Magic mushrooms helped a Navajo woman deal with trauma. Now, she wants to help others

Marlena Robbins believes psilocybin could help treat mental health and addiction issues among Native Americans

By Melissa Hellmann

Wed 12 Jun 2024 19.00 BST

Marlena Robbins, in an undated photo. Photograph: David Telles

Even though therapy helped Marlena Robbins better understand her

intergenerational trauma, she wanted to delve deeper into her

healing practice. In 2019, on the recommendation of her partner,

Robbins sat at her home altar with a dose of psychedelic

mushrooms. Drawing upon her Din., or Navajo, heritage, she said a prayer and asked the mushrooms for guidance. The experience changed the

trajectory of her life.

“When I sit with [mushrooms], it’s like engaging with the holy people. I see

them as doctors,” Robbins said. “They’re already writing the prescription.

They’re already writing the treatment plan.”

The 35-year-old left a career as a multidisciplinary artist to study Indigenous

perceptions of psilocybin, a hallucinogenic substance in some mushrooms.

Her ultimate goal is to make psychoactive fungi, otherwise known as magic

mushrooms, accessible to Indigenous communities throughout the nation.

Though magic mushrooms are federally illegal, some states are creating their

own policies to regulate the substance. Within a culturally sensitive

framework, Robbins believes that psilocybin could help treat mental health

and addiction issues among Native Americans.

“It could have ripple effects into the community, into the tribe, into the

clanship systems, into their family systems,” said Robbins, who’s in her

second year as a public health doctoral student at the University of California

at Berkeley. “Trauma and addiction, all of those things tend to push us off

our paths. And these medicines … have the ability to put us back in line with

who we’re meant to be.”

As a psychedelic movement spreads throughout the nation (Oregon and

Colorado have legalized psilocybin and some other states are taking steps to

do the same), Robbins seeks to ensure that Native Americans aren’t left

behind in the conversation. “A lot of these psychedelic businesses and

industries are all talking about Indigenous people as being the original

caretakers of these medicines and yet tribal reservations [have] high rates of

addiction, trauma, depression and anxiety,” Robbins said. “There’s no real

discourse about what these medicines look like on the Navajo reservation.”

While Oregon and Colorado’s policies include some input from Native

Americans or look at the traditional Indigenous use of psychedelics, Utah

and New Mexico’s legislations, for instance, do not incorporate their

perspectives.

So far, Robbins’s research has focused on perceptions of psilocybin among

urban Natives who live in cities in California, Oregon, Washington, New

Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Texas, Montana, Oklahoma and Alaska. Next year

she plans to expand her work to the Navajo Nation, where she lived until she

moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, at 10 years old.

She hopes her analysis will bridge these perspectives and inform state and

tribal policies around psilocybin-assisted therapy that affects Native

American communities.

Creating a microcosm

Research on the historical Indigenous use of psilocybin is inconclusive.

While the Mazatec and Huichol in Mexico used psilocybin in their spiritual

practices, there’s scant evidence of “true Indigenous traditions with

psilocybin outside of those two tribes”, said Christine Diindiisi McCleave, a

citizen of the Turtle Mountain Anishinaabe Nation. Diindiisi McCleave, who’s

researching Indigenous use of traditional medicines at the University of

Alaska Fairbanks, is also working with the state of Colorado to facilitate a

tribal working group. The group, which Robbins also recently joined, will

discuss issues surrounding the commercialization of natural medicines.

In Robbins’s eyes, her work melds historical and contemporary use of

psilocybin by looking “at those new and innovative ways that Native people

can use this medicine, but also how they incorporate ceremony from their

own cultures, information from the way Mazatec sit with them and create

this microcosm”. Currently peyote – a cactus with hallucinogenic effects – is

the only psychedelic protected under a 1994 amendment to the American

Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, which allows members of the Native

American Church who are citizens of tribal nations to practice peyote

ceremonies.

A concern about the psychedelic movement among some Native

communities is that the commercialization of traditional plant medicine can

lead to unwanted tourism in their areas and the stealing of Indigenous

ceremonies. Mar.a Sabina was a Mazatec healer in southern Mexico, for

instance, who was ostracized from her community and died in poverty after

introducing psilocybin’s healing properties to non-Native people in the

1960s. Non-natives using the medicine can also lead to conservation issues,

such as the overharvesting of peyote. “The clinical side, scientific side and

even economic side of the psychedelic movement in a western context

doesn’t really consider the implications and holisticness of what these

medicines mean to Indigenous peoples,” said Diindiisi McCleave.

‘Adapt, adopt and evolve’

Studies have shown that psilocybin can relieve end-of-life anxiety for cancer

patients, as well as treat clinical depression. Robbins believes that psilocybin

could help address those issues within her own community, since some Din.

who grew up in the 1950s and 60s were exposed to uranium mining that

eventually led to cancer.

But most of the clinical trials did not incorporate Indigenous perspectives.

“Marlena’s research and her work is really important because at this point

tribes need to be informed in order to form their own policies,” said Diindiisi

McCleave, “and be prepared to engage with psychedelic legislation either at

the state level or the federal level.”

So far, Robbins has interviewed people in Los Angeles, Seattle, Oregon and

the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s seen geographic and generational divides,

where Indigenous communities in the north-west use magic mushrooms

recreationally at parties, and on nature hikes. And in the south-west, closer

to the Mexico border, participants use psilocybin for spiritual purposes, to

connect with ancestral wisdom and to heal intergenerational trauma.

Meanwhile, the older generation of participants has negative perceptions of

psilocybin use fueled by campaigns such as the war on drugs that began in

the 1970s.

After she completes her doctorate, Robbins hopes to continue her research in

Mexico to bridge the cultural gap between Native communities there and in

the US that have been separated by a border, she said.

“Does this medicine have the ability to revive those [ancestral] trade routes,”

Robbins asked, “to learn from one another, adapt, adopt and evolve?

Partnership Opportunities Form