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Citizens In Work Mode After Hurricane Michael Hits Panama City

Even with a clear path out of town, some residents decided to stay and wait for the electricity and water to return.

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Hurricane
Johnny Gonzalez saws through a downed tree in Panama City, Fla., some of the destruction left by Hurricane Michael.. VOA

Armed with a chain saw, Panama City resident Johnny Gonzalez was sawing through as many fallen trees as it takes to clear roadways and driveways.

Hurricane Michael left a path of destruction, downing trees and power lines. In the coastal town of Panama City, near where the hurricane made landfall, some residents were still trapped in their homes, surrounded by fallen trees.

Gonzalez knows the feeling of helplessness. He went to a church to seek shelter from the hurricane and thought it was safe, until the hurricane blew the roof off. He is just glad his children are safe.

‘By the grace of God’

“By the grace of God, we made it out of there somehow. I don’t know how we got lucky; they said we had tornadoes hit us. With the winds we couldn’t even tell. I remember hearing a whistling sound like a train was coming, and the roof was just sucked up from the church we were in,” Gonzalez said.

Hurricane
Fallen trees on homes are a common sight in Panama City, Fla., as part of the path of destruction left by Hurricane Michael.

He made it home with his family, but the situation was not good. He called his boss, Lee Nettles, for help. Nettles, the manager of a beach resort community about 80 miles away, heard Gonzalez’s voicemail.

“We got a call from him. Just a voicemail. All we heard is that ‘we were trapped and we need water. Help!’ Amanda said, ‘I’m going to get him,’ and I said, ‘OK, I’m going with you.’ And we found him and his wife and his two kids,” Nettles said.

Nettles’ co-worker is Amanda Miles, director of security at the beach resort. Gonzalez is the assistant director.

“When I needed help they come and rescued me. They sacrificed their life for me and now I’m going to sacrifice mine for my town people,” Gonzalez said.

Helping their community

The team of three decided to hit the road and offer help to others in the community who did not evacuate. In many parts of town, there is no power or water. Debris, destroyed buildings, downed trees and power lines were everywhere.

Hurricane
Fallen trees on homes are a common sight in Panama City, Fla., as part of the path of destruction left by Hurricane Michael. VOA

“I don’t care how strong you are, this is tough to witness. Total destruction,” Nettles said.

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The team of three first started by going from street to street offering water, “and then on the way, Amanda said, ‘Let’s pick up a chain saw,’ so what the heck, I’ve never used a chain saw until today,” Nettles said.

Even with a clear path out of town, some residents decided to stay and wait for the electricity and water to return. It may be weeks if not months before things get back to normal again, (VOA)

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“They Don’t Make Prayerful Offerings When They Harvest,” Story Of The Native American Church

“The extraordinary and the phenomenon are not necessarily unexpected, but they are definitely not precluded.”

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The sun sets over the gateway of peyotera Amada Cardenas's house in Mirando City, Texas. Ironwork reflects core Native American Church values of faith, hope, love and charity. VOA

Back in the day, when the “grandmas and grandpas” of the Native American Church (NAC) needed peyote, they would make a 2,000-kilometer pilgrimage from the reservations of South Dakota to the tiny town of Mirando City, Texas, close to the U.S. border with Mexico. That’s where they could find Amada Cardenas, a Mexican-American woman who at the time was the only peyote dealer in Texas.

Cardenas was not Native American, nor was she a member of the NAC. But she understood how sacred the medicine was to church members and defended its use as a religious sacrament to those who sought to ban it.

Amada Cardenas, holding a basket of peyote, outside of her home in Mirando City, Texas, 1994.
Amada Cardenas, holding a basket of peyote, outside of her home in Mirando City, Texas, 1994. VOA

“After Amada’s passing, the peyote distribution system lost heart and seemed to be about monetary compensation,” said Iron Rope, former chairman of the Native American Church of North America (NACNA) and today chairman of the NAC of South Dakota. He is concerned that the remaining three or four peyote dealers in Texas — all non-Native — don’t give “the medicine” the reverence they should.

“They don’t make prayerful offerings when they harvest,” Iron Rope said. “We’ve heard reports about intoxicated harvesters. Sometimes, the medicine that comes to us was mushy or small, and the harvesting technique was not one that would allow regrowth.”

Careless and sometimes illegal harvesting, along with increased land and resource development in Texas, has led to a decline in peyote’s quality and availability. Prices have gone up, and church members worry the cactus, now listed as a vulnerable species, could become endangered.

In 2013, NACNA began researching ways to conserve peyote and its natural habitat.

Lophophora williamsii, more commonly known as peyote, which grows in the wild in southern Texas and Mexico.
Lophophora williamsii, more commonly known as peyote, which grows in the wild in southern Texas and Mexico. VOA

Pan-Native religion

Peyote, or Lophophora williamsii, is a succulent that contains psychoactive alkaloids and only grows in southern Texas and a handful of states in northern Mexico.

Indigenous people have used it ceremonially and medicinally for centuries, as noted by 16th century Spanish missionaries, who condemned it as an evil. Peyote use persisted, however, and by the late 1800s, had spread to present-day Oklahoma, where tribes adapted it to suit their individual spiritual traditions.

In the face of government efforts to ban peyote, peyotists in the early 20th century sought to incorporate as a formal religion. In 1918, an intertribal group established the NAC, which has evolved to include tens of thousands of members across dozens of tribal nations. Members view the church as an important component of healing from historic trauma and reconnecting to tradition.

Peyote was banned in the United States in 1970, but the law was later amended to allow peyote to be used in “bona fide religious ceremonies of the Native American Church.”

Texas allows several peyoteros registered with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency to harvest and sell peyote, but only to card-carrying NAC members with proven Native American ancestry.

Peyote buttons are shown in the yard of a peyote dealer in Rio Grande, Texas, Oct. 12, 2007.
Peyote buttons are shown in the yard of a peyote dealer in Rio Grande, Texas, Oct. 12, 2007. VOA

‘A beautiful ceremony’

Unlike other religious denominations, said Iron Rope, the NAC is not a unified theology.

“Different variations of the ceremony have come into play,” he said. “There are Christian aspects to the NAC today and traditional aspects, as well.”

Wynema Morris, a member of the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska and an NAC member, grew up with an understanding of the sacredness of peyote and the religious etiquette surrounding its use.

“It was my own grandfather, Samuel Thomas Gilpin, who actually received peyote early on from the Winnebagos, a neighboring tribe, and passed it on to his sons, my uncles,” she said.

This 1924 photo by Edward S. Curtis is entitled "Cheyenne Peyote Leader." Courtesy: Library of Congress.
This 1924 photo by Edward S. Curtis is entitled “Cheyenne Peyote Leader.” Courtesy: Library of Congress. VOA

Peyote is much misunderstood and maligned, she said, viewed by many anthropologists through the lens of colonial prejudice.

“I don’t like their use of the word ‘hallucinations,’” she said. “You don’t use peyote to get high. You use it to pray and communicate with God — the same God everyone else talks to.”

She described all-night services of prayer, song and meditation.

“The ceremony is beautiful,” she said. “The extraordinary and the phenomenon are not necessarily unexpected, but they are definitely not precluded.”

Sacred gardens

In 2013, NACNA began looking at ways to conserve and sustain peyote for future generations of indigenous Americans, Mexicans and Canadians.

“It was our intent to eventually have our own land and be able to have our own peyote dealer who could understand our concerns as the Native American Church,” said Iron Rope.

The sun sets over "the 605," acreage in Thompsonville, Texas, which the Indigenous Peyote Conservation purchased in 2018 for the conservation of peyote, a sacrament of the Native American Church.
The sun sets over “the 605,” acreage in Thompsonville, Texas, which the Indigenous Peyote Conservation purchased in 2018 for the conservation of peyote, a sacrament of the Native American Church. VOA

In 2017, NACNA and partner organizations formally launched the Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative (IPCI). With funding from the Riverstyx Foundation, a nonprofit that supports research of medicinal uses of psychoactive plants, IPCI purchased 245 hectares (605 acres) of land in Thompsonville, Texas, to serve as “Sacred Peyote Gardens.”

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It is their hope that by 2021, “the 605” will house a nursery, residential and guest housing, and youth training, all supported by peyote sales.

“It’s about generations to come,” said Iron Rope. “To reconnect them to the land and to the medicine. And that’s the healing process that we’ve been missing.” (VOA)