Native American Church
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Native American Church
Native American Church(religion, spiritualism, and occult)
In one sense, the Native American Church began in 1918, when James Mooney, an anthropologist from the Smithsonian Institution, testified before congressional hearings held concerning the issue of sacramental use of peyote by indigenous people in the American Southwest. As a result of those meetings, he advised members of various Oklahoma tribes to obtain a legal charter to protect their rights as an organized religion. The Native American Church was incorporated that very year.
But incorporation just expresses the official legal definition of when a religion begins. To better understand what the church is all about, we have to go back about ten thousand years to discover the first use of peyote.
Peyote is often called a mushroom, but it is actually a small, spineless cactus native to the American Southwest. Chances are it began to attract attention as soon as the first hunter-gatherers discovered that brewing it in a tea or chewing very small amounts produced an altered way of thinking that seemed to place the user in a heightened spiritual state. Peyote cactus buttons found in ancient human-occupied caves have been carbon-dated back as far as seven thousand years. The Huichol Indians of Mexico were making peyote-collecting pilgrimages into southern Texas by at least 200 BCE as part of a religious quest.
Some people view peyote simply as a hallucinogenic used by people who want to "get high" while using religion as their justification. Timothy Leary's reputation in the 1960s certainly gave that impression to folks in suburbia. But a careful study of the history of peyote use reveals a deeply sacramental ritual hedged in by religious rules and regulations going way back into ancient times. Some of these customs, adapted and filtered through Christian symbolism, have been rediscovered by the Native American Church, which now boasts some eighty chapters comprising members of at least seventy Native American nations.
Every state west of the Mississippi has at least one chapter, and the total membership of the church is estimated to be about 250,000 people. Much of the church's worship centers around singing, accompanied by small drums and gourd rattles. The singing is usually in a native language and dialect, but sometimes phrases like "Jesus is the Savior" will be heard in English. At these meetings, it is explained that peyote is a gift from God, a sacrament that not only places minds otherwise cluttered with cultural baggage and "busyness" into a spiritual state, but also counters cravings for alcohol and relieves day-to-day tensions. It is believed to cure various illnesses, many of them induced through the anxiety of poverty and hopelessness that has for so long been a fact of reservation life.
Peyote is not, however, usually taken just to induce visions. As a weak peyote tea is passed around, always clockwise according to Native American symbolism, participants are free to interpret Bible passages according to their own understanding, share their thoughts and beliefs, and express community through prayer vigils that usually last through the night. The idea is that the mind normally works in a manner conducive to everyday, waking reality. To contemplate spiritual things, it has to be moved out of its groove, so to speak, and elevated to a higher plane.
A typical response from non-Indian people is, "Sure. One big group trip!" It's difficult for people to respond to that which they have not experienced in the normal course of their daily lives. Perhaps it is impossible. So most Native Americans are justifiably careful when it comes to talking about their church meetings. It doesn't help, either, that certain well-publicized criminal court cases have been launched by Indian prisoners who may or may not simply be exploiting religious freedom to gain a temporary chemical release from prison drudgery. It would be a mistake, too, to think that peyote use among people of all races and religious traditions is limited to sacramental expression. Certainly it has a recreational following as well.
But ingesting peyote, to Native American Church members, is no different from Catholics drinking wine at Mass. Peyote is not just a plant. It is believed to be the very heart of the Creator, just as wine symbolizes the blood of the Creator in Christianity. The Creator had great compassion for his people. Christianity teaches that through his great love he entered the world as a man. Ancient Huichol belief was that the Creator died and was reborn as the peyote plant so that the people could obtain wisdom and understanding not possible in normal daily life. The Aztec people, culturally related to the Huichol, named the plant peyoti, which denoted the pericardium, or the lining of the heart. This reflects the Huichol belief that peyote embodies the Creator's heart.
When Spanish priests discovered what peyote was, they instituted the laws of the Inquisition to punish those who used it. It was strictly forbidden, but people kept secretly using it anyway. The religion migrated to the north, to the Apache, the Commanche, and the Kiowa people. By 1880 two religions were spreading throughout the Indian nations. One was the Ghost Dance (see Ghost Dance). The other was the peyote cult.
Perhaps it is easiest for people of non-Indian cultures to understand when they try to put themselves into the mind of a people who were defeated, slaughtered, and forced to live in what amounted to detention centers. Their religion was totally wiped out, and they were forced to daily bear the indignities of lost freedom and cultural identity. They searched for their roots, asking the question, "What do we do now?"
Their practical answer, like that of the African slaves in the American South, was to accept from Christian culture that which they felt was important, while at the same time adapting their own cultural symbols and producing a spiritual philosophy that satisfied them.
The Native American Church today stresses certain cultural truths and ethics. Abstaining from alcohol is one. Faithfulness to one's spouse and fulfilling family obligations is another. It is, for example, simply impossible for some Native Americans to understand how affluent white folks can leave grandma in a rest home somewhere. Self-sufficiency is an important doctrine, as are praying for the sick and, above all, praying for peace.