why don't you acknowledge that? Why don't you acknowledge that in some capacity? Acknowledge it because it generates respect, and it generates unity. We are all the same and we're all different. [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] is the philosophy. We're all related, but something in that philosophy is the life force, and everything.

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] is the life force. And we're talking about something that moves and everything. There is a life force down to the nucleus, the cytoplasm, there is something that is moving and everything. And so it's about the energy transfer of everything. How we are supposed to be in our season to seasonal movements. You are aware of the energy transfer. Some wouldn't call it science. But the energy transfer-- there is a spiritual aura around each and every one of us. We have an energy field, we generate an energy field around us. And so that was broken. It was stripped away, we were traumatized. We are trying to heal ourselves from that. Understand, we are trying to heal the historical trauma that was imposed upon us by the colonizers. So it happens to generation to generation.

And so COVID came around, along with all these other viruses throughout the years, but COVID had a twist on it. It generates-- and it always had been spiritual warfare, it always will be spiritual warfare. But COVID came and stopped the world in his tracks, stopped it. Everything that you used to know stop, something happened. Now on top of your historical trauma and the mental health crisis that indigenous people have, now we have another crisis, a worldwide pandemic, a health crisis on top of that.

And so COVID says, what are you doing now to live in harmony? What are you doing now for yourself to live in harmony? Well, we used to go hunting. Well, the stores closed down. There's no more food. There's no more-- What happened to your ability to hunt and gather? You lost it. So now you are barely trying to survive.

So season to season, the movements to movements, we as indigenous people originally prepared ourselves. And healing, COVID said, what are you doing for healing? So now we turn back to all of our medicines, our plant medicines to help heal ourselves. And this is inclusive of peyote, [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]. This is inclusive of it. Because throughout the decades, and the century of trying to annihilate indigenous people, there has been this medicine that has been with us. And it has started to heal us and give us understanding, and give us insight. The mind is a beautiful organ. Your beautiful mind can go many places if you allow it to, in the right environment.

And so indigenous people in the ceremonial context have always included the elements, [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH], Mother Earth, [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH], the wind, [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] the water. [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] the generational fire. The elements have been present in all of our ceremonies to be in tune with the life force and everything. There's a life force in everything. And to call upon the spirit of healing. This medicine was a part of that. And so we, and I'm talking medicine, I'm talking about the peyote medicine. We have been denied that the federal policy. 1971, the Controlled Substance Act.

So research has been done on peyote in the 1870s or so, discovering mescaline at the content of mescaline, and how to use it, how to extract it, et cetera. This medicine has been around our people for some time. And now more so, the psychedelic renaissance. The movement to decriminalize nature. OK, I understand, nature should have never been criminalized. But also there are indigenous people that have been a part of nature before you even discovered it. So wait a minute, before you start to decriminalize nature, at least have some respect to inquire if, how you're going to use that medicine. Or if you have the consent to use the medicine. No they have not given prior consent. They've included peyote in that decriminalization nature movement initially. We have been asking city to city. Decriminalizing nature, nothing was ever asked of us.

So the indigenous people living in harmony at one point in time are trying to heal, and the decriminalization, nature movement the psychedelic renaissance has put in pressure and will put pressure on these entheogens, these plant-based medicines.

I hope that a respectful seed is planted in our listening audience, that you would be able to understand common sense, common courtesy. And to inquire prior to you're over joyful movement of decriminalizing nature. Because all along, indigenous people have been living in these geographical territories, prior to somebody saying, oh, I discovered something. So how can we come to an understanding? The world needs healing, yes . Yes, the world needs healing. But don't forget about the indigenous people who have suffered many atrocities and still seek religious freedom, yet the Mayflower was in search of religious freedom. But somehow we're still searching here, we're still want our freedom. Our freedom to be who we are. Our voice, we want our voice to be heard. They're suppressing us, suppressing us. Now we're still here. You're going to hear us whether they like it or not.

But in order to live in harmony, somewhat of a harmony, there's something inside of you that says something. You should listen to that little voice inside of you because most of the time it's right. Most of the time. So in light of preservation, generational responsibilities, in light of the next generation, I want to ensure that I'm leaving something beneficial for my grandchildren. I read about my grandparents in books, and peyote religion books. My grandpa, Sam Lombard, my grandpa Sam High Hawks. Sam must have been a popular name back then. We carry our own Lakota names, but those are the Caucasian names given to them.

But I read about them. And someday my grandchildren are going to read about me, why? It's not to be notarized, or self-pride, it's about ensuring insuring something for them. You only have life one time. You can't redo yesterday, you can't do it. And I surely hope that you make some right choices for yourself to live in harmony, and to ensure that your people in your community have a good pathway, because you only get one chance to do it. By the grace of God, and the spirit, and the Holy helpers, I was given a second chance at life. And I appreciate that more than I could say.

And so being here to share a little bit about our perspective, it's an ongoing perspective. And I hope that we've touched just a little bit on it to enlighten your interest about peyote, about psychedelics, about entheogens. And about your responsibility as students, as community members. The next generation.

So I want to say thank you and I'll take up that much of your time. And maybe hopefully leave some time for some Q&A. So once again, I thank you all for listening. And have a good rest of the day.

CHARLES STANG: Thank you both. I'm wondering if we could start off with a question that may provide some context for the people who are tuned in, about preservation and decriminalization. So everyone may not know why you are wary, or even opposed to decriminalization efforts. Could you say something about why that's the case? And in light of maybe supply problems given in part the psychedelic renaissance.

SANDOR IRON ROPE: Yeah, I'll go first. I'll say that cultural appropriation and misappropriation is a real concern. Cultural appropriation and misappropriation are a real concern. I want to be you. I'm not, but I want to be you. And I don't know how to be you. But however some things are passed down through lineage because you learned it at a certain time in your life. You were apprenticed by your uncle, your grandfather to be able to learn about a certain process of certain things. So you're kind of apprenticed into doing certain things. That's the most-- most of the times, I know that.

So when somebody wants to appropriate our culture, they take what they can from books, or from what little they know, and try to mimic a certain culture. And sometimes they do it in the wrong way, and don't know how to do it. But indigenous philosophy, and there's always a connection to nature. There's always a connection to what you have. And some people have the ability to talk a little bit more clearly to nature than others. Some people, it be talking to nature, and a non-native may walk by and diagnose you with some kind of disorder because you're talking to nature. However, there is a connection to nature that some people have always had.

And so by saying, well, we want this medicine, it imposes a supply issue. It imposes an appropriation issue. And that's the real concern because we've had that all along. I know, I respect the Cherokee tribe. But a lot of people tend to overuse that term that my grandpa was part Cherokee, and we've heard it all over Indian country. But we're talking about, and that's meant in a constructive way. Because we've heard a lot about everything, but we're the original people that are still here surviving in a third world country within the United States. We're still here, on our reservations here. If you want to learn about who we are, help our reservations. Go to our reservation and learn about it, and how we've come.

So there's a lot of learning that happens. But I think as a supply issue, a appropriation issue might be a concern.

CHARLES STANG: Steven, did you want to add anything about decriminalization?

STEVEN BENALLY: No, I think Sandor hit on the key concerns. And I think appropriation, yes. Supply that is there, yes. And then the reasoning for all of this is what I had talked about. When you want something or when you need something, you go to seek answers, and to get answers. And based on those answers that you get, then a decision is made whether what you're going after is right, the right thing to do or not. And I think endogenously, that's just our way of life, our way of thinking in everything that we do. Even with nature, if we were going to take anything from nature, we always go over there and ask for that, and offer something before we take. That's just a way of life, and the way that we do things. And when it's not done, especially with all of history, then it becomes a reactionary thing about what's going on? This isn't right. And so a lot of it has to do with that-- I think the lack of.

CHARLES STANG: Would either of you like-- You're both involved in the Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative or IPCI, I wonder if either of you would like to say a little bit more about what that is, and what that effort is meant to address, especially in light of these issues of cultural appropriation, and supply of peyote.

STEVEN BENALLY: Go ahead, Sandor.

SANDOR IRON ROPE: I'd like to say that IPCI was created out of prayer, and answer to prayers because as indigenous practitioners of the peyote way of life, we know the history. It's trickled down through Apaches, [INAUDIBLE] Comanches. There's a trail of the peyote road. And so in light of that, we have always been denied access. And Texas is primarily private property. And the powers that have been, have always imposed restrictions upon us. Like I said, in the controlled Substance Act of 71, it is a Schedule I hallucinogenic because it contains mescaline. However, these restrictions, our grandmas and grandpas had to jump through hoops to be able to utilize it, and get an exemption in that controlled Substance Act, and in the state of Texas. And then every state followed a pathway of exempting themselves, or exempting peyote for religious purposes by bonafied indigenous tribal members.

So IPCI is really reconnecting the ability to spiritually harvest our peyote. And as we say about energy transfer, energy transfer is important to conceptualize and to keep a positive frame of mind around it, the energy forces that we have as human beings, as plants. When I'm talking about the plant life, they carry-- Any person that has a garden we'll probably be talking to their plants. It's not only change in carbons, but it's also generating an energy. And so Mother Earth is therapeutic in what she has given to us. We are all connected to her. Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, we are all connected, and we will all go back to her.

But in the process of that, there is an offering that is made to nature, and offering that is made to plants. And when you start to give your offering, you start to acknowledge a rightful process in receiving. Because before you receive, you have to give something. And that giving and the offering is reciprocal, because season to season everything is round. You generate this spiritual aura of giving, and you give an offering, and you receive something. But your energy is given back to that plant. Through your prayer you're asking for a certain healing, or a certain purpose for that. That plant generates conforms to what you're asking it. It's kind of like Doctor Emoto's study on water has memory. It generates, it forms to it. You may not see with the naked eye, but the plant hears you. And that ability to do that was lost in the government regulatory process.

So IPCI has created a venue, a second home through the spiritual gift of river Styx, to be able to ensure generation to generation that have access to that. How could you deny a child free access to healing? You think of it in that context. Every child has a home there, to be able to give a free will offering by the help of their grandparents. And set their little footprints down upon that land, and that's very important to us as indigenous people. Because it sets a spiritual memory of them. It plants that spiritual seed in them that they have a second home there. And that plant, it'll start to help heal you. That is what IPCI is. That is what has been given through IPCI. And is not about monetary exchange, but it's about the spiritual exchange that happens by the therapeutic process of [INAUDIBLE] medicine, and being connected back to the land.

CHARLES STANG: Thank you, both of you. My understanding is that the IPCI has a large track of land in Texas, so that indigenous folks can harvest peyote buttons themselves, rather than depend on the federally-regulated [INAUDIBLE], I believe they're called. So just for context for those who are joining us who may not know that. So it's a rather large area that [INTERPOSING VOICES] indigenous people to harvest these themselves. And I gather, Sandor, that's about, that it brings in this question of what sort of rituals, and energetic transfers are at play when indigenous people can harvest peyote themselves, the rituals, and whatnot.


CHARLES STANG: Could you-- Thank you I appreciate that. Could either of you speak then about the related controversy around cultivation, and whether-- because there's a surge in demand and supply problems, some folks, I don't know if there are indigenous folks, but certain certainly non-indigenous folks are proposing cultivation. So growing the peyote cacti in greenhouses. How do you to think of that as a possible solution? Or is that a road you think we should not go down?

SANDOR IRON ROPE: I think it's fair to give you an explanation of why. Because you all are familiar with boarding schools and residential schools, aren't you? Right?


SANDOR IRON ROPE: And so you put a peyote inside a greenhouse, what's the difference? What's the difference of raising that peyote in a greenhouse, or boarding school, or residential school, rather than allowing that purity to grow naturally outside?

CHARLES STANG: So you think there is no difference.

SANDOR IRON ROPE: No. There is a question about it. The Indigenous perspective. The Indigenous perspective would always prefer natural. The natural elements of everything that grows naturally. So cultivation brings in different types of soil. It may enhance the timing of that plant, or somebody may try to enhance the time that it takes to grow that plant for the purpose of using it. And a lot of times the peyote cactus takes 7 to 10 years to grow to maturity. And so you can't really enhance time, some things take time.

And so there's this split that this medicine has a different feel to it in the greenhouse, rather than something that has that comes from the wild naturally. So there been concerns about it, and skeptical skepticism about it. I think there will always be going to. But most people do prefer the natural setting, indigenous people.

CHARLES STANG: Thank you Sandor. I have a question from a member of the audience. This is from Rachael Peterson who is affiliated with the Center. And as a student at HDS. It comes out of Stevens comments, so it's addressed to you, Steven.

Steven, you touched on many layers of pain and hurt, ancestral, environmental, communal, and cultural. Could you say more about how the Native American church thinks about what healing means on those different levels, and how peyote facilitates that healing on those different levels?

STEVEN BENALLY: Yeah. Well, thank you for the Question Kind of going off of what Sandor had said here earlier. There's healing, healing is based on nature. I had indicated in my presentation, where I said this great spirit, God the creator, is imminent in what it Has created, and what is sacred. And so any time there is a manipulation of its creation, what happens to the intimacy of that particular plant in this case? Would it have the same healing powers? A question. This was brought up one time, and I had indicated-- I said that if there was someone very close to me that needed help with this medicine, I have no problem going out to nature and making my offerings, and getting the medicine needed to help this person in need.

I wouldn't know how to go about doing that, taken from a pharmacy, or from a greenhouse. It's not a chance that I would want to take with someone's life, someone's healing. And so I think that there kind of applies to every level of it, because we're only protecting what we know and what we were given, and what was instilled as generation to generation on how to work with nature, and how to help in that sense. Thank you.

CHARLES STANG: Thank you. So for those of you who are joining and may not know this, Sandor and Steven are both featured in Michael Pollan's latest book, This Is Your Mind On Plants, among others. I found that chapter really helpful. So Michael interviewed both of these gentlemen. I mention that because one of the themes, or threads in that chapter is, what should non-natives relationship to peyote be? Another woman also featured in that same chapter, whose name is Don Davis, if I'm not mistaken. And she says, you should leave peyote alone. And Sandor, you tell a story about your father's beads in his bedroom. And you end that story saying, sometimes the most respectful thing you can do with something is just leave it alone.

Now, I rehearse these stories that came out of that chapter in Pollan's book because there's a question on coming through the chat function, which is how would you recommend a non-indigenous person approach the peyote plant? So, I suppose my question is, do you think there is a way a non-indigenous person should approach the peyote plant? Or is that way to leave it alone?

SANDOR IRON ROPE: I think that'll be an ongoing question throughout your lifetime. Did curiosity kill the cat? Or did the car make it? Human beings, the human mind is a wonderful place. And people since the last 100 years want to explore our mind. And Indigenous people have been doing spiritual movement with nature for some time now, and with plants for some time now.

And so everybody feels the cognitive liberty, if you will. But there's also nature, has its laws, nature has laws. And the spiritual perspective has always tried to pay respect to them laws, and to care and nurture for them. And so in that context, our way of life is not for everybody, and peyote is not for everybody. There's a more-- Just because you want to experiment with, it may not be the right reason. This is something that people have been persecuted over peyote. My grandma, one of my grandmothers went to jail for it. Many of our people went to jail for it. There is a long history behind us. People still go to jail for it in Mexico, the [INAUDIBLE] people.

And so when you really look at this, it kind of is disrespectful to say, well, could I try it? I want to try it. Hey, can I try it, just once? But for us, it's a way of life. Some tribes bury people bury people in certain ceremonies that happen-- we lay our loved ones to rest in certain ceremonies, and they have been in ball involved in this way of life. So it gets a little bit serious about this way of life here that the general audience may not understand. And the Native American Church in itself has been appropriated. You've got to be careful because everybody wants to say, we are a Native American church.

Quanah Parker, the Comanche people didn't originally wear [INAUDIBLE], they didn't wear a headdress, there were plumes in their head. But because the government wanted somebody to sign certain things, the government said, oh, this person is a chief. Let's make sure he's got a bonnet so he could put an x beside the signature. And then we can say that we got the signature of that chief over there, so we can do what we want to do.

So now we got a Native American Church, and let's put a couple of board members that are indigenous, they may not have peyote history, but let's put them on the board so we can prove that we have an authentic indigenous board. The organizations are starting to do that. It's the same mindset as the colonizers. So you really have to be aware of how you're doing things in the respectful way. And yeah, as I said, all I know is that I had to leave my dad's beads alone. I had to a not touch them because he knew what I was going to do already before I knew what I was going to do.

CHARLES STANG: Thank you, Sandor. Steven, do you want to add anything to that question?

STEVEN BENALLY: Repeat the question again.

CHARLES STANG: The question was about whether non-indigenous people should just leave peyote alone, as Sandor suggests, with that story of his dad's beads, and Don Davis says very clearly in that chapter of Michael Pollan's book.

SANDOR IRON ROPE: Yeah. I agree with Sandor, and I agree with Don. For me, it's just like, what you have, what you were given, that's who you are and that's what you are all about, from the creator. And every human being, they go back to a land base, they go back to a language, they go back to a way of life, a religion, as you would call it. A ceremonial way, a means of communicating with their maker. Everybody has had that given to them sometime in history. And due to assimilation, and movement and all, lot of the melting pot, whatever you call it, civilization, colonization, a lot of them have lost that. They don't have that.

And so we were, this doctrine of discovery, and all that had happened was all for that purpose, to assimilate us and to be a part of that one big melting pot. But somehow we were able to save ourselves from that, able to retain our true of who we are, with a land based, a language, a way of life, and a ceremonial ways of communicating with nature, and the powers that be spiritually. And what we're doing is just protecting that for our children, and our grandchildren. That's all we're doing, protecting what was ours, because we have seen others lose, and they're scrabbling out there, trying to grab onto something that would make sense to them. We never want our children and our grandchildren to be like that. So that that's kind of my thinking on that.

CHARLES STANG: And does it follow for both of you that you have no interest in synthesized mescaline? Because it's not your interest, you have a relationship with a sentient being, the gift of peyote. So do you have any views, positive, negative, neutral, on the synthesized version?

SANDOR IRON ROPE: Well, I've heard about this. I've heard about synthetic mescaline. And like I have said in the past is that Indigenous ceremonies have always evolved around the elements of nature. And so synthetic mescaline is taking mescaline out, it's synthesized in the laboratory. It does not have the alkaloids of the whole plant. It's not peyote, it's mescaline. And so everything adds to the ceremony and the therapy in my perspective. The elements add the life force and everything. Everything is about life in our ceremonies. Everything is about life. And so the life force and everything is present in the elements.

And so when you take it out and just say, we got this, we synthesized this. We're going to give this to you, we're going to analyze you, we're going to watch you for 24 hours and see how you respond, it becomes the same [INAUDIBLE] as people have been subjected to for eons, since the beginning of time. Which is, I want to research you. If it's unknown to the colonizer, I want to research you. You're my lab rat. I want to give this to you, and find out what it does to you, so then I know if it's good or bad.

So in that sense I don't know how mainstream will utilize synthetic mescaline and say, here here's a mescaline in the pill. Take two of these, one in the morning, and one at noon. Drink eight glasses of water, and then call me in the morning. And if you can't call me, by 10:00 PM I'll go over to your house and make sure you're still alive. I don't know. It's beyond me. But for us, we have grown up around nature, and ceremony. So it's kind of out of our box, or out of our circle.

CHARLES STANG: Anything to add to that, Steven?

STEVEN BENALLY: That was in regards to-- maybe you can repeat the question again.

CHARLES STANG: Sure, absolutely. It's really just about synthesized mescaline. Everything I hear from you too is that peyote is-- you cannot extricate peyote from the world, the natural world. And more than that, the way of life of indigenous people, the language, the culture, the ceremonies, and yet there's efforts to synthesize mescaline. And I wonder I was asking I asked Sandor and you both, what do you think of those efforts of synthesized mescaline. Does it leave you-- Are you uninterested in it? I think you said earlier you might even be-- you would be worried to offer that to someone as a medicine precisely because it has been shortened of all of these other factors and environmental realities. And not just environmental, I hear that the-- Don, I think it is, who says in the Michael Pollan's chapter, "Peyote is a sentient being." It's not an object. That was the question.

STEVEN BENALLY: Yeah. Well, when you talk about our medicine, this peyote, the way that we approach it, it's a living being--


SANDOR IRON ROPE: --it can hear, understand, and recognize. With that spiritual offering an approach, it comes to understand and recognize the purpose and the reason for their need, their help. And when you synthesize-- that's kind of like these people building robots with human beings-- would they ever get the real thing? There's a robot, the latest one, that can understand and do some things, but it's still a robot. It's not real. And so you can learn, you can do to play with people's mind or begin to manipulate what is sacred for your own purpose and for your own need, but the end result remains to be seen. We don't know what that could be, and how that could be, or what it could cost.

And then at the other thing is that this synthesizing, synthetics, it has to be coordinated or it has to be-- The real thing, the real masculine, it has to be taken from somewhere to get an identical one according to a synthetic one. So our position is it's still going to get it from the real thing, whether it's synthetic or not, because you're going to have some copy. And no matter how tricky you are, or how manipulative one is in this effort, we're saying, what you're doing, it could cause some issues later on.

A prime example, like what's happening now with this climate change, all of this is a real concern now. What's happening? Because somebody took and manipulated what was supposed to have not been, what was natural, what was real, and begin to manipulate that, and look where we're at now. And so when you're talking about synthetic stuff and all of this, you don't know-- It could be something good for now, but what about later on? What are the later ramifications that could be there. And we don't want to be there to answer for that. We want to say that this is the way it is, leave it as it is. Thank you.

CHARLES STANG: Thank you both. We just-- Yeah, I'm sorry. Sandor, go, please.

SANDOR IRON ROPE: My battery may be dying here in a little bit, just FYI, if I--

CHARLES STANG: OK, if you disappear we will know why. And let me say then, before you disappear thank you for your time, and your wisdom on this. Thank you, both of you. I wanted to just conclude by offering you a chance to say, what questions do you think people listening should be asking you, or themselves, that we didn't ask you?

SANDOR IRON ROPE: How can we support indigenous healing? That's a question. Rather than try to appropriate, or in any context, how could we support this? I think by supporting IPCI is supporting an indigenous-led organization to ensure that the future of this medicine is available to the next generation. That's ideally what we are embedded in-- conservation initiative. To me it's about a healthy home. It's about offering a healthy pathway. And because there's a lot of unhealthiness that has happened in this world, and so creating a cultural pathway for our Indigenous children. Look at these residential children that never did come home. We should, whoever hindered them children will ultimately answer for that, for sure. But creating a healthy pathway for our Indigenous children is what we're doing.

And I think by supporting that is also helping heal that trauma that they may be carrying.

CHARLES STANG: Thank you. Steven.

STEVEN BENALLY: Yeah. I think that the people out there realize now, some of those, the real history, the real history of where we're coming from, what we had to go through, what we were put through, and where we are today, there's a lesson to be learned in that history from the Western culture. If they can visit that history, the real history, they would be able to understand how not to do certain things, and learning from history so that there is not a repeat in what you are doing, and what you're attempting to do, and what you want to do. I think there's a lesson that has to be, and should be learned from that. And once you learn that, and you realize that I think there might be a way where we could sit down and have coffee, and be comfortable with it.

CHARLES STANG: Thank you Steven. So there you have it. Those of you who are still with us, the questions are, how do we support indigenous healing? How do we support it rather than appropriate it? And learn the history so that we do not find ourselves repeating it.

Thank you both so very, very much for your time, for your wisdom. It's near the hour, I think we need to let you both go. And thank you so much for your invaluable contributions to this series. I'm certain I'm going to hear a lot from those who attended this, and I'm looking forward to it.



STEVEN BENALLY: I would like to get all the feedback that you're going to get the questions that were sent, if you can share that all with us, that would really be helpful for us too [INTERPOSING VOICES].

CHARLES STANG: And I think those will be available as early as tomorrow, but certainly within a few days, we will have that-- We'll get back. We'll email that to you. For those of you who are still joining us, please, I know you can't applaud through Zoom, but do so in whatever way you can. Thank these two men for their time and their wisdom, and for their invaluable contribution. Sandor, I'm sorry, did you-- Yes, go ahead.

SANDOR IRON ROPE: I just wanted to leave, Charles, with these students-- they are the future of the understanding of World peace, of healing. These young, bright minds have a bright future ahead of them. And so we offer our time in the hopes of healing, peace, and unity that prevails in the future here. And I apologize for not getting into everybody's questions, but I'm sure at some point in time we could handle that. So thanks again, to you to Charles. Appreciate you.

CHARLES STANG: It's been an absolute privilege to be in conversation with you too. And I hope our paths cross again.

Thank you once again, everyone. Good night. And if you found this edifying, please follow the series. We hope to have more indigenous perspectives this year, and this is just the beginning. Thank you so much. Good night.

SPEAKER2: Sponsors, Center for the Study of World Religions, and Esalen.


SPEAKER1: Copyright 2021, the President and Fellows of Harvard College.