American Indian Religions in 1917

During the first part of the twentieth century, the United States continued in its efforts to assimilate American Indians into an English-speaking, Christian European culture. Traditional American Indian religious practices were oppressed and discouraged as barriers to this assimilation. Briefly described below are some of the events of 1917 related to Indian religions.

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Suppressing Indian Religions in 1915

In 1915, the United States was firmly convinced that American Indians could assimilate only if they became Christians. To aid in the “civilization” (i.e. Christianization) of the Indians, Congress had formally outlawed Indian religions in the nineteenth century. On the reservations, Indians could be jailed without a trial for practicing or promoting any traditional Indian religious practice. One of the concerns at this time focused on suppressing and criminalizing the so-called “Peyote Cult” (the Native American Church). Briefly described below are some of the events dealing with American Indian religions in 1915.

 In Washington, D.C., the Board of Indian Commissioners held a hearing on peyote. James Mooney, an ethnologist with the Bureau of American Ethnology, provided testimony based on first-hand knowledge of the religious movement.

A writer in the Missionary Review reported on the Christian missionaries who were “fighting to save the American Indians from the degrading cult of peyote worship.”

The Omaha tribe of Nebraska petitioned Cato Sells, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, to protect their religious freedom to use peyote in their ceremonies. One of the petitioners, Thomas Walker, wrote:  “This religious use of peyote is on the same line as the white people’s use of the Bible. What we learn from the Bible is true in Peyote.”

In Idaho, the Shoshone on the Fort Hall Reservation began to become involved with the Native American Church and the use of peyote as a sacrament. Sam Lone Bear (Sioux) was one of the proselytizers for the peyote religion.

 Dan Dick (Shoshone) brought peyote to the Duck Valley Reservation in Nevada and Idaho to help cure an abscess. The cure didn’t work and the tribal council reprimanded him for bringing peyote to the reservation.

In Montana, the Northern Cheyenne explained their Willow Dance to the new Indian agent and stressed that it would be held for only two days after the crops have matured. The agent suggested that instead of the dance they have a fair where their crops could be exhibited. Father Peter J. Powell, in his book Sweet Medicine: The Continuing Role of the Sacred Arrows, the Sun Dance, and the Sacred Buffalo Hat in Northern Cheyenne History, reports:  “The people responded to that suggestion by slipping off to the privacy of the hills. Maheo still heard their prayers, and the men still quietly offered their flesh as sacrifices.”

In Oregon, the Bureau of Indian Affairs advised the Superintendent of the Klamath reservation that, while Indian Shaker Church worship was acceptable, the Shakers were not to be allowed to conduct healings. After allowing Shaker meetings for a couple of weeks, the Superintendent stopped the meetings and ordered Shaker elder Alex Teio off the reservation.

In Washington, the Lummi received permission from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to celebrate their treaty with the United States by having a feast and traditional dances. In this way they were able to bring out the old dances without being punished.

In Oklahoma, the Baptist field matron for the Kiowa-Commanche Reservation condemned powwow dancing:  “These dances are one of the breeding places of illegitimate children, which is becoming the shame of the tribe.”

In Oklahoma, the Kiowa began to Ghost Dance. The Indian agent, in a campaign to wipe out the Ghost Dance, threatened to withhold per capita payments from all who participated. When the Indian agent found out the identity of the leaders, he had them imprisoned and beaten.

Indians 101: Peyote

In some Native American traditions, at the time of creation each one of the plant people was given two gifts: the power of beauty and the power of healing. In the traditional way, there is no such thing as a weed, for all plants are beautiful and all plants are useful.  

There are two aspects to the healing power of the plant people. First, and easiest for non-Indians to understand, specific plants can be made into medicines which promote healing. At the present time, pharmacists acknowledge that over 200 plants used for medicinal purposes by Indians have been incorporated into modern medicines.

The healing power of plants is, however, not limited to the physical use of the plant to promote healing. Plants are living things and were given the power of healing. This means that plants also have a non-material side with regard to healing. Indian people often tap into this spiritual power of plants in healing ceremonies. The use of sage and other plants, for example, as a smudge to help purify also makes a spiritual connection between people and plants.

According to some Native American traditions, the gift given to human beings at the time of creation was the power of the dream. It is through the dream that humans are able to communicate with all of the other parts of creation. Some plants, such as Grandfather Peyote, help us dream. Indian people have been using peyote in ceremonies for thousands of years. The European invaders, however, have taken a different view of peyote and consider it to be a “dangerous drug” and therefore an illegal substance.

Peyote is a small cactus which grows in Texas and Mexico. Peyote contains numerous alkaloids, including mescaline. While peyote has often been confused with the mescal bean and with mescaline, it is the combination of alkaloids within peyote which contribute to the effects of eating it.

One of the concerns expressed by many non-Indians is that peyote is addictive and therefore is a dangerous drug. However, there is no scientific evidence for physiological dependence associated with peyote. In one study of addiction which used an addictive liability index, researchers found that alcohol is most addictive (an index of 21), followed by opium (an index of 16), cocaine (an index of 14), and marijuana (an index of 8). Peyote has an index of 1. According to botanist Edward Anderson:

“The only evidence cited for including it on the scale at all was that some subjects showed a slight increased tolerance during the test period.”

According to the medical and scientific definitions of “narcotic”, “addiction”, and “tolerance” peyote should not be considered a narcotic.

Many of the plants which were used for healing purposes by American Indian have been incorporated into modern medicines. Some researchers have noted increasing evidence that peyote has beneficial therapeutic uses in the treatment of alcoholism, depression, and anxiety. These conditions are often associated with altered or injured serotonin systems. Peyote appears to mimic serotonin and thus may help individuals who suffer from ailments were it is lacking or ineffectual.

The Native American Church, a pan-Indian religious movement that started in the nineteenth century, uses peyote as a sacrament. Today many American Indian alcoholics find participation in the peyote ceremonies to be more helpful to their sobriety than participation in Alcoholics Anonymous. Part of this may be the result of a more culturally appropriate spiritual approach, but the current research seems to suggest that it may be more than that.

Those who follow the peyote road feel that the use of alcohol is not compatible with this way of life. In fact, there are many who feel that peyote can be used to cure alcoholism. Sobriety is often stressed as an important part of peyote spiritualism. The eminent research psychiatrist Karl T. Menninger has concluded that peyote

“is a better antidote to alcohol than anything the missionaries, white man, the American Medical Association, and the public health services have come up with.”

The Native American Church

( – promoted by navajo)

One of the largest pan-Indian spiritual movements during the past two centuries has been the Native American Church. This is a religious movement which began to emerge among the Indian nations in Oklahoma during the late nineteenth century. In its ceremonies the Native American Church incorporates elements of Christianity with some traditional Native American beliefs. In looking at the history of the Native American Church, the common myth of religious freedom in the United States is challenged, if not shattered. It is a history of struggle against repression. The reason for this oppression ostensibly centers on the use of peyote as a sacrament.  

Peyote is a small cactus which grows in Texas and Mexico. Peyote contains numerous alkaloids, including mescaline. While peyote has often been confused with the mescal bean and with mescaline, it is not the same. It is the combination of alkaloids which contribute to the effects of eating peyote.

The reaction to ingesting peyote begins with wakefulness, mild analgesia, and a sensation of fullness in the stomach or loss of appetite. Sometimes there may be active nausea, a feeling of tightness in the chest, and heightened sensitivity to nuances of sound, color, form, and texture. For some people, the use of peyote may include visions. Visions, of course, are an important part of traditional Native American spirituality.

The all-night Native American Church ceremony takes place in a tipi, a hogan, or a lodge. It includes a sacred fire, a mound of earth which serves as an altar, and a grandfather peyote button. During the ceremony peyote songs are sung, prayers are offered, cedar is burned, tobacco is smoked, and peyote is ingested.

Native Americans contrast the difference between Christianity and the peyote ceremony by saying that the Christians go into their churches and talk about God, while in the Native American Church meeting the people talk to God.

The Native American Church has incorporated many Christian elements into its ceremonies, including the idea of six days of creation followed by one day of rest. With regard to this “one day of rest”, one peyote roadman has said: “But this is an overlay, superimposed on our original awareness that every day is a holy day.”

In spite of the fact that the Native American Church has also incorporated many aspects of Christianity into its services, the ceremony has been condemned by many Christian missionaries as a “hindrance” to civilization. Both federal and state governments have responded to the missionaries’ concerns by aggressively persecuting the Church and its members.

Peyote meetings are held most often for the sake of curing. Traditional Indians see illness as a product of spiritual forces and therefore the cure for illness needs to involve spiritual forces. Some people feel that four curing meetings are needed for a complete recovery and some hold meetings to give thanks for being cured. Meetings may also be held to insure good health, for weddings, for blessing a new home, and for good luck and good fortune to the family.

Those who follow the peyote road feel that the use of alcohol is not compatible with this way of life. In fact, there are many who feel that peyote can be used to cure alcoholism. Sobriety is often stressed as an important part of peyote spiritualism. The eminent research psychiatrist Karl T. Menninger has concluded that peyote “is a better antidote to alcohol than anything the missionaries, white man, the American Medical Association, and the public health services have come up with.”

One of the concerns expressed by the uninformed is that peyote is addictive and therefore is a dangerous drug. Researchers who have studied peyote, however, have found that there is no evidence for physiological dependence, and therefore there can be no evidence for addiction. In one study of addiction which used an addictive liability index, researchers found that alcohol is most addictive (an index of 21), followed by opium (an index of 16), cocaine (an index of 14), and marijuana (an index of 8). Peyote has an index of 1. The researchers concluded that peyote should not be classified as a narcotic.

Many Native Americans point out that many Christians use a highly addictive drug – alcohol – as the sacrament in their ceremonies and that this use of alcohol has been tolerated in places and in times when alcohol use has been illegal. Many Native Americans feel that their use of peyote as a sacrament in ceremonies should be given the same tolerance.

The European opposition to peyote began relatively early. In 1620 the Catholic Inquisition in New Spain declared that the use of peyote “is an act of superstition condemned as opposed to the purity and integrity of our Holy Catholic Faith.”

Another concern about the religious freedom of the Native American Church is that the government often requires evidence of church membership and seeks to determine who is a bona fide church member and who is not. The maintenance of membership lists, the issuing of membership cards, and having membership requirements runs counter to traditional Indian culture. In order to combat the active legal suppression of the religion, the Native American Church began to legally incorporate in the early twentieth century. This has given it more legal standing.

In many states, those opposed to peyote have taken a different approach to limit the activities of the Native American Church. In many instances, the law requires that participation in Church ceremonies be limited to people who can prove that they have sufficient Indian blood, usually designated as one-fourth. In addition, this “blood” quantum must be from federally recognized tribes. In this way, the Native American Church is racially segregated by law. There are no other religions in the United States which are racially segregated by law.

At the present time, people in the United States have the freedom to believe in whatever religion they choose. However, the practice of religion – the ceremonies, the sacraments – are not freely allowed under the law. To paraphrase one Supreme Court Justice, the freedom to practice different religions, particularly that of the Native American Church, is a luxury which we cannot afford. The Court sees freedom of religion in belief, but feels the translation of beliefs into ceremonies should be restricted.

The struggle for religious freedom for the Native American Church has been fought on four basic fronts: (1) in the Courts, including state courts, federal courts, and the Supreme Court, (2) in Congress, (3) in state legislatures, and (4) in tribal councils. The fifth area has been in educating the public, both Indian and non-Indian, about the Native American Church.