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Protecting the Peyote for Future Generations: Building on a Legacy of Perseverance

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The following on peyote is excerpted from Peyote: History, Tradition, Politics, and Conservation, co-edited by Beatriz Caiuby Labate and Clancy Cavnar, published by Praeger. 

I am a member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe of Indians of South Dakota; we call ourselves the Sicangu Lakota, and I am a resident of that seemingly parallel universe called “Indian Country.”It is from the standpoint of Indian country that I try to write about concerns related to our peoples. I came to write about peyote somewhat by accident. I had known about peyote since childhood. My older brother had received a stern rebuke from our father when it was discov ered he had used peyote recreationally with a group of his non-Indian friends. “That is Indian medicine,” said my father, “you don’t want to fool around with it that way.”“That way,” of course, was recreationally. Our family had no con nection to the Native American Church (NAC), but the knowledge that peyote was powerful and sacred was nonetheless palpable. Later, a group of Indian friends invited me to attend a peyote service that was being held adja cent to a social gathering. I declined, feeling as if the medicine deserved a more heartfelt approach than this casual encounter would have offered. Again, much later, a colleague to whom I had provided clinical supervision invited me to attend his Thanksgiving celebration, which was to be held at a peyote meeting.

It was only later, as an academic pursuing my doctorate in social work, that my research led me to a more intimate understanding of the role of peyote in the NAC. Two years of participant observation help me to understand how the vast and supportive network of the NAC served to support sobriety as much as or more than any biochemical or spiritual phenomenon occurring with peyote (Prue, 2008). However, writing about peyote can be challenging. Foley (2003) has lamented the frustration of indigenous scholars as they approach a Western-dominated academy when they themselves write on topics intimately familiar to them. Out of that frustration, Foley advocates for an Indigenous Standpoint, which recognizes that indigenous people approach knowledge generation in their own way. Furthermore, we often have different agendas from those of our Western-oriented colleagues. We often are accused of being oppositional, political, radical, or emotional (Mihesuah, 1998), which is understandable considering the history of Western European and indigenous peoples.


Why start with syncretism? It is important that we understand the syncretic process, so that we better understand that the NAC has not been static since its inception. The change that the NAC has experienced in the last century is hardly finished; with significant growth in just the past 20 years, diversifica tion of NAC practices is likely.

The NAC is often described as a syncretic religion (Nagel, 1994; Smith & Snake, 1996). In both the contemporary and the classic original sense, that is true. The common understanding of syncretism is that when religious cultures collide and are forced to coexist, there is a blending of one set of practices with another. And usually that means that elements of the dominant culture begin to manifest in the less-powerful culture. Meaning “to behave like a person of Crete,” the word “syncretic” was first used to describe the process by which Cretan culture adopted the practices and values of their Greek oppressors as a sur vival strategy, even though the two groups’ practices and values were sometimes seemingly contradictory (Starkloff, 2002). One can see that this process is neither static nor one way, with ebb and flow dependent on the power dynamics.

The Spanish and French were the original European colonizers of what is now considered peyote-using territory in the United States. In the case of the early French explorer/fur trappers traveling for months upon months in Indian Territory, a phenomenon developed called “going Indian.” These fur trappers would adopt dress similar to Indians and began to eat the same kinds of foods that the Indians ate, both practices that have very practical rationales. It was the food that was available, and since dress could identify allegiance, this outfit could offer some safety. In some cases, these Catholic French men went against strongly held cultural and religious norms, such as monogamy, which was abandoned readily for the economic and political power gained by having multiple wives, one French and one or more Indian (Willoughby, 2012). However, as dominance shifted from Indian to European American, and from French to Anglo, it was the Indian who was forced to abandon a sys tem of mating that centered more around clan lines than romantic love and monogamy (Stremlau, 2005).

Syncretism is often used when speaking of religions; when it is cultural clash or merging, we usually speak of assimilation. Assimilation often presumes the less-dominant cultural groups will be subsumed under the weight of the more dominant group, which tends to be true. However, anti-assimilation strategies such as biculturalism or nationalism are employed by minority cultures to maintain a continuity of their identity (Warner, 2009). American Indians have adopted a colonization and decolonization framework to understand how their cultures have been adulterated and how they might be restored or reimagined (Duran & Duran, 1995; Gone, 2013; Wilson & Yellow Bird, 2005). Oppressive influences applied by colonial forces assumed that once American Indians saw the light of European and Christian society, they would abandon tribal ways. History has proven otherwise.

Despite all these pressures for change, there are still basically Indian sys tems of social structure and culture persisting with variable vigor within conservative nuclei of American Indian populations. It would be rash indeed to predict now that these cultural features will completely disap pear in the course of acculturation in one, two, or even several genera tions. (Evon, 1957, p. 139)

Indeed, American Indians seem to be moving from a defensive posture on their cultural expression to asserting their right to interpret their own histories (Clark, 2007), thereby defining their own futures.


So, while oppression has served as a catalyst for change, as pressure is relieved, there will be a tendency for oppressed groups to seek renewed authenticity through rediscovery of their former selves. Ironically, much of the homogenizing elements of the church came through the interactions of students incarcerated at the Carlisle and Haskell Institutes (Prue, 2008). Had there not been the presence of a common oppressor, the various peyote leaders in the 1880s would not have had such a strong need to incorporate as a single entity. It is likely that peyote ways would have developed even more diversity as they settled into and became part of diverse indigenous cul tures. Buffered by their large populations, the Navajo have maintained much cultural integrity and have integrated the peyote rite into their way of healing, forming a unique expression of peyote religion (Wagner, 1975). With that in mind, the future development of the peyote ways would likely look more like its past history of expansion and adaption.

From pre-European contact through the present, we can see that the spiri tual use of peyote has adapted to different circumstances depending on need and on the culture of those who are participating in the practice. Mayans and Aztecs adopted peyote use after contact with peyote-using groups (Anderson, 1996). Quanah Parker learned the ceremony from the Tonkawa Indians’ and the Lipan Indians’ peyote ceremony, and he adapted it to suit his own purposes, within the context of the Comanche people (Hagan, 1993). Similarly, Moonhead Wilson developed his own method of con ducting peyote ceremonies based on Parker’s instruction and impacted by his cultural background as a Caddo/Delaware Indian with considerable Christian influences (Stewart, 1987; Wilson & Thurman, 1973). These adap tations and changes are consistent with the traditional worldview of indige nous people who were behaving according to their vision of the way things should be conducted. In the absence of a strong need to do so, peyote-using groups like the Huichol have maintained fair continuity of practices through out a long history (Schaefer & Furst, 1996). While the Huichol have changed less over the centuries, this in no way delegitimizes the variations initiated by the Lipan, Parker, and Wilson. The history of peyote use by indigenous people has been marked by adaptation and change. Individual American Indian peyotists could have visions of new spiritual and healing paths that could gain acceptance within local communities, such as is occurring in Diné country, where there are “some unknown number of other practitioners who have incorporated peyote use into the religious mix of Diné, peyote way, and Charismatic Christianity found in the Southwest” (Prue, 2008, p. 161). Peyotists are a living and evolving collective and change is inevitable; while these practices may evolve, they remain traditional practices, though they might differ at times throughout their history.

The incorporation of the NAC came about because of the ongoing threats posed by antipeyotist groups, who lobbied Oklahoma and federal legislatures for prohibition of peyote as an intoxicant (Stewart, 1987). Legal incorpora tion was a foreign process to the previously separate Peyote Way groups, though collaboration and alliance-making were common. Prior to incorpora tion, separate peyotist groups learned from one another and accepted or rejected changes they experienced in meetings with other peyotists, but remained autonomous.

The close interactions of the peyotists encouraged practical and theological similarity between the groups, but, as in most indigenous practices, there was no central authority. Authority came through the auspices of the peyote itself. Therefore, authority rested with the person who held the medicine or the Fire Place.1 It was the Road Man2 who mediated between his community and the spiritual world by the ceremonial use of peyote. That authority did not exist in a vacuum: the community surrounding the Road Man was an important arbiter of whether or not a practice was genuine.

The incorporation of the NAC out of the loosely affiliated peyote-using groups in Oklahoma expanded to become continent-wide. Incorporation as a church was clearly a survival strategy employed by peyotists that worked.

By becoming an incorporated church, the NAC developed a structure by which representatives of the church could negotiate with colonizing forces. Indigenous people are practical and experimental; their current hierarchical structure of electing chairmen every two years (Stewart, 1987) assures decen tralized authority. It is a system that has served the church well through a cen tury of turbulence. Yet, when necessary, the chapters will present a unified front, as was the case from 1984 through 1995, when the Oregon Employment Division v. Smith case worked its way to the Supreme Court, then later on to Congress, which modified the American Indian Religious Freedom Act to specifically exempt the sacramental use of peyote from any state or federal law that otherwise criminalized peyote. The current peyote supply cri sis apparently has not risen to the level necessary to bring together a unified voice.


Incorporation served a vital function for the NAC as it suffered ongoing repressive actions by state and federal and, sometimes, tribal governments. However, as time progressed, the U.S. government began to acknowledge the grievous wrongs done to American Indians, and efforts have been made to restore self-determination and self-governance to native people. Currently, it is broadly recognized that the United States has a responsibility to assist and restore indigenous cultures. Whereas in the past, survival meant assimilation, the relief of survival pressures has brought the emphasis toward an antisyncretic process indigenous people call “decolonization” (Clark, 2007).

The growth of peyote use has been mirrored by the growth of the NAC. In 2006, the Chairman of the Native American Churches of Oklahoma George Akeen “placed the membership of the Native American Church of North America at 612,000 individuals” (Prue, 2008, p. 140), up from 300,000 in the middle of the 1990s (Cousineau & Rhine, 1993). The Oregon Employment Division v. Smith decision caused a groundswell of support from other religious groups and non-peyote-using American Indians. Peyote has been monitored since 1979 by the National Household Survey of Drug Abuse and its successor the National Survey of Drug Use and Health. These surveys are based on a very large, random selection of the U.S. population that, after 1990, included enough American Indians to analyze peyote-using American Indians as a subpopulation. Those data were paired with the annual peyote harvest data provided by the Texas Department of Public Safety. While the general rule is that one does not attribute causation when using nonexperimental methods, the time series analysis of those two annual surveys is undisputedly clear. The reported use of peyote increased by nearly nine percent between 1994, when American Indian Religious Freedom Act Amendments (AIRFAA) became law, and 2000, when the trend line stabi lized (Prue, 2013a). Figure 7.1 clearly identifies a dramatic increase in the lev els of reported peyote use by American Indians immediately following the enactment of the AIRFAA of 1994. The peyote harvest rates also show a bit of arise during the same period, and then dips at about the same time the use line peaks. In fact, the Smith case in Oregon became part of the general American Indian awareness in the mid-1980s. There was a corresponding rise in the peyote harvest. This was probably when the increased use actually began. During a period of professional practice in the field of substance abuse in the mid-1980s, I worked with American Indians. That period saw NAC members actively reaching out at Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings catering to American Indians. Many only attended the NAC briefly, perhaps as much a show of solidarity as anything, but did not continue as regular users. The rise in reported use is beyond what the reported harvesting could have accommodated. Social desirability biases might have attenuated the reporting levels prior to the Act.

The entire phenomenon surrounding the stark rise in reported peyote use by American Indians remains a mystery. What is clear is that there has been an exponential growth in peyote use by American Indians compared to the pre-AIRFAA period.

Figure 7.1 Trendline of American Indians who have used peyote by percent and the harvest of peyote buttons in millions. (Bob Prue.)


Just as important as syncretism is to this discussion, equally so is the discus sion about the way American Indians relate to plants and plant medicines. Indigenous healers and shamans have known since antiquity that plants pos sess a spirit essence that can communicate through light, sound, and vibration (Buhner, 2002). Messer’s study (Buhner & Marini, 1996), with the Mitlenos of Mexico, is unambiguous in reference to the communication flow between an indigenous healer and her plant medicine helpers: “the herbs and flowers also talk to her” (p. 27). Matilda Coxe Stevenson quotes a Zuni informant, “[T]he initiated can talk to their plants, and the plants can talk with them” (Buhner & Marini, 1996, p. 27). The Mikasuki Seminole indicate a variety of ways that plant knowledge might come to the people: via animals, the supernatural, or “a prophet might hear a ‘little bush, about twenty yards away,’ singing in Creek [language]” (Sturtevant, 1954).

Less clear is the Iroquois claim that the water hemlock or muskrat’s root will behave like any other medicinal herb, “that when you want it, it stands up there where it grows calling to you” (Fenton, 1941). The water hemlock is used for suicide and “all the Indians—every nation in western New York and Canada [the Iroquois tribes]—know that that plant is poison. They all know that Indians have taken it to commit suicide” (Sturtevant, 1954,

  1. 87). Cultural knowledge and the plant’s distinctive odor might be what the informant is referring to as “calling to you,” or it might be a more direct experience.

Such mechanism of plant-human communication continues in the con temporary pan-tribal NAC. While the NAC is somewhat Christianized, it retains much of its tribal roots. Individuals have described the peyote plant, the central sacrament of the NAC, as having the ability to “choose people” to be part of the peyote way and describe having peyote appear in dreams, even in the case of individuals with no prior exposure to the NAC (Prue, 2008). The fact that many NAC members have strong Christian convictions should not necessarily be seen as an inhibitor to beliefs in plant-human com munications, especially considering that this communication is believed to be facilitated by God or the spirits. After all, the foundation of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim moral codes, the Ten Commandments, was facilitated by a bush.


Legal issues lie at the heart of the topic of this chapter. American Indians have a unique legal relationship with the United States. No other group, regardless of race, ethnicity, or religion, has a similar relationship. Furthermore, the United States has unique responsibilities to American Indians. Part of the recognition of this unique relationship and special “trust” responsibility has manifested itself as the enactment of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

On and after August 11, 1978, it shall be the policy of the United States to protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent right of free dom to believe, express, and exercise the traditional religions of the American Indian, Eskimo, Aleut, and Native Hawaiians, including but not limited to access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rites. (42 U.S. Code, §1996)

It is in the background of this understanding of the federal–Indian relation ship that this discussion must be understood.


In almost every instance, the use of peyote is against the law in the United States (Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, 1970). American Indians are exempted from the peyote provisions when it comes to religious use by the provisions of the AIRFAA of 1994. This amendment to the earlier Act of 1978 clarified Congress’s intent around the religious use of peyote. Included in this section are both the full text of some sections and subsections of the 1994 amendment and a brief description of the rest.

The substantive change to the prior Act begins with Section 3 of the 1994 amendment. In §3(a) the Congress finds and declares that (1) “for many Indian people, the traditional ceremonial use of the peyote cactus as a reli gious sacrament has for centuries been integral to a way of life, and significant in perpetuating Indian tribes and cultures” and (2) “since 1965, this ceremo nial use of peyote by Indians has been protected by Federal regulation.” Subsection (3) expresses the desire from Congress for uniformity in laws pro tecting Indians. Subsection (4) cites the 1990 Employment Division v. Smith case as a rationale for the Act and subsection (5) cites marginalization of Indians as further justification for the Act.

In §3(b)(1) we find, “Notwithstanding any other provision of the law, the use, possession, or transportation of peyote by an Indian who uses peyote in a traditional manner for bona fide ceremonial purposes in connection with the practice of a traditional Indian religion is lawful, and shall not be prohibited by the United States or by any State. No Indian shall be penalized or discrimi nated against on the basis of such use, possession or transportation, including, but not limited to, denial of otherwise applicable benefits under public assis tance programs”; §3(b)(2) “does not prohibit such reasonable regulation and registration by the Drug Enforcement Administration of those persons who cultivate, harvest, or distribute peyote as may be consistent with the purposes of this section and section 1996 of this title”;§3(b)(3) “does not prohibit application of the provisions of section 481.111(a) of Vernon’s Texas Health and Safety Code Annotated, in effect on October 6, 1994, insofar as those provisions pertain to the cultivation, harvest, and distribution of peyote.” In §3(b) 4 through 7, the Act specifies areas where the state has a compelling interest: in the areas of transportation (4), operation of prisons (5), state traffic safety (6), and military readiness (7).

Subsection 3(c) defines Indian and Indian religion: §3(c)(1): “the term ‘Indian’ means a member of an Indian tribe”; §3(c)(2): “the term ‘Indian tribe’ means any tribe, band, nation, pueblo, or other organized group or community of Indians, including any Alaska Native village” (as defined in, or established pursuant to, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (43 U.S.S. 1601 et seq.)), which is recognized as eligible for the special programs and services provided by the United States to Indians because of their status as Indians”; §3(c)(3): “the term ‘Indian religion’ means any religion—(A) which is prac ticed by Indians, and (B) the origin and interpretation of which is from within a traditional Indian culture or community.”


Since Texas statutes are specifically mentioned in the 1994 amendment in §3(b)(3), those statutes will be reviewed here. The cited Texas statutes §481.111(a) concerns exemptions to peyote laws in Texas:

The provisions of this chapter relating to the possession and distribution of peyote do not apply to the use of peyote by a member of the NAC in bona fide religious ceremonies of the church. However, a person who supplies the substance to the church must register and maintain appro priate records of receipts and disbursements in accordance with rules adopted by the director. An exemption granted to a member of the Native American Church under this section does not apply to a member with less than 25 percent Indian blood. (Sec. 481.111, Exemptions [a])

In Texas, the Director of Health and Safety can authorize the planting and cultivating of controlled substances for research and law enforcement reasons, under §481.065, but there is no mention of religious reasons. However, the intent in other sections of the chapter demonstrates a desire by the Texas legislature to accommodate NAC members who are 25% or more Indian ancestry. Perhaps political action in Texas could amend §481.065 to include cultivation for religious use, or perhaps a legal decision to determine if the exemption for use and possession contained in §481.111(a) extends to cultivation.


Terry and Trout (2013) present the cultivation of peyote as a logical and practical solution to the current peyote shortage. Terry is correct in saying that the NAC is an interested party, as are American Indians as a class of people. The American Indian Religious Freedom Act does not specifically mention the NAC. It protects the use of peyote by Indians “in a traditional manner for bona fide ceremonial purposes.” Also, Terry uses the word consumption, which is also not specifically mentioned in the act. The AIRFAA protects “the use, possession, and transportation of peyote for religious purposes.” These semantics are important because there are nonconsumption uses of peyote, both spiritual and medicinal, that peyotists report. These noncon sumption uses range from a special, usually large, peyote button called a “Chief Peyote” that sits on ritual altars, to being worn in medicine bundles by soldiers overseas, to its use as an astringent to cure rashes caused by poison ivy. Further, American Indians have historically used peyote for its stimulant qualities when on long hunts or war parties (Prue, 2008). It is unclear whether such nonritual use has survived colonial pressures. American Indians think about plant medicines less as a biochemical process than as part of a spiritual relationship. This is important to consider when anticipating what they will see as logical and practical.

While the cultivation of peyote by the NAC is a logical solution, it becomes practical only when the church or individual American Indians will to cultivate it. Currently, prominent individuals in the church are not in agreement on the matter of cultivation. Some are decidedly for cultivations, others against, and some have no opinion (Wahtomy, 2013). Some have argued that if the peyote goes away, that does not mean that the church goes away. Currently there is no doubt as to the centrality of peyote to the NAC, as of the 1973 State of Arizona v. Whittingham decision. However, one might speculate that, while peyote might be central to the NAC’s current religious practice, it might not be necessary to its survival as a religious movement, as cultures are dynamic and transform throughout time.

The ongoing discussion among NAC members about the peyote crisis and their reluctance to simply adopt cultivation as a solution reflects the conservative nature that religious and cultural groups have when it comes to change. Despite our being in an era of rapid individualization, the perceptions of American Indians as collectivist societies persist. Among religious groups, a collective sense is slowly giving way to a more individualist orientation (Meintel, 2014). The American Indian collectivist-versus-self concept is complex, as it varies widely among American Indian groups (Whitesell, Mitchell, Kaufman, Spicer, & The Voices of Indian Teens Project, 2006). American Indians place a higher level of importance on religion in general and give their religious beliefs much more influence in their decision-making than non-Indian Americans (Prue, 2013b). The core category that emerged from the grounded theory analysis of my ethnographic investigation of the NAC was that they are not fly-by-night people; defined as follows: “[W]e are a people of substance, we have staying power, we are real, we are dependable, and we are people to be taken seriously” (Prue, 2008, p. 268). The general ten dency toward collectivism, and the higher levels of influence of religion on decision-making, come together in the NAC to form a conservative body not likely to quickly or radically change their status quo. So, while cultivation of the plant peyote might be a relatively easy technological solution, it would require a shift in the concept of peyote by peyotists. Just as other plants sacred to American Indians have moved from wild harvest to cultivation (e.g., tobacco), it remains to be seen just how quickly that shift in conscious ness concerning the relationship with peyote can occur.

When we are speaking of cultivation concerns, we are only talking about the United States. In Mexico, the supplies are at risk (Terry & Trout, 2013), endangered by habitat loss caused by mining, encroaching agriculture, and psychedelic tourism (Walker, 2007); however, peyote in Mexico is not threat ened to the extent it is in the United States. In Canada, the possession of peyote plants is specifically not illegal. The Canadian Department of Justice’s drug scheduling regulation titled “Drug Use and Offending,” in Appendix A: Schedule III, #17 “Mescaline and any salt thereof, but not peyote (Lophophora),” specifically omits the plant itself. Google Internet search for the terms “purchase peyote Canada” retrieved over 74,000 results, many offering to sell peyote plants or seeds to Canadian buyers, or others internationally where there is not legal restriction. Assuming Canadian NAC members are so inclined, their reliance on greenhouse peyote could at least relieve some of the demand from the U.S. consumers.


A key phrase regarding reasonable regulation of peyote cultivation con tained in the AIRFAA of 1994 is that the Act does not prohibit. Congress allowed for reasonable regulation of peyote by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), but it has not mandated it. Government departments are rightly reluctant to draft regulations affecting religious bodies without being directly told to do so by Congress. For the government to write addi tional regulations concerning religion requires a compelling state interest (Cookson, 2001). This begs the question: What is a reasonable compelling interest for the government to interfere with the free exercise of the NAC member’s religion?

There is not a significant public safety interest in expanding regulation of peyote. The DEA reports noteworthy drug seizures in its internal periodical titled Microgram. A search of that journal revealed very few entries for peyote. When it was discovered, it was for small amounts of peyote. Three living plants in Arkansas were processed in 2008, 25 g of fresh peyote or other cactus in Illinois in 2005, 12 pots of live peyote plants in New York, 4 kg of whole plants and roots in Texas, and 11 g of dried peyote in California in 2003. In the July 2009 edition, a seizure of illicit peyote in Oklahoma was reported, which was notable because it “was the largest amount (total net mass 49.4 g) of dried peyote ever submitted to the laboratory” (Microgram Editor, 2009). The paucity of seizures is noteworthy, but what is most important for the issue of regulating NAC members is that the Oklahoma example involves such a small amount of peyote. Oklahoma is home to most of the NAC chapters and a large Indian population and yet less than 2 oz. of illicit peyote has been seized by the DEA. Such a marginal illicit trade in Oklahoma is an indicator of the security with which the church maintains peyote.


The NAC does have some semblance of being hierarchical: there is a cen trally elected chairman of the Native American Churches of North America. However, one must look at the history of the development of the NAC to get a clearer idea of what that hierarchy actually is. Originally, the NAC chapters came together under a single umbrella, not for the purpose of developing a unified theology or set of practices, but rather as a means of protection from harassment and discrimination, the hope being that, once organized as a “church,” the indigenous practices would share the same protections under the First Amendment that all other religious organizations enjoyed. This is a classic example of cultural syncretism: taking on aspects of a foreign oppres sor’s culture and incorporating it into your own for the purpose of your own protection. So, while the NAC does have the appearance of being hierarchi cal, with a centrally elected representative, it is not the same as saying that the central representative is an authority. The chairman of the Native American Churches of North America does not carry the same weight of authority as the Pope does in the Catholic Church.

The Nature of a Decentralized Authority

The decentralized nature of authority in the NACs does not mean that local chapters would act haphazardly and do whatever they want without regard to the impact on their fellow churches. Furthermore, because of the long history of oppression that the NAC has experienced, there will be a natu ral sense of reticence in engaging in an activity that might draw attention to the church in a negative way. Therefore, taking on a new activity might seem to be engaging in risky behavior. However, let’s look to the history of the NAC as it has engaged with other new behaviors. At its inception, the church obtained its peyote directly by harvesting, or indirectly and just one step removed by trade with other tribes, such as Lipan Apache, who lived in peyote’s natural range. Before they thought of themselves as churches, they were peyote way fireplaces, and their geographic location in southwest Oklahoma lent itself to relatively easy access to the peyote-growing regions.

Autonomous Regional Change

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, indigenous people traveled by foot and utilized pack dogs to carry or drag their belongings. Horses and mules replaced the dog; the travois that were once dragged behind their pack dogs were enlarged and adapted to horses and mules. These travois were abandoned in favor of wagons. Next were the trains, automobiles and trucks, and eventually, air flight. Originally, there were pilgrimages to peyote-growing regions. Individual travel became trade and that trade changed with the times.

The coming of the railroad between South Texas and Oklahoma dramati cally changed the use of peyote by the Indians there. Almost immediately, peyote arrived by train into Oklahoma by the barrelful (Stewart, 1987). Peyote was shipped by rail and, eventually, by the Postal Service as the NAC expanded its range outside of the Oklahoma tribal territories into tribes located on reservations in Nebraska, Kansas, the Dakotas, and ultimately, all states and territories of the U.S. west. Was the use of those mechanisms of transport of and trade in peyote seen as a theological problem, or was it simply an adaptation to a new way of engaging in commerce? It is not uncommon for NAC members to fly a great distance to Texas, where they rent a vehicle and proceed to the peyote gardens to make their purchases and return home on an airplane.

Traditionalism versus Pragmatism

So, clearly, the indigenous people have been quite adaptable to changing context and technology. While there is a sense of esteem for those Huichol Indians who continue their ancient practice of travel by foot to their peyote gardens in Mexico, those who travel by car or train or bus from other parts of Mexico are also Huichol. For indigenous people, deciding what is the proper course of action is a highly individualistic process that is carried out within the context of a deep regard for the sensibilities of those with whom they have relations; while we see some NAC chapters or members engaging in cultivation on tribal land, there will be other chapters or individual mem bers who will see that as improper. Just as many other religious practitioners make pilgrimages to holy sites, there are still many peyotists in the NAC for whom going to the “Peyote Gardens” is an important, if not necessary, part of their religious life. Peyotists speak of “peyote having a spirit that goes out from the peyote gardens in south Texas and into different communities, look ing around for worthy individuals” (Prue, 2008, p. 211). Similarly, while there are NAC chapters and members desiring to wait until there are appropriate regulations written up by the DEA before they would be willing to engage in cultivation, other members will see those regulations both as unnecessary intrusions into their sense of sovereignty as American Indians and as unneces sary involvement of the federal government in their religious life. Furthermore, there is much about both perspectives that is correct and realistic.

During my dissertation research, I observed the process of adaptation to new technologies happening in real time. Older NAC members talked a lot about the process of learning songs. This process was one that seemed as much about making a close relationship bond with a more senior NAC mentor as it was about learning the song. What was observed, in younger NAC members, was an adoption of modern means to accomplish both. An iPhone or Android device worked equally well to be in connection with church mem bers during the sometimes quite time-consuming drives from home to church services. That same smartphone would then be used to record songs that could then be played back on the vehicle stereo system, reinforcing the learning of the new songs. There are now NAC folks using freely available social media platforms not only to practice songs and discuss their origins but also to discuss theological and procedural issues. There are numerous NAC-related Facebook groups, some with memberships over 7,000.


Terry has outlined prehistoric evidence that indigenous North Americans cultivated peyote. We should then look to contemporary practices of the NAC for answers to the question of cultivation. While peyote does play a cen tral role in the religious practice of the NAC, it is not the sole organic sub stance used in the religious practice. Tobacco, often specially cultivated for religious use, is smoked from corn husks, also frequently cultivated for that purpose. Gourds are cultivated to make their rattles. Deer hides are used to craft their drums. The feathers of a whole host of birds are used in the con struction of fans and staffs. Wood is used for the fire, and cedar, sage, and other aromatic botanicals all play a role in creating the setting of the NAC service.

Photo 7.1 Layout of a typically Native American Church (NAC) grounds. (A NAC Chapter in Kansas, 2006)

Finally, the ceremonial meal at dawn during an NAC ceremony consists of edibles both harvested and hunted in the wild or cultivated for ceremonial purpose.

An observation that did not make it into the final copy of my dissertation related to the NAC resulted from an informal conversation I had with the caretaker of a local NAC church ground. In addition to being a Road Man, qualified to conduct the ceremony, this man also took care of the bulk of the tangible responsibilities for making sure a pleasant environment existed for the attendees and was typically the fire tender at meetings he was not facilitat ing. This man talked about the importance of his religious expression not hav ing a negative impact on the environment with great passion. Specifically, he was referring to the amount of wood necessary to conduct their meetings throughout the year. He had therefore incorporated, as part of his process of preparation of an NAC service, the planting of a tree to replace the one that he had taken for use in the fireplace. If the same logic could be applied to peyote, much of the concern about dwindling supplies could be alleviated. Whether peyote belongs in the same class of being as a tree for firewood resides only in the mind of the peyotist.


The cautious American Indians, those who want their regulations spelled out, do so out of concern for themselves or their family. The long history of persecution of Native Americans in general, and peyote-using sects in particu lar, supports the cautious view. The more assertive American Indian will see as unnecessary, and/or unrealistic, the notion of waiting for the federal government to write a regulation that it does not want to write. The DEA will probably not write a regulation in the absence of a court or congressional directive telling them to do so. That there should be these differing points of view regarding any aspect of the human relationship with peyote is entirely consistent with the way American Indians view their relationships with plant medicines.

Since it is an article of faith of the peyote religion that peyote can teach all who partake of it, every peyotist should hold himself open to enlight enment during rituals. Most peyotists consider themselves instructed by a supernatural spirit—God, Jesus, peyote—during rituals. For most, the revelations are for personal improvement, but Sam Long, like John Wilson, felt that he received supernatural instruction to conduct peyote ceremonies in a different way. (Stewart, 1987, p. 268)

Within the mosaic of American Indian cultures that have embraced peyo tism, the belief predominates that if the peyote wishes to be cultivated, it will let them know.

Of course, there are not laws in place forbidding anyone from planting trees, gourds, cedars, tobaccos, and so on. NACs have been successful because they have found ways to exist within the context of laws. Where there is a law governing any of the NAC ceremonial items, particularly eagle feathers or bone whistles, there is also a federal exemption for American Indians. We can see where it has been the intent of the U.S. government, in recent history, to provide protections, where needed, for the restoration and preservation of American Indian cultures, even to the extent of providing exceptions to the Controlled Substances and Endangered Species Acts, when necessary: “When necessary,” being the optimal phrase.


The dialogue in the literature about the NAC invariably focuses on the central role that peyote has as a religious sacrament. This plays out whether the topic of the essay is religious studies or if the article is more legal in its focus. The NAC has developed a strong track record of interacting with the legal establishment to protect its religious rights around the use of peyote (Stewart, 1987). It has been settled law since State v. Whittingham in 1973 and is central to the passage of the AIRFAA in 1994. American Indians, in gen eral, find themselves in a place where their unique geopolitical and familial identities have become enmeshed in a legal relationship with the U.S. government. When one reviews the tactics utilized by the NAC in its strug gles with the legal establishment over the past century, what stands out is not artful legal maneuvering, but the artful use of relationship to accomplish their goals. A century ago, American Indians relied on their relationships with Western researchers, such as James Mooney, and with sympathetic employees of the Indian department, to transmit an understanding of their religious prac tice and the importance of peyote to it. American Indians and the NAC also developed relationships with political forces, such as was the case when they established a religious exemption for peyote in the Oklahoma territory. The relationships they developed with the Oklahoma territorial legislatures were not those focusing on their religious rights, nor on whether peyote was a “intoxicant” or not, but rather on bringing these lawmakers into contact with ordinary American Indians who could offer testimony on the importance of peyote to their religious life. Probably as important as anything they testi fied to was how the peyote church had turned them away from alcoholic life styles and restored them to productive roles in their families and their tribes.


While tribal authority does offer a sense of security to individual American Indians who are engaged in the production of peyote on tribal land, the true question would be: Is it necessary for the DEA to craft regulations in order for American Indians to cultivate peyote for religious use? To that end, the argument would be no. The AIRFAA refers the cultivation issue over to the Texas Department of Health and Safety. Since the AIRFAA only defers to the regulations in Texas that existed at the time of its enactment, American Indians residing in other states, but not on reservation land, would fall under the jurisdiction of the individual Indian’s state of residence. Where there mayor may not be a specific ban on the cultivation of peyote or controlled substances, but nonetheless, if the person is an Indian as defined by the AIRFAA, and their cultivation is part of their bona fide religious practice, AIRFAA should already provide protections. Are American Indians currently required to notify individual states when they are transporting, possessing, or using peyote within the state borders? No. It is understandable why an individ ual American Indian would be cautious about cultivating peyote, in light of past discrimination; however, a compelling argument can be made that wait ing for DEA regulations to be written is both overly cautious and supports the very sense of dependency that most American Indians are trying to break free from in their relationship with the U.S. government.

Is it necessary at this point for the federal government to do anything to provide guidance to American Indians regarding their relationship with the sacrament that is used in their traditional ceremonies? I say it is not. The federal government is reluctant to do anything that might evoke concerns about the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Writing a regulation governing the cultivation of peyote, in the absence of a compelling state interest and a unified voice from American Indian peyotists that using cultivated peyote as a sacrament is acceptable, would rightly be viewed as gov ernmental intrusion into the religious life of American Indian citizens.

Developing the political pressure for Congress to write a change in the law is another possible, but unlikely, solution. Democrat Bill Richardson was the original sponsor of the AIRFAA in 1994 (Library of Congress, 1994), when the Democrats controlled all three branches of government. He is no longer in the House. The two cosponsors were also Democrats; of the two, only John Lewis of Georgia remains. While Lewis would likely be a strong advo cate, gathering the multitude of voices to come together to persuade a deeply divided House of Representatives to act might prove difficult in the absence of a cause de célèbre, such as was provided by the Smith case. Are religious lead ers going to rise up and demand action of Congress in the absence of an imme diate problem? Probably not. American Indians, as a political block, also lack considerable power. At around 1% of the U.S. population, with a poor track record for engaging in the electoral process, American Indians have relied on the courts as much as the legislature for action. Furthermore, the NAC, while remaining the largest single spiritual movement in Indian Country, still constitutes a minority of American Indians. American Indians who have used peyote comprise just 10% of that race’s population. One tenth of 1% of the entire U.S. population does not translate into the strength necessary to make things happen in the nation’s capitol. Individual NAC chapters might have better luck effecting political action at the tribal or state level than they would getting the federal government to act. The NAC of Oklahoma has been suc cessfully doing just that since it was Oklahoma Territory, and chapters in other states have petitioned their legislatures for religious exemptions as well.

It might take a case like Smith before the federal government will offer clari fication around cultivation in the American Indian Religious Freedom Act and its amendments. As the wild stocks of peyote continue to wane, there will be pressure to modify use. Some chapters will continue on using small amounts; others will doubtlessly adopt cultivation. In the absence of specific protections for American Indians, at some point, pressure to conform to American standards will come back into play and clarified regulations will be written. Finally, a case regarding cultivation of peyote might well result in the recognition that the state lacks a compelling interest in the regulation of peyote cultivation by religious groups. Considering the NAC’s ability to self-regulate in preventing its stocks of peyote from falling into misuse, and if past behavior truly is a predictor of future behavior, the need for that case may never present itself.


  1. A Native American Church Fire Place refers to a particular style of conducting an NAC service. A Fire Place is usually inherited or passed on after an extended period of apprenticing with a Roadman.
  2. A Road Man is an NAC member (male only) who conducts ceremonies.


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