The Native American Church: Ancient Tradition and Modern Controversy

“We do not go into ceremony to talk about God. We go into ceremony to talk with God.” These are the words of Quanah Parker, the last chief of the Quahadi Comanche people, and the man credited with playing a key role in the peyote movement and the establishment of the Native American Church. Born sometime between 1848 and 1852 (the exact year of his birth is not known) in Texas or Oklahoma (his birthplace is also a subject of dispute), Quanah was the son of a Comanche chief and a white woman who was captured by the Comanche at the age of nine. The United States military considered him to be one of the greatest Native American warriors of his age. U. S. Cavalry officer Captain Robert G. Carter’s book, On the Border With Mackenzie, or Winning West Texas From the Comanches, included a description of an encounter with Quanah Parker in 1871 in which Captain Carter portrayed Quanah as “a large and powerfully built chief” who “seemed the incarnation of savage brutal joy” in his bear claw necklace and full-length eagle feather headdress.

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Quanah Parker on horseback, date unknown (Photo: University of North Texas)

A full-fledged warrior by the age of fifteen, Quanah Parker established himself as a fierce and unyielding fighter, and became a war chief while he was still a young man. During the mid 1870s, he led Comanche and Quahadi bands in battles on the Texas frontier in an attempt to stop white expansionists from taking Native American land, and stop white hunters from wiping out the entire buffalo population. Long after the United States government confined Native Americans to reservations, Quanah and his band refused to comply, and continued their attacks. After a raid against white buffalo hunters in Adobe Walls Texas ended in defeat and was followed by a full scale retaliation by the U. S. Cavalry, it was still another year before Quanah Parker and his men finally succumbed to surrender.

Quanah eventually settled on a reservation in southwestern Oklahoma. Not only did he convince bands of Comanche to follow him, he helped them adjust to their new lives by acting as liaison between Native Americans and white society for the remainder of his life. Quanah Parker knew all too well that the inability to adapt to a radically different way of life could have devastating consequences. After having lived amongst the Comanche for twenty-four years, his mother was recaptured by Texas Rangers. Against her will, Cynthia Ann Parker was separated from her husband and sons and forced to return to a family and a culture she no longer identified with. Cynthia Parker was unable to reassimilate. She felt more like a captive than she had ever felt with the Comanche people. (Her white family members frequently locked her in the house to prevent her from running away.) Severely depressed and physically weakened because she refused to eat, she died from influenza at the age of forty-three.

Because he was so instrumental in facilitating a peaceful transition for the Comanche from a free life on the plains to life on reservations, Quanah Parker became a nationally known figure. Reporters were always eager to hear his opinions on matters of political and social importance. He was admired by the leading ranchers of the Texas Panhandle, and counted Theodore Roosevelt amongst his friends. The federal government asked him to serve as a judge in courts that involved Native American offenses. While encouraging his people to prosper through education, agriculture, and leasing pastureland, Quanah Parker also managed to become a successful businessman who owned a ten-room house and was reported to be the wealthiest Native American in all of North America.

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Quanah Parker in American business attire, 1889 (Photo:source unknown, Public Domain)

While Quanah Parker embraced his dual heritage, he never abandoned his Native American culture. Though he sometimes wore a business suit, he continued to wear his long hair in braids, and he remained a polygamist. He never accepted Christianity, and he held fast to his Native American spiritual beliefs. He also recognized the role spiritual rituals played in helping the Comanche deal with life on the reservation. For advocating the use of peyote in Comanche and other tribes’ religious ceremonies, Quanah Parker became known as one of the founders of the Native American Church.

According to the American anthropologist and Native American advocate, Omer C. Stewart, the “modern peyote religion” became “formalized” in western Oklahoma in about 1880. In the preface of his book, Peyote Religion, A History, Stewart pointed out that the “sacrament” of peyote is “essential” to the Native American religion’s “well-established unique ceremony.” He called peyote “a unifying influence in Native American life” and credited it with helping Native Americans “grow in understanding and strength to meet the demands of everyday life.”

In an entry in the Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, Wynema Morris, a member of the Omaha Tribe and a college professor specializing in Native American studies, writes about government policies used to control Native Americans and make them conform to the United States’ brand of civilization. The plan to “civilize” Native Americans included persuading them to become Christians. Catholics, Mormons, Episcopalians, and other denominations recruited members from the various tribes. (Quanah Parker’s own son would become a Methodist minister.) Though Morris describes the conversion process as “slow and painful”, what emerged was an institution that was uniquely Native American. The basic principles of the Native American Church resembled those of mainstream Christianity. Jesus Christ was recognized as the son of the Creator. But peyote was the sacrament of choice, and this holy plant was used to communicate with God and his son.

The state of Oklahoma outlawed peyote in 1899. In 1908, Quanah Parker testified before the Medical Committee of the Oklahoma State Legislature. It was peyote, he said, that inspired him to lay down his bow and arrow, devote his energy to conquering himself, and make peace with all. His assurance that peyote was neither dangerous nor addictive led to the anti-peyote law being repealed.

The legal controversy over peyote was far from being resolved. The years that followed would see federal laws enacted, challenged, and changed while varying peyote statutes were also being enacted on state levels. In 1929, the Narcotic Farms Act included peyote on its list of habit-forming drugs despite insistence from the Native American community that the plant was not addictive. The interest in consciousness-altering drugs during the cultural revolution of the late 1960s led to the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. This legislation banned peyote by giving it a Schedule 1 classification. While the Native American Church received an exemption when when the Controlled Substances Act went into effect, not all states had laws in place that conformed with federal legislation protecting the ceremonial use of peyote by Native Americans.

In his 2018 article Native Perspectives on the 40th Anniversary of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, Dennis W. Zotigh points out that although the Bill of Rights was adopted in 1791, the United States government was facilitating and supporting the conversion of Native Americans to various denominations of Christianity in the early 1800s. A Kiowa / San Juan Pueblo / Santee Dakota Native American, Mr. Zotigh is a cultural specialist at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D. C. In his article, he reminds readers that the First Amendment of the Constitution, which guaranteed freedom of religion, had in actuality never protected the rights of indigenous people. In 1883, the Department of the Interior issued the Code of Indian Offenses. These laws criminalized Native American cultural and spiritual practices. Medicine men who were found guilty of encouraging their fellow tribesmen to follow long-established customs were imprisoned.

Dennis W. Zotigh (Photo: Travis Helms)

The traditional spiritual practices of Native Americans were not protected by law until 1978 when President Jimmy Carter signed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. As important as this legislation was, it did not completely resolve the issue of Native American religious rights. While the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution makes it clear that federal laws supersede any conflicting state laws, local businesses and organizations could still find ways to use state religious laws and drug laws to deny rights and services to their Native American citizens.

The legal battles continued. Probably the most well known court case was that of Employment Division v Smith. In 1989, Alfred Leo Smith and Galen Black were fired from their jobs as counselors at a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility in Oregon after their employer became aware that the two Native American men used peyote in their religious rituals. When they applied for unemployment benefits, they were denied and told their own “misconduct” had caused them to lose their jobs. Alfred Smith filed a lawsuit, and after lengthy litigation, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that Smith’s First Amendment rights had been violated. However, the United States Supreme Court reversed the decision and said Smith was not entitled to unemployment compensation. They maintained there was nothing in the First Amendment to stop the State of Oregon from outlawing the religious use of peyote through criminal prohibition laws. This decision ultimately led Congress to pass the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act which included additional legal protections for religious free exercise that were not addressed in the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. It said, “Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.” President Clinton praised the bill which he said held government “to a very high level of proof before it interferes with someone’s free exercise of religion.”

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President Bill Clinton signs the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in the White House Rose Garden on November 16, 1993 (Baptist Joint Committee photo).

Amending the American Indian Religious Freedom Act may have provided stronger legal protection for spiritual rituals practiced by indigenous Americans for centuries, but it did not prevent the development of new and more unique challenges for the Native American Church. As non-Native Americans became aware of psychedelics during the 1960s, the years that followed saw a significant increase in peyote use that had nothing to do with indigenous worship ceremonies. Concurrent with the interest in recreational peyote use, organizations began appearing throughout the country claiming to be bona fide branches of the Native American Church. Some of these “churches” stated they used marijuana and ayahuasca as well as peyote as sacraments. All of them maintained they had the right to legal protection under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

The Native American Church presently has approximately 250,000 members from fifty federally recognized tribes. In February 2016, the National Council of Native American Churches addressed the issue of the more than two hundred other organizations claiming to be affiliated with the Native American Church. A public letter issued by the president of the Native American Church of North America condemned illegitimate non-Native organizations. The letter also reiterated the church’s position concerning peyote being the only plant ever used as a sacrament. Without it, there could be no ceremony. “Some of these illegitimate organizations, comprised of non-Native people, are now claiming that marijuana, ayahuasca, and other substances are part of Native American Church theology and practice. Nothing could be further from the truth,” the letter stated. “We do not recognize, condone, or allow the use of marijuana or any other substance other than peyote in any of our religious services… We oppose attempts of non-Natives to come in and misuse government protection of traditional Native American religion to conduct illegal activity that has nothing to do with our traditional ways.”

The letter advised the public to reject any claims made by organizations not legitimately connected to the Native American Church. It concluded by saying, “We know who we are, and we know where we come from. We know the atrocities visited upon us. We reject the attempts to grasp onto our indigenous ways and deceive the public by claiming them as their own for their own personal enjoyment or for profit.”

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Members of National Council of Native American Churches 2016 (Photo: Native American Rights Fund)

Although it is called a “church”, it is important to understand that the Native American Church ceremonies are held in a tipi, or an outdoor area. Services are not scheduled for Sunday mornings. They do not even occur on a regular basis. A ceremony will take place when one is requested for a specific purpose. This can be a birthday celebration, a funeral, a memorial, or for the sake of a family or individual experiencing a problem. The ceremony begins at sundown (usually on a Friday or Saturday) and continues until the following morning when it ends with a breakfast for the entire community. Another thing that is important for outsiders to understand concerns the amount of peyote ingested during these ceremonies. In his 2017 article Tripping on Peyote in Navaho Nation, journalist John Horgan describes his experience as a participant in a Navajo peyote ceremony in 2002. Those present at the ceremony ate no more than “just a few tablespoons of peyote, which amounts to less than 100 milligrams of mescaline — enough to induce a stimulant effect, but not full-fledged visions.” These small doses trigger a mood of introspection, not a “high.” As the psychiatrist and psychedelic researcher John Halpern explained to Mr. Horgan, the peyote serves as “an amplifier of emotions aroused by the ceremony’s religious and communal elements.” The atmosphere is one of solemnity, not fun or recreation.

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Peyote Ceremony 1892 (Photo:National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution)

It’s not hard to imagine that misconceptions about Native American ceremonial use of peyote, and ignorance of the true guidelines for exemptions through the Religious Freedom Restoration Act may have contributed to the appearance of hundreds of institutions claiming to be affiliated with the Native American Church. However, simply calling an institution a Native American Church will not make it “legal.” While exemptions are granted to some of these new groups on a case-by-case basis, certain criteria must be met. Indigenous rights activist Gayle Highpine explains the evaluation process in detail in her 2016 article, The Religious freedom Restoration Act, The DEA Exemption Process, and Ayahuasca Healings. To be considered for an exemption, an organization must provide proof of a sincere religious belief, and must not appear to be motivated by money. If there is evidence that the organization has plans to expand, it is suspected of being a business, not a religion.

Even if a group does manage to procure an exemption, this does not give its members the freedom to use controlled substances any way they please. The sacramental drug may not be consumed outside of the ceremony, and it may not be taken to any other location. The controlled substance must be safeguarded because its use is overseen by the DEA’s Office of Diversion Control. Churches are required to keep the same kinds of records as pharmacies. They are legally bound to account for how much of a drug they receive and use, who uses it, and what dates it is used.

Both Gayle Highpine and the members of the National Council of Native American Churches warn the public that federal law does not protect individuals who carry membership cards sold by illicit organizations. One of the organizations they have issue with (and one that erroneously claims that marijuana and ayahuasca are traditional Native sacraments) calls itself the Oklevueka Native American Church. The organization’s website invites anyone who desires “to be blessed by having access to Native American ceremonies and sacraments without legal interference” to join their “movement” which is “growing substantially.” Becoming a member of one of their two hundred branches is as easy as filling out an on-line application, making a contribution of two hundred dollars, and supplying a digital photo or a copy of a driver’s license. Applicants are also required to “read the Code of Ethics and Code of Conduct and agree to abide by them.” Membership discounts are available to veterans, active servicemen, and members of federally recognized tribes. Paying members are issued official membership cards which state they have “met the standard of sincerity to be a member of Oklevueha Native American Church.” The card also states that the bearer is legally entitled to carry and possess peyote, ayahuasca, and marijuana. Lost, stolen or worn out cards can be replaced for a fee of twenty-five dollars.

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Sample membership card shown on the Oklevueha Native American Church website

On his website (native-languages.org), Orrin Lewis, a tribal member of the Cherokee Nation who works to preserve the Native American languages of Oklahoma, warns the public about illegitimate organizations soliciting money or members on their websites. He reminds them that Native Americans never take money for ceremonies or ceremonial items, nor do they take outsiders into their religion or culture via the internet. He advises those seeking information about Native spiritual practices that one cannot “convert” to the private religion of Native Americans.

“The commercialization of Native religion” says Gayle Highpine, “is blasphemy to the Native world.” On the subject of The Oklevueha Native American Church and any other organization claiming that marijuana and ayahuasca are Native sacraments, Sandor Iron Rope, the former president of the Native American Church of North America says, “You can call anything sacred, but we have a tribal lineage and teaching that tells us what is and isn’t.” Ruth Hopkins, a Dakota / Lakota Sioux essayist, agrees. In 2015, she wrote an article titled, Pot and Pretendians. She asserts no plant other than peyote has ever been used in Native ceremonies. She adds, “When non-Natives steal ceremonies from us, it creates a spiritual harm. These sacred rites have real power, and that’s not to be taken lightly.”

In a long-winded rebuttal to Pot and Pretendians that includes quotes from Christian and Jewish scriptures, the Oklevueka Native American Church claims the early leaders of the Native American Church gave instructions to introduce white people to Native spiritual practices. “Where is the love to exclude any group of people from ceremony or from something given to us by Creator for our benefit? The Constitutional and God-given right of religion is a shared freedom.” They insist they never charge money for ceremonies or sacraments, but they do “accept gifts” just like any other church. Perhaps they consider their membership fees and fees for replacement membership cards “gifts”? They do not address this in their rebuttal.

On the subject of Native spiritual rites being exploited by non-Natives for profit, and for the purpose of getting around the law, Ruth Hopkins maintains there is no credible evidence that the Oklevueka Native American Church’s founder is Native American. She says that while James Warren ‘Flaming Eagle’ Mooney insists he is Seminole, her research did not show that he is enrolled in any tribe recognized by a state or the federal government. If James Mooney is not Native American, he is hardly the first non-Native to call his institution a Native American Church. In 1976, Alan Birnbaum founded the Native American Church of New York, and sought a religious exemption from the Controlled Substance Act. In the 1979 case of Native American Church of New York v United States, the United States District Court, S. D. New York found that “only a few of its roughly one thousand members are American Indians.”

Not all pretendians who petition for religious exemptions lose their court battles. Whether the leaders of an institution claim Native ancestry, or merely argue that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act entitles their so-called Native American-inspired organizations to the same protection as Native Americans who are legally allowed to use peyote in their religious ceremonies, sometimes they win. Pretendians who perpetuate negative stereotypes and misconceptions not only insult and exploit indigenous culture, they pose a threat to the rights of genuine Native Americans who actually deserve the protection afforded by the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. Could the abuse of religious exemption laws lead to revisions that end up restricting the rights of the people they were originally meant to protect?

Native perspectives on religious freedom laws raise important questions concerning issues that would be difficult for even a man like Quanah Parker to provide solutions for. There are those who agree that the American Indian Religious Freedom Act has played an important role in the preservation and protection of Native spiritual traditions and culture. Tim Tsoodle, Headsman of the Kiowa Gourd Clan says, “This law allowed us to openly dance, sing, and pray as our grandfathers did. To be able to do these things without outside interference is what makes the American Indian Religious Freedom Act significant.” Ute Sundance Chief Kenny Frost concurs that, “Sadly, prior to this law, Native people were prohibited from practicing our Native religion.” However, he also acknowledges that federal policies are not ideal. “More needs to be done in the education of federal agencies.”

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Casey Camp-Horinek speaks inside of the United Nations COP21 Climate Negotiations during a WECAN International event (Photo: Emily Arasim/Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network)

With religious exemptions being determined by blood quantum laws and membership in federally recognized tribes, peyote use being overseen by the DEA, and displacement to reservations resulting in Native people being denied access to sacred territories on federal land, Casey Camp-Horinek, a Ponca councilwoman and activist calls the American Indian Religious Freedom Act “an oxymoron.” She asks, “How can a law be made around a religion and then be called ‘freedom’?” In her opinion, indigenous people cannot live in freedom with the laws of nature and honor the Earth “when laws created by man are defining our relationship with Her. Balance must be restored through prayer and ceremony, not by written words in man’s attempt to override the Great Mystery’s original instructions.”

Life-long Writer / Bluegrass Guitar Picker / Hippie Grandma diving head first into ‘Act Three’ all on one cup of coffee a day

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