American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Native American Church of North America

The Native American Church of North America (NAC), or Native American Church of Jesus Christ, is the largest religious organization dedicated to the use of the fruit (or "button") of the peyote cactus as the central element of its worship. However, the use of peyote in North America far predates the organization of the NAC. Peyote buttons dating to 5,000 BCE have been found in Texas, and its use in Central America appears to be more ancient still.

Opposition by European-Americans to Native use of peyote also has a very long history. When the Spanish first reached many of the isolated inland tribes of Mexico, they discovered the Indians of the Cora tribe using a previously unknown substance in their nocturnal religious rites. In 1754, Spanish historian José Ortega described "a tray filled with peyote which is a diabolical root [ raiz diabolica] that is ground up and drunk by them so that they may not become weakened by the exhausting effects of so long a function." Anthropologists have estimated that peyote has been in use among Mexican Indians for approximately 7,000 to 10,000 years. Although Ortega saw peyote as a "diabolical root," the Cora Indians saw it as a "divine cactus." The Inquisition made its use illegal in 1620, but this did not stop the spread of its use.

Anthropologist Weston La Barre estimated that the ritual and curative use of peyote was transmitted from Mexican tribes to those residing in the United States around 1870. During the next fifty years, it was diffused among various tribes throughout the Western United States. Although peyote was one of many plants used in Central American Indian ceremonies, in North American usage it became the central sacrament. Whereas prior pan-Indian movements led by people like Neolin, Tenskwatawa, and Wovoka promised a return to the pre-European state through divine and/or military means, the use of peyote became a way of accommodating and accepting the facts of modern life while keeping a connection with traditional Indian beliefs. Further, the peyote faith became a way for Indians to deal with the crisis caused by the destruction of their traditional cultures during the nineteenth century.

By the late nineteenth century, noted anthropologist James Mooney began to research its use among Indian peoples in Oklahoma and elsewhere, even going so far as to become an advocate for its use as an expression of freedom of religion. By 1906, the use of peyote had spread to an area covering the Great Plains from Oklahoma to Nebraska. The threat of Christian missionaries' call for congressional action to ban the use of peyote caused the peyote users of the Oto, Kiowa, and Arapaho tribes to unite several diverse peyote groups and, with Mooney's support, create the Native American Church in October 1918. Although it was not and still is not representative of all Indian peyote users in the United States, the NAC was formed as a defense measure against probable government action.

Although the organization of the NAC gave peyote users a pan-Indian identity, it did little to dissuade whites and proacculturation Indians from attacking the movement. The fact that the sacrament is a mild hallucinogen caused federal, state, and local government officials to oppose the use of peyote, ignoring the purely ceremonial usage among the Indian groups. Exercising their influence on government officials were Christian leaders who claimed peyote use was, like alcohol, only used to induce euphoria. Passage of the Indian Citizenship Act and with it the official granting of constitutional rights to Indians in 1924 did not end the persecution.

The NAC has traditionally infused its rites with Christian imagery and even theology. It has no professional, paid clergy. Members are free to interpret Bible passages according to their own understanding. Morality is basically Christian and stresses the need to abstain from alcohol and be faithful to one's spouse. Other prominent values include truthfulness, fulfilling one's family obligations, economic self-sufficiency, praying for the sick, and praying for peace. The peyote faith stresses personal revelation and visions; individual commitment to live a life of respect, generosity, and harmony; and a heavy emphasis on the sacramental aspect of worship. Each person must come to the peyote belief of his or her own volition through an overt decision of faith. Declaring this belief makes the communicant a part of the faith community, a community that shows common concern for other members. Some communities have also included the practice of baptism. However, the amount and type of Christian influence can vary widely among and within tribal groups.

One of the most notable evangelists of the peyote religion during the last half of the nineteenth century was the Comanche Quanah Parker, who traveled from tribe to tribe spreading the new faith. Although many converted, opposition came almost immediately from many sides, both Indian and non-Indian. Many Indians who had been educated and favored assimilation saw an Indian religion as a step backward. Many were still devoted to traditional Indian cultures and could not fit the new religion into their system. Both the state and federal government banned the use of peyote, and, although some overtures were made by the Peyotists, most missionary groups condemned the new faith, blaming the use of peyote for poverty, illness, and death on the reservations. Controversy still follows the peyote faith, even in the aftermath of the 1978 passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

In his 1970 masterwork, Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto, Vine Deloria, Jr., stated that the Native American Church "appears to be the religion of the future" and that "eventually it will replace Christianity among the Indian people" (Deloria, 1970, 113). However, the fact that the theology espoused by some members of the NAC has Christian roots has caused divisions. The continual participation of Indians in traditional religions, Christianity, and peyotism has revealed Deloria's declaration to be a bit overstated, but for those who blend traditional Indian religions and Christianity, the NAC remains a vital force in the communities of which it is a part.

Steven L. Danver


Further Reading
Anderson, Edward F. 1996. Peyote: The Divine Cactus, 2nd ed. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.; Deloria, Vine, Jr. 1970. Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.; Fikes, Jay C. 1996. "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, NM: Clear Light Publishers.; LaBarre, Weston. 1970. The Peyote Cult. North Haven, CT: Shoe String Press.; Slotkin, J. S. 1975. The Peyote Religion: A Study in Indian-White Relations. New York: Octagon Books.; Stewart, Omer C. 1987. Peyote Religion: A History. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987.
 

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