Saturday, April 19, 2014

El Congreso Nierika

Spring break 2014 in Gainesville was dark and rainy. I stayed home and wrote a bunch of funding proposals that would eventually be denied, while the rest of Gainesville headed for the sunny beaches of South Florida or—gasp—the snowy slopes of Colorado. I still have to make a conscious effort not to curse their names.

I decided to make up for lost vacation time by heading to lovely Toluca, Mexico to present, for the first time, a research paper at an academic conference. It was an ideal venue for my work: the Second International Congress on Traditional Medicine and Public Health: "Sacred Plants, Culture, and Human Rights." The conference was co-produced by the Department of Anthropology at the Autonomous State University of Mexico, and Nierika A.C., an advocacy organization associated with Centro Nierika, an alternative-therapies center located in the mountains of central Mexico.

El Congreso Nierika (not its official name) was not your usual stuffy academic conference: The main themes of the conference were peyote, ibogaine and ayahuasca, with occasional presentations on other psychoactive plants such as ololiuqui (morning glory) and floripondio (tree datura, toé, or Brugmansia spp.). There were three full days of presentations from people of numerous disciplines: anthropology, law, psychology, medicine, ecology. There were a host of indigenous leaders there including a number of Huichol people as well as representatives of the Diné (Navajo), the Lakota, the Ashaninka (Peru-Brazil), Kametsa (Columbia), and even one or two representatives of that notoriously inscrutable tribe of exotics, the Harvard graduate.

At conferences like this—and there are many nowadays, fueling what some consider a psychedelic renaissance (see here for one example, and be sure to watch the enlightening and entertaining documentary)—there tends to be a heavy emphasis on plants as medicine, usually for psychological purposes. Part of this is because they work—and part of it is a way of legitimizing the use of psychedelic plants and substances in the eyes of the powers that be. People are doing research on psychedelics for the treatment of afflictions ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder to drug addiction. Some of this research derives from a Western medical model and is sponsored by institutions such as Johns Hopkins and UCLA, while some of it looks to indigenous ritual traditions to ensure safety and efficacy. The latter usually takes place in treatment centers that have sprung up around the world, many of which draw on the pioneering work done at Takiwasi, a drug-rehabilitation center in Peru founded by French physician Jaques Mabit.

The use of the word "medicine" to refer to these ritual plants, and even their usefulness in treating drug addiction, has a long history in Native North America. Here, the ritual use of peyote through the Native American Church has, among other things, helped individuals, families and communities deal with the crippling effects of alcoholism, a disease that afflicts Native American peoples in epidemic proportions. In his presentation, Sandor Iron Rope, president of the Native American Church of North America, even said that the peyote way is not a religious way, but a health system. Taita Juan, a healer from Columbia, also stressed that ayahuasca is a medicine, and is not intended for recreational use.

Sandor Iron Rope, Teton Lakota and president of
the Native American Church of North America. Sandor
gave a tear-jerking speech at our closing ceremony,
cementing hisplace in the hearts of many.
However, not everyone at the conference was happy with the treatment of these plants as clinical agents or as objects of scientific study.  On the first day, after listening to a panel of scientists present their research on peyote, one Huichol marakáme (shaman), stood up from his seat in the audience and took the microphone. "You call the peyote a medicine," he complained. "You talk about it as if it is a substance, but to us, it is our brother." Armando Loizagga, one of the conference organizers, responded, suggesting that the Huichol were able to call their practice a tradition because it was never taken from them. "For us," he said, "we are trying to regain something that was lost."

Taita Juan, a healer from Columbia, took the microphone and protested the use of the word "drug" in some of the presentations to refer to ritual plants. Lauro, an Ashaninka shaman from Peru, spoke up as a mediator, pointing out the difference between Western positivistic science and indigenous forms of knowledge. Anya Loizagga spoke last: "This is a good conversation for us to have," she said. "Together we're developing methods for this research, and finding a bridge between Western, evidence-based science and indigenous knowledge which comes from practice."

An academic panel. The slide on the screen says
"Peyote: Un Patriomonio Biocultural."
This lively discussion was followed by a keynote address. Dr. Raquel Gutiérrez Nájia discussed a study she did, in which she reviewed the constitutions of the all nations of the Americas (except for the U.S. and Canada, whose legal systems are different, she said), to examine the legal treatment of ritual plant use. She determined that throughout the Western hemisphere, indigenous use of these plants is seen as a fundamental right. There is no need to legitimize these plant uses through scientific and medical studies, she insisted. The association of these plants with indigenous culture is what gives them their legitimacy, she said. "And who in this room would say that they don't have indigenous blood?" she declared. "Even if we don't have it in our blood, we have it in our hearts."

I cringed. Identity politics is a hot topic in indigenous circles. Despite the long history of racism, dispossession and genocide from which indigenous peoples worldwide have suffered and continue to suffer, there is nevertheless some legal and social cachet attached to indigeneity. In many countries, indigenous peoples are granted tenure over their lands, however fragmented and degraded they may be by generations of attempts at colonization and usurpation. For some indigenous peoples, their culture is one of the few things they have left—and even that was hard fought. For example, the peyote religion in North America was outlawed for decades as the U.S. government pursued a policy of extermination of indigenous culture and assimilation of native peoples into the mainstream. A similar policy remains in effect in many other parts of the Americas and the world. The annals of the Spanish conquistadores are rife with the violent repression of indigenous ritual practices and their practitioners. For the children of the conquistadores to lay claim to indigenous culture is not something that some indigenous people take lightly.

I looked over at Taita Juan, who was sitting on my row. He had his arms folded over his chest; I could be wrong, but he looked mad to me.

"Sacred plants are a human right," Dr. Gutiérrez continued. She called for a special U.N. rapporteur to address the topic of sacred plants use, and she later would present the conference with a declaration for all to sign in support of sacred plants as a human right. I never got around to signing it.

When Dr. Gutiérrez finished and the floor was opened for comments and questions, Armando Loizagga took the microphone, thanked Dr. Gutiérrez for her work, then much to his credit, suggested that while legally this may be a human right, nevertheless we have a responsibility to indigenous heritage and to the people themselves from whom we are borrowing these traditions.

I agree. We non-indigenous peoples need to be careful in our approach to ritual plant use. The repression of indigenous culture is not a thing of the past but of the present—and many native people see our usurpation of indigenous culture as just another wave of colonialism in New-Age disguise. At risk of oversimplification, I suggest that indigenous culture tends to be characterized by circumspection and a high degree of familial responsibility and engagement. Cosmopolitan Western culture, to the contrary, is largely characterized by the pursuit of freedom and independence, as well as a driving sense of entitlement (formerly known in the U.S. as Manifest Destiny). The anthropologist in me sees two very different cultural systems. We run the risk of breaking that which we love by trying too hard to make it fit us. That's not to say that Western culture can't become more like indigenous culture; I think the fate of the world lies in its ability to do just that. But indigenous culture is more than just a set of rituals, some psychoactive plants and some really cool clothes. As one presenter noted in her talk, addictive behaviors don't change easily. Even the most powerful plant allies can only take you so far; true healing takes patience, practice, and commitment. Here's hoping that we can manage to keep our allies at our side, and the wind at our backs, for the long road ahead.

A debate panel entitled "Peyote: Uses and Customs in the 21st Century. Human Rights, Culture and Environmental Management." Objective of the panel: To open the debate around the legal situation of peyote with relation to its uses by diverse cultural communities from the point of view of human and constitutional rights.

The closing panel: Indigenous leaders get a chance to speak.

These guys closed out our conference with a little Huichol music. Huichol musicians often play a small, solid-body hand-carved violin. The guy on the right has a ukulele-type instrument. He joked about going undercover in his bi-cultural costume—part mestizo and part Huichol.

Huichol marakáme Marcelino Avila Robles, a.k.a. Yausalin, was offering healings (curaciones) and cleansings (limpias) outside the conference. Here he works on a young medical student.

Local T.V. news coverage. This event drew quite a crowd from the community.

This nice man's name is Ismael Manuel Gomez. He's from
right there in Toluca and was busy knitting away on some
really cute hats and shawls. I've got his business card if
anyone wants to get in touch and order some handmade

This man's name is Aurelio Diaz. I really liked his demeanor 
and the way he spoke. He spoke slowly and deliberately in 
Mexican Spanish, with a call for unity between peoples. He spoke 
about a Federation of the Condor, the Eagle and the Plumed 
Serpent. "When the three fly together, all of the people will 
come back home," he said.
An evening reception for presenters on the first night. There was live music and food in a beautiful historic courtyard. The gentleman with his back to us is wearing the traditional outfit of the Huichol marakáme—the wide-legged white trousers, the colorful blouse that's often open at the sides for ventilation, and the wide-brimmed hat rimmed with danglies and adorned with feathers. I think the Huichol people have one of the most colorful, elaborate and all-around gorgeous dress habits in the world.

The dancers left their headdresses out on display while they weren't wearing them. Amazing!

I love Huichol beadwork. So much so that I came home with four new bracelets. I also got
two old favorites fixed while I was there. 

This lovely young woman, Rubi, made two of my new bracelets.
I got her email address and sent her these pictures.

I bought a couple of bracelets from this gentleman (see below). His name is Gesencia. When I asked him if I could put his picture on my blog, he nodded slowly, and I wasn't sure he understood me. Just then, a young guy jumped up and put his arm around Gesencia. "What do you get for it?" he asked me. He was about to ask that I give his friend some money in exchange for taking his picture. I explained to him that I don't get anything. I used to be a professional journalist, but now I'm a student, and I just write for fun. He asked what I study and I told him that I'm an anthropologist, working with shamans in the Amazon. "I'm a student of anthropology too, and I study with them," he nodded toward his friend.
In Latin American anthropology, there is a strong tradition of advocacy on behalf of indigenous peoples. In fact, North American anthropologists are often taken to task for ignoring their potential role as advocates for the marginalized peoples who support the bulk of anthropological research. I loved it that this young Mexican anthropology student was already looking out for the best interests of his buddy.

This is Gesencia's  display of bracelets. I pointed to the
ones on the left, thinking how ingenious it was
that he could design a meditating Buddha.
"Corazon," he told me. He'd arranged his display
so that everything was facing him. It wasn't a Buddha,
it was a heart! Dual-purpose. I bought one.

This is something you just don't see at your garden ­variety academic conference. These folks had a big tent set up and were performing in it much of the time; we could hear their drums from inside. According to musician, conference interpreter and danzante Elena Klaver, this is an Aztec dance group, and it's not just an artistic performance but a ceremonial performance. "The dances start and end with a movement variously called a firma, permiso, or cruz," she writes. "It starts and ends with a salute to the six directions (four cardinal directions, above and below) and then depending on the time, certain people, or all people, have the opportunity to 'have a palabra' meaning they lead a dance, which is a prayer." She said we could consider this ceremony an offering to the conference. Given the important (and sometimes heated) debates taking place inside, I think that's a wonderful thing.

Side-trip through the Mexican countryside. They are conejos (rabbits).

Harvardia graduensis at play.

Changes: April 22, 2014: Name of Aurelio Diaz added to his photo. Caption re. Aztec Dancers amended to reflect the following: According to musician, conference interpreter and danzante Elena Klaver, this is an Aztec dance group, and it's not just an artistic performance but a ceremonial performance. "The dances start and end with a movement variously called a firma, permiso, or cruz," she writes. "It starts and ends with a salute to the six directions (four cardinal directions, above and below) and then depending on the time, certain people, or all people, have the opportunity to 'have a palabra' meaning they lead a dance, which is a prayer." She said we could consider this ceremony an offering to the conference. Given the important (and sometimes heated) debates taking place inside, I think that's a wonderful thing.


  1. Beautifully written and well argued Christina. And your photos are fabulous.