Native American Rights to Sacrament

The long battle to religious freedom

By M. Allister Greene


The fight for religious freedoms in the U.S. is one that is best represented by the struggles, court battles, and individuals that have tried to live in many different levels of a traditional Native American life. The difficulty is after hundreds of years of persecution, Native American religion has almost been lost due to the destructive acts of modernization and Christianization, that taught a disrespect and hate towards Native life. The concepts of Native American spirituality and how the people practice differs greatly from those in Judeo-Christian backgrounds—and because of this there are many boundaries. Some of the most conflicting issues come from the practice, terminology, and the role of the individual and role of tribe, but the issues that tends to be constantly causing disputes are the concepts of spirituality vs. religion.


One of the issues dealing with terminology of the Native American traditional world view is what is lost in translation. Even in my last article I found an issue after final edits; basically two words that were edited actually had significance to me as a writer, as I was working on certain concepts to be understood. The first word is vision. This word is often used when discussing Native American spiritual practices, simply because no other word fits as broadly to the concept of world view, spiritual visions, and how we see beyond, into what some would call seeing spirits or beyond the physical. Vision has become a concept of reality and not just sight; it was often used to label Native Americans as mentally unstable, superstitious, savage, as well as when connected to rituals where sacred sacraments were used, as drug abuse.


Another important term that was lost in my last article is a term used a lot in anthropology, both related to American indigenous groups and indigenous groups worldwide, as well as in Native Americans’ own writings about spirituality ranging from academic papers to poetry. Liminal and the concept of liminality deals with thresholds of reality; it also, for Native Americans, has the dual meaning of living in this world and our actions fully related to the spiritual side of self and reality. It has in recent years become the descriptive term of traditional life and modern life in one. Liminality comes into play, often in the concept of ritual, in relation to sacred space and sacred time, which is in essence where the magic happens.


The twin concepts of sacred space and sacred time relate heavily to Native American religious practices and rights, as many tribes do not have access to sacred grounds because relocation acts pushed them off their land. Access to these lands, even if preserved as national forest in the United States, is not always granted for the practice of religion for Native Americans. Liminal also relates to states of being and consciousness, which can be achieved many ways such as meditation, fasting, using sacred sacraments. For some, just waking to a liminal state of consciousness, even when already awake, or for others who can in a sense activate/concentrate to expand their vision into a liminal view as a personal ability or gift to use.


The Pluralism Project at Harvard University, which studies the ideal of cultural pluralism, is discussed on their website as not just diversity but the “energetic engagement with diversity,” which relates beyond tolerance into actively seeking to understand both the world view beyond just knowing about the difference, but “holding our deepest differences, even our religious differences, not in isolation, but in relationship to one another.” All of these concepts of pluralism deal with being dedicated to dialogue, beyond language but understanding beyond just acceptance of existence. The head of the project, Diana L. Eck, who is the author of most of the website, has created a report entitled “Native American Religious and Cultural Freedom: an Introductory Essay” that covers many different aspects of Native American spirituality and the boundaries between our religious rights and freedoms. (


In the report, one major concept that is explored is the issue of religion vs. spirituality; this has been a cultural boundary of almost all tribes of North and South America. Once again translation and language come into play in the fact that “in all their diversity, people from different Native nations hasten to point out that their respective languages include no word for ‘religion,’ and maintain an emphatic distinction between ways of life in which economy, politics, medicine, art, agriculture, etc., are ideally integrated into a spiritually-informed whole. As Native communities try to continue their traditions in the context of a modern American society that conceives of these as discrete segments of human thought and activity, it has not been easy for Native communities to accomplish this kind of integration.” This issue brings up structure of religions based in ritual and active participation in balancing life existence with spirituality, often related to the earth and location, which is favored by indigenous tribes. The comparison of dogma and translation as found in Judeo-Christian practice of religion has left many Native Americans to view the relationship to be a structured on unforgiving resentment towards tribal traditions and religious rights.


Structure comes into play with the use of mind-altering substances and rights of sacred sacraments. After many court battles and the many years of work of many activists for full freedom of religion, some victories have been won bringing freedom a little bit closer. Peyote is considered medicine and a way to enter into liminal states of being, as well as tool into the sacred space and sacred time. It is a powerful entheogen and hallucinogenic substance with thousands of years of use by tribes and shaman. Traditionally growing in Mexico and into the United States, but in smaller amounts between Arizona and Texas and north up into Utah, it made its way through the long trade routes that covered most of the North and South America.


In the 1870s, as a way to legally practice peyote traditions because the cactus started to spread again to a wider range for those on the reservations, a religion started to form. The goal was to present a Christian like structure for legal protection but also to still allow the individual’s vision and interpretation to be valid. After many years, as written in an entry on the Oklahoma Historical Society’s website, on “October 10, 1918, an intertribal coalition of Peyotists achieved legal definition for their religion through the incorporation of the Native American Church of Oklahoma. The individual most closely associated with the early history of Peyotism is Quanah Parker (Comanche). Other Oklahomans figuring prominently in the development and diffusion of the religion include Chivato (Lipan), Jim Aton (Kiowa), John Wilson (Caddo-Delaware), and Jonathan Koshiway (Oto). Numerous others, most of whom received no formal recognition, played important roles in the introduction and adoption of the Native American Church throughout the Western Hemisphere.” (


Now the committed structure of the church could be recognized and legally protected, but many other battles of who that protected, and what, if any, older traditional was to be tested now. Since many were left out of legal protection for their use of peyote because of the level of recognitions of tribes by the U.S., or because their historic use of peyote being practiced was not the Native American Church’s practices. These battles end up also taking place over usage of other entheogen related to traditional practices such as cannabis, mushrooms, ayahuasca, and others. This makes the structure of the Native American Church work both for and against freedom of religion for Native American and non-natives throughout the U.S.


Between 1887 and 1934, the U.S. Government practiced acts of assimilation in hopes of turning Native Americans into the working force in the background of the country being built. During this time the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) is an organization that has gone through many changes since it was created. Originally called the Office of Indiana Affairs, and became the BIA after becoming a division of War Department in 1824. The BIA has always been connected to controlling Native American life in one way or another.


During the 1920s, until the 1930s, the BIA in charge of assimilation was allowed to use force to break up religious practices such as prayers, fasting, and dances. During this time native groups who did not commit to hiding their religions into the “underground” risked arrest, beatings, and death. Although during this time, in 1924, the Indian Citizenship Act was passed, declaring that American Indians are citizens of the U.S. This has a dual effect giving some Native Americans some rights, but still withholding rights for many others. During the same year, the Pueblos from New Mexico were making appeals for First Amendment protection from policies suppressing ceremonial dances but were denied.


Between 1933 and 1945, John Collier took over as the commissioner of Indian Affairs, though only a position with limited ability to change law on its own, Collier fought for Native American rights, and the rights of the tribes to be reinstated. Collier was adamant that “liberty of conscience in America was never meant to be liberty only for those who professed Christianity,” he fought for Native Americans to be allowed self-sufficiency, having the government give aid, not control. Collier pushed for Native American culture to be retained by those who chose to, and instead of assimilation to work towards cultural pluralism.


Collier faced much scrutiny in his time working actively for the rights of Native Americans and being a non-Native, and was placed under surveillance after the “Red Scare” for his “communistic” philosophies and fought against many attacks of his character during his time as commissioner. In the end he was able to pass what was often referred to the “Indian New Deal,” but officially passed, in 1934, the Indian Reorganization Act and continued to add to it and the rights of Native Americans. By the end, it “officially reaffirms legality and importance of Native communities’ religious, cultural, and linguistic traditions.” Pushing all for these freedoms to be protected by law officially overturning most assimilation practices until he left the office 12 years later “to serving as director of the National Indian Institute, as a professor of sociology at the College of the City of New York,” and worked in Native American activism until his death on May 8, 1968. (


The next major Native American victory came in 1965 when Native Americans become the last group to gain the protected right to vote in the U.S. During this time the BIA became more Native American administered, though still reporting to non-Native who made the laws. The BIA as took over education more and law enforcement on non-sovereign reservation, still remained a controversial organization. Through the education of the tribes came the knowledge of the legal right to voting. This also comes after years of court battles, much to the credit of many Native Americans who, when returning from WWII, felt it to be a guaranteed right of citizens that need to be protected since many were denied after returning to fight for their country. The 1965 Voting Right Act passed giving the right to vote to all American citizens not previously covered and disbanded laws that kept minorities from voting all over the country.


This began many Native Americans and non-Natives fighting for rights and freedoms that were rightfully theirs and they kept the fight up to pass the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, in 1978, which specifies that the “Native American Church, and other native American religious practices as fitting within religious freedom.” It starts the return of access to many sacred sites and rights of many rituals and ceremonies to be allowed to be open practice on the reservations. (


This protects, in some ways, the use of peyote and cannabis on the reservations, but is not fully defined in the passage of the law, and the issues of who can use is continued to be battled in the 1990s. Peyote practices are deemed legal if determined by court after proving not only that someone has enough tribal blood from the tribe they “claim” to be from, but also a tribe approved to be considered recognized, and a member of the Native American Church, or from a traditional practice that uses peyote. But, cannabis at the same time faces scrutiny because no Church based on a religion has beenformed and approved by congress or the Supreme Court. Often citing the lack of Native American written documentation compared to items that pre-date Asian usage in anthropological studies of countless archeological digs over the North and South Americas of pipes, containers, seed pots, and oral traditions and artwork depicting the use and mythologies associated with cannabis. (Hultkrantz, Ake. Native Religions of North America. HarperCollins, 1988.)


In 1993, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, is passed and justifies more religious rights, including the right of sovereignty on reservation to protect most religious practice as stated as “set by tradition approved by the tribe” to practice the use of entheogens such as peyote, and not defined against the use of cannabis on the reservations. This is later pushed through with the add-in that other reservation may use this if practicing sacred grounds rights, though still within limited capacity to be set on case by case basis. (


The fight is still going on to this day, as indigenous people from many tribes of both North and South America, and non-indigenous people, work toward the cultural pluralism that is needed in order to be truly respected and understood for the diversity and unique world view that Native Americans add to the culture of the world. Many battles remain, and though we can not every fully return to the before time, we have the ability to cross the liminal spaces and impact the everlasting memory of time, as sacred as it is, through proactive practice of life and spirit as we share our vision of a better future for all. Through our battles we may be able to create freedoms that all can enjoy, as we have passed laws that set precedence for groups such as Rastafarians with their use of cannabis in the U.S. to use in their own court cases and helped win. The connection of sacred sacraments is a blessing between both worlds of reality and tradition that is held by boundaries and laws and the world of spirituality and the modernization of life for Native Americans

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