Psychedelic-assisted therapy and tribal health: 5 Questions for Indigenous scholar Marlena Robbins
Robbins discusses bridging traditional knowledge with Western science.
When Marlena Robbins was growing up in Window Rock, Arizona, she heard stories from her mom about using LSD and mushrooms. She never thought those drugs would become a part of her life. But in 2019, she’d started grappling with the weight of intergenerational trauma and family dynamics. She reflected on some of the negative experiences she and her Diné ancestors had experienced — displacement by colonists, forced assimilation, high rates of domestic violence and alcoholism. She also wanted to heal and connect with the positive aspects of her upbringing, like the love and strength she felt from her close-knit family. “I knew that I needed to go deeper, and I didn’t know how else to do it,” she says. Her partner, who had used mushrooms before, suggested she try them.
After a few experiences with psilocybin — including one with her mother — Robbins felt more open than ever before, and felt new resolve to take care of herself in other ways too: eating healthfully, painting more, embracing sobriety, engaging in community. “It completely changed the structure of my life,” Robbins says. She wanted to find ways to cultivate her relationship to mushrooms, which she calls “little medicine people,” and to bring the healing she experienced to others. Robbins is now a PhD student at the U.C. Berkeley School of Public Health, where she is studying the history of Indigenous peoples’ relationship to healing plants, and advocating for access to psychedelics in tribal communities. Robbins is also an Indigenous Research Student Fellow at the Center for the Science of Psychedelics. The Microdose spoke with Robbins about bridging traditional knowledge with Western science.
What does access to psychedelics on tribal land currently look like?
Historically, there's been a lot of government regulation of tribes, which functionally limits how we take care of ourselves, and how we manage our money and resources. It's an option for patients at Indian Health Service to have a traditional practitioner provide ceremony or go to medicine people for consultations when they're sick.
There are some new attempts to bridge the traditional knowledge of Indigenous ceremony and Indigenous medicine with Indian Health Services and Western medical models. I was just in contact with a federal government agency looking to connect with tribes on how to start rolling out psychedelic medicine in tribal nations: how to start that conversation? How to educate the communities? How to connect with Indigenous practitioners who utilize this medicine?
When it comes to reconciling traditional knowledge with Western science, where do you see overlap?
Ceremony is science. There are reasons that ceremony is conducted the way it is; there are protocols. Everything has meaning, everything has story. There's a reason why we have candles. There's a reason why we must be able to touch the earth. There's a reason why we have fire and water, why we have nature around us. And there’s a real opportunity here to incorporate all this into our conversations about set and setting.
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What benefits do you see coming from psychedelic-assisted therapy administered through tribes, rather than, say, through states?
I came across an article that discusses ethnopsychopharmacology: how psychoactive substances can affect people from different ethnicities, and why culturally informed psychedelic-assisted therapy is so important. They give an example of a white therapist sitting with a person of color in a dosing session, during which racial trauma comes up. How is that white facilitator able to connect, empathetically connect, or help guide that client and talk them through it, versus somebody who has a shared identity or ethnicity, or comes from a similar community and background? We have to take that into account in how tribes roll these medicines out in the communities. Tribal nations often have an identity that is tied to culture, prayer, and ceremony. Having culturally informed psychedelic-assisted therapy will be a vital part of the experience for tribes.
What do you see as the biggest barriers to tribes offering psychedelic-assisted therapy?
Native people are multifaceted. I mean, we're human. But in the psychedelic movement we get homogenized, and sometimes we’re put into this monolithic identity of being very spiritual beings. But we're also influenced by different politics, by popular culture, by different religions. And for many, the way these drugs have been portrayed by the media has created a mental block. For instance, in 2021, my dad got sick. He was diagnosed with stage four liver cancer on Father's Day. We think he knew that he was sick, but he didn't want to know for sure. Once he was officially diagnosed, his health went downhill from there.
We wanted to sit in ceremony with him; I’d read about the studies conducted with end-of-life cancer patients using psilocybin-assisted therapy to help them come to terms with their transition. He wasn’t up for it, so we didn't do that. He grew up during the Nixon administration and he was in Vietnam. I think he had, in his mind, vilified these substances as harmful drugs, ones that can make you crazy.
A lot of his family members had passed from cancer, my aunties and uncles. That goes back to uranium and radiation exposure. There's the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which we applied for as a family — it compensates people who have been exposed to uranium radiation between the years of 1951 and 1958 on the Navajo reservation. Many exposed were later diagnosed with cancer. For me, that was a driving force to study public health, to advocate for access to these medicines on tribal reservations because it's currently not an option. There are other families out there, too, who have family members passing from cancer and they don't have psilocybin-assisted therapy as an option. How do we create a framework around educating the public and tribal communities with these different perceptions of and perspective on these drugs?
I also want to acknowledge that a lot of discussion about psychedelics comes from the perspective of a deficit model. These medicines can help with PTSD and trauma and addiction and other difficult and challenging issues. But on the flipside, they have the ability to help us be more empathetic, patient, loving, kind, present. And I think approaching them from that perspective makes it more digestible by the public. Once we start talking about trauma, it's like, “That’s scary — I don't wanna talk about it.” But something that can make me calmer and happier and softer and gentler and kinder and more empathetic and and more willing to help and be here and be present with my family or with my child? That's beautiful. And I think that that gets overpowered and gets overlooked by this deficit model.
I’m wondering how you think Indigenous peoples should be recognized, acknowledged and respected for the traditional knowledge that much of the modern psychedelics movement draws from?
Indigenous people are gaining a lot of momentum right now in terms of our advocacy efforts and our identity being shared in the mainstream media. Then, on the other side, you have these psychedelic corporations and organizations turning psychedelics into a multibillion dollar industry. And you have this growing concept of Indigenous reciprocity. Reciprocity needs to go beyond land acknowledgments, or putting a little blurb on a website saying “We acknowledge Indigenous people as being the original holders of this medicine for thousands of years.” Indigenous people are doing a lot to heal from our intergenerational trauma and utilizing this medicine to help build our self efficacy just as Westerners are coming into this medicine. Westerners also need to use this medicine to acknowledge ancestral trauma: the trauma that their ancestors have inflicted upon the very Indigenous people that they're getting the medicine from now. We all have ancestors who did good in the world, but we all also have those who committed heinous acts of violence against other people. We have to atone for our ancestors and everything that they did.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Growing up in Winslow, this make so much sense. Best wishes, (almost) Dr. Robbins.
I'd love to see this kind of work on the native lands. Perhaps this could become a path to healing for all of us. With wise guidance, this also could become an income source for often-marginalized peoples. Why go to Costa Rica, Peru, or Jamaica when Ganado is closer?
I wish Marlena Robbins all the best on her journey. What an enlightening and insightful conversation.