Peyote’s Race Problem
Alexander Dawson, Ph.D.
In the years since peyote became a controlled substance in Mexico and the US, a steady stream of advocates and activists have laid claim to two types of exemption, rooted in both US Law (the First Amendment) and International Law (the 1971 Vienna Convention on Psychotropic Drugs). Indigenous peyotists in particular have been largely successful in making a claim to a legal right to be exempt from national prohibitions on peyote possession and consumption. This has represented a significant advance in indigenous rights, yet in both contexts it has had the unpleasant effect of signaling that a drug that is otherwise so dangerous as to be prohibited should be permitted for Indians, because they are somehow essentially different from all other citizens. This, then, is Peyote’s Race Problem. The ways in which we have created a legal framework that makes peyote use licit among indigenous peoples has hardened a certain notion of profound, an unalterable difference to the point that Indian bodies are said to be incommensurably different from the bodies of others who might desire to consume peyote, but for whom it is deemed too dangerous. This presentation seeks a way out of that dilemma by asking two questions. The first is How is it that Peyote became an Indian thing? The second asks What would the story of peyote look like if we included the long history of non-indigenous peyote use in the narrative? As for the former, in seeking to answer this question we are confronted with a long history in which colonial and modern states have actively policed peyote, repeatedly relegating it to the realm of indigeneity even when it seemed likely to escape. And with the latter we see a history of people silenced, erased, made invisible because their own experiences do not fit within systems that seek to different Indian bodies (mystical, out of control, impulsive, primitive) from European bodies (rational, ordered, disciplined).
Alexander Dawson, Ph.D., is a historian of modern Mexico, and is Professor of History and International Studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. He is the author of three books, including Latin American Since Independence: A History with Primary Sources (Routledge, 2011, 2014.), First World Dreams: Mexico Since 1989 (Zed Books, 2006), and Indian and Nation in Revolutionary Mexico (Arizona, 2004), and has published essays in Latin American Perspectives, the Journal of Latin American Studies, The Americas, and the Hispanic American Historical Review. He is currently working on a book titled The Peyote Effect: Making Race Along the US-Mexican Border (under contract with the University of California Press), which examines the ways peyote, whiteness, and indianness have been linked over time in Mexico and the United States by indigenous peoples, ecclesiastical authorities, government officials, and others.