The story of the Native American Church is one of cultural survival, social adaptation, and moral revitalization. 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.
In the 1870s a new religion based on the ritual consumption of peyote formed on the reservations of southwestern Indian Territory, in what is now Oklahoma.
Lophophora williamsii is a small, spineless cactus that grows on the caliche-rich bluffs of the Rio Grande valley in Texas and throughout the northern plains of Mexico.
Called peyote, from the Aztec word peyotl, it has been used as a physical and spiritual medicine by the Indians of the Americas for thousands of years. The structure and content of Peyotism drew upon earlier ceremonies from northern Mexico and traditional theologies from the southern Plains cultures.
In the early 1880s the ceremony, ritual instruments, and core doctrine of the modern peyote religion became more uniform, and the religion spread to other tribes within Indian Territory.
By 1907, Peyotism’s spread to the majority of Oklahoma tribes had been greatly facilitated by established patterns of intertribal visiting and intermarriage.
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.
Much of the theological interpretation and spiritual belief of the Native American Church is highly individualized, with the conservative ritual providing a sacred setting for personal introspection and meditation.
A basic creed of reverence for universal nature and the tenets of “faith, hope, love and charity” characterize the collective doctrine.
The Native American Church is a religion of diffusion that accommodates a wide range of local traditions and practices. Congregations and even individual members incorporate differing degrees of Christian theology and Indian symbolism in their practice of Peyotism.
The ritual setting for Native American Church ceremonies, or “meetings,” as members refer to them, is generally a tipi erected for the purpose of the service. A crescent-shaped altar is constructed of clean soil in the center of the tipi, with the crescent opening to the east.
The religious service consists of an all-night ceremony that includes a ritually maintained fire, rounds of individual singing, prayers, and the use of peyote as a holy sacrament. Individuals referred to as “roadmen,” who are well experienced in the ceremonies of the church and respected members of their communities, lead the religious services.
Native American Church Services
Typical reasons for holding services of the Native American Church include the desire to cure illness, to celebrate birthdays, Christian holidays, New Year’s Day, Veterans Day, and entrance into and graduation from school, and to commemorate funerals, marriages, and any other significant events in the lives of the participants.
A stated purpose is not required to hold a church service, and many times they are held for the same reasons people worship in any religion: to seek guidance and direction, to give thanks, and to ask for forgiveness and deliverance. Today most services are held on Saturday evening to accommodate the participants’ work schedules.
Despite medical and cultural evidence to support the religious use of peyote as both safe and moral, Peyotists have been the targets of numerous organized efforts to prevent their use of the substance. Weathering this persecution, the Native American Church has successfully represented its members in establishing legislative and legal means at federal, state, and local levels to protect the use of peyote as a religious sacrament.
For hundreds of thousands of American Indian people the Native American Church has provided the spiritual and social foundation for creating meaningful lives amid the disruptions and dislocations of twentieth-century life.