How Indigenous Knowledge About Psychedelic Plants Can Shape the Industry

Modern psychiatry and research did not "discover" psychedelics for mental health.

Various indigenous cultures found, used, and promoted plant-based psychedelics for human wellness and spiritual development for thousands of years, in almost every place where humans lived on the planet.

Psilocybin is a sacred herb grown and consumed in many places around the world, including China and Mexico. Peyote, found mostly in North America; ayahuasca and DMT, found mostly in Central and South America; and ibogaine, found in Africa, all have been used in sacred ceremonies by indigenous people – and most have run into legal issues along the way.

For example, between the 1880s and 1930s, the U.S. government attempted to ban peyote. But the establishment of the Native American Church of Jesus Christ (NAC), a spiritual movement that features the sacramental ingestion of peyote, resulted in federal law that permits peyote use among members of the NAC. Non-Native Americans in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Oregon can also partake.

As the psychedelics industry evolves and more clinical research is done, there are new lessons being learned from the indigenous culture about psychedelics, especially about set, setting, and integration. That ancient knowledge is slowly being factored into today’s psychedelics therapies.

The Chacruna Institute for Psychedelic Plant Medicines, a nonprofit dedicated to providing public education around psychedelic plant medicines is on a mission to create a bridge between the world of tradition, ritual, religion, ceremony, indigenous people, and the emergent field of psychedelic assisted therapy and psychedelic science.

“Indigenous knowledge keepers have, in one way or another, informed the birth of the psychedelic movement and continue to do so,” Beatriz Caiuby Labate, a Brazilian anthropologist and executive director of the Chacruna Institute, said in a video for the Harvard Divinity School.

“There’s multiple evidence to this, but in my mind, and this is very important message, one shall remember that there is a continuity between what has been the shamanic use of psychedelic medicines or sacred plants or entheogens or other plant teachers, other terms that we use to designate this, and the underground settings where people use these substances therapeutically or in some kind of mixed hybrid rituals and the above ground from psychedelic-assisted therapy,” she said.

And some psychedelic companies are beginning to pay attention. For example, both Atai Life Sciences and Numinus both became founding donors for the institute’s Indigenous Reciprocity Initiative of the Americas, a resource organization to support the grassroots indigenous community.

There are academic movements underway as well to try to unify indigenous culture with the developing psychedelics culture.

The San Francisco-based Graduate Theological Union, an organization focused on interreligious life, learning, and leadership, launched GTUx, an innovative, global destination for online learning and connection at the intersection of spirituality and activism.

One of GTUx’s online programs examines psychedelics and religion, presented in partnership with University of California-Berkeley Center for the Science of Psychedelics.

The program features a panel of experts examining the relationship between the ways that contemporary research and ancient wisdom traditions navigate the terrain of sacred plant narratives and how current theoretical frameworks and spiritual traditions may inform one another.

“These plants have agency. They have intentionality. They are alive,” Labate said. “So these plants are like humans in the sense that they have a culture, and they have their own rituals. They have their own kin. They have their own wishes, and if you will, their idiosyncrasies as well. They can be capricious, or they can be severe. They can be comforting. They can teach you. They can inspire you. They can punish you if you don’t follow their instructions.”

From an indigenous perspective, healing is a comprehensive affair that involves relationships between humans, and between humans and non-humans and the cosmos, she said.

“So this whole idea that you can reduce the plant to one substance, to one main molecule that has one intrinsic property, and that property can heal one specific disease, is very different from these traditional claims,” Labate said.

So what should industry leaders do?

An article published in Anthropology of Consciousness journal has some answers:

  • Slow down and take the time to consider our relationships with plant and fungi medicines deeply.
  • Engage indigenous intellectuals and spiritual leaders regarding key issues in the psychedelic sphere.
  • Establish an indigenous ethics watch organization.
  • Establish a funding mechanism to support indigenous aspirations.

“We didn’t invent the wheel, and we didn’t discover this out of the blue,” Labate said. “And in many, many ways, all of us are indebted to indigenous peoples and their traditions and their knowledge when we are interested in these medicines.”

Engaging their knowledge and respecting the traditions can help establish a more solid foundation on which to build the psychedelics industry of the future.

Dave Hodes

David Hodes is a business journalist based in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. He has contributed feature articles to several cannabis and psychedelics publications, as well as general business/lifestyle publications, on a variety of topics. Hodes was selected as 2018 Journalist of the Year by Americans for Safe Access. He is a member of the National Press Club, and the deputy booking agent for the National Press Club Headliners Committee.


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