Conflict and Transformation in Mazatec and Outsiders' Views of the Therapeutic Value of Mushroom Use in Huautla
Ben Feinberg, Ph.D.
While the physiological effects of the consumption of psychedelic mushrooms are probably consistent across individuals in different cultural and historical settings, the ways in which they are perceived to work, the contexts in which they are taken, the problems they are perceived to address, and the degree to which their efficacy is assessed are all discursively constructed in ways that are fluid and contested and may vary greatly. The town of Huautla de Jimenez, in the Sierra Mazateca of Oaxaca, Mexico, is well-known as a space where the use of mushrooms is culturally elaborated, and foreign and urban visitors have come to the area to use them since the 1950s, producing an often imbalanced cross-cultural dialogue about their effects. In this presentation, I provide a brief overview, based on 25 years of ethnographic research, of the different expectations of visitors and Mazatec-speakers, and the changes in Mazatec discourse about mushroom use. I suggest that the Western discourse about the "therapeutic value" of mushroom use, with its focus on individual wellness, often assumes a universality that erases context and the ways in which Mazatec-speakers understand the value of the "child saints." At the same time, these differences do not forestall the possibility of productive engagement and collaborative research between Mazatec-speakers and outsiders.
Ben Feinberg, Ph.D., received his degree in Anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin in 1996. He has been in engaged in research in the Sierra Mazateca region of Oaxaca, where he first visited in 1987, for the past 23 years. He is the author of The Devil’s Book of Culture: History, Mushrooms, and Caves in Southern Mexico (University of Texas Press, 2003). He is a professor of Cultural Anthropology and the chair of the Division of Social Sciences at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina.