Native American Church

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Native American Church,

Native American religious group whose beliefs blend fundamentalist Christian elements with pan–Native American moral principles. The movement began among the Kiowa about 1890 and, led by John Wilson (Big Moon), soon spread to other tribes. The sacramental food of the group was peyotepeyote
, spineless cactus (Lophophora williamsii), ingested by indigenous people in Mexico and the United States to produce visions. The plant is native to the SW United States, particularly S Texas, and Mexico, where it grows in dry soil.
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, a hallucinogenic cactus, and the members came to be known as peyotists. In 1918, peyotists from a number of tribes incorporated their movement as the Native American Church. In 1940 the church was declared illegal by the Navajo Tribal Council, which saw it as a threat to Navajo culture and to Christianized Navajos. The church flourished underground, however, until 1967, when the tribe reversed its decision. By 1996, the church had 250,000 members in the United States, Mexico, and Canada.

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.

References in periodicals archive ?
It upheld Indigenous religious rights, built broad intertribal solidarity for a common purpose, empowered an Indian voice to counter the power and hegemony of federal Indian agents and the BIA, promoted engagement of Indians as citizens of the new state using their own lawyers, established long-term political influence through direct communication with Oklahoma and national legislators, and structured the emergence of Peyotism as a religious organization ten years later in 1918 as the Native American Church.
And despite the role of Hart's grandfather in the Native American Church, with the young Lawrence often at his side, she offered not even a paragraph or two to explain that faith.
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA 1993) was passed in response to a Supreme Court case penalizing peyote use in a Native American Church (Employment Div.
Earl Arkinson, former president of the Native American Church of North America, an umbrella organization for peyote groups, says the American Indian Religious Freedom Act simply recognizes the right of the continent's indigenous people to continue practicing the rituals they observed long before Europeans arrived.
Buster was one of only three living grandchildren, and the only one who had participated in Native American Church ceremonies.
They also endorse the use of peyote for the treatment of alcoholism, a practice of the members of the Native American Church.
Finally, Steinmetz describes and analyses five groups (or, more properly, since individuals move among groups, five "Ideal Types"): AIM (the American Indian Movement -- a militant group active on Pine Ridge for many years); Ecumenists I (a name invented by Steinmetz for people who compartmentalize their Christian and Traditional beliefs and practices); Ecumenists II (who hold that Christianity fulfills traditional Lakota religion); Cross Fire Native American Church (explicitly Christian in i ts forms of worship); Half Moon Native American Church (not explicitly Christian); and The Body of Christ (a fundamentalist group).
For example, Nagel describes Kenekuk, the Kickapoo leader, as a twentieth-century figure, and she states that the Native American Church was founded in the mid-twentieth century.
Of the twenty-two writers, eight are women, four Roman Catholic, one from the Native American Church, and one Mormon.
Q: Where does the Native American Church fit into your spiritual pantheon?

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