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The push to ‘decolonize’ psychedelics

Indigenous rights activist Sutton King on the cultural significance of plant medicines

A sunset
Mark Riechers/Midjourney (TTBOOK)

There’s so much hype these days about the healing powers of psychedelics that it’s easy to overlook their troubling history. Some of the most widely used plant medicines, including magic mushrooms and ayahuasca, have long histories in Indigenous sacred ceremonies.

But over the past century, Western scientists and pharmaceutical companies have been collecting these traditional plant medicines and synthesizing their chemical compounds. In some cases, they’ve tricked Indigenous healers into revealing long-held secrets. Other times, they’ve simply taken these plants so they could isolate their molecules and patent new drugs.

The history of psychedelics is littered with stories of exploitation and cultural appropriation. And it’s prompted an important question as these powerful drugs gain mainstream acceptance: Can psychedelics be decolonized?

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Sutton King is an Indigenous rights activist who’s out to transform the culture around psychedelics. She’s the co-founder and president of the Urban Indigenous Collective, a public health group serving Native Americans in the tri-state area of New York. She’s also calling on science labs to hire Indigenous people as researchers and clinicians, and pharmaceutical companies to recruit Native Americans to serve on their boards.

King spoke with Steve Paulson for “To the Best of Our Knowledge” as part of the show’s series, Luminous.

Sutton King
Photo courtesy Sutton King

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Steve Paulson: When did you become interested in plant medicines as a way to heal trauma and addiction and other problems?

Sutton King: That story begins very early in my life. My mother has always taught me the importance of my culture as medicine and as a way of healing. She made sure that I had my early education and day care on the Oneida Reservation where I learned my language and our different ways of life.

For my mom, who was born in the ’70s, it’s really important for her to reclaim her indigeneity, whereas my grandmother was brought up in a Catholic religious household — that was due to her great-grandfather going to Carlisle Indian Boarding School, which was very much assimilated. The mantra there was, “Kill the Indian, save the man.” So ceremony and our ways of life have always been important.

SP: Were plant medicines part of that tradition for you and your family?

SK: Not psychedelics, but we have many different plant medicines that are central to our healing, whether that be tobacco, sweetgrass, cedar or sage. But it wasn’t until college that I was really introduced to psychedelics.

I’m a survivor of gender-based violence. I’m a survivor of sex trafficking. I’m also a survivor of childhood sexual abuse — and to really be able to heal, psychedelics played a pivotal role.

SP: When you say you’re a survivor, are you talking personally or about the culture you grew up in?

SK: Personally, personally. Really, the motivation to leave my community in Wisconsin and move to New York City to pursue a degree in psychology was to understand how historical trauma and intergenerational trauma has impacted my family and my lineage. That trauma didn’t begin with me, but it can end with me.

SP: Why were psychedelics so important to you personally?

SK: Plant medicines, which Indigenous peoples refer to instead of “psychedelics” as the Western world does, have always been a way of our life that was taken from us because of boarding school and assimilation. Psychedelics didn’t begin with Aldous Huxley and Albert Hofmann and the ’60s. Indigenous peoples have been protecting them from time immemorial.

We can’t tell the true history of psychedelics without acknowledging the plight of Indigenous peoples. It was through the American Indian Religious Freedom Act that we even got our right to practice in ceremony and sit with peyote. So reading this research and understanding the traditional ways of life, it made sense for me to sit with my friends on the great lawn at my university and try psychedelics for the first time. In that experience, I could feel this historical trauma running through my veins. I could feel my ancestors’ pain. I understood it. It was like a veil was lifted from my face, and I released so much shame that I felt for just being Indigenous and being Afro-Indigenous, being both Black and Native American. There’s a lot of historical and intergenerational trauma that my lineages have faced.

SP: There’s a long history of Western scientists, researchers and anthropologists going into Indigenous cultures and finding these plant medicines and then extracting them and taking them back to the United States and other places in ways that have been really awful in some cases. So, how can you heal and create trust, both from an Indigenous perspective and also from a Western medical perspective?

SK: Let’s all sit down and have a conversation. We can bring together Western experts and Indigenous experts. We can sit down together and talk about the harm that has happened, and then we can talk about what a future looks like together.

We can’t talk about a solution without repairing the harm that has happened historically, so I think it’s really a co-creation of the minds that has to happen. And I don’t know what that looks like. You can’t come in with your own assumptions and your own biases, but with decolonizing, my hope is that Indigenous peoples will continue to be invited into these conversations, that we are part of (corporate) boards, that we are researchers and clinicians — that we are having a seat at the table.

SP: Are there certain Indigenous practices that non-Indigenous people should just not be part of? Sort of like, “That’s what we do, that’s not what you do.”

SK: There are a lot of different perspectives, but my own perspective is that non-Indigenous peoples should leave peyote ceremony to Indigenous peoples. That has been shown and highlighted by the Native American Church with a lot of their advocacy and what they have said they want. There are so many different medicines that non-Indigenous peoples can use — they can sit with San Pedro or synthetic mescaline or so many other psychedelics that aren’t facing ecological threat.

People get upset and say, “Well, peyote is a plant, and everyone should have access to this plant.” Well, Indigenous peoples have died for the right to access their ceremonies.

We really have to respect the historic plight that Indigenous peoples have gone through — again, referencing the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. Our aunties and our grandmas and grandpas were incarcerated for this and so if their wish now is that non-Indigenous peoples refrain from using peyote, the way in which we can decolonize is by centering Indigenous values and perspectives. And if that is one, then we should center it and move on.

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