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Reflections on how the Yaqui Intercultural Medicine Clinic came to be

Updated: Jul 24

If you read my previous post, “The Toad Boom: the false narrative of ancestral 5-MeO-DMT use”, you may perhaps have wondered why I wrote that post with such vehemence and confidence. In this post, I would like share that the reason for that is that I witnessed first-hand how that story unfolded.

Let me explain. At the end of 2011, after having lived in Costa Rica and having worked at a therapeutic boarding school for three years, I moved back home to Hermosillo, Sonora to begin exploring options for graduate school. In June 2012, I met the doctor and some of his affiliates that started the “toad myth” I discussed in my last post. These individuals were in the process of establishing a non-profit organization in México, (what is called an “Asociación Civil” or A.C.). I was invited to join the A.C., and after some deliberation, I joined the organization in October 2012.

A year after having met these folks, in June of 2013, I moved to Baja California, Mexico, to start working at the ibogaine treatment center I wrote about in my first post in this series and implement a pilot program using 5-MeO-DMT in the treatment of substance use disorders.

Six months later, in December 2013, I went home to Hermosillo for Christmas. In the days immediately preceding my arrival back in Sonora, folks from the A.C. had organized a three-day event at Isla Tiburón, in Seri territory. The organizers invited the owner of the treatment center I was working at, as well as the founders of another Mexican organization called Nierika A.C., and a psychologist, activist and, water defender from the Yaqui tribe, Anahí Ochoa.

Although I missed the first couple of days of the event, as soon as I got there, I found out the event had ended precipitously before the scheduled time after the unnamed doctor, in the middle of administering 5-MeO-DMT to some of the attendees, took some himself and at once became verbally and physically abusive towards various persons present there.

At the very moment I arrived at the site where they were gathered after that traumatic event, they were in the process of writing a letter denouncing the doctor’s actions and requesting that he please refrain from making further claims to be the Seri-appointed toad medicine man, and desist from offering “toad medicine” sessions for a fee whilst claiming that the funds would benefit the Seri community. He had been doing this since January 2013.

On that same day, after that letter had been written, I drove back to Hermosillo and Anahí, the Yaqui psychologist rode back with me so she could then get on a bus from Hermosillo back to Vícam where she lives. This was my first-time meeting Anahí and we had the hour-long drive to chat. On the way, she shared with me what had happened the previous day and how she had met the folks from the A.C.

As it turns out, folks from the aforementioned A.C., including the founding doctor, had approached the Yaqui tribe with a similar fabricated narrative of ancestral use as they did with the Seri, and Anahí had served as the liaison between the A.C. and Yaqui Traditional Authorities. The Traditional Authorities did not fall for the false claims the doctor and his affiliates were making, but they did acknowledge that the toad was a very important biocultural element in Yaqui cosmovision. The toad is known as “Kwarepa” and “Bobok” in Yaqui cosmovision and is featured in various myths, including their foundational myth that describes how the Rio Yaqui was created. Yaqui authorities told the doctor that he could not use the Yaqui tribe’s name to promote his practices, nor was he welcome in their territory. He did not insist, and he did take down a website he had published, and never returned to the Yaqui tribe.

At that point, folks from the A.C. and I disengaged from collaborating with the doctor, and I continued working at the Baja California treatment center until 2015. In 2016, after serious disagreements I had with other folks in the organization, I quit the A.C. and disengaged from all collaborations with them. As for the doctor, he did not take heed of the request that had been extended to him back in 2013, to refrain from claiming to be a Seri-appointed toad medicine man, and he continued to travel extensively from 2014 to 2020, drawing more and more attention to the toad and spreading the false claims of ancestral 5-MeO-DMT use. These claims were then further propagated through various documentaries that were made that indiscriminately portrayed those claims as truth.

Now, to tie this up with how the idea for an Intercultural Medicine Clinic came to be: through the event in Isla Tiburón in December 2013, Anahí and I became friends and allies, and she began collaborating with the founders of Nierika A.C., clinical psychologists Dr. Anja Loizaga-Velder and Armando Loizaga. From 2014 to 2016, she organized a series of entheogenic medicine workshops in Yaqui territory where members of the community struggling with methamphetamine addiction and other mental health challenges were treated with Peyote and Ayahuasca within an intercultural context. For these medicine workshops, inter-tribal encounters between the Yaqui and the Native American Church (Lakota), and the Wixárika (Huichol) tribe from Mexico were hosted and organized by Anahí and the Nierika clinical team.

The results of these initial intercultural medicine encounters were so positive that they planted the seed for the idea of establishing a permanent Intercultural Medicine clinic in Yaqui territory where these types of entheogenic treatments could be offered.

From left to right: Amanda Pratt, Anny Ortiz, Professor Alberto Vargas, Anahí Ochoa and Mario Luna Romero during their UW-Madison visit for the CHE conference

In 2016 I moved to Madison to start graduate school at UW-Madison, and Anahí and I stayed in touch over the years. In the spring of 2020, right before the COVID pandemic started, Anahí and Yaqui-activist and tribe’s spokesman Mario Luna Romero came to Madison, sponsored by the UW-LACIS program to participate in a roundtable discussion at the UW-Center for Culture, History, and Environment (CHE) conference centered around the theme of “Environmental Justice in Multispecies worlds” along with fellow graduate student and Points contributor Amanda Pratt, Professor Alberto Vargas and me. The title of our roundtable was: “Environmental Justice and Psychedelic Therapy: Yaqui Water Rights Activism and Toad Exploitation in the Sonoran Desert”.

After this roundtable, Amanda, Professor Alberto and I collaborated on a few panel discussions at conferences like A2RU and LASA, where we also began collaborating with other UW-Madison faculty like Professor Cody Wenthur and Professor Lucas Richert. These collaborations, in turn, sort of gave way to discussions that in time contributed to the establishment of the UW-Madison Transdisciplinary Center For Research in Psychoactive Substances .

Around the same time as these budding transdisciplinary on-campus collaborations, Anahí and I also began working together more closely, along with the Nierika team, and put together an official proposal for the establishment of the Intercultural Medicine clinic, which we then co-presented at a couple of different meetings with Sonora government authorities from the Department of Public Health, particularly with the Division on Mental Health and Addictions.

In short, with the support of various organizations including Rivertyx foundation, the Femtheogen Collaborative, Limina Foundation and the Indigenous Medicine Conservation fund, and with technical guidance and clinical supervision from the clinical team at Nierika, and medical supervision from Dr. Armando Lagarda Tinajero, in September of 2021, we were able to establish the Yaqui Intercultural Medicine clinic in one of the eight towns that make up Yaqui territory in Sonora: Tórim.

For the opening and inauguration of the Intercultural Medicine clinic in September 2021, the Huni Kuin tribe from Brazil traveled to Yaqui territory to facilitate an Ayahuasca ceremony for the first group of patients enrolled in the clinic´s program. Subsequently, the clinic also hosted members of the Native American Church from the Lakota and Navajo tribes, who shared their Peyote medicine with Yaqui patients from the Intercultural Medicine clinic.

Anahí and Huni Kuin elder exchanging traditional gifts.

Over the past year, the clinic has offered medical services and culturally sensitive psychotherapy, uniquely tailored for the Yaqui tribe to about 80 community members. Inter-tribal alliances have continued to be built. The Yaqui clinical team just spent several weeks in Brazil attending the IV Indigenous Ayahuasca Conference. While there, they built relationships with members of the Noke Koi and Shawadawa tribes, some of whom will be spending time in Yaqui territory during 2023 in support of the clinic’s vision and mission. Additionally, the Ashaninka tribe who hosted the conference, has extended an invitation to the Yaqui team to return to Brazil to continue weaving the tapestry of inter-tribal connections in support of their shared vision of defending their territories and ways of life, as well as their right to choose how they treat mental health challenges in their communities.

The women in the bottom right corner are part of the Yaqui clinical team, from left to right: Sewa, Teresa, Anahí and Raquel.

Over the next month, the temporary Intercultural Medicine clinic site will be relocated from Tórim to another Yaqui town and we will begin a collaboration with cultural ecologist Joaquin Murrieta from Borderlands Restoration Network that involves habitat and landscape restoration projects through a series of workshops designed to train Yaqui youth on how to create rainwater harvesting systems in their communities. These projects will serve both to restore the landscape and create optimal conditions for toad habitat conservation.

As for the concept of the clinic itself, in relation to pharmaceutical inequalities, the clinic´s model represents a transdisciplinary effort to address mental health inequalities so widespread among Indigenous communities in México, and to do so in culturally sensitive ways. Appealing to their right to self-governance the Yaqui tribe is choosing to use entheogenic medicines, in this case, Ayahuasca in allyship with other Indigenous tribes, instead of medication (such as Prozac) or other pharmaceutical products that the government had been using to treat mental health needs in their communities. To date, although government officials at both the state and federal levels have been open and supportive during this first year of clinic operations, there are laws in place that do not permit the self-governance exercise the Yaqui tribe is practicing with this clinic´s project to be carried out to its full intended effect.

Anahí speaking during the third roundtable discussion facilitated by senator Alejandra Lagunes.

For that reason, there are law initiatives underway in México that beyond reclassifying entheogenic medicines like Psilocybin mushrooms from “categoría uno” to “categoría 4”, (from schedule 1 to Schedule 4, in analogous ways to the US categories), will aim to create an entire new regulatory body for entheogenic plants and fungi designed to protect Indigenous communities, their territories and their wisdom and culture. Indeed, these are the types of conversations that Mexican senator Alejandra Lagunes has been fostering in a series of roundtables titled: “Psilocibina y Hongos Psilocibes, una oportunidad para México”, where Anahí recently participated and discussed the clinic´s work as an important mental health innovation in México .

It will be interesting to see how this law initiative gets rolled out in 2023, and how its implementation may help bridge the gap and inequalities in mental health treatments for Indigenous peoples in México.


Feature Image caption: The Yaqui and Nierika clinical team, along with Huni Kuin representatives in Yaqui territory after the opening ceremony at the Intercultural Medicine clinic

Editorial Note: This post is part of the Pharmaceutical Inequalities series, funded by the Holtz Center and the Evjue Foundation.

#interculturalmedicine #Mexico #NativeAmericans #psychedelics

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