Unequal Rites

By Maldigian, Remy | In These Times, January 2012 | Go to article overview

Unequal Rites


Maldigian, Remy, In These Times


Peyote sacraments and the First Amendent

I am sitting in a peace pipe circle of about a dozen people led by a half-Seminole, half-white medicine man named James Mooney. Another man, Jeffrey Bronfman, is shaking black pipe ash into my cupped hands and praying over it as others sit contemplatively, staring at a painted bull skull in the middle of the circle. Mooney blows smoke into the air, and it hovers for a few seconds before floating into the New Mexico desert.

Bronfman is a religious leader known as a mestre in the Uniäo do Vegetal (Union of the Plant), a syncretic-Christian church based in South America whose members regularly observe a psychedelic spiritual ritual by drinking a tea known as hoasca, which contains the psychoactive compound DMT. In 2006, the group won a U.S. Supreme Court case regarding its members' use of the tea.

But even after winning Gonzalez v. UDV, Uniâo do Vegetal's legal troubles continued. Just last year, the issue was concluded with the group finally gaining the right to use hoasca legally, free from the fear of being targeted and prosecuted by federal or state law enforcement.

It bears mentioning that Bronfman, a Canadian, is an heir to the Seagram beverage empire, and - like most members of the Uniäo do Vegetal - is white.

Mooney is in his late 60s with long salt-and-pepper hair pulled back into a ponytail. He is the de facto head of the Oklevueha Native American Church, an offshoot of die Native American Church of North America (NAC). Like the Uniäo do Vegetal, members of NAC also use a psychedelic substance in their religious ceremonies - except the substance is peyote, which contains mescaline.

This little group, which Bronfman is advising, is gathered for the purpose of challenging the system that allows hoasca, but not peyote, to be used by non-Indian people for religious purposes. To use peyote religiously (i.e., legally), you must possess a card proving you are a federal tribe member - or "on the rolls."

For thousands of years, indigenous societies of North and South America have used Peyote as a religious sacrament. It wasn't until recently, however, that American Indians were granted federal sanction to use it. In 1965, a federal regulation legalized the use of peyote by tribal members for religious ceremonies, but a number of states persisted in crimmalizing its use for any purpose, religious or otherwise. In 1994, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was amended to specifically identify peyote as "integral to a way of life" for thousands of Indians, thus providing broad cover across the United States for all traditional ceremonial uses of peyote by Indians.

As explained by Mooney, who is not a recognized member of any federal tribe (or heir to any fortune, ginger ale-related or otherwise), NAC members use peyote to create "a direct line of communication between us and the Great Spirit." But it remains a Schedule I drug, meaning that it is illegal for anyone who is not a member of a federally recognized tribe to use Peyote in a religious ceremony - even if they are full-blooded Indians.

Despite this prohibition, the Oklevueha NAC has members across the United States, from Indians to Caucasians and Hispanics, with varying degrees of each in between. Its tenets and practices closely mirror those of the larger NAC - except for the fact that they allow complete non-Indians to join.

So to be clear, this is a situation where the federal government dictates who may or may not belong to a particular religion based on race. And not race alone: Race (Native American blood) and political affiliation (federally recognized tribe) are the two criteria. It strains credulity to believe that Americans would accept this arrangement if it were applied to mainstream religion. Take a moment to imagine the blood of Christ being limited only to Italians and those church members able to prove a blood quantum of Italian heritage in order to partake of the sacrament - with the U. …

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