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The Western Medical Model for Psychedelics Is Built on Cultural Erasure

We interviewed Susan Beaulieu, a member of the Red Lake Nation, about how the medical model producing psychedelic medicine for therapy is largely built on the erasure of Indigenous cultures.

DoubleBlind Mag

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Updated July 9, 2024

Susan Beaulieu is Anishinaabe and an enrolled member of the Red Lake Nation. For nearly two decades, she has worked with Indigenous communities healing from impacts of historical trauma rooted in what is known as settler colonialism, a concept that emerged out of the work of Afro-Caribbean psychiatrist and philosopher Frantz Fanon and details a system of power rooted in the theft and exploitation of lands and resources and the displacement of original inhabitants of a place by new settlers who seek to claim the land as their own. 

As the Healing Justice Director of NDN Collective, an Indigenous-led organization “dedicated to building Indigenous power,” Beaulieu helps organizations and individuals understand the impacts of forced displacement and residential schools (created with the express purpose of rupturing Indigenous communities and erasing Native culture), and honor the ancestral resilience that undergirds Indigenous survival. Her work includes explorations with psychedelics as a pathway to fostering somatic and spiritual reconnection.

For the second edition of Decolonizing Psychedelics, a series developed by Preeti Simran Sethi and dedicated to breaking down what decolonization means and how it can be expressed in psychedelics, Sethi speaks with Beaulieu about the nuanced and amorphous definition of decolonization, the cultural erasure inherent in the Western medical model, and the path of reconnection to Indigenous roots and values.

DoubleBlind: How do you name yourself, your identity, and your engagement with the world?  

Susan Beaulieu: I’ll start with my traditional introduction. As Anishinaabe, we share our spirit name, our clan, and where we are from. 

Boozhoo. [Hello]. 

Niigani-binesi Ikwe nindizhinikaaz. [My Spirit name is Leading Thunderbird Woman.] 

Migizii nindoodem. [My clan is Eagle.] 

Miskwaagamiwizaaga’igan nindoonjibaa. [I am from Red Lake.] 

My English name is Susan Beaulieu. I am a mother of four. My oldest is 24, and then I have a 13-year-old, a 9-year-old, and a 5-year-old. That role has really been a big part of my life. I’ve been a mom since I was 19. I am a sister, a daughter, a friend, and an auntie. 

The more I have been on this healing journey and path, the more I’ve let go of titles and all of the ways we orientate ourselves in hierarchies. Instead, I feel much more called to explore, “What are my relationships and how am I in those relationships?” 

READ: The “Psychedelic Renaissance” Is a Product of Late-Stage Capitalism

Tying into that idea of relationship, people have vastly different ideas on what “decolonization” means. How do you place yourself in the conversation?

We each have a unique experience with colonization and how it has impacted us, and that [perspective] shapes how we see and navigate it. It is an especially important conversation in the psychedelic space because it is early enough that we can start to implement some of the things that have been left off the table. 

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The train is not too far down the tracks yet, though it is moving pretty fast. 

The terms we use can also be considered colonized. The word “psychedelic,” meaning “mind-manifesting,” was coined in 1957 in a Western medical context by white, British psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond. What term do you use—and what does the term include?

I tend to use the term “sacred plant medicines,” as most of the work that I do is with plant medicines. But if I am talking about medicines that include MDMA, LSD, and things like that, I go more with “sacred medicines” or maybe entheogens. I love the recognition of them as medicines. The more that we recognize them as such, hopefully, the more reverence we can have for them.

How were you introduced to sacred medicines? 

Addiction was very much a part of my family’s experience with trauma. As such, I grew up being told, “Don’t ever drink. Don’t ever do drugs.” I got my first introduction when my husband and I went to Ecuador in 2016. He was addicted to opiates, and had heard that ayahuasca could be helpful for addiction, so I thought, “Oh, I’ll go down and support him.” 

I honestly had no idea what I was getting into. It was very intense, and I realized that I had a lot of my own stuff to work on. At the time, I had three daughters and my youngest was 18 months old. I realized I did not want to pass [my stuff] on to my children. Working with the medicines became a way for me to tap into and access repressed emotions.

Was there a cultural component to your healing work?

As an Indigenous woman, I grew up hearing things like, “Everything is energy. We are all related.” I am not a fluent speaker of Ojibwe, but the language is primarily a verb or animate language. Many of the words that we use to describe things actually describe a relationship with a thing, not a naming of the thing as an object. As an example, there is a plant—speckled alder—that in our languages is called wadoop, which means “to clot.” It was traditionally used to treat anemia and internal bleeding. There is a recognition that the medicine is a relative that can support us by helping to clot blood. In my medicine ceremony, I had the felt sense of shifting from terms that we use as concepts in the mind into embodied experiences in my body, my heart space. It opened up how I understood my culture. And because of the experiences that I have had with the medicines, when I hear people sharing teachings from our culture, they don’t stay up here [points to head] in me, I am able to tether them to something that is embodied.

Ayahuasca opened a portal back to yourself. How do you conceptualize the work with sacred medicines in relation to decolonization? Where do they come together? 

I love this question, and it is something that I think a lot about in my work as the Healing Justice Director of NDN Collective. “Decolonize” is one of the 3D’s [we work with]: Defend, Develop, Decolonize. But even within the Collective, there is a question around what decolonization actually means. I guarantee you that what it means to me is probably different than what it means to some others in the Collective, or those who talk about decolonization in general. 

One of the things that I have really come to understand through medicine work is that when we are resisting or pushing against something, we are still feeding it our energy. So when we talk about decolonizing, it is against colonization. For me, the shift has been, If I do not want to feed this, what is it that I actually want to move towards? What is it that I want to give my energy to? That, to me, is about re-Indigenizing: reconnecting with Indigenous roots and values—and living them. 

Naming the goal of Indigeneity rather than centering white supremacy and colonization.

For me, the practice is very much about pulling my energy out of pushing against something and moving it back into what it means to live as an Indigenous being on this planet. Right relationship and reciprocity are two terms that have come up in the medicine for me … this collective remembering of what does it mean to give and receive equally

As an Anishinaabe, we have seven grandfather teachings: values of love, respect, truth, honesty, humility, courage, and wisdom. Within each of those is a teaching about what it looks like to embody and live the value. We can use [the teachings] as a lens [and ask]: “Are we doing it in a way that’s Anishinaabe or not?” 

READ: Conscious Capitalism is an Alibi and an Apology for Our Existing Paradigm

The invitation is for us all to look within our own cultures and find those answers. But if we look at a Western medical model that erases history and culture, is a re-Indigenized or decolonized praxis possible?

It is hard for me to tease apart colonization and capitalism. Capitalism exists because of colonization and because of ideologies within colonization that include things like hierarchy, “othering,” right versus wrong, all of the ways that allow groups that are in power to exploit others, whether it is other humans, plant and animal relatives, or the planet. So many Indigenous peoples around the world have had experiences where our belief systems, values, and ways of being in the world are, in some cases, just straight-up demonized. And that is one of the biggest concerns that I have as this movement continues. Work with sacred medicines is happening in the environment and toxicity of colonization and capitalism. That is the water. Whatever springs from toxic water is not going to be healthy because what those beliefs are rooted in are not universal truths of relationship, reciprocity, and interconnection. 

Most Indigenous cultures around the world have very similar values about being in relationship with ourselves, with each other, and everything around us in ways that do not create harm because we recognize that if we create harm, it will come back on us. I mean, we are all connected so why would we put harm out there? It doesn’t make any sense. Yet, everything in capitalism and colonialism is about perpetuating harm from one group over another, primarily humans over non-humans. 

I have concerns about people who think that we can do [psychedelics] in this framework, because the way that it is unfolding under capitalism—within a colonial structure—is leaving people out [not only] in terms of access, but also in who gets to determine who has a say about how the medicines are used, when they are used, and how they’re harvested. They are not at the table or part of the discussion. 

The potential of these sacred medicines is to be able to help support the healing and the well-being of humans so that we will, hopefully, stop causing harm, but it is getting completely distorted coming through the water of colonialism and capitalism. 

You mentioned “right relation” and “reciprocity,” terms that are precious to me, but I see them being thrown around—like the term “decolonize”—without context. Or they are being shared through a mindset that doesn’t understand what you just said about the ways in which systems of oppression work together. For example, it is very confusing to me when I hear someone say, “Decolonize your praxis,” yet their psychedelic practitioner training is only for people who have PhDs. Or they say they have a BIPOC fund and, therefore, are decolonized. Is inclusion the same as decolonization? 

This is the challenge. We literally have been brainwashed to believe in Western society that when you have a concept of something and can articulate it, you know it. But what I have learned through the medicine is that there are so many ways of knowing that go beyond the conceptual. People who come from the Indigenous perspective understand these other ways of knowing. We maybe can’t measure [it], but that does not mean it does not exist.

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We think if we use the right words, say the right terms, do the right dance, we are doing the thing. But no. Not unless we are able to drop into here [gestures to heart] and really feel when there is resonance or dissonance. When I feel resonance, it could be because there is a larger, universal truth that I am remembering and my spirit is resonating with—or it could be because whatever is [before me] is part of my path. What is resonance for me might not be resonance for you. And when I am feeling resistance, there is a really good chance there is something there for me to learn, something in me that is unresolved and I need to look at. 

You do not identify decolonization up here [pointing to head]. You feel it in the body and heart space, in your spirit. It is a felt sense, and a really different way of navigating the world: tuning into energy and noticing, “Will this help me move toward more right relationship or not?” What I’ve learned in my own journey—which has very much been supported by medicines—is that I can’t change anything that I do not have a felt sense of. But in the larger [psychedelic] field, people are not creating space to pause and tune in like that. 

My background is in science journalism. I remember going into my first ceremony understanding, on a conceptual level, that my default mode network would be quelled and there would be increased activity in my amygdala, but the healing was in feeling the presence of my father who had passed away years before and in communing with my grandmother. What I am hearing is that what it takes to step onto the path of decolonization in sacred medicine is to start to tune into ourselves.

In order to decolonize, we do have to be able to tune back into ourselves. But that means we have to learn how to be with big emotions, because if we can’t learn how to be with big emotions, we can’t be with ourselves. And if we can’t be with ourselves, then we are not going to be able to move beyond what we know up here [points to head] and drop into the [somatic] wisdom that our spirit is sharing. We have a ridiculous amount of repressed rage and grief in the collective body. The medicine is trying to help teach us how to navigate these energies in everyday life so that we don’t get overwhelmed or dissociate. 

I think about the big T traumas like genocide, enslavement, forced migration, and the violent erasure of culture through government-funded residential schools that involved removing American Indian and Alaska Native children from their homes with the primary objective of assimilating them into Anglo-American culture. It makes sense that many have disassociated or abused substances in an attempt to heal. Is there a distinction to be made between how we hold ourselves as colonized people versus folks who have not endured those same kinds of experiences either directly or through their ancestral lines? 

We tend to have this distinction of colonized people versus not-colonized people but, if you go back far enough, so many of the groups that were in Europe used to be Pagan and connected to the earth. I do not know of a single group that does not have that in their lineage somewhere. There are some of us that are much closer to [colonization] because it happened to our parents, grandparent, or maybe even ourselves. It may be more alive in us and we may feel [disconnection] in a deeper way versus other groups [for whom] it was a couple of hundred years ago or 1,000 years ago. But, in order for us to survive as a species, every group, at some point, had to be in right relationship with all of life around us. I would suggest that when we think about this healing work of decolonization, it really is for every single one of us. There is a way to learn from each other that can help support everyone. I would love to see more spaces where we can open up conversations in a good way and tune into all of the possibilities and potential between us. 

And go beyond the binary. 

I do not think there is a single way to approach this. For some, working with these medicines through a medical model might feel best and that is okay. But how are we making sure that the Indigenous folks who have been stewarding and working with these medicines in relationship for hundreds of thousands of years are also at the table?

Amazing synergies can happen when folks come together to create more spaces for these types of conversations—honest, transparent, courageous; focusing on values of right relationship, respect, and reciprocity—and learn from each other. What would this [landscape] look like if we began to have those conversations together? 


Preeti Simran Sethi is a writer, educator, mental wellbeing coach, and psychedelic facilitator who advocates for culturally attuned care in psychedelics. Find more on her work here. This interview is made possible with editing support from Andrea Lomanto and the Ferriss-UC Berkeley Psychedelic Journalism Fellowship. It has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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