A privileged faction of America has been afforded the opportunity to evolve with the nation’s 21st century embrace of recreational drugs. Suddenly, small business owners can make a legal living selling “artisan cannabis,” and psychedelics are exalted as the kaleidoscope-colored portal to a higher level of consciousness.
The twisted irony: these drugs — ayahuasca, magic mushrooms and DMT, sprung from the fertile lands of the very Black and Indigenous communities that were criminalized for them. These budding greens, woodsy pieces of bark, and pungent fungi are harvested from the grassy hillsides of Oaxaca, Mexico. The Western world would come to know the power of these plants through the slanted view of the white travelers who appropriated the work of ancestral medicinal healers like Maria Sabina.
Today, co-founders of The Sabina Project, named in her honor, are intent on setting the record straight.
Sabina was a shaman who found that plants housed an inter-dimensional universe wherein god and man could speak –divine conversation was her offering to villagers in search of healing. As so much of the Indigenous American story goes, Sabina’s ritualistic relationship with psychedelic plants was swiftly commodified, and then erased, after Western scientists carried word of these magical plants back to the U.S. and Europe in 1955, Timeline reports. Unsurprisingly, knowledge of Sabina’s medicine work spread like wildfire in the western world, attracting a swarm of foreign travelers to her village, like infectious moths to a kindling flame.
The influx of visitors overtook Sabina’s village and ultimately led to her exile — locals, faulting her with the foreign invasion, labeled her a blaspheme, and burned down her home.
But the incineration of Sabina’s home was only the first step in erasing her giant impact on the legacy of psychedelics.
Sabina Project co-founders Undrea Wright and Charlotte James came across her underplayed legacy while watching a documentary about fungi.
“There is a lot of focus on folks like Terrence McKenna and Albert Hoffman, as if they 'discovered' psychedelics, when in reality, these medicines are directly linked to Black and Indigenous people of color’s lineages. We want to call attention to this and refocus the narrative,” Wright told Blavity.
The Sabina Project is a Black-led organization offering education, training and harm-reduction practices to patrons venturing into the psychedelic realm. Wright and James say they aim to build a “bridge” between Western science and ancestral ritual, where white settlers severed the tie instead.
After the mainstream boom of psychedelics in the U.S., researchers found many users’ experiences marked by panic and anxiety — largely accounting for the stigma attached to the practice, and ultimately resulting in its prohibition. On the contrary, The Sabina Project explains, their harm-reduction practices create space for patrons to find healing for their traumas, not triggers.
“For us harm-reduction in this space looks like a return to ceremony, but also means working from a trauma informed perspective,” the founders told Blavity. “You can be both physically, mentally, and spiritually vulnerable during a psychedelic journey and it is important to know that you are in a safe place with trusted facilitators.”
Indeed, James and Wright explain that it is the organization’s centering of ceremony, and subsequent rejection of the Western approach, that offers patrons peace of mind along their journey.
“A lot of it is about listening, giving people a safe place to share their experiences without fear of judgement or interpretation — especially interpretation from a majority White audience,” the duo shared. “Our circles are a very nurturing environment that give space for healing. For us, harm-reduction looks like a return to ceremony, but also means working from a trauma informed perspective. You can be both physically, mentally, and spiritually vulnerable during a psychedelic journey. It is important to know that you are in a safe place with trusted facilitators.”
The previously stated approach is supported by researchers at Johns Hopkins. They found that psilocybin sessions — the active compound in magic mushrooms — increased positive results for cancer patients coping with anxiety, specifically when guiding professionals encouraged patients to “trust” in the process, Timeline reports.
Likewise, part of The Sabina Project’s determined return to ancestral practice includes a renewed reverence for the sacred medicines, as Sabina intentionally employed them.
“The thing we have to be most cognizant of as use grows, is sustainability and being in the right relationship with the land, with the medicine, and with the Indigenous groups that have protected this medicine for millennia,” founders explain. “That’s why we feel it is so important to build a relationship of reverence with the medicine, and focus so heavily on returning to ancestral practices. We consider sourcing these medicines unsustainably to be one of the greatest concerns.”
But these psychedelic plants are not the only ancestral plants that Westerners have bastardized.
The recent popularization of white sage, traditionally used by Indigenous peoples in the cleansing and clarifying of their spaces, has led to a mass harvesting of the plant — leaving hollow, whistling winds in places where the plant once grew wild and abundant, and the hands of Indigenous peoples of Southern California and Northern Mexico largely empty, as they traipse across these rugged landscapes in search of the plant they hold sacred, Vice reports.
Indeed, Western appropriation of white sage as it accessorizes yoga studios and commercialized “witch starter kits,” is subsequently linked to the defilement of Indigenous sacrament, in which the herb is used in a ritualistic way distinctly absent from western marketing.
This comes in addition to the reality that the plant, in some places, is rendered out of reach for some of the Indigenous peoples who have traditionally wild harvested it.
Whereas Western manufacturers rip white sage from the earth, leaving its rooted traditions desecrated and dangling, The Sabina Project allows the ancestral significance of these herbs to be a guiding flame along the long journey towards healing.
“We believe the medicines call you,” James and Wright told Blavity. “And a desire to transform our lives, and the lives of the communities we call home."
In their submission to the medicine’s powers of transformation, The Sabina Project makes another nod to Maria Sabina’s legacy. Although she ultimately fulfilled the western foreigner’s requests, the medicine woman was initially cautious of the travelers’ lacking need for healing, and their eagerness to take the herbs out of voyeuristic curiosity instead.
Naturally, The Sabina Projects allows the psychedelic plants to lead the way.
“Transformation is about surrender and letting go of all of your story. Be prepared to be reborn,” the founders explained.
Researchers have long examined the role of psychedelics in human development, some arguing that they even catalyzed human consciousness. But, as Netflix’s Unwell documentary shows, the western appetite for expanded consciousness threatens the ancient traditions that many Americans seek out in search of reawakened spirituality, and recasts them through the blinding glare of the white gaze.
Founders James and Wright encourage all people to examine their relationship to the traditions they practice.
“By moving further away from ancestral practice with all medicines, we increase the possibility of causing more harm than healing,” they contend. “We encourage white folks to uncover their pre-colonial shamanic traditions as a means of learning respect for ritual, and building a spiritual practice, before moving on to learn practice traditions from other lineages.”
At The Sabina Project, the vision of the future is bright. And, standing at its center: ancestral medicines beam with the undying light of the pre-colonial sun.
“Our ancestors, across all continents, used Sacred Earth Medicine to enhance the human experience, connect with spirit guides and learn how to live in harmony with the earth,” the founders remind. “There is evidence of their use for consciousness expansion within all religious and spiritual belief systems. This also means our ancestors provided a blueprint for how to use these medicines in a way that does not cause harm. We are simply carrying on in the tradition of our ancestors in order to usher in our shared future.”