The race toward species endangerment or extinction is problematic in most cases but when the species is integral to the heart and wellbeing of a people, the problem rises to critical status by threatening the survival of a culture. The case of the American Bison, or as it’s commonly referred to- the buffalo, is a good example of how the endangerment of a species can equal a threat to a way of life.
In the late 1700’s buffalo herds ranged from Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico and were estimated to exist in numbers well over 60 million. By 1889 only 541 buffalo remained. The numbers are shocking but what the numbers don’t say is the devastating effect this desecration had on native peoples who were spiritually and physically reliant on the health of their four-legged spiritual ally. Crow chief Plenty Coups is noted to have stated, “When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened. There was little singing anywhere.”
The tragic implications of these events still haunt the memory of the native people and are part of the history of an American mismanagement style barely distinguishable from an extinction campaign.
The race toward extinction of the buffalo was barely averted and sadly of course not all tribes survived the catastrophe. Conservation issues arose in the effort to repatriate the buffalo herds. In a recent estimate the number of buffalo in public and private herds totaled 500,000. Of these half million descendants of the 541 original survivors, only 15 to 25 thousand are estimated to be of pure genetic makeup, the majority of them being a mix of buffalo and domestic cattle. Visually the “mix blood” buffalo are indistinguishable from their more traditional relations and while there may be more rarity and conservational science value to the “pure blood” buffalo, the fact that less than 5% of “original style” buffalo remain in existent herds must still be considered an overall win, with the other alternative being joining the dodo bird in complete extinction.
Are you with me so far? This relationship of the health of a species to the health of a culture and even the issue of genetic “purity” was touched on in this conversation. And that’s because I really want to discuss, along with the race to extinction, the other “race” that nobody wins. The one involving skin color and issues of national, ethnic, tribal, and cultural superiority and division.
This is some of the tough stuff that if you’ve been following along, I mentioned in my last post. It is part of what needs to be in this discussion. Because it has been, is currently, and should be brought forth, but for the purpose of peacemaking. Not for the purpose of being morally right, politically enlightened, or causing our brother or sister to feel less spiritually deserving or able than ourselves. My intention is in honoring forthrightness and clarity, and with the hope of preserving our uniqueness without harming our unity. I believe we are as a society needing to evolve beyond cultural wounds that each of us carries from our heritage regardless of the genetics we are identified with. These are not wounds that need us to feed and water them for another 500 years. There’s a saying which says “Hurt people hurt people.” Let’s not do that anymore.
And this is where I speak with the medicine…
Oh my beautiful grandfather friend, divine peyote of the earth for our people. You gave me a companion, a family, a circle of community by which you keep me whole. Help me say what you’ve put on my heart with the loving touch of you in my mind. If it is within my ability to reach a receptive heart with these words may all the credit be to you peyote. If I offend or confuse a brother or sister by my own ignorance, let that be on me holy medicine. I ask that your goodness be in front and my human nature be behind you grandfather so that this message I hope to share can carry its own truth of you beyond my ability to comprehend or explain. That is my prayer.
Let’s look at a map.
To my eye the shape of the medicine’s natural growing area resembles the peyote plant itself.
The root is in Mexico. The top is in the US. This visual correlation may not mean anything to others but I’ve always considered it instructive. The people who’ve relied on this medicine forever can accurately be thought to be largely centered south of the current geopolitical US/Mexican border. Yes this is a man made line. And so are laws.
As a Mexican I want to be proud that I come from the land of peyote. I want to hold on to the ancient traditions of my ancestors. Yay for me. But wait, I have European “blood” in me too. It’s somewhere in here… maybe it’s the stuff that makes me enjoy bad cop shows and the music of Rush. But am I to be less proud? Do I have shame such that I should receive less of the blessings of the medicine or should I pray less sincerely less often?
Should I feel slighted for not being “protected by the government” for my way of worship and prayerful contact with Creator? Has the Native Mexican part of me been appropriated by northern or even Canadian tribes or have my European genes appropriated my Mexican genes and they’re in there duking it out?
Of course this is nonsensical. I am a whole person not two. I don’t get angry when I see street tacos being chowed by a white dude or when I have to buy tamales because my mom is passed on and the way Creator set it up, she’s the one who’s supposed to give them to me? And the ones I make are ok but not like mom’s. And that hurts deep in my heart because, never again- not until the next world…
And by the way, when did government actually ever protect anything? Do I care what they say about something sacred beyond governmental understanding or authority? Can I afford to care about what some tribal people say about me and whether or not I or my kids are deserving of medicine, and what some of my Mexica relations say back to those people?
And why is it that every peyote dealer ever was Mexican and every buyer was not? Who’s keeping track of all this stuff? Does Creator have a chart and and an in house 23 & me genetic scorecard of who deserves this medicine? What about Quanah Parker’s grandkids? What law dictates their access to prayer as at least one of his wives was white, and their son was therefore only 25% “Indian Blood”, and so unless he married a full-blood tribal woman, by Texas state law Quanah’s grandchildren would be breaking the law by using medicine? 🤷🏽♂️
And how does a state like Texas still get away with using terms like “Quantum Indian Blood?” All that says to me is, yes we spilled lots of it but now we want to protect your prayers by making sure only you can have this medicine, not the Mexicans, not us white devils who consider your religion beneath us, and not your grandchildren.
I’m definitely not the brightest button in the cluster but relatives, after decades of meditation and discussion and prayer and research and living, I still don’t get this. Well, I do. But only in the way of cultural wounding and the disaffection that enables. We don’t need to take that on anymore. Not at this time of need for our sacrament. Unless it is all of us, I don’t think any of us can make the headway needed to preserve and protect this holy medicine.
And what I really began this post wanting to say is that it is all about culture, not genetics. I have sat in tipi and prayed with people from more countries than I can remember. Uruguay, Bulgaria, Estonia, South Africa, Canada, Israel, England, Germany, Japan… these are just a few. And though different, culturally we came together for common prayer. One brother of mine and ours, the late Eliav Medina, was born in Jerusalem. He had grown disenchanted in his people’s traditional ways because of his perceived rigidity and exclusionary theology involved in it. He found love and acceptance by Native elders in the tipi, the spectrum of people represented there, and by the medicine itself. Who am I to get in the way of that? I’m more human than I am Mexican and I’m more convinced that peyote calls its own than I am of my own right or ability to be the decider. I think of my brother Eli often when considering these things.
Claiming that one race is superior to another or that one should have more privilege than the other has never been a sign of good things to come. And it seems to me that the very idea of ownership of the medicine is the best and easiest way to get out in front of it. No thanks. That’s a race I refuse to try and win.
I’m reminded of Orwell’s Animal Farm in which the politically correct theme became Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others. I would bet that seeing one of those “mixed blood” bison suckling its baby is just as beautiful as any other bison mother and child. And who is to say which one is more sacred?
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