Native American Church

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NATIVE AMERICAN CHURCH . The "peyote way," which is over 15,000 years old, and the Native American Church, which is about 100 years old, are flourishing. The use of peyote started in what is now southern Texas and northern Mexico, the only region in the world where the peyote cactus, classified as Lophophora Williamsii (Anderson, 1980, chap 8), is found in its natural habitat. The Native American Church (NAC), which uses peyote in its rituals, is alive and growing despite many efforts to eradicate this powerful way of worshiping. The existence of the NAC is in large part due to the many individuals who have sacrificed and struggled on be½ of peyote use as a religious sacrament. One such individual is Spotted Tail of the Oglala Sioux, who was arrested along with other members of his band in 1868 while using peyote as part of a tepee ceremony. At that time, only "pipe carriers" were allowed in tipis that were being used in conjunction with peyote.

While Spotted Tail awaited adjudication in a stockade, a Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) official advised him that if he told the court that he was conducting a church service, the court might allow him to continue the use of peyote in ceremonies. Spotted Tail did so, and the court granted the continued use of peyote in the context of a bona fide church service. There was one stipulation, however, made at that time by the BIA and the court: The participants could not use pipes in the ceremony. The newly formed United States government requested the removal of the sacred pipes from the peyote ceremony because government officials did not understand the role of the pipes, and they feared the use of the pipes in conjunction with the medicine (peyote). With the absence of sacred pipes, the participants began to use tobacco rolled in a cornhusk; by the beginning of the twenty-first century, however, tobacco is no longer always used in peyote ceremonies.

The Big Moon Ceremony, founded after 1800 by John Wilson, a Caddo roadman (Fikes, 1996), makes use of a large horseshoe-shaped, earthen altar. The altar is meant to represent the hoof print of the donkey that Jesus rode on Palm Sunday. A similar ceremony, called the Half-Moon Ceremony, derives its name from a crescent-shaped altar formed from earth inside the tepee. The Big Moon and Half-Moon ceremonies both include peyote use, and both reflect the influence of Native American culture and Christianity. Both ceremonial "ways" oppose the use of alcohol and drugs. The NAC does not view peyote as a drug. From the understanding of many indigenous peoples of North and South America, God did not create drugs; God created medicinal plants and herbs, but humans made drugs and alcohol.

Participants in both ceremonies use similar sacred instruments, and the ceremonies both perform the same functions for the people: baptisms, marriages, healing services, and other celebrations of life's milestones. Both ceremonies are all-night prayer services. The Big Moon Ceremony includes use of the Bible, which is placed at the top of the altar, and this ceremony does not incorporate tobacco use. In the Half-Moon Ceremony, on the other hand, a peyote button or "Chief" is placed on the altar, and the service includes the use of tobacco.

The first recognized Native American church, called the First Born Church of Christ, was formed in Oklahoma in 1914 by Johnathan Kashiway, a Sac and Fox "Roadman" (a person who conducts an all-night prayer service). Tobacco was prohibited from church services, and it was not mentioned in the articles of incorporation (Hirschfelder and Molin, 1992, p. 193). In 1921 the Winnebago of Nebraska established the first charter outside of Oklahoma. Called the Peyote Church of Christ, the charter was amended in 1922, and the church name was changed to the Native Church of Winnebago, Nebraska. Other Native American churches were soon organized and chartered in South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Wisconsin, Iowa, Utah, and New Mexico.

In 1944, the Native American Church of Oklahoma changed its charter and name to the Native American Church of the United States, becoming the first national peyote organization (Smith and Snake, 1998). In 1955 the organization changed its name to the Native American Church of North America so that Canadian peyotists could attend services. Canadian Cree, Assiniboine, Ojibwa, and Blood Indians formed the Native American Church of Canada in 1954 in Red Pheasant, Saskatchewan.

The Native American Church of California and Nevada was established in 1954. In 1966 the Native American Church of Navaholand was formed; this church is independent of the Native American Church of North America. In 1970 and 1971 the NAC of Navaholand sought incorporation from the state of Arizona and was refused because of state opposition to the use of peyote. New Mexico agreed to incorporate the church in 1973. The NAC of Navaholand encompasses the country's largest group of peyotists.

Many independent peyote groups exist in the United States. The exact number of American peyotists is difficult to determine, but estimates are more than 250,000 and growing, as of 2004.

For many years, the NAC and its ritual use of peyote has suffered from the misconceptions of those outside the church who have tried to suppress it. Peyote is a small spineless cactus, and its ingestion is neither habit forming nor addictive, although it may produce nausea in some people. Within the NAC it is used only in sacred ceremonies.

It is said "sacred medicine" came to the people from a Grandmother. Her people were starving so she went into the desert to pray to the creator to have pity on them. While in the desert, a voice led her to peyote, who told her to partake of it. After eating it, this Grandmother was shown how to use peyote in ceremonies. She was instructed to take the "medicine" back to her people and to share it with them, so that they would live.

Opposition to peyote use dates back to at least 1620, when the Spanish Inquisition and the Catholic Church condemned it. Similar opposition by other European-based individuals and governments continued over the next four centuries. The Carrizo, Lipan, and Mescalero Apaches were probably the first to ingest peyote. The Tonkawa and Caddo Indians first experienced opposition to its use during the nineteenth century. Christians viewed the use of peyote as heathenism and began a campaign to wipe it out. They threatened to withhold food and imprison Native people who continued to use it.

In 1899, A. E. Woodson, a federal agent of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Agency in Darlington, Oklahoma, implemented the first statute banning the use of peyote in Indian territory (Stewart, 1993, p. 131). A number of Native ceremonies had been forbidden in earlier decades, but non-Native authorities often confused peyote with mescal bean (Anderson, 1980), and early decrees were made against the mescal bean, rather than peyote. For example, an 1890 directive from Bureau of Indian Affairs Commissioner Thomas Jay Morgan stated: "The Court of Indian Offenses at your agency shall consider the Use, Sale, Exchange gift or introduction of the Mescal Bean as a misdemeanor punishable under Section 9 [on intoxicants] of the rules governing the Court of Indian offenses" (Hirschfelder and Molin, 1992, p. 216).

During the 1900s anti-peyote laws were passed by fifteen states: Kansas (1919); Utah, Colorado, and Nevada (1917); Arizona, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota (1923); Iowa (1925); New Mexico and Wyoming (1929); Idaho (1933); California (1959); New York (1965); and Texas (1967). Utah, Idaho, and North Dakota later amended their anti-peyote laws to permit peyote use as part of NAC religious ceremonies. Texas too amended its anti-peyote law in 1969. The new law, called the Texas Narcotics Law of 1969, addresses the possession and distribution of peyote by the NAC in ceremony. Anti-peyote laws in California and New York were aimed at non-Indian drug users. However, in 1996 Paul Skyhorse and Buzz Berry, both Native American members of the NAC, were arrested in Ventura County, California, for the transportation of peyote. Both men were incarcerated and their peyote confiscated, although they were later released, and the peyote was returned to them.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the legality of peyote-use varies from state to state. In 1994 the United States federal government amended the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act to legalize peyote use as a religious sacrament throughout the country. The Supreme Court later voided the 1978 act and the 1994 amendments. Peyote use within the Native American Church is no longer protected by the federal government, and the church must rely on state protection (Anderson, 1996, p. 223).

To be a legally recognized chapter of the NAC, a charter has to be written and accepted by the state in which the chapter exists. In Texas, for example, this charter must be filed with the Texas Department of Safety and Transportation and the state of Texas Drug Enforcement Agency. After receiving verification from the state, the NAC chapter is free to purchase peyote from certified peyote distributors, who will ask to see a permit and an Indian identification card before the sale.

The leadership of the NAC is chosen every four years from the existing chapters represented by the various tribes and nations. Many states have more than one reservation, or even several Indian nations, within their boundaries, and thus more than one NAC chapter. For example, the Kiowa, Comanche, and Cherokee nations all exist on different reservations within the state of Oklahoma. These three nations have different charters and various NAC chapters within the boundaries of their Oklahoma reservations.

Annual national NAC conferences are held throughout the United States with representatives from the various chapters. Participants discuss issues faced by the NAC, such as proposed changes by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration regarding the harvesting of peyote, which affects its pricing and availability. Non-Indian participation in NAC ceremonies is also an issue, personally, socially, spiritually, and legally.

See Also

Apache Religious Traditions; Native American Christianities.


Anderson, Edward F. Peyote: The Divine Cactus. Tucson, Ariz., 1980; 2d ed., 1996.

Fikes, Jay. "A Brief History of the Native American Church." In One Nation under God: The Triumph of the Native American Church, edited by Huston Smith and Reuben Snake. Santa Fe, N.Mex., 1996.

Hirschfelder, Arlene, and Paulette Molin. The Encyclopedia of Native American Religions. New York, 1992; updated ed., 2000.

Maroukis, Thomas Constantine. Peyote and the Yankton Sioux: The Life and Times of Sam Necklace. Norman, Okla., 2004.

Smith, Huston, and Reuben Snake, eds. One Nation under God: The Triumph of the Native American Church. Santa Fe, N.Mex., 1996.

Stewart, Omer C. Peyote Religion: A History. Norman, Okla., 1987; reprint, 1993.

Kenneth Littlefish (2005)

Native American Church

views updated May 23 2018

Native American Church

The Native American Church of North America (NAC) is a religious organization whose aim is to strengthen and protect the practice of peyote religion among Native Americans. Members seek health, guidance, wisdom, and good relations through a sacramental practice centered on peyote, a small, spineless cactus native to north-central Mexico and southernmost Texas. They pray to Grandfather Peyote, whom they also call "our Medicine" and "our sacrament," but many also pray to Jesus and consider their religion a form of Christianity. Many believe that peyote contains God's revelation in plant form, just as Jesus contained it in human form.

A peyote meeting can be called by individuals or families out of gratitude or need. Traditionally a tepee is erected for the meeting, at a secluded, pleasant site. As important as the meeting itself is the care with which the preparations are made, including the fashioning of fan, staff, water drum, and other implements used. Peyote meetings are led by a roadman, who is recognized for his knowledge and maturity but is not paid. Persons in several other roles assist. The meeting lasts from evening until morning. Essentially it consists of traditional songs accompanied with a water drum, alternating with individual prayers. Peyote music has a distinctive rhythm and style, with a fast drumbeat and a falling melody line. As the songs and prayers continue through the night, several times peyote buttons or peyote tea is passed around and consumed.

At dawn a woman known as Water Woman, who represents Peyote Woman, who originally brought peyote to the people, brings in a pail of water. Songs and prayers over this water mark the conclusion of the ceremony, after which the participants adjourn for a morning feast. This is a bare outline of the basic ceremony, several variations of which exist. They fall into three main classifications, known as the Big Moon, Half Moon, and Cross Fire versions. The extent to which and the manner in which Christian elements are incorporated in the ceremony are one distinguishing characteristic.

Controversy has plagued peyote religion because of the plant's mild psychoactive qualities. Peyote is sometimes sought as a hallucinogenic recreational drug, although obtaining and using it as such are illegal in the United States. Native American Church members describe their experience in far different terms. The primary benefits they report include general health and vitality; sobriety; healing of specific ailments; mental, emotional, and psychological clarity; and an abiding sense of kinship with fellow participants. Visions and hallucinations, if they occur at all, are said to be mere by-products of the healing process, often indicating areas of life where an individual needs to make changes.

Nonetheless, peyote religion, from its beginning, has had to fight for legal protection in the United States. From the 1880s through the late 1930s, and as late as 1963, members were forced to lobby Congress to halt proposed federal laws punishing the possession of peyote even for religious purposes. Quanah Parker (1850s–1911), a Comanche, was a vigorous and influential early advocate, as was Albert Hensley, a Ho-Chunk, a generation later. Their cause was supported by a long line of anthropologists, beginning with James Mooney (1861–1921). Despite success on the federal level, numerous state laws continued to prohibit the gathering, possession, transportation, and consumption of peyote for religious purposes.

In 1990 the U.S. Supreme Court was asked to decide on the constitutionality of these laws, in Smith v. Employment Division of Oregon (494 U.S. 872). It was argued that the laws threatened freedom of religion, and that there was no scientific evidence that peyote use by NAC members is harmful or addictive; but the Court affirmed the state prohibitions, ruling that freedom of religion in this case was a "luxury" society could not afford. This decision was widely protested by religious leaders of many faiths and by scholars. Definitive federal legislation was passed to grant full protection in 1994, as amendments to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.

Today the peyote religion of the Native American Church is vigorous, despite opposition within some Native American communities, either from traditionalists representing older practices or from Christian congregations. Membership in 1990 was estimated at 250,000. Members often participate in other religious practices as well, but many younger members were raised without regular access to older local traditions. For many Native American people living in urban environments, or leading highly mobile lifestyles, and for many who do not speak the traditional languages of older ceremonial traditions, the Native American Church has been an invaluable source of sobriety, healing, community, and guidance.

See alsoBelonging, Religious; Drugs; Drumming; Native American Religions; Peyote; Religious Experience; Religious Freedom Restoration Act; Religious Persecution; Ritual; Sociology of Religion.


Aberle, David F. The Peyote Religion Among theNavaho. 1966.

LaBarre, Weston. The Peyote Cult. 1938.

Slotkin, James S. The Peyote Religion: A Study inIndian-White Relations. 1956.

Smith, Huston, and Reuben Snake. One NationUnderGod: The Triumph of the Native AmericanChurch. 1996.

Stewart, Omer C. Peyote Religion: A History. 1987.

Christopher Jocks

Native American Church

views updated May 21 2018


NATIVE AMERICAN CHURCH. The Native American Church, a development that evolved out of the Peyote Cult, is a religion combining some Christian elements with others of Indian derivation. It features as a sacrament the ingestion of the peyote cactus, which may induce multicolored hallucinations. Christian elements include the cross, the Trinity, baptism, and some Christian theology and eschatology. The peyote rite is an all-night ceremonial, usually held in a Plains-type tipi.

Prominent rituals include singing, prayers, testimonials, and the taking of peyote. First incorporated in Oklahoma in 1918, the Native American Church has become the principal religion of a majority of the Indians living between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, and it is also important among the Navajo in the Great Basin, in east-central California, and in southern Canada.

Peyotism's legal standing met a serious challenge in 1990, when the U.S. Supreme Court decreed, in Employment Division v. Smith (1990), that the free exercise clause of the First Amendment did not exempt Indians from criminal prosecution for the use of peyote in states where its use was outlawed as a controlled substance. The decision placed minority religions in jeopardy. In response Oregon passed a 1991 law permitting the sacramental use of peyote by American Indians in the state, and Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993, which required the government to demonstrate a compelling state interest to justify any measure restricting religious practices.


LaBarre, Weston. The Peyote Cult. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.

Slotkin, James Sydney. The Peyote Religion: A Study in Indian-White Relations. New York: Octagon Books, 1975.

Stewart, Omer C. Peyote Religion. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987.

Vecsey, Christopher, ed. Handbook of American Indian Religious Freedom. New York: Crossroad, 1991.


Kenneth M.Stewart/j. h.

See alsoBill of Rights ; Indian Policy, U.S.: 1900–2000 ; Indian Religious Life ; Religious Liberty .

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