By Ina Woolcott
Amongst Native Americans today, the most widespread religion is known as the Native American church. It merges elements of native spiritual practise from different tribes and symbolic elements of Christianity. The main rite is the peyote ceremony. Many of the ills that sadly came about due to colonisation – alcoholism, crime and gambling to name but a few – have been combated with considerable success.
Many Native Americans say their religious practices are a form of spirituality, rather than religion. They are the only known ethnic group in the USA who require a federal permit to practise their religion. The Eagle Feather Law states only those of certifiable Native American descent enrolled in a federally recognised tribe are legally allowed to obtain eagle feathers for spiritual, or religious use. The value and validity of this is frequently challenged by Natives and non-Natives alike, charging that the law is heavy with discriminatory racial preferences and infringes on tribal sovereignty. The law dictates that Native Americans may not give eagle feathers to non-Native Americans, a common traditional and modern practise. There are many non-Native Americans who have been adopted into Native American families, made tribal members and been given eagle feathers.
The Native American Church was officially incorporated in 1918, with the help of James Mooney, an anthropologist from the Smithsonian Institution who testified in favour of Native American at congressional hearings. Lucky for the natives, for he had advised peyotists of various Oklahoma tribes to obtain a legal charter to safeguard their religious freedom. If he hadn’t, they may have been driven underground. He had researched Peyote meetings among the Kiowa in Oklahoma. He also studied its use on other reservations, as well as its use by the Tarahumara in Mexico
Peyote became the inspiration and remedy of many Oklahoma tribes during a time of torturous cultural disintegration, which peaked during the 1880s. By 1874, the Kiowa and Comanche, the once proud warriors of the southern Plains, were enclosed to reservations in Oklahoma. The severe loss of freedom and liberty that came with life on reservations brought unbelievable, unimaginable suffering to all Native Americans. Peyote religion spread like wildfire – today peyote meetings are one of the most popular Native American gatherings.
Another HIGHLY influential figure in keeping the peyote meetings alive was Quanah Parker, a Comanche, was the most famous of all Oklahoma peyotists, helping to bring Half Moon style Peyote meetings to members of the Delaware, Caddo, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Ponca, Oto, Pawnee, Osage, and other tribes. Half Moon meetings aren’t as heavily influenced by Christianity as those of the Big Moon branch of the Church which a Caddo, John Wilson, pioneered in spreading. By1910, both of these meeting styles had spread far beyond the Oklahoma reservations where they started.
Of course, as was to be expected, as soon as Christian missionaries found out about the sacramental use of peyote on their reservations they began to go against it with force. Indian agents joined the missionaries trying to get peyote outlawed. The Natives defended their religious freedom in their respective states and in Congress.
The church has around 250,000 members. Of the church’s devotional ritual, about 60% is singing. Often this is done in the local Native American tongue, although phrases such as ‘Jesus only’ can be heard now and again. Around 25 worshippers sing along with a gourd rattle and a small drum that is beat fast. Members also drum, pray and meditate, ingesting peyote during all-night meetings, with the majority of the meetings being held for healing, baptism, funerals, and birthdays.
Peyote is revered as a gift from God. Peyote opposes alcohol craving, it heals and teaches morals and goodness. It is eaten, or drunk as a tea, after a formal ritual and is not eaten for the visions it brings. The church members pass it around clockwise a number of times in the course of all night meetings. there is no professional, paid clergy within the church and members are free to interpret Bible passages in line with their own understanding. The need to forbear alcohol and be faithful to one’s partner are stressed, as well as truthfulness, fulfilling one’s family duties, economic self-sufficiency, praying for the sick and for peace.
Related link: Peyote, Visions and Alternate Reality