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A Brief History of the Native American Church

The article A Brief History of the Native American Church was originally published on Microdose.

As of late, the Peyote Crisis in Southern Texas has inspired…

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The article A Brief History of the Native American Church was originally published on Microdose.

As of late, the Peyote Crisis in Southern Texas has inspired many psychedelic advocates to educate themselves about the history of the largest Indigenous church within the United States — the Native American Church. In an effort to provide quality educational content for the psychedelic community, we’ve compiled a succinct history of the NAC and the struggles its endured to possess, transport, and consume their sacramental Peyote.

The Roots of the Native American Church

“The White Man goes into his church house and talks about Jesus,
but the Indian goes into his tipi and talks to Jesus” – Quanah Parker

From the moment that Europeans first made contact with Native Americans, their customs and faith systems were perceived as everything from bizarre to demonic. Though early Americans disguised themselves as diplomatic, history has taught us that our nation’s Indigenous people were vilified, dehumanized, and robbed of nearly everything — even their names.

Following a series of massacres, the decimation of natural resources, numerous epidemics, hundreds of treaties violated by the US, and the forced relocation to Oklahoma, thousands of bands of Indigenous families discovered the spiritual healing potential of Sacred Peyote. Though the federal government’s policy of ‘assimilation’ strived for erasure of Indigenous culture, Peyotism conveniently arrived at a time of utter cultural persecution for innumerable Native American communities.

Unknown to the United States government at the time, Peyote had been utilized by various Indigenous cultures within ceremonial contexts for the past several thousand years. The first literary reference to the Indigenous use of Peyote within the United States was drafted by an agent of the Kiowa-Comanche Agency, J. Lee Hall. In 1886, Hall asserted within his annual report that the Kiowa and Comanche collect a type of cactus which engenders “the same effect as opium” and suggested that its use be prohibited.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs accepted his recommendation and, as a result, the Kiowa-Comanche Reservation saw the first Peyote prohibition in 1888. Dozens of other prohibitions would soon follow.

Quanah Parker, Chief of the Comanches

While it is true that dozens of Native American communities have contributed to the various forms of worship within the NAC, many Indigenous scholars consider Quanah Parker (Kwahadi Comanche) to be foundational to the church’s history.

Quanah Parker, Chief of the Comanches

After suffering a near-fatal injury in the mid-1880s, Quanah was at death’s door. Aware that this courageous leader needed Sacred Medicine, a Mexican curandera offered Quanah herbal Peyote tea. This is just another instance where we are reminded of the importance of Indigenous knowledge — Peyote contains numerous antibiotic compounds. Had it not been for this medicine woman, Quanah may not have survived.

Though the fierce Comanche leader initially opposed Peyotism, he reported that Jesus of Nazareth spoke to him in a vision, commanding Quanah to abandon his life of violence and to spread the Peyote religion. Parker believed that by attending Peyote ceremonies, working tirelessly to provide for one’s family, and abstaining from alcohol, one lived a virtuous life which he called walking down the ‘Peyote Road’.

Despite the fact that Quanah “never made an open profession of Christianity”, he openly displayed “deep respect for those who embraced” the faith. The Comanche leader even went so far as to claim that “the Jesus road is a good road”. Simultaneously seen as a ‘radical’ and a traditionalist within the NAC, Quanah insisted that women be allowed to join ceremonies and even wrote Peyote hymns which are sung to this very day.

While it’s true that Parker incorporated Christian elements into the NAC, it would be inaccurate to claim the NAC is a ‘Christian’ organization. Though figures such as Jesus are present within some of the church’s teachings, individual NAC congregants often heavily incorporate their own people’s teachings and spiritual practices into their syncretic Peyote ceremonies.

Hayden Bill

As word spread about the rise of Peyotism, politicians and the media openly slandered the burgeoning faith. Perhaps the most appalling of the media’s allegations was found within a New York Times editorial published in January of 1923. The sensationalist article claimed that the NAC is a “false worship carried under the guise of Christian teachings” and a “cult of death” which idolizes “false gods”.

After Colorado, Utah, and Nevada outlawed Peyote, Congress attempted to prohibit possession of the NAC’s sacrament at the federal level in early 1918. The ‘Hayden Bill’ attempted to completely outlaw Peyote at a time when Prohibition had already been ratified by a dozen states.

Ten Native American representatives and three anthropologists testified to Congress that Peyote served as the sine qua non of Peyotism. Without it, they argued, the faith could not survive. Though the Hayden Bill passed the House, the Senate swiftly rejected the Hayden Bill because Oklahoma Senator Robert Owen successfully argued that the bill explicitly violated the First Amendment.

Aware that their way of life was being threatened, an intertribal coalition of Peyotists swiftly gathered in Oklahoma in October of 1918 to sign a charter of incorporation of an organization known as the ‘Native American Church’.

Although the Hayden Bill never became law, numerous organizations (e.g. the BIA, Anti-Saloon League, and the Indian Rights Association) lobbied dozens of state legislatures to pass local Peyote prohibitions. As you will read, the 20th century was beset by conflicting laws and court cases which failed to recognize the rights of Indigenous Americans to possess, purchase, and transport their Sacred Medicine.

People v. Woody

In late April of 1962, three Diné Peyotists gathered in a hogan on the edge of the Mojave Desert. Just hours before the sun rose above that small town near the Arizona border, narcotics officers surveilled the three unified in prayer, barged their way into the ceremony, and arrested them for violating California’s Health and Safety Codes.

After the dust had settled, officers found a framed copy of their congregation’s articles of incorporation within the NAC. The document plainly informed the narcotics officers that they all held “explicit faith and hope and belief in the Almighty God [and] the sacramental use of peyote”.

Befuddled by what they perceived as an admission of guilt hanging on the wall of the hogan, the officers confiscated their Sacred Peyote. The three asserted their claim for religious freedom at trial, but the California court found the men ‘guilty’ and issued suspended sentences.

Despite the unjust ruling, they weren’t going down without a fight — the three appealed their case. Before their appeal was granted by the California Supreme Court, the three were blessed with legal representation from the ACLU and the Native American Church of Navajo Land (now known as ABNDN, or Azee’ Bee Nahághá Of Diné Nation).

From left to right, Jack Woody, Dan Dee Nez, and Leon Anderson.

In August of 1964, California’s highest court ruled in favor of the three men who were arrested while participating in a NAC ceremony. Writing for the majority, Justice Tobriner documented the NAC’s teaching that Peyote “embodies the Holy Spirit and that those who partake of peyote enter into direct contact with God”. With this ruling, California’s highest court effectively set the wheels in motion for a landmark Peyote case in Texas.

State of Texas v. David Clark

Soon after the ruling in Woody, the demand for this grayish-green desert cactus quickly intensified. Numerous factors came into play: increased membership within the NAC, Aldous Huxley’s 1954 novel Doors of Perception, and Water Pahnke’s ‘Good Friday Experiment’ held in 1962.

Peyote’s natural habitat near the Rio Grande soon became flooded with trespassers who improperly harvested the endangered cactus. In a failed attempt to combat this issue, the Texas Legislature passed the Dangerous Drug Act of 1967 (DDA) which totally outlawed Peyote. Sparking outrage within Indigenous communities, the NAC promptly responded with an act of civil disobedience.

In early 1968, David S. Clark (then-President of the NACNL) was arrested for possessing Peyote while in Mirando City. Performed under the direction of Frank Takes Gun (former President of the NAC, Crow Nation), Clark bravely placed his freedom on the line to defend his religion.

In light of the ruling in Woody, Judge James Kazen found that the DDA violated Clark’s ability to freely exercise his sincerely-held faith. Declaring him not guilty, Judge Kazen made it clear that Clark engaged in the “honest practice of Peyotism, a bona fide religion”.

State of Texas v. David Clark
David Clark, Frank Takes Gun, & others in Denver during NAC v. Navajo Tribal Council

In response to Clark’s victory, Indigenous leaders and anthropologists gathered to persuade the Texas legislature to amend the DDA to protect the NAC’s use of sacramental Peyote. The state’s legislators acquiesced and drafted controversial legislation which prohibits the sale and possession of Peyote to those with “less than 25 percent Indian blood”.

In 1971, the NAC secured another victory. Though the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) had recently been passed under the draconian Nixon administration, the DEA codified a statutory exception to the CSA which permits the possession and consumption of Peyote by bona-fide members of the Native American Church.

Though the DEA’s statutory exception sought to protect the NAC’s way of life, the United States government continued to prosecute members of the NAC for possessing their sacrament — a sacrament which many within the NAC believe is a living embodiment of the ‘Great Spirit’.

Employment Division v. Smith

Perhaps the church’s biggest hurdle came when an esteemed drug rehabilitation specialist was fired for consuming Peyote during an official NAC ceremony. This bona fide member of the Native American Church, Al Smith, took his case all the way to the Supreme Court.

In October of 1984, Smith was disheartened to learn that his coworker, Galen Black, had been fired. Weeks prior, Black had participated in an official Native American Church ceremony and returned to work to enthusiastically inform his colleagues that Peyote held serious potential as a method of treating alcoholism and substance abuse. Unfortunately, no one listened and Black was promptly fired.

Five months after Black was fired, Smith received a sign from God, attended an NAC ceremony, and bravely informed his supervisor about the decision. In response, he insisted that Smith attend a recovery program. Smith refused, remarking that he did not “need rehabilitation for going to church”. Afterwards, the respected counselor was fired for allegedly engaging in ‘workplace misconduct’.

Though Oregon denied Smith unemployment compensation, he appealed the decision and emerged victorious. Flabbergasted, the state of Oregon continued to appeal the case, yet Smith continued to secure victories at every single step of the juncture. Oregon’s Attorney General David Frohnmayer and Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, however, would have none of it.

On Al Smith’s 70th birthday, just hours before oral arguments were to be held in the United States Supreme Court Building, Frohnmayer nervously rehearsed “two sorts of slogans in my mind: Slippery Slope, Slippery Slope, and Drugs are Bad, Drugs are Bad”. Unfortunately, six justices bought that terrible rhetoric.

In a 6-3 decision authored by the infamous Justice Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court upheld Oregon’s choice to infringe on Smith’s right to freely exercise his faith. By utilizing flawed interpretations of previous Supreme Court cases, Justice Scalia attempted to legitimize a racist prohibition impacting the Native Americans’ way of life.

How far did Scalia go to assert his point? He would claim that the acceptance of minority religions which defy cultural norms would result in the country “courting anarchy”.

Given that Scalia twisted facts and Supreme Court precedent to suit his agenda, the decision in Smith set the NAC back decades. In response to the outrage caused by Smith, Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act Amendments of 1994 (AIRFAA) which helped the NAC regain the legal protections lost in Smith. Though there are many imperfections within AIRFAA, the law serves to protect all bona fide members of federally-recognized tribes who wish to possess Peyote.

PSYCHEDELIC CSR

While the industries surrounding the field of psychedelics mushroom into existence, our community should consider advocating for the protection of Indigenous religious practices, welfare, and ways of life. Zealously defending Native American communities demonstrates true allyship and allows us to thank the Indigenous forebears who had their religious freedoms challenged by the same western orthodoxy in which we operate.

If money is the only way that you can show support for Indigenous causes, there is no shame in that. Microdose has compiled a list of Indigenous organizations which directly benefit either the NAC or various Indigenous American communities. As far as making such donations a matter of public knowledge, it would be appropriate to echo the words of a well-known first-century Jewish humanitarian: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before others in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward”.

As a matter of respect, give back all that you can for our Indigenous allies who simply wish to live in freedom, good health, and prosperity.

Indigenous Organizations Currently Accepting Donations

Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative
Chacruna’s Indigenous Reciprocity Initiative
Native American Rights Fund
Native Wellness
Warrior Women Project
Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women USA
American Indian College Fund
Amazon Frontlines

Editor’s Note

This piece is part of a series produced by guest contributors to expand the voices on our site and in the greater conversation. While Microdose supports the education and exploration of these topics, the facts and opinions presented in this work are the author’s alone.

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