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[5-min read] Q&A with Veronica Lightning Horse Perez, Activist & Therapist
Welcome to Tricycle Day. If indigenous wisdom teaches us everything is sacred, then this newsletter must be, too. We’ll take it, elders. 🪶
Veronica Lightning Horse Perez has applied lessons from indigenous tradition to just about every aspect of her life. You better believe that includes getting Colorado’s historic decrim measure over the finish line.
We spoke to Veronica about how suffering made her a better healer, the Native American secret to effective cooperation, and what each and every one of us can do to protect indigenous wisdom.
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You’ve had an incredible healing journey involving a transformative near-death experience. How did you decide to become a healer yourself?
I intimately learned about suffering and discovered that it doesn't have to destroy you; it can amplify you. Once I came to that realization, I knew I had to share it with others. Many people don't know they're not alone, and hearing others' stories of overcoming similar challenges creates a ripple effect.
My own journey involved childhood trauma, being raised as a Jehovah's Witness, and enduring racial and physical attacks. Complex PTSD led to multiple hospitalizations, which made it challenging to hold down a job or make it through the day. During my fourth pregnancy, I was in a car accident, and doctors told me I wouldn’t walk again. Time after time, I’d face life-altering diagnoses and struggle to picture an existence in those realities. After a heart attack, I realized I had to find a way to live.
That decision led me to neurolinguistic programming, hypnotherapy, and gestalt therapy, which reprogrammed my perspective and initiated my healing. Psychedelics, particularly peyote, expanded my consciousness, providing comfort in seeing life was bigger than the daily struggle I’d been so focused on.
As much as I wanted to, sharing my psychedelic experiences was challenging with five kids at home. Social services posed a threat due to the stigma around “illicit drug use.” (That’s why it was so important for us to write protections for parents into the legislation in Colorado.) The more I looked into psychedelics scientifically and culturally, the more I recognized their historical significance in human evolution. This isn’t a renaissance; it’s a practice with deep roots. My mission today is to ensure people don't suffer while seeking relief. We should be able to use natural medicines responsibly without jeopardizing our families or well-being.
How has exploring your own indigenous heritage influenced your approach to therapy?
My faith in these modalities deepened. It became more grounded and respectful. Many indigenous people share the common belief of being connected to the earth, a sentiment that removes feelings of loneliness and separation. Living with this understanding brings a greater appreciation for existence and helps one realize the world is much larger than our personal challenges. In therapy, approaching sessions with the faith that each individual is part of a greater picture is a key to significant healing.
By contrast, traditional therapeutic approaches often dissect individuals into separate issues treated by different specialists. The indigenous perspective emphasizes addressing spiritual root causes and treating the whole person for optimal healing. This holistic approach encourages a sense of hope and belief in the possibility of a better life, as opposed to merely finding the right medication for survival.
While I come from an Apache bloodline and have received Lakota training, I wasn't raised in indigenous traditions. About 15 years ago, I began my journey into indigenous practices, sitting with medicine people from various tribes. The indigenous perspective on sharing wisdom with Westerners varies widely, even within the same tribe. Some are open to it, while others view it as a grave betrayal. The diversity within indigenous cultures adds complexity to how we understand and respect their traditions.
As someone who championed Colorado’s Natural Medicine Health Act, how do you think about fostering cooperation across the psychedelic community? What are the most effective ways to bridge the gap between different cultural perspectives?
The most important first step is to get everyone to agree on the highest intention. When you have this agreement in place, you have a goal to work backward from and an anchor when discussions get heated. It also ensures a range of perspectives is considered. Without the diverse opinions and experiences that informed the Colorado measure, we wouldn’t have known to include protections around organ transplant waitlists, for instance, or court custody battles resulting from plant medicine use. The measure thrived because the contributors had a shared intention centered around healing, destigmatization, and education about plant medicines.
This lesson comes from indigenous history. When tribes would unite against a common enemy, they would win. When they fell victim to infighting, they did the work for the common enemy. Equally important is the lesson that trying to strip another culture's beliefs only leads to self-destruction. Respecting others' beliefs and allowing diverse perspectives to coexist is a sacred principle that reinforces individual and collective strength.
For example, I believe in the healing potential of mushrooms. If someone sees mushrooms as dangerous, it may feel like a threat to my belief. Yet, recognizing that others can hold their views without imposing them on me is key to maintaining harmony. The danger arises when people feel compelled to enforce their beliefs on others. This mindset has led to conflicts, pain, suffering, and death throughout history. On the other hand, embracing coexistence and mutual respect, even in disagreement, fosters peace. We can live fulfilling lives without forcing our perspectives onto others.
In your ideal world, what would a fair and respectful partnership between Indigenous groups and modern psychedelic businesses look like?
In my ideal world, communication takes center stage. Businesses and policymakers can work with liaisons and ambassadors from indigenous communities to understand their points of view. Rather than assuming their needs, they’ll hear directly from community leaders. The emphasis should be on listening and leaving space for solutions to come from within, not imposing them from outside.
There are some encouraging efforts underway, such as the NMHA’s Subcommittee on Indigenous and Religious Use. Its board members are reaching out to community leaders for recommendations. The next push is to create an organization designed explicitly for this purpose, which would connect 106 community leaders throughout Colorado. This approach would accelerate positive change by gathering information directly from community leaders who understand the unique needs of their communities. Once again, we can follow in the footsteps of our indigenous ancestors. They understood the importance of gathering tribal chiefs together to discuss the needs, hopes, prayers, and fears of their people.
Of course, there's always the risk of self-serving leaders in any culture. The responsibility to recognize, call out, and address such issues falls on the collective. We need leaders who embody courage and integrity. Coming back to that notion of a higher intention, it will be important to align intentions and establish a code of conduct with agreed-upon consequences for times it’s broken.
As psychedelics continue to grow in popularity, what are some simple steps our readers can take to help ensure that Indigenous wisdom is neither lost nor exploited?
Don’t be afraid to ask "stupid questions." When you voice your questions, everyone can tap into that shared curiosity and gain a deeper understanding, collectively. Keep educating yourself and embrace continuous learning to build your knowledge, personal safety, and self-esteem. We live in an age of technology. Use Google! It’s a valuable resource, especially when direct access to indigenous knowledge is limited.
Let’s also confront the discomfort about our collective history. The atrocities of our past are not distant; they’re recent. Indigenous people are seen as "refugees in their own country.” Acknowledging that uncomfortable truth opens the space for understanding and empathy. There’s no need to sit in guilt or shame; let’s move forward with awareness and compassion.
There’s an old joke that you can’t talk to an Indian because if you do, they’ll tell you everything is sacred. The mountain is sacred. The water is sacred. You can’t lay on the grass without stepping on something sacred. But it’s true. And approaching the world around you with that kind of reverence puts you in a place of gratitude, appreciation, and care for the environment. If we accept that indigenous peoples hold a wealth of experience and knowledge about their surroundings, including natural plant medicines, why not let them guide us?
Want more from Veronica?
Consider giving to Southdown Indian Mountain, a nonprofit she supports that keeps the Native American sweat lodge tradition alive.
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DISCLAIMER: This newsletter is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice. The use, possession, and distribution of psychedelic drugs are illegal in most countries and may result in criminal prosecution.