Native American Church deserves its sacrament

Native American Church deserves its sacrament.

The continuity of practices and constructs of religious service –
ceremonies – by American Indian people is remarkable. No lifeway or
religion, of course, no matter how traditional, can claim to be practiced
exactly as it was one or two or three hundred or a thousand years ago, in
the context of tribal culture and history. Nevertheless, despite
adaptations and change, many Native peoples sustain practices and
ceremonies around various traditions that directly emerge from the
long-standing history of tribal cross-culturalization and ritual growth in
the Americas.

Thus the widespread and very adaptive way of worship called the “peyote
way,” or the Native American Church of North America, is an amalgam of
various traditions that came north and west and east over the Native
geography; yet it has become a deeply Indian religious way, spanning nearly
two centuries in its journey north from its primordial tribal base among
the Huichols of present-day Mexico. Today, the chapters of the peyote
church in North America encompass tens of thousands of Indian adherents and

These days, the Native American Church is in danger of being hurt by the
constant number of cases in criminal drug situations where people claim
American Indian status to use or transact peyote – which is a controlled
substance, according to federal law.

We extend our acknowledgement to The Washington Post for its recent fine
piece on the subject (Sylvia Moreno: “A Rare and Unusual Harvest,” Sept.
18). Moreno captured the dilemma of a genuine Native religious practice
caught up in the cross hairs of drug war operations and the confusion of
countless new “religions” of the past few decades, each challenging the
right of the more established traditions to their own exemptions and unique

Wrote Moreno: “Though not considered addictive, peyote is included on 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.”

In one instance, a James “Flaming Eagle” Mooney, “self-described medicine
man,” a non-Indian by law, has monkey-wrenched the Utah Supreme Court into
backing his 1997-vintage religion, apparently designed to deliver peyote to
his followers. In another case, a Brazilian-based vegetable spiritist
group, seeking to import an Amazonian ayahuasca drink, cited the Native
American Church exemptions from the federal drug designation, thereby
dragging the long-fought-for understanding of the peyote church into a
self-serving court battle for the new syncretic religion at the U.S.
Supreme Court.

These court cases are as unfortunate as they are dangerous.

We would offer this much:

The peyote church – still too easily misunderstood among many people – is a
rich and highly humanistic approach to family life and culture, ritualized
with great poise and respect, around the ingestion of the peyote cactus
(lophophora williamsii). Usually organized as an all-night ceremony and
often held in a Plains tipi, the prayer service includes intricate song
cycles and individual songs by men and sometimes also by women singers, who
hold what are considered a sacred staff and rattle and are accompanied by
the “tiedup” peyote water drum.

The adaptive peyote sacrament is well-traveled. From its highly
sophisticated origins in the cosmology of the Huichols of old Mexico, it
found its way north through Texas and the Southwestern tribes, often
through the life experience of prominent tribal leaders (notably Comanche
Chief Quanah Parker). Yaquis, Apaches, Kiowas and others passed it north,
and it became an embedded backbone of reservation revival of Indian
identity and culture through the period of restricted reservation
residence. Seeking acceptable and workable ways of reinforcing tribal and
family honorings with humble and sincere prayer, the solemn and yet very
soothing peyote ceremony reinforced an Indian lifeway that can support
family, honor children and elders, discourage or ban alcohol and
concentrate prayer on behalf of the afflicted.

The use of peyote by American Indian peoples, dated from some 10,000 years
ago, diffused quickly north once railroads and other transportation allowed
it. Oklahoma tribes refined its reception among northern Indians, from
where it has been taken up in a wide arch of reservations. Love and filial
affection – plus the capacity to better contemplate life’s situations – are
often the central identifiers of the peyote, which reportedly has a quality
for opening the mind and heart, rather than it being considered simply a
“hallucinogen” that induces weird visions. This is one misconception, in
fact, that perhaps misrepresents the actual experience of practitioners.

As with all churches that grow within the context of other traditions, the
Native American Church has had its share of controversies. Christian
organizations have charged the church with the use of a “drug.” The peyote
sacrament itself is stigmatized with the designation of being a
“hallucinogenic” drug. Legalization of its use by Native tribal peoples was
a hard-won and often-challenged right.

The Native American Church was incorporated in 1918 and has struggled to
sustain public respect in the face of many ill-informed attacks. It has
survived and thrived because of overwhelming evidence of the consistent use
of peyote ritual today in many of the same ceremonial elements that were
identified in the early chronicles. This is an old religion, as peyote
historian Gary Fikes wrote: “Sacramental smoking of tobacco wrapped in corn
husks, the staff of authority, feather fans, gourd rattles, incense, a
central fireplace, and emphasis on the four cardinal directions all have
their parallels in Mexican peyote rituals that continue today, [while
other] features of Mexican peyote rituals outdoor dancing and elaborate
ritual pilgrimages to collect – have disappeared or were diluted as peyote
meetings moved north into the Plains.”

Evidence of peyote practice constituting a social good by helping stabilize
families and communities is abundant among peyote congregations or
chapters. With excellent antidotal qualities to alcohol (the addictive drug
often used in Christian ceremony), the spiritual use of peyote has been
presented in court as a proven healing component in battling alcoholism.
Hearings in Congress and during various court cases have generally
supported the Native American Church as a bona fide Indian religion, to be
respected and accepted.

The all-night peyote ritual constitutes one of the most Indian-defined
cross-cultural belief practices, even as it has incorporated elements from
more tribally-specific ceremonial cycles, as well as certain elements of
Christianity. Thus one of two types of “fireplaces” is usually built – the
Half-Moon Fireplace, which is more traditionally based, and the Cross-Fire
Fireplace, which uses the Bible instead of tobacco as the main prayer. The
Christian approach sometimes grates with the tobacco and four directions
prayer base, although peyotists are remarkably tolerant people. Then, too,
the Christian approach also has created wider understanding by non-Indian
society. Thus a letter from Pope John II praising the religious sincerity
and urging the legal right of the Native American Church of South Dakota to
its sacred medicine provides strong credentials in religious circles.

While the structure of the peyote ceremony is fairly constant, a particular
“road man” or ceremony leader will incorporate the unique approach of each
chapter or congregation or prayer circle. There is diversity in the
similarity of vision and in any given language and with whatever emphasis
of Indian belief involved, the Native American Church of North America
deserves acknowledgement and respect as an authentic religion of Indian
peoples of North America.


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Vincent Schilling
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