In the heart of Rio Grande brush country, Salvador Johnson works a patch of land just east of the Mexican border that is sacred to Native Americans.
Spade in hand, eyes scanning the earth as he pushes through the spiny brush, Johnson searches the ground carefully. "This is good terrain for peyote," he says. "There's a low hill -- the rain starts on top and goes down to water this -- and there's a lot of brown ground."
He stops, points the tip of his shovel at a three-inch spot of green that barely crests the soil under a clump of blackbrush and announces: "This is what you look for. You look for something that is not ordinary on the terrain. I saw that green."
One of the last remaining peyoteros, Johnson, 58, has been harvesting the small, round plant in and around this tiny community for 47 years -- long before the hallucinogenic Lophophora williamsii cactus was classified as a narcotic and outlawed by federal and state governments. Then as now, it is for use by Native Americans as the main sacrament in their religious ceremonies.
Johnson is part of a nearly extinct trade of licensed peyote harvesters and distributors, at a time when the supply of the cactus and access to it is dwindling. The plant grows wild only in portions of four South Texas counties and in the northern Mexico desert just across the Rio Grande.
But some South Texas ranch owners have stopped leasing land to peyoteros and now offer their property to deer hunters or oil and gas companies for considerably higher profits. Others have plowed under peyote, and still others have never opened their land.
On the ranchland that is worked by peyoteros, conservationists are concerned about the overharvesting of immature plants as the Native American population and demand for the cactus grow.
"Will there be peyote for my children and my children's children?" asked Adam Nez, 35, a Navajo Indian who had just driven 26 hours with his father-in-law from their reservation in Page, Ariz., to stock up on peyote at Johnson's home.
That question and possible solutions to the problem -- trying to legalize the importation of peyote from Mexico, where most of the plants grow, and creating legal cultivation centers in the United States -- are being studied by members of the Native American Church, Indian rights advocates and conservationists.
There are an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 members of the church in the United States. Although 90 percent of the peyote in North America grows in Mexico, the number of ceremonial users there -- mostly Huichol Indians -- is a small fraction of the number in the United States and Canada.
"In effect, you have a whole continent grazing on little pieces of South Texas," said Martin Terry, a botany professor at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Tex., who specializes in the study of peyote.
The church was incorporated in 1918 in Oklahoma to protect the religious use of peyote by indigenous Americans. Its charter was eventually expanded to other states, and in 1965, a federal regulation was approved to protect the ceremonial use of peyote by Indians. In 1978, Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.
But subsequent conflicts between federal policy and state drug laws precipitated the passage of a federal law in 1994 to guarantee the legal use, possession and transportation of peyote "by an Indian for bona fide traditional ceremonial purposes in connection with the practice of a traditional Indian religion." The law extends protection against prosecution for the possession and use of peyote only to members of federally recognized tribes.
"Over the last 40 years, there have been lots of equal protection defenses to criminal prosecution thrown up, with people saying, 'My use of this controlled substance is religiously derived,' " said Steve Moore, a senior staff attorney with the Native American Rights Fund.
One recent case in Utah is being watched closely by Moore's office and other legal advocates. Last year, the Utah Supreme Court threw out state charges against James "Flaming Eagle" Mooney, a self-described medicine man accused of giving peyote to non-American Indian visitors to the church he and his wife, Linda, founded in 1997. Mooney claims to be a member of a Florida tribe of Seminole Indians.
But federal prosecutors are pursuing the Mooneys with charges of illegally distributing peyote and attempted possession of peyote with the intent to distribute. Prosecutors contend that the tribe of Seminole Indians in which Mooney claims membership is not federally recognized and does not use peyote in religious ceremonies. Prosecutors also contend that the tribe revoked Mooney's membership.
"There's not a year that goes by that we don't see a handful of these cases come up," Moore said. "These are sham defenses in most cases, but it always puts the Native American Church and its legitimate use of peyote in the crossfire."
Though not considered addictive, peyote is included in the Drug Enforcement Administration's list of Schedule I controlled substances along with heroin, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), marijuana and methaqualone. Although the DEA acknowledges the importance of the hallucinogenic cactus to the religious rites of Native American peyote users, the agency says the drug has a high potential for abuse and has no accepted medicinal purpose in the United States.
The Texas Department of Public Safety has licensed peyote distributors since the mid-1970s, when the number in the state peaked at 27. It dwindled to nine in the 1990s and to four last year. State records show that only three distributors have harvested and sold peyote buttons so far this year. For the past five years, an average of almost 1.9 million peyote buttons have been sold annually, according to state records.
Besides presenting a certificate that shows a peyote buyer to be a member in good standing of the Native American Church, Texas law also requires a purchaser to show documentation that he is at least one-quarter American Indian. Every buyer who appears at Johnson's house signs a visitor's log and presents the required paperwork.
Nez and his father-in-law, Russell Martin, also brought with them ceremonial items -- a Navajo altar cloth, a dried peyote button, an eagle bone whistle and mountain tobacco wrapped in a corn husk for smoking -- that they use in a short prayer ceremony at the small peyote garden outside Johnson's home. Next to the garden is an open-air shed, surrounded by a locked double fence, as required by law, where thousands of cut plants dry atop wooden tables.
"When you come here, you come to someplace that's sacred," Nez said about the prayer ceremony. "Peyote doesn't grow just everywhere."
Martin, 57, a road man or minister in the Native American Church, purchased 4,000 freshly cut peyote buttons -- azee, he calls it, the Navajo word for medicine. He said his family will use the peyote -- dried, boiled into a tea or cooked into a porridge -- over the next year, starting with a ceremony to pray for his grandchildren as they start school on the reservation.
The ceremonies, which usually last all night, according to Martin and Nez, involve hallucinations which, in combination with their religious beliefs, give them insight into problems they pray over or help heal illnesses or addictions.
Francis Elsitty, 57, a Navajo from Greasewood, Ariz., said he overcame alcoholism in the mid-1970s the first time he used peyote in a religious ceremony on his reservation. "It showed me the path," said Elsitty, who drove to Johnson's home to buy 1,000 peyote buttons for $250 that he said his family will use in a special ceremony to offer thanks for the safe return of his 19-year-old son from a year-long tour of duty in Iraq.
"I saw the burned-out shell of a bar I used to hang out at, and it [the peyote] told me if you want to drink, that's where you belong," he said. "I quit the partying. It's been over 30 years. That's the kind of power it's got. It's a holy medicine."
Salvador Johnson searches for the hallucinogenic peyote cactus that grows in only four Texas counties and Mexico.